A call to action: an interview with documentarian Nicholas Mihm

“Evercast saved my movie, and that’s the truth.”

Nicholas Mihm is a documentary director, producer, and editor who has worked with brands like Spotify, Discover, Under Armour, and Pampers. Last year, he directed, produced, and edited his feature documentary debut, In the Dark of the Valley—a film that chronicles the appalling and deadly effects of the radioactive Santa Susana Field Lab on the surrounding communities. 

Long hidden from the public, the lab used to host hundreds of nuclear and rocket test building structures and had at least four known major accidents between 1959 and 1969, including at least one partial meltdown. Jared Blumenfeld, the head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, told the LA Times in 2020 that the lab is “one of the most toxic sites in the United States by any kind of definition.” In the Dark of the Valley is told from the perspective of activist Melissa Bumstead who discovered the lab after a diagnosis of a rare and aggressive type of leukemia left her four-year-old daughter fighting for her life. 

Needless to say, this is a very important story that deserves a big platform. In late 2021 it was acquired by MSNBC and aired in November. It can be viewed on NBC.com and on the NBC app. 

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nicholas to discuss his career, the film, and the current status of the Santa Susana Field Lab.

The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What initially drew you to filmmaking? Was there a film, TV show, or documentary that started it all? One that made you more than just a fan.

I’ve been a huge film nerd since I was probably like three or four. The first movies I remember watching were the 1989 Batman with Michael Keaton and Jurassic Park—those are probably my favorite movies of all time. I took an interest in the medium at an early age but didn’t take it seriously until high school. I took a film class my sophomore year, and my teacher said to the class that we were never going to watch movies the same way again and he was absolutely right. 

Were you initially more drawn to directing or editing?

Directing—it’s a fascinating profession. I’ve watched all of Martin Scorsese’s films, I’ve watched all of Spielberg’s films. Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by how they’ve conducted themselves behind the camera, always watching the behind the scenes stuff on DVDs. I’d build these little sets in my house, but I wasn’t shooting anything. I just liked the look of the cameras and cords spread around the house. I’m sure my mom didn’t like that very much.

Do you have a favorite underrated Scorsese movie? Something beyond the obvious Raging Bull or Goodfellas?

I was raised on Goodfellas, which is a weird movie to be raised on—my dad showed me it a ton. But if I’m honest, my favorite Scorsese film, which I don’t think is a very popular opinion, is Shutter Island—the horror film he made with Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo. It’s so amazing, such a beautiful film. I love horror and mystery.

What were some of your first big breaks that helped get you to where you are?

I mean, I don’t know if I’ve even gotten there yet. I got a lot of help and was very fortunate to be able to do unpaid internships when I first moved to LA. I was trying to PA on sets and just get whatever experience I could. I worked at a company that encouraged me to make these short documentaries for their brand. It was following semi-celebrities, interesting artists, or even kids and then doing short little docs on them. That sparked it for me. It got me working with a camera in my hand. Through making these little docs on influencers, I picked up the format really easily. I knew how to form a story around those things.

Could you tell me when you first heard about the Santa Susana Field Lab and what your initial reactions were?

Around 2018, my producing partners at the time, Derek Smith and his brother Brandon, and I were doing short documentary branded work. We found a listing for Change.org and they needed a two-minute piece of Santa Susana and this mom named Melissa Bumstead. It was only supposed to be a one day shoot. We met Melissa, a couple of the other moms, and advocate Denise Duffield, and were just blown away by the scale of the story they were telling. A nuclear site outside of Los Angeles that was potentially causing harm to the community around it. We quickly realized a two-minute branded video wouldn’t do this justice, so talked to Change.org and they gave us some more leeway. We ended up making a seven-minute short doc on Melissa and Denise but realized that this was still not nearly enough. There was so much that we were leaving out and so many other other families we were leaving out. So after the Change.org video came out, we told them we wanted to produce an independent documentary on Santa Susana and Change.org gave us the go ahead.

