Xeni Jardin interviews Jeff Skoll and Lawrence Bender on COUNTDOWN TO ZERO

A Boing Boing special feature.

☢ Readers who survived the eighties will remember how deeply the fear of nuclear destruction was embedded in popular culture of the time. We danced to hit songs about atomic ennui, we poked fun at "duck and cover" and bomb shelter blueprints, we believed ourselves less naïve than our parents' generation. But we knew we were no less safe from The Bomb. When the Cold War ended, a new era of nuclear threat emerged. ☢ "Countdown to Zero", a documentary from the team behind "The Cove" and "An Inconvenient Truth,"  speaks to that threat, and to a younger generation largely unaware of its existence. ☢ After viewing the film in Los Angeles, I caught up with producer Lawrence Bender and executive producer Jeff Skoll. ☢

XENI: We're speaking on the same day a nuclear nonproliferation treaty review is taking place in New York City. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is the only head of state present, and much of the focus is on concerns over Iran's nuclear program. "Countdown to Zero" addresses the threat posed by Iran as a potential nuclear power, but I walked away even more terrified by the chaotic, less-traceable threat of loose nukes already leaking out of former Soviet Union states and on to the black market.

LAWRENCE BENDER: One of the other things revealed today was our government put a number on the amount of nuclear weapons we have in our arsenal:  5,113. About half are on an alert status allowing them to be launched in a couple of minutes or less. Any one of them are many times the strength of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and could destroy any major city in the world.

The loose nuclear material is a very large issue. President Obama recently convened a nuclear summit which was a pretty big deal and brought 47 heads of state to DC for one purpose. It's hard to underestimate how big a deal this was, that kind of thing hasn't happened since the United Nations was formed in 1945. There was unanimous global consent to secure all nuclear material around the world over the next four years.

Iran obtaining a nuclear bomb would be a game-changer, and is something no-one in the world wants. The first thing to do is secure everything we know about, the second thing is deal with what may be on the black market.

XENI: How did this film project come together? Why now?

BENDER: When we decided to make this movie three years ago, none of this was in the public eye. We were thinking, there are two things that could destroy humanity, two things we could actually change if we have the political will. One is climate change. The other is this. Now, the movie's coming out at a time when the president is taking a lot of action. But people need to be educated, motivated, and mobilized so that politicians know what they want.

JEFF SKOLL:  When I started Participant Productions six years ago, the idea was to tell powerful and important stories that would engage audiences and make a difference. One of those issues was nuclear weapons. But there's an art and a science to making these movies, and finding the right storyline, so it percolated for a while. 

Then about three years ago, I was in the Middle East. There was a lot of talk about Iran acquiring nuclear wapons. But it seemed like the broader issue of nuclear proliferation, and the remaining nuclear weapons between Russia and the US, had fallen aside. I came back to LA and had a call with Lawrence, and he told me about this group called Global Zero he'd become involved with—a program of the World Security Institute. Very quickly, we decided to do a movie about the subject.

BENDER: That's our story of how we came together, but just before that time these four guys, the "four statesmen" as they're known—Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, Sam Nunn, and Bill Perry, all conservative folks, two Republicans and two Democrats—wrote a series of op-eds together over the period of a few years. These men once believed nuclear weapons were an essential part of America's defense at one time, but the world changed, the need for nuclear weapons changed, and post-9/11 the threat sources changed. With that came a change in viewpoint from some of the most important people in this area, people you might consider Cold War hawks. 

Sometimes you get an idea, it hits you, but it's also just—it's in the atmosphere. Different people start to have the same idea at the same time, and each person believes it was their own, but other people are having the same idea. I feel like the idea behind this film was mine and Jeff's, but worldwide other people were all starting to think about the same thing in this new way. We are filmmakers, so we put it into a movie.

XENI: You've said you believe that nuclear disarmament is neither a left nor right wing issue, and that people who are conservative have come out in support of the film and the broader campaign it represents.

BENDER: One of the most prominent people who spoke about this back in the 1980s was Ronald Reagan. If you go back and look at his speeches, there are some really beautiful ones on this subject that will make you teary-eyed. George Schultz came out recently, after Obama did the security summit, and spoke very favorably about what the President is doing. Global Zero, of which I'm a founding member, has held summits on this issue and Schultz gave a keynote at one of them. One of the leaders of Global Zero who is in the movie is Ambassador Richard Burton who was a chief negotiator for president Reagan. It's not a liberal issue, and it's not a new issue. 

