Sundance Features

January 16, 2007

Ian Olds, Bomb

"Maybe I'm obsessed with this used-up-places-on-the-edge-of-America in a certain way -- at least in my fiction stuff."

A scene from Bomb, a short film by Ian Olds

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

So for the record, tell me all about Bomb.

It's basically about these two teenagers who find an unexploded bomb in the middle of a field on the edge of town that we learn is sort of an old abandoned bombing range. It's sort of about the relationships between these two teenagers. He takes her back to his house, and they discover his mom is there and there's this incredibly chaotic scene unfolding there that disrupts their relationship.

It was based on a couple of things. When I was doing Occupation: Dreamland in Iraq, I was in this field that was full of all these unexploded mortars. It was a very striking image to me. And then I read this account of these teenagers in Georgia who'd found an unexploded bomb from a chemical weapons plant from the '50s. So it was that image combined with this story that one of the actors told me about her mom, who had OD'd on heroin, I believe, and passed out on the floor of someone's house and had people stealing all of her jewelry. But she was conscious of it even though she couldn't physically move. In the film, the woman who told me that story actually plays her mom. Maybe I'm obsessed with this used-up-places-on-the-edge-of-America in a certain way -- at least in my fiction stuff, and these certain images that haunted me and came to the film.

Where did you shoot it?

We shot mostly in upstate New York-- in Saugerties and in Stone Ridge and then also one scene out in Staten Island. We were trying to fond places close enough to New York City yet felt might still fit that description on the edge of an old industrial area.

Most people do know you from your documentary work, particularly Occupation: Dreamland, which won an Independent Spirit Award in 2006. But your fiction shorts have been well-received as well, especially on the festival circuit. How have you tried to sustain and develop both styles creatively over the last few years?

It's interesting, because my first love was always fiction filmmaking. But I sort of established a relationship with Garrett Scott doing documentary work, and sort of took on its own life, and I grew to love that just as much. So for me, I thought that I would personally do these fiction projects, and then with Garrett, do these docs that deal more with history and power. People who see these films say they're surprised because they don't resemble each other very much, but for me I see a real continuity. One of the strengths I thought I brought to working with Garrett on the docs was bringing in chaotic material that you're shooting without any kind of control or design and then trying to construct scenes -- because I edited our docs as well. It's about trying to find the elegance of the scene design with them. There's a sense, to me anyway, of a kind of narrative sensibility that's about storytelling and of trying to achieve some kind of cinematic elegance even amid this raw, violent war footage.

Garrett's passing last year was unspeakably tragic. While I sympathized personally, I also wondered about your professional reaction. Was Bomb something you were working on at the time, and to what degree did your work with him influence that project?

It's sort of a sad thing, because that was something I'd been working on for a little while, and it was almost done just before he passed away. I never showed him my fiction things until they were totally done, because I was always curious what he would say and I wanted them very polished. We had talked a lot about it, but I hadn't shown it to him. It's super minor in the grand scheme, but I always wish I'd had the chance to show him what I was doing.

In terms of reaction, my first instinct was that I was so devastated that I thought I would just abandon the documentary stuff for a while and concentrate on fiction, because that's something I do by myself or with other collaborators and that I wouldn't be conflicted about. It was such a close relationship we had doing the documentaries, but then I ended up getting a little grant through National Video Resources and the Rockefeller Foundation to go do a documentary that Garrett and I had planned. So I was in a sort of dilemma: Do I stay with this and not do docs? I decided to make an exploratory trip to make something new that wasn't exactly what Garrett and I had talked about, but had similar themes: I went to Afghanistan in September and started shooting something there. I am still exploring the docs, and I'm trying to kind of weave back in the forest in terms of the documentary stuff.

I still think about his influence on me there. And even his influence on the fiction stuff, because this film was inspired in part by (Scott's documentary) Cul de Sac, which was about this post-industrial, edge-of-military suburban landscape -- or residential landscape, anyway -- on the edge of places that had been used up. Which became kind of a fascination for me -- places that have outlived their useful life in America. And in that way I see the films thematically tied; if you get the chance to see Bomb, you'll see they're very different. But in some ways I am very interested in power, as Garrett and I were in Occupation, obviously; it's not only state power being imposed in Iraq, but also American soldiers who are at the whim of the state's power and sort of powerless as they exercise that power. Cul de Sac, again, is about people who have been left behind by the state. In some way, I feel like the short films are in that theme -- that edge of America forgotten by the state, in a certain way.

Have you been to Sundance before?

I never have; it's totally new to me.

But you're a festival veteran, otherwise; do you have any specific expectations? Are you apprehensive or nervous?

I am in the sense that it sounds so overwhelming in terms of the sort of schmooze factor. I'm much more comfortable making work than negotiating all that extra stuff. I'm definitely hesitant about that, but I just try to stay focused on the films and meet other filmmakers and take advantage of the chance to see new work by people I really like. I think that's going to be the focus.

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