Meet the Filmmaker: Sloan Grantee Cole Smith

Following his participation in the inaugural Sloan Science & Technology Pitch at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Sloan Science & Film sat down with writer/director Cole Smith, whose project SILO unpacks the true story of a 1980 broken arrow incident in Damascus, Arkansas. Smith’s feature script has previously been awarded the 2021 Columbia University Sloan Screenwriting Grant and was a 2021 Sloan Student Grand Jury Prize finalist. We spoke with Cole about developing SILO, his personal connection to the subject matter, and why the proliferation, maintenance, and dismantling of nuclear weapons impacts us all.

SS&F: Can you tell me about the genesis of this project?

Cole Smith: SILO is about a near nuclear disaster in Arkansas in 1980. It's a story that I've known about for a long time because I used to be a nuclear missile operator in the Air Force. I graduated from the Air Force Academy and went through nuclear missile training in California before moving to Wyoming, where I spent the next four and a half years. As a nuclear missile operator, within that community, there's a famous story about this minor mistake a worker made, which led to a near nuclear disaster and a massive liquid fuel explosion.

I knew that it [this event] said a lot of interesting things about missile operations but once I left the Air Force, I was intent on giving myself some breathing room from nuclear weapons. Filmmaking was a fresh start for me. But when I went to Columbia University for graduate school and screenwriting, a professor helped me see how unique a perspective I had. Pretty quickly the Damascus story came back to mind, and I started working on the script.

SS&F: How did winning the Sloan Screenplay Award change your ability to develop the project?

Cole Smith: It helped out in a number of ways. One of the things that it did was that it reminded me that this subject and this topic matters. Having Sloan recognize that gave me a real confidence boost that this is a story worth telling. It also helped me take it to the next level. I was working on a couple of projects at the time, but the prize allowed me to put my head down [and focus] on this project. [With the support,] I ended up talking with the head of the Aeronautical Engineering Department of the Air Force Academy as well as the Chief Scientist of the Air Force Global Strike Command, which is the major command that this real incident happened under.

SS&F: How has the project itself changed since then?

Cole Smith: There have been a lot of changes. There have been narrative changes and that's one of the ways that the Sloan grant initially really helped. I was able to go through a few drafts of the script and really take it from what was initially an almost documentary-like account of what happened that night. It ended up being a little clinical and sterile. Over the course of a couple of drafts, it took on more shape in terms of having the story be motivated by the characters rather than just the facts of the night. The story got a lot stronger and then as that was happening, I was leaving school and it became a writing sample for me. It was the piece that basically got the attention of my now-manager, Jon Levin.

SS&F: He’s a legend.

Cole Smith: He is. He transitioned out of the agent space and wanted to find young writer/directors to produce for. He took this on as a project, and in a very tangible way, the piece became a calling card for me. Jon took it all over town and it became the piece that introduced me to the industry as a writer. It’s been great.

SSS&F: Reading about the Damascus incident, I came across the term broken arrow. Can you speak a little bit about the usage of that term?

Cole Smith: Most people know the term from the John Travolta film, which is unfortunate because I'd love the title. A broken arrow, by definition, is an unexpected event involving nuclear weapons that results in the accidental launching, firing, detonating, theft, or loss of the weapon. There have been 32 broken arrows in the history of nuclear missile operations. That's sort of the final take away in this film. You watch this whole thing play out, a near nuclear disaster caused simply because a 19-year-old accidentally dropped a tool. That's it. They weren't particularly negligent. They were trying to do the best job they could. If the risk of a nuclear detonation comes down to whether or not a 19-year-old drops a tool, that's not a good system.

SS&F: Why do you think that this incident is not better known?

Cole Smith: The first is human nature. People don't want to talk about the fact that there are nuclear missiles in our backyard, which is the truth of these weapons. Also, the Air Force actively covered up this incident when it happened. They did everything they could to keep it concealed on the night of the event. In the days afterwards, they tried to stop the press and even the local government from finding out what was going on. There's a pretty wild moment when Bill Clinton, who was Governor of Arkansas at the time, went on national news the day after this happened. It was clear he had no idea what he was talking about. The Air Force went so far as to release statements saying nothing was wrong.

SS&F: What’s the latest with SILO? Are you working on other things?

Cole Smith: SILO is in development now. I'm working on another first feature that's different from this, a modern Western drama. But SILO is still very much in the pipeline of things that I hope to make in the next couple of years.

SS&F: SILO certainly has commercial appeal. You couldn't ask for a more organic, ticking clock. But do you want to speak to the underlying gravity of the subject matter? Given your background working with nuclear weapons, what do you hope to add to the dialogue around nuclear weapons with the film?

Cole Smith: What you said is hopefully true. It's a classic, techno-thriller in many ways. I would put it in the vein of CHERNOBYL. Maybe a little bit of OPPENHEIMER. There just hasn't been much of an earnest dialogue about nuclear weapons over the last 20 years or so. I think that Hollywood played out the nuclear trope in the Cold War. Every villain had a nuclear bomb. The public got weary. Meanwhile, as we stopped talking about it, look at the investment in nuclear programs across the world, in the U.S., Russia, China, and North Korea. These countries kept spending tons of money on these [nuclear] programs. The threat really didn't go away. We just stopped talking about it.

I want to start the conversation, where it's not just clichés and tropes, but shows the real, immediate danger and the truth behind nuclear missile operations. We worry about mutually assured destruction and war. But the truth is that there's a lot of inherent dangers in our own stockpiles, just by owning and operating these things. Nobody's talking about that either. The tide of nuclear missiles is not slowing down. There are 450 nuclear missiles on alert and ready for launch every single day in this country.

SS&F: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Cole Smith: Yes, two final things. One, I was super glad that Sloan gave me a chance because, in my opinion, this is a perfect subject for Sloan. Some people may not see the parallels, the science of it. I look at this issue as a climate change issue, as in people understand there's a problem. You need science to understand it, but you also need science to solve it. We need to address why we are not getting rid of these weapons and dismantling more of them. It’s difficult to do correctly. We need a lot of really smart people, engineers, and scientists thinking this through because when you have 14,000 warheads, you can't dismantle them overnight.

This is where OPPENHEIMER was interesting to me. Scientists were the ones who created the problem in a lot of ways, but we need scientists who are really passionate about this issue to help us if we're going to move forward. Lastly, I do want to make the point that this system is really the thing that's broken. It's easy to vilify the Air Force, but all the people that I worked with in the Air Force were fantastic. If the politicians and the public demand dismantling, they'll dismantle the weapons.

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