XENI: You structured the film around the three types of interrelated threats outlined in a famous speech given by John F. Kennedy to the United Nations in 1961: "Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness."  

SKOLL:  For me the biggest concern is the fact that Russia and the US are still in this same position of hairtrigger alert. Over the last 350 million years there have been five extinction events, caused by things like methane, meteors, or volcanoes. But in the last 40 years, we've had at least five near-extinction events that we know of-maybe more-because of nuclear weapons. One was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Another which we illustrate in the movie happened in 1995. The fact that this hairtrigger alert is still in place despite the fact the political landscape has changed is extremely important. 

If the US has these weapons then Russia kind of has to have them too. But their weapons aren't nearly as well guarded as ours. That opened the door for other nations like China, Pakistan and India to have their own sets of weapons. And the risk of that expanding to rogue nations is high, as is the risk of thse materials falling into the wrong hands. So there's the risk of terrorism and rogue nations having nuclear weapons, on top of this hairtrigger alert, and none of it makes sense.

XENI: Your film may not be a feelgood movie, but you seem to be trying to leave viewers with a sense of empowerment, the idea that they can do something about this big, terrifying thing that has the potential to destroy all life on the planet.

BENDER: We didn't make the movie because we believe this is the end of the world. We made it because we believe we can prevent the end of the world from happening. The information is scary. Every time we screen the movie and there are young people in the audience and they say, "Whoah, I had no idea"—when you see the 18-22 year olds talk, the effect is staggering. They say "I feel so bad, I had no idea," but the other part of what they say is, "What can I do." 

SKOLL: When Participant does a film, we try to get people engaged in the issues beyond the film. There's a ton of information at, and at the end of the film, we invite people to text "ZERO" to "77177" to become engaged and active. We've found this is a very effective way to get people to engage immediately after they see the film. About 10% of the people who saw "The Cove" did, and eventually over a million people signed up. 

The film is really part of an overall campaign, there's a coalition of more than 50 organizations like Global Zero, faith-based organizations like True Majority and the New Evangelical Partnership, online organizations like and MySpace, and NGOs like the NRDC and Human Rights Watch. Together they can reach millions of people, and we hope to have millions of signatures on the Global Zero declaration to eradicate nuclear weapons. It's a global thing. The issue is global, the organizations are global. 

XENI: What surprised each of you most, during the making of the film? Was there a big gotcha, shocker moment?

SKOLL: For me, it was the story of how in 1995, we came very close to complete nuclear launch from Russia. The Russians misinterpreted a weather rocket the US launched in Europe as a nuclear assault. It was so bad, the Russians brought the nuclear briefcase to Boris Yeltsin and told him to approve a defensive nuclear launch. He was asked to launch a full-scale nuclear counterassault with the full arsenal of Russia. Nobody knows why he didn't, but he didn't. 

"In the first millionth of a second, the fireball is 500 feet across. Within ten seconds, it would grow to over one mile."—Joe Cirincione

The second big surprise has been the timing of all of this. When we started the film a few years ago we had no idea the US and Russia would be close to ratifying a new START agreement. We knew the nonproliferation agreement would be happening about now, but we had no idea it would be any more productive than the one in 2005 which went nowhere. The way the issue of nuclear weapons and proliferation has really popped in the public mind, that was a surprise.

BENDER: I was talking to a CIA person who appears in the movie, Rolf Mowat Larson. He saw the movie and said, 'Wow, you guys did a really great job. But you will never be accused of going too far out on a limb. There is a lot that isn't in the movie. As horrifying as some of the stuff is, there's a lot more to it.' And I said, 'Whoah, is that supposed to make me feel better?'

Countdown to Zero, directed by Lucy Walker, opens July 9, 2010 in New York City theaters. The film opens in theaters across the country over the following weeks. The History Channel is a partner in the project, and will air the film on television later in 2010. 

(Top of page) South Dakota Minuteman Missile Museum Silo. An Ultra High Frequency antenna at links missile silos with the "Looking Glass" aircraft. If for some reason the Minutemen missileers were unable to complete their duties, this aircraft, manned by two operators, could take over any of the missile sites from the air. Photo: Robert Chappell

Lawrence Bender (left) and Jeff Skoll (right).

