Conversation with Michael Madsen: Director of Into Eternity
01.31.2011, 7:02 am
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My foremost interest in the Onkalo facility … is how we are able to put things into the world that have these far reaching consequences. This is new I think, this has never happened before in the history of mankind. And as such, I think the Onkalo facility represents something new, something significant.              – Michael Madsen

film still, Into Eternity, courtesy Michael Madsen

Michael Madsen is the director of the film Into Eternity. This week the film begins its US theatrical release at the Film Forum on February 2, 2011 with a two week run.

FOP had the opportunity to interview Michael on April 29, 2010, after Into Eternity screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. During our conversation we discussed what it was like for him to enter the Onkalo facility as a filmmaker and to work directly with those involved in bringing Onkalo into reality:  engineers, scientists, medical technicians and communication directors.

At the core of Into Eternity is an attempt to imagine communicating to humans hundreds of thousands of years into the future (the film is structured as an address to the future). We talked with Michael about why he chose this mode of address and how he hoped audiences of today would respond to it. We also discussed how the circumstances that necessitate the building of facilities such as Onkalo demarcate a fundamentally new chapter in human history.

FOP has a particular interest in Into Eternity, as Onkalo was the subject of work that we did this past year in efforts to create ways to live in relation to deep time. More can be read about our writings and projects in response to Onkalo here, here and here.

Into Eternity has been showing across the UK this winter.  It was nominated for two Cinema Eye Honors, and it won the 2010 Green Screen Award at Amsterdam’s IDFA.  After its theatrical premier at the Film Forum, it will be distributed to theaters throughout the US.


film still, Into Eternity, courtesy Michael Madsen

FOP: As we watched the film, we were thrilled to have an opportunity to travel into Onkalo, a space we have been projecting our imaginations into for so many months. For some reason, it was easier for us to project our imaginations into this space, rather than into the human element that you show so well in the film. In the film, we see humans grappling with the gravity of the issues at hand, the intense weight of them. Your work gives audiences a chance to watch human beings struggle to find words and answer very complex, if not unanswerable, questions. For us, one of the big achievements of the film is that it grasps the human labor—cognitive and imaginative–that it takes to even consider these questions.

MM: It is good to hear you say this, as this is what I had hoped for. One of the most difficult things to do was to find ways for the people that I interviewed to relate to it all. In the case of engineers for example, I didn’t want them to talk just about the nuts and bolts of the project, as they would be more inclined to do.  I wanted them to address what are in my mind the real issues at hand.

FOP: At one point in the film someone quotes the idea that people contract the “science disease,” which means people only see the project as its “nuts and bolts” or science. Maybe scientists have to do this to do the work, but something gets missed along the way.

We wonder what you think artists might “know” or are able to “express” that scientists can’t and maybe need to.  What do you think the relationship is between artists and scientists on an issue like this?

MM: This is a good question. I think there are separate realms at stake. The scientists in the Posiva company are making a living. They have to stay inside the company to afford to live. They have to be loyal to the company, and their private concerns and worries do have not room or perhaps do only to a very small extent. Similarly, this is a private company (although everything is paid in advance by the Finnish citizens through a tax for 30 years) and they have to make money. And of course this facility, I would imagine, is part of an overall strategy for these power companies who are now building a new reactor. The company has to get the permission to build this facility because then they can say, as well as everybody else in the nuclear industry, that the problem of nuclear waste has been solved. That is, I think, the main goal, perhaps more than attempting to build a facility to last 100,000 years.

I do not actually consider myself an artist. But of course I know these different myths surrounding artists as having great sensibilities or knowing oracles, to put it bluntly. But in the case of this film, and this would be my approach to any artistic practice, I am much more interested in interpreting reality.

My foremost interest in the Onkalo facility is not that it is for nuclear waste. It could have been something else, it could have been genetic modification.  [My foremost interest] is how we are able to put things into the world that have these far reaching consequences. This is new I think, this has never happened before in the history of mankind. And as such, I think the Onkalo facility represents something new, something significant.

It has a lot to do with scientific thought and emancipation of mankind from God and so on in the Renaissance. To try and understand what this means, and how we can relate to such a new phenomenon–that has been my interest behind the film.

