The War That Wasn’t: World War III

Project: World War III...
October 1, 1998

Project: World War III

Description: A ‘fictional documentary’ that provides an account of what might have happened between October 1989 and January 1990, developed out of contingency plans from the Cold War.

Executive Producer: Guido Knopp

Producer: Ulrich Lenze

Director: Robert Stone

Coproducers: ZDF Enterprises (Germany) and Cinecentrum Hamburg with TLC (U.S.) and RAI 3 (Italy)

Budget: US$810,672

Recent bombings of Afghanistan aside, those of us who have been lulled into a sense of world peace since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union almost a decade ago would do well to tune into World War III, the latest coproduction between ZDF Enterprises, The Learning Channel (TLC), RAI 3 and Hamburg-based indie prodco Cinecentrum for an alternative history lesson. As Robert Stone, co-writer, director and editor of WWIII explains: ‘The purpose of the film was to show how the peaceful ending of the Cold War was not an inevitable, foregone conclusion. As one looks back in history, one assumes, well… it was inevitable. Our generation sort of assumes that it was inevitable that Hitler would have lost WWII because he did, but certainly my parent’s generation had a very different experience on that.’

November, 1995: World War III begins as Dr. Guido Knopp, head editor of ZDF’s Contemporary History Department and Ulrich Lenze, managing director of Cinecentrum/Multimedia, discuss ideas for a series about the Atom bomb. Deciding that another such series would, in Lenze’s words, ‘only repeat what we and other filmmakers had told over and over again,’ the two Germans settle on the more engaging subject of what could have happened if the Cold War had indeed switched to a Hot War.

January, 1996: Lenze approaches Robert Stone, a New York-based documentary filmmaker. Their paths had crossed ten years prior, while working on the same film subject. Explains Lenze: ‘At the time I was working on a documentary on Bikini Island and noticed that he [Stone] was also working on the same topic. After a period, I had a feeling that his project would be brilliant and so I stopped my project.’ Stone’s film Radio Bikini, a documentary detailing the fall-out of the first nuclear bomb test, went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in 1987. Nine years later, Lenze proposes that Stone co-write and direct World War III. Stone accepts and begins work on various treatments.

May, 1996: Over the next seven months, Stone develops various treatments, each suggesting a prologue to the launching of nuclear warheads. Says Stone: ‘One of the things that motivated us from the beginning is that during the Cold War, most of the films… never dealt with the politics or the events that might lead up to global nuclear confrontation… As if suddenly you would wake up one morning and, out of the blue, the Russians would suddenly decide to blow up the world. Which wasn’t very realistic, but that was the great fear. I think when most people think of WWIII, they think `OK, nuclear weapons are fired and it’s all over in five minutes,’ and in fact, that’s not the case. That was never envisioned by military planners on either side.’

With the project’s broadening scope, the producers look for a coproduction partner. ‘We always had the feeling that this would transcend the purely German interest. It developed very quickly into a size that required co-financing from abroad,’ says Horst Mueller, senior VP North American operations at ZDF Enterprises.

August, 1996: Stone brings the project to Alexandra Middendorf, director of development at The Learning Channel. Middendorf had previously worked with Stone in developing a film based on the Patty Hearst story.

September, 1996: Ingo Helm, a German freelance scriptwriter with previous work history at ZDF, is brought in as a co-writer to maintain a European perspective. Consulting with military experts from the East and West, including a West German general, a former member of the Soviet military intelligence, and a British military advisor, the writers are able to gain access to the real-life war games planned by the superpowers in the event of a global war. Explains co-writer Stone: ‘All these guys were very close to the actual military planning that was going on at the time. Almost any conceivable scenario, they had a plan for, and this goes for the East and West… So [the film] is very plausible and it’s very realistic and it’s done in a manner as if it’s a historical documentary, looking back at these events.’

March, 1997: First treatment for WWIII is submitted to TLC. In it, the filmmakers suggest creating an alternative history from a mix of stock footage and staged news reports.