"Smuggling highly enriched uranium [HEU] into the United States is pretty straightforward. Lead pipe will shield the HEU. The detector would have to be within a few inches to pickup any radiation."
—Valerie Plame Wilson

"Today, the posture of the United States and Russia is exactly the same as it was during the Cold War. So if the orders went down right now, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it would take about two minutes to launch all of the U.S. nuclear ballistic missiles out of their tubes in the Midwest..."—Bruce Blair. Photo: Gary Clarke

Missileer humor: the text painted onto a missile silo's heavy blast door reads "World-wide delivery in 30 minutes or less or your next one is free."

Former CIA Covert Operations Officer Valerie Plame Wilson: "There is no doubt in my mind, if terrorists acquire a nuclear weapon, they would not have hesitated to use it. So I guess the question is: could they ever get one?" Photo: Nick Higgins

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspects centrifuges at a uranium enrichment plant.

Enrico Fermi stood in his office, overlooking Manhattan.  He cupped his hands to the size of a tennis ball.  "A little bomb like that," he said, "and it would all disappear." Photo: Robert Chappell


Rob Beschizza #1 11:21 PM Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Looking forward to the film!

Anon #2 1:54 AM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is there anything about Perimetr system in the movie? Because this is beyond scary.

scifijazznik #3 8:17 AM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Great interview, great photos & graphics. I'd really love to see BB do more stuff like this.

Anon #4 11:10 AM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Plame-Wilson a covert agent? Since when? and says who?

Anon #5 11:12 AM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Monumentally stupid. Iran will never disarm, neither will North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Algeria, Tunisia, and others are all racing towards nukes to counter Iran's. Russia and China will never disarm either.

Nuclear disarmament would require a massive, brutal world-wide police state destroying nations in a Global Dictatorship, enforced by frequent genocide. That is the only practical way to get nukes out of the hands of nations and peoples who want them. As a practical matter Israel will never give up their nukes since it is a guarantee of their survival as a people.

ALL we can do is limit proliferation by making examples of Iran, before they break-out, and providing a massive nuclear umbrella (so Poland and the Czech Republic don't nuke up to deter Moscow, because we protect them). That's it. Life is tough, not unicorns and rainbows.

spocko replied to comment from scifijazznik #6 11:59 AM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I like the interview and photos but PLEASE no black background on white type for longer interviews, it makes Baby Jesus cry.

Viriathus #7 12:25 PM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Iran's "nukes" have been imminent since the 80's. There is no evidence they are pursuing a nuclear weapon, but surrounding Iran and threatening to bomb it every few weeks only encourages them to acquire one, wouldn't you say?

If the Iranians do manage to build a bomb, it will probably be because we showed them how - check out the story on Cryptome regarding Operation: Merlin. The geniuses over at Langley decided it would be a good idea to pass a Russian nuclear triggering device to the Iranians, with some minor alterations to make it "useless." Except their Russian delivery man spotted the flaw right away - and in all likelihood, so did the Iranians. So if NYC turns into a radioactive glass pit after we start dropping the bombs on Tehran, you know who to blame . . .

DarthVain #8 12:42 PM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

As the politicians can easily tell you: Fear Sells.

Wonder why these documentaries are made? To promote change? Pocket change maybe. If anyone believes that these are made for truly altruistic purposes you are deluding yourself. They are made to sell to a market. That goes for "An Inconvenient Truth" as well. Al Gore made a lot of money off that movie, all it really did was generate endless debate.

The fear the bomb idea is an old one.


Anon #9 12:52 PM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

It's a shame the logical thinkers about this are all gone. Racing to zero is just plain dumb. The real cause for nuclear warfare is conventional warfare. People escalate to nuclear weapons when they lose conventional battles. This is why the Western and Eeastern blocs avoided war, and why the US did nothing against the North Koreans but invaded Iraq. We knew there would be no consequence for winning a conventional war with Iraq. The needs of conventional warfare drive your nuclear arsenal, and you size your arsenal to ensure loss of conventional warfare is not toxic. Thus eliminating any gains to be had in winning a conventional war. Since the threat of conventional warfare is almost nil between the major powers now, we can, indeed should de-alert and cut the current stockpiles.