We then approached Melissa and asked if [the stakeholders] wanted to make a feature-length film on this. We thought there was an important story to tell, and she thankfully agreed. So from 2018 to 2021, we interviewed her and several other families in the community.

When did you officially finish it?

I think we finished by March 2021. Obviously the pandemic halted a lot of jobs. We were all sequesting ourselves during 2020 and that gave us a chance to edit all the footage we had and by the time 2021 came around we had a final product that we were bringing to festivals.

How do you emotionally handle something so heavy over such a long period of time?

I think it’s perspective. It’s very tough, you’re dealing with hours and hours of footage of kids in chemo, kids running around the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. So it is really sad and really hard. A couple of these kids are not with us anymore. But you have to put it in perspective that whatever you’re going through making this movie is not even close to what these families are going through. A lot of reminding ourselves of that. It not only puts it into perspective for you but also reminds you that you’re doing important work that has actual stakes involved.

It sounds like you were also energized by the cause, knowing that you’re taking on the responsibility of getting this story out there.

Yeah, and seeing the energy that Melissa was able to maintain. She’s dealing with two kids, one of whom has a one-in-a-million cancer and then she’s also putting this community movement on her shoulders. That’s a lot of pressure. So seeing her take on that burden was definitely motivating for us as filmmakers.

That makes total sense. I loved the animated sequences. How did they come about?

We knew early on that we needed something different from just archival footage. Scenes were feeling dry and some of our interview subjects were a little older and needed to be very cut up for the sake of time. So instead of doing reenactments or only relying on photos and documents, we decided to try animation. Thankfully, we found a wonderful animated short, Fired Up, that we absolutely fell in love with. We emailed the director, Elyse Kelly, about a collaboration and somehow we were able to land her. She really made a difference in the final piece.

Continuing down the creative process, I really liked how you had the motif of the score being reminiscent of a siren. Can you talk about the process of scoring the film and where that idea came from?

The film’s score was my favorite aspect of the film to work on. We got an amazing composer from the Bay Area, Katy Jarzebowski. She started when we were mostly locked. Early on, we explained to her that the story is ever-evolving and might need to unlock picture, but tried to give her certain locked scenes that she could base her theme off of. She’s really great to work with, super collaborative. I think the siren was her idea, she would send us recordings and that was in there. We wanted to capture the urgency of the nuclear meltdown, an element in the background that shows something terrible is happening and then she brilliantly used it throughout the film.

With a documentary, you obviously can’t include everything you want. Was there anything you had to cut that might not have been right for the story but you want to bring to light now?

Tons. The thing with this film, like I said earlier, is that it’s ever-evolving. So many families have been affected by the Santa Susana Field Lab that we weren’t able to talk to. There was a major scene we cut for time relating to the former employees of Atomics International who worked on the site in the decades leading up to today, and they have all been sick or diagnosed with rare cancers because of the material they were exposed to onsite. We interviewed a woman, D’Lanie Blaze, who represents these workers and is trying to get them compensation from Boeing and the Department of Labor. The amount of bureaucracy they have to go through to get the money they deserve needs its own documentary.

Unfortunately, it messed with our pacing and took away from what the families were going through but taking it out doesn’t mean it was any less important. These workers sacrificed a lot to bring nuclear energy to the United States, to send rockets to the moon, and they’re paying the price. It’s terrible.

Can you tell me a little more about that balance? How was it discovering what the centerpiece of the film would be and how to handle that focus when you’re dealing with so much material?

We knew very early on that Melissa Bumstead would be our centerpiece. Her story was so compelling. Not only is her family wonderful—she, herself, is such a fascinating person. She’s so shy, and yet she’s this force of nature. So we recognized her importance in bringing light to this movement and wanted to see her arc throughout the years. I hope we did it justice.

Since the story is ongoing, how and when did you know it was time to try and find an end for the documentary and get it out into the world?