A lot of documentaries are made on a notion of injustice or where something has to be revealed or exposed. That kind of documentary is not my interest. You might say that that kind of documentary already knows too much about reality. Perhaps a possible quality of an artist is to not assume to know very much about reality, but instead to try and interpret it.

When you deliver a film to the film institute in Denmark you have to make a director’s note. You have to write why you have made the film. The note that I made is a kind of poetic statement about how I work.  It is about how I think reality is subject to interpretations, and that these interpretations change all the time. For example, the interpretation of reality in the Middle Ages was totally different than it is today. Now that we are living in a scientific age we have an ideology of eternal progress. This way of thinking would have been a mystery for a person living in the Middle Ages. An awareness and interest in exploring the world through these terms, and how it is possible to interpret it, is what I am interested in – and I think that is a way of creating reality.

I also think that the Onkalo project has many paradoxes. There are no good answers to how to handle the waste problem, in my mind. It is certainly possible to expect an audience of such a film to be able to participate in these considerations and moral discussions. Therefore, it was very important to me that I create a film that would create a space for an audience to enter into and be able to discuss and contemplate the different issues at stake.  I think that is the only interesting way for an artist to operate -on the level of actually conveying some meaning in the real world.

film still, Into Eternity, courtesy Michael Madsen

FOP: What kind of feedback and questions have you been receiving from audiences here in New York? Are they activating those kinds of discussion?

MM: I think that, luckily, yes, the film does make people think. The film does create a kind of emotional journey that allows audiences to get a sense of the time involved. I think this is a prerequisite to starting to relate to the time span on some level. But I think this time span is ultimately impossible for any human to relate to. It is just a number. It cannot be known and this is one of the problems in working with it. It would have been possible to make a film that talks about the canisters and the machinery etc., but that would have been beside the point in my mind.

This film was actually very difficult to make because it was very difficult to get the narrative to work. Once you go beyond the research phase and the initial encounters with the scientists, a lot of work goes into making it all work. In many ways I am reliving, through the audiences, my initial fascination when I started the project. There is a level of craft in making a film, and when you are as inexperienced as I have been it is not that easy to do. It is really a question about how to get it to work. It has been very nice to receive these responses from audiences because they correspond very closely to my initial interests.

film still, Into Eternity, courtesy Michael Madsen

FOP: Over the course of working on this project, did you sense your own ability to project your imagination into long spans of time increase?

MM: Well, I have to say that there is an element of the scientific disease.

While in the tunnel, I was of course looking at notes written on the walls. There are these different tracings measuring cracks and how much water is dripping in. I remember looking at it and thinking if this place is ever opened, which I think it will be, these notes will be the cave paintings of our times. But what will it mean to the persons looking at it? This was strange to think about.

Even if the cave is never marked in any sense, it will be a sign itself. The very construction will be a sign. Deep into time, even the canisters will be gone, but there will still be the scars in the bedrock. The bedrock will still have this hollow, spiral, triangular entry. There will be these symmetrical deposits of high-level or radioactive material. So, any intelligent entity in the future will be able to discern that there is symmetry in this area.  Symmetry, I think, does not appear in nature as a natural phenomenon except perhaps in crystals, which are different. So any creature in the future will understand that this has been made. In this sense it will always be a sign.

It has been very interesting for me to think about how this sign will survive as a sign—but as a sign that has never been intended in any sort of metaphysical or religious sense—which has been the case previously, in what you may call “eternity encounters.” In this, I mean places such as cathedrals and burial sites. These have all been made in a religious context. But Onkalo is purely, sort of profane, there are no such concerns involved in the facility. And in that way, this is a pure expression, at least, of our time in the Western world. There is no religious understanding of reality any more, as I think has been significant in all previous epochs. I think that is significant about our time.

film still, Into Eternity, courtesy Michael Madsen

FOP: In the film you ask those whom you interview what they would say, if they could, to someone in the future who has found their way into Onkalo. One woman replies, rather solemnly, something to the effect of, “go back above ground and take better care of the world than we did.” There seems to be a bit of a contradiction in this statement that is coming from someone working in the nuclear industry. If people have deep regrets about the lasting effects of nuclear waste, why keep building new reactors and generating more waste? To what degree to you sense their stated sincerity about this regret?