Going to zero is another matter. If you go to zero, you lower the threshold of fighting a conventional war. In some long term standoff the Russians would feel much more at ease with driving tanks to liberate the Batic states and Poland if they know that there is no longer a NATO nuclear response awaiting any Russian victory. Also China would feel more at ease in liberating Mongolia and Siberia if they knew that there would be no Russian nuclear response to negate any victory they can ensure via conventional means. Also the coming colonial squabbles in Africa and the Indian ocean between China and the rest of the world will be able to escilate out of bounds much faster in the absence of nuclear arsenals.

Terror is mainly a problem because the US has decided to treat Al-Quita as if it were the Warsaw Pact. In face we are spending more in inflation adjusted money today in the so called 'war on terror' than we did holding 14 second world industrialized nations at bay, and they had over 30k deliverable nuclear weapons aimed at us. The 'war on terror' is a function of American stupidity and lack of a strategic sense of scale.

This same lack of insight and strategic thought is driving us to create a more insecure world that will be driven to conventional war that will start off between non-nuclear states. But you can bet that in the stress of all out conventional war on a global basis all belligerents will race to re-nuclearize, and since the war will already be started, any loser is bound negate their defeat by going nuclear. The danger of going to zero is you establish politics that ensure war, and then guarantee that nuclear weapons will be used by the parties near defeat. Rather we should choose to live in a world where we have them, and it is always on our minds that we have them. Thus our politics are governed to avoid conventional war in the first place. Just like the Cold War.

Anon replied to comment from DarthVain #10 1:31 PM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

True, fear does sell. so does lots of other stuff. The contents of this documentary, while scary, are definitely important and i think that the people who made it deserve to get paid.

As for "an inconvenient truth", generating endless debate is a good thing. really the point of something like this isn't to prove to joe the plumber that global warming is happening (or that nukes are a threat). The point is to get joe the plumber interested enough in world events to find out some facts and make decisions accordingly. If the filmmakers manage that through fear, that's fine.

Anon #11 2:16 PM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Fear may sell, but having a healthy fear of nuclear weapons is sensible and sane. Not all fears are manufactured; this threat is real.

For those who say it's not possible for the world to turn away from nuclear weapons, and say it's too idealistic, and proclaim "Life is tough," well, no. Life won't be tough in a world jam-full of nukes--at some dramatic point, it'll be over.

Anon #12 2:33 PM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Harvard recently hosted the Gleitsman Social Change Film Forum (more @, which featured Countdown to Zero. Here's an interview, conducted by David Gergen, with the film's producer Lawrence Bender and Oscar-winning filmmaker Bill Guttentag: More videos and content to come!

TotalForge #13 2:52 PM Wednesday, May 5, 2010

If the Iranians build a bomb, it will be because you can't keep science a secret.

In each story of near total war, people with amazing personal qualities have waited patiently under incredible pressure, talked down angry commanders, and steered us away from disaster. I'd surely like to see the filmmakers speak to some of these special people. The stories I've read were found in the GWU National Security Archive site.

Don't forget to visit the Titan Missile Museum in AZ!

foresterr replied to comment from Anonymous #14 10:40 AM Thursday, May 6, 2010

Poland nuking up... bwahahaha... bwaha... sorry... I'm Polish, and hearing that... sorry...

Anon replied to comment from foresterr #15 11:02 AM Thursday, May 6, 2010

Poland falls under article 5 of the NATO treaty which comes with a nuclear umbrella. As Poland uses the American F-16 this can come in the form of a transfer of B-61 free fall nuclear bombs to be used when Poland is under threat of no longer existing. Or the US, the UK, or France may conduct nuclear strikes on behalf of Poland if Poland is unable to make the strikes herself. That's what you get when you sign up for NATO.

Anon #16 12:08 PM Monday, May 10, 2010

so when we have destroyed all the nuclear weapons. what do we in case of an alien invasion? or a killer astroid approaching the earth?

