Interview: Matt McCormick on “Buzz One Four”

The Portland filmmaker's latest project is about the crash of a nuclear-armed bomber that was piloted by his grandfather

Matt McCormick was Portland before Portland was cool. Or when it was still cool, depending on your perspective.

A mainstay of the city’s independent film scene since the 1990s, he was the driving force behind the screening series Peripheral Produce, which began in 1996 and eventually spawned both a video label and an annual event, the PDX Film Festival, which ran from 2001-2009. (The name stood for Portland Documentary & eXperimental.)

McCormick’s work has played at the Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, and many other places. His narrative feature “Some Days Are Better Than Others” premiered at South by Southwest in 2010, and his 2012 documentary “The Great Northwest” retraced an epic road trip taken by four Seattle women in 1958.

His new undertaking, though, hits close to home. In 1964, a B-52 bomber carrying two nuclear bombs crashes during a snowstorm in rural Maryland, about 90 miles from Washington, D.C. It was one of several “Broken Arrow” incidents, accidents involving atomic weapons or warheads, that occurred during the Cold War. The pilot of the plane was Major Thomas W. McCormick, Matt’s grandfather.

McCormick will be screening a work-in-progress version of “Buzz One Four,” which takes its title from the plane’s call sign, on Sunday night at the Hollywood Theatre. The film feature interviews with experts and family members of the plane’s crew, along with a wealth of archival footage that illuminate the story of this particular tragedy. The filmmaker answered questions via e-mail about the project.

Thomas McCormick, the grandfather of filmmaker Matt McCormick, posing with aviation legend Charles Lindbergh

Thomas McCormick, the grandfather of filmmaker Matt McCormick, posing with aviation legend Charles Lindbergh

ARTSWATCH: Buzz One Four is more straightforward, both narratively and aesthetically, than most of your previous films. Was it a challenge to shift gears from an experimental, non-linear mindset to something more conventional?

MATT MCCORMICK: The biggest challenge was staying true to my filmmaking sensibilities while not letting them get in the way of the story. The facts surrounding this event are fascinating and historically important, and it is a story that involves a lot of different people, so I wanted to be sure to clearly present the information.  That said, I have no interest in producing the typical PBS-style talking-head documentary, so the challenge was privileging the information while artistically exploring the emotional and more abstract boundaries surrounding the story.


AW: What was the process like researching some of the archival material you’ve included in the film? What was the most difficult stuff to acquire?

MM: Searching for the archival materials was one of my favorite aspects of making this film.  I spent almost two weeks at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington D.C., and could have easily spent months there.  The Air Force produced a lot of motion-picture documentation.  The challenge was going through it all.  Much of it is still on 16mm or 35mm film, so viewing it requires stringing it up on an old flatbed editing system. It’s a slow process.  The truth is I really only scratched the surface–there may be more pertinent material out there that I still don’t know about. It’s kind of a rabbit-hole.


AW: You used Kickstarter to raise funds for “Buzz One Four.” What was your experience like using crowd funding and would you recommend it to other filmmakers?

MM: The Kickstarter campaign is what made making this film possible. It ultimately accounted for 70% of the total budget.  Running a crowd-funding campaign is a lot of work and very stressful, but had it not been for the Kickstarter this project never would have happened.


AW: I know you’re still finishing up “Buzz One Four”, but what’s the next step?

MM: I have been working on “Buzz One Four” for three years now, and for the most part working completely by myself, which is pretty ridiculous considering how big this project is.  But that is why I’m really looking forward to this work-in-progress test screening.  Since I haven’t had that team of creative cohorts to bounce ideas off of, I’m really looking forward to testing out these ideas and seeing how they play with an audience.  I’ll be passing out questionnaires at the screening and soliciting feedback, and then after considering it all, decide what, if any, changes I want to make to the film. Once all of the creative decisions have been made and implemented, I will then start the technical aspects of finishing, like the final sound-mix and color correction, which are costly procedures you don’t want to begin until you are certain there will be no more changes in the edit.  At that point I will begin submitting to festivals, and thinking about the next project!


AW: What lessons can we take from not only the Buzz One Four incident but all the Broken Arrow incidents in the 1950s & 60s? 

MM: On one hand we can look back at the Cold War and shake our heads at how insane our actions were–we really were lucky to get out of that without starting a world war or accidentally nuking ourselves.  But it also becomes clear that there are a lot of correlations between the Cold War and the War on Terror: two vaguely defined ‘wars’ which very much hinged on abstract threats that lead to very real escalations of military spending, surveillance, and very aggressive foreign policy.  If there is a lesson from Buzz One Four, it’s that there are ramifications to these actions: people die and lives are changed- not those of the politicians and generals making the decisions (or the military contractors profiting from it all), but those of the service members implementing the tasks and the unfortunate civilians who find themselves in the onslaught.


(The “Buzz One Four” work-in-progress screening is at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 20, at the Hollywood Theatre. Tickets are $10.)


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