MM: The woman who says this is, Berit Lundquist, is part of the company in Sweden, the collaborative partner of Posiva, the Finnish Company. She is the science-editor.  So she is handling a lot of communications with the outside world. I was sent to Sweden to talk with people there from the Finnish company because they said to me, “You know Michael, we just build the thing. These things about communicating, you have to go somewhere else.”

This surprised me, since they were really not that concerned about these questions. But when I went to Sweden it was a whole different approach to the film project. They were much more open. When I got there, I explained that I was interested in the communication aspect of the project, the time span, the different scenarios for the future and so on. Peter Wikberg, the scientist, said: “I really think this is interesting and am glad you are here.  And I think we should go and get Berit because she is also into this and perhaps she can give you additional information.”

It became this double interview. And, I think some of the things that she said in the film where surprising for him. It is also, as she says in the film, personal opinions. But it is clear that they contradict the whole idea of nuclear energy.   As she said, this is not the solution. And I think that if you look at Peter’s reactions to some of the things she says, he is surprised. But I think I was partly lucky that they were so open.  And I admire them for that. And I remember Peter saying, “We who work with this, it is self-evident how we do these things, but for any other member of the society they would know nothing about how we are thinking. And it is an obligation that we have to answer any question people would put to us, in a way that this person could understand.”  Whereas, when I was talking with people at the Finnish company about the same thing they would say, “The main thing about the pubic is that they don’t have enough information to make sense of what we’re doing, they are not educated enough.” This is such a different approach! One said I should be able to tell anyone what I am doing, the other one says the people need to learn much more in order to understand. I think that Berit and Peter were just very open, which I think is a huge quality.

film still, Into Eternity, courtesy Michael Madsen

FOP: We are very interested in your mode of address in the film, how you situate the audience as people in the future, people to come. Could you talk about how you came to choose this address for the film?  And now that the film is complete, do you think it works?

MM: The address to the future is a narrative device designed to propel the audience into the future. I hoped that looking back at today from the future would create a kind of alienation that would give the film an otherworldly sense. I also hoped it would help convey the time involved to an audience.  More importantly though, it was designed to relieve the scientists of the agenda of today and perhaps help them speak more freely.

The reason I appear in the film is so that the audience would understand that this is my vision. The film is totally factual:  the people who appear in the film are the people directly involved and responsible for the facility. But ultimately this film is how I understand it. It was important for me to extend this to the different scientists, so that they would be relieved of any concerns about who the creator of this film was. This is also why in the pre-credits you see my name and “a film for the future.” I’ve signed the film just as everybody else interviewed in the film. I wanted to take that responsibility.

There was extensive thought about an independent graphical layer in the film that would appear throughout. This would serve, in a way, as an iconic base for the film’s content. So, if we imagined that the film could be seen in the future, you would be able to understand what this film is about just from these symbols—a Rosetta stone approach.  It was a part of the film originally.

I have also asked for permission from the head of communications at Onkalo to leave a copy of the film inside the tunnel halfway down, this is still in discussion.

film still, Into Eternity, courtesy Michael Madsen

FOP: You will be screening the film in the Finnish Parliament in May, 2010. What are your hopes for this screening?

MM: I hope there will be some politicians there.  It is not a regular session of Parliament, it’s a panel debate with different politicians there.  We are actually also working to arrange screenings in the European Parliament and also the UN building in New York. For that we are hoping for compulsory screenings for officials. These screenings, in my mind, are much more important than those in New York, because some of these people are the real decision makers.

If we can’t handle nuclear waste properly, the only responsible thing is to stop producing the waste.  This is not a political film for me but that is in my mind the logical consequence.  At the very least every citizen, not just the politicians, should be aware of the implications and the problems involved especially in communication over such long spans of time. I don’t believe this is the case today. People know there is a waste problem but many think it will be solved someday.  I don’t think it can be solved.

FOP: If you do not describe yourself as an artist, how do you describe yourself and your work?

MM: I think that if you are an artist, that is something somebody can think you are when you are very old.  That’s my opinion about that.

The reason why I am doing these things, is that it is a way of entering this world. It is a way of trying to understand. I can follow some of my interests and some of my fascinations, and it brings me into contact with lots of different people. I have been surprised of the scale of the problems involved. I hope that the film brings this out into the open and that people will realize that this has something to do with our time.  I would like to make people think and talk about this.  That’s all you can hope for.

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