Anon #17 11:28 PM Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Out of all of this, the one scary feeling of futility, is that someone, somewhere on this planet, is ready, willing and able to launch Armageddon by punching a button and the only reason that it will happen is because Stress, caused his/her psychotic mind, wired and programmed by the Military, to SNAP!, just like that, and ...the Beautiful Earth will become a radioactive cinder for which there will be no cure because those who could effect the cure, will be DEAD! If the capitalization of the words offend literary convention, I bid you think what a Nuclear Holocaust will do to Literature and Life. 70 years, I've lived and for 57 of those years I've been aware of what could happen. Lobby as hard as you can for the removal of Nuclear weapons; at the very least in a conventional War, we will still have a chance for survival. The 30 years war ended, finally, and we're still here. And if there must be a war then why not choose to have a requirement that it be fought with swords and pikes, maces and morningstars, so that the warriors will come to realize how ugly and horrible death really is. Even the greatest of Japans Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, stopped the killing of opponents when he fought a war that was the most bloodthirsty and terrible conflict feudal Japan ever experienced. A man who had no equal, put down his sword and turned his back on War... Why can't we do the same? Patrick John Bolino.....

billso #18 6:56 PM Saturday, May 15, 2010

#16, nuclear missiles won't do much to stop even a medium-sized asteroid. The warheads just aren't big enough.

+1 spocko - no more white type on a dark background. That's soooo 1998.

KanedaJones replied to comment from DarthVain #19 1:04 AM Thursday, Jun 10, 2010

a well informed mind is a sad mind but what is the option you recommend?

ignorance ignorance ignorance?

Anon #20 3:22 PM Thursday, Jun 24, 2010

If this is such a big deal to the makers then why isn't it put out for free as a download? You can still show it in theaters and pay for the cost of it. But heck it is all BS till it is free to watch it.

That will be 15 dollars please.


Anon replied to comment from Anonymous #21 9:55 PM Thursday, Jul 15, 2010

If we blast a "deadly" meteor with a nuke we would end up with one of two things: A) We get multiple slightly smaller, still devastating meteors. B) The meteor is a little smaller, and radioactive.

Anon #22 3:48 PM Friday, Jul 16, 2010

Fear is the first enemy. Nuclear bombs maybe second to most, but people should be more worried about chemical and biological agents. All of these things I just mentioned were brought to use by fear mongers who preach "if only we had MORE we would be safe." Until we decide war is not the answer to fear, and trade and free open communication is the way to a better tomorrow for all of man kind, ONLY then will we do away with weapons of mass destruction.

Anon #23 8:59 AM Saturday, Jul 17, 2010

My Grandfather Dr. Eric Jette worked with Dr. Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project and was at Trinity. After what he saw there and the aftermath of the bombs dropped on Japan, he came to share many of the views of Dr. Oppenheimer regarding the moral and ethical dilemma they had created. Due to the political atmosphere at the time he felt he could not speak out without reprisal from the government, and sadly he passed before his time in the early sixties. In honor of him I choose to add my voice to this process in hopes that the world can once again live without the threat of nuclear weapons.
These devices were invented to bring the end to all war. Unfortunately we are still merely human beings and making war seems to be an ongoing inevitability at this stage in our evolution. My hope is that without the threat of complete world destruction we will have a chance to evolve to see our full potential as a species. I agree that realistically there is no way to shove the genie back into the bottle, but the deterrence effect of stockpiling massive inventories of these weapons is no longer an effective strategy and now poses a significant threat to our survival. Governments in turmoil who possess these weapons, and the greed of countries including the United States to “trade” in nuclear arms technology is true insanity. We have to stop the madness before we turn this beautiful planet into a glass parking lot.

Peter Grenader replied to comment from Anonymous #24 5:32 PM Monday, Jul 26, 2010

Dear Anon #16:

Regarding protection against alien invasions: Please do not mix science fiction with science fact and the sad fact is, in the time it's taken me to write this letter, 1/4 of the remaining time after the launch of an Eastern European first strike would have expired. Another sad fact, every city in the US with a population of over 50 thousand people is currently targeted.

But, taking the benefit of doubt, there is speculation that it was the testing of nuclear weapons which supposedly brought the Aliens here in the first place. There are reports (one broadcast on Larry King Live) of an ICBM being destroyed during a test flight by hovering disk shaped objects that shot beams into the fuselage until it exploded. Taking this tact, possibly disarming our global nuclear arsenal is the one thing we CAN do to avoid an alien invasion!