May, 1997: The World War III project is officially approved by John Ford, senior VP/general manager of TLC. ‘It was just off-beat enough and intriguing enough’ for TLC, says Ford, adding that the mix of archival footage with fabricated reports was ‘a very interesting way to treat speculative history.’ TLC contributes between US$200,000 and $250,000 to the budget, a crucial amount for Mueller: ‘Without their [TLC's] contribution, it would have been difficult to make the film the way we made it.’

Martha Conboy, an executive producer at TLC, is brought in to supervise the production and to expand the film beyond tlc’s core demographic of 25 to 50 year-old males. ‘We like to make shows that have enough latitude, so we can get the female representation higher as well… The research shows [that] women viewers seem to be more attracted to good solid stories rather than just a show of things that go faster and blow up better… So we have these witnesses that tell the story of how this thing unfolds. It’s first and foremost a story.’

June, 1997: Kristina Hollstein, director of documentary coproductions at ZDF Enterprises, negotiates a pre-sale to Chris Haws of the Discovery Channel Europe at the Sunny Side of the Doc festival.

Summer, 1997: Stone screens hundreds of hours of archival military and newscast footage, including footage still not available to the public from the Soviet military archives.

Fall, 1997: Production begins, in reverse of typical documentaries. Stone explains: ‘In order to know what to shoot, I had to cut the archival footage – at least do a preliminary edit… So rather than coming up with a rock-solid scenario, a rock-solid script, it was sort of done the other way around, because that was the only way to do it. Because a lot of the story came out of `What’s there, what can we re-create?’ In some ways we followed the footage.’

October, 1997: Negotiations between Hollstein and Mark Atkins of SBS Australia begin at MIPCOM. The Australian broadcaster, with a prior relationship as coproducer for the international version of ZDF’s Hitler series, commits to a pre-sale of World War III.

Hollstein and Franca Molella of ZDF Enterprises Rome office bring the project to Daniel Gezzhi and Sherin Salvetti of RAI 3.

November, 1997: RAI 3 expresses interest in the project, later joining as a third coproduction partner, without editorial control, to round out the total budget of US$810,672.

December, 1997: Helm and Stone, maintaining consultation with military advisors, revise the original script. The film begins in September 1989, when Gorbachev ‘disappears’ while on a visit to Eastern Europe. A group of hard-liners take over power in the Soviet Union and events escalate to a world war.

February, 1998: The German film shoot begins, including interviews with a fictitious East German colonel at a reconstructed Berlin Wall. Each scene is shot in both English and German to comply with the needs of tlc and ZDF Enterprises.

March, 1998: The U.S. shoot includes fake interviews with Bush’s national security advisors and other fabricated news reports on location in Washington. A studio shoot in New York City includes interviews with the ‘new’ Soviet head of state.

April-July, 1998: The picture is cut at Robert Stone Productions in New York on an EMC system. Archival footage of Mikail Gorbachev, George Bush and Margaret Thatcher is taken out of its original context and cut with fictitious footage of reporters and military advisors reacting to the fabricated world crisis. Asked what kind of reaction he expected from such manipulation, Stone replied: ‘I hope they [the audience] have a sense of humor. I expect it to create a certain controversy, but probably more within the documentary world than anywhere else… I think the subtext of the film is to show how real imagery can be manipulated, and it raises a question of what is a documentary and objectivity and subjectivity… By putting real footage in a different context, you can tell a complete fiction and have it look absolutely real.’

Sound edit and further post-production is completed at Lenze’s Cinecentrum in Hamburg.

Even with the production’s emphasis on exact military detail, Conboy stresses: ‘It is very much an anti-war film because at the end, you should understand how easily war could have broken out and how we must be so vigilant all the time to try and keep these things from happening.’

The two-hour program airs on The Learning Channel in North America and on ZDF this December.

October, 1998: WWIII is distributed at MIPCOM by ZDF Enterprises.

See also:

Staying Power: Champions of the Wild (pg. 64)

Family Drama: Mountain Rivals (pg. 70)

Days of Wine & Pre-Sales: Wine World (pg. 74)

The Neverending Story: Operation Free Ranging Lions (pg. 76)

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