For those who haven’t seen the film, we have this NASA event where they silence, kick out, and call the police on one of the lead activists and experts, Dan Hirsh. This event was a public meeting. For us, at that moment, as filmmakers on the outside looking in, it brought everything together. It became obvious that we were not going to get the satisfying ending that everyone is going to want. They’re not going to say “okay the community wins and we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up this toxic site.” I guess you could say that’s when we lost hope and felt the important thing was to show people how far these communities have to go to get something done with the government and within these private industries that are polluting the environment. We knew that event would be our ending and it was not going to be a happy ending.

Sadly reminds me of Chinatown, though your film is not as nihilistic. The power is out of your hands, even the community’s hands. It’s now in the hands of the people who watch the film and can hopefully bring more light to the issue.

I think at that moment, we looked at each other and knew this is probably as mad and pissed off as we’re going to get in this film, and we bet it is going to be the same way for the audience. So let’s show how frustrating and endless this is. There’s been this endless loop of making promises and not going through on them.

It’s been going on for decades. 

I think we see that in the movie. We see this government official, Jared Blumenfeld, saying we will hold these entities accountable, and now he’s silent. He’s out of the picture. It’s a heartbreaking reality: not everything can be tied up nicely.

[Author note: Blumenfeld is who called Santa Susana “one of the most toxic sites in the United States by any kind of definition” in the previously noted 2020 LA times article. His public government contact information can be found here.]

How deep into the film were you when the pandemic hit and how did that affect filming and editing?

Luckily for us, we had a lot of it shot already. It’s weird to say but I don’t know how far we would have gotten on the film without the pandemic. It kind of forced our hand to sit down and go through it. We got into this weird pattern where something happened at Santa Susana, we’d go film it, and then not really look at the footage for a while. But then the pandemic made us start to put everything together. Post-production itself was difficult. I’m not tech-savvy at all, computers are a mystery to me. So there was a learning curve of trying to figure everything out, like how powerful does your system need to be or making the proxies from our 4K footage. Luckily, we have a lot of friends in post and were able to pick their brains and decide on the best workflow. It was just a lot of trial and error, and calling the experts when we were really in a bind.

I will say that Evercast saved my movie, and that’s the truth. Due to the pandemic, my producing partners were in Utah and North Carolina, while I was in Colorado. I couldn’t have done this movie by myself. I needed different voices to help and talk through edits. Having Evercast as a resource was so important for us, especially on a production that didn’t have many. Whether that is being able to connect with our composer to listen to tracks and live edit them or to our animator to walk through her process, it was really helpful.

What has it been like having a labor of love like this acquired by MSNBC and getting such a big platform? I saw even Kim Kardashian tweeted about the film.

It’s pretty surreal. That was always the goal. Though I don’t know how much we believed that would actually happen. I think it shows the power of that story and the power of Melissa and those moms and how much of an impact they’re actually having on that site. All we did was show up—they were doing all the hard work. So I think the film getting picked up by MSNBC is probably more of a testament to them than it is to us as filmmakers. We are very grateful.

What is the current status of Santa Susana? Did the pandemic affect the progress of the cleanup? 

The best place to go would be Melissa’s website, https://parentsagainstssfl.com/. There are updates, petitions, and other ways to get involved. There is a petition demanding a proper clean-up that they’re trying to get a million signatures on and they already have over 700,000. But let me also check in with Melissa and see what she says. 

[Below is the update from Melissa Bumstead: 

“We're currently at odds with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board who seems likely to approve Boeing's proposed NPDES (National Pollution discharge elimination system) permit–it allows companies to legally pollute waterways within certain limits. You might remember the 57 exceedances from the Woolsey Fire (the movie opens that scene at the water board meeting about it). Boeing's new proposed permit would raise the limits of many contamination limits so that they could never go above the limits again, and never be fined again, because the limits would be above the worst case scenario. It will allow toxic chemicals, heavy metals and even radiation to impact the Los Angeles River and the Calleguas Creek Watershed for no good reason except to benefit Boeing's pocket book.

Also, we're continuing to meet with elected officials about the cleanup. The DTSC (Department of Toxic Substances Control) has said they will release their final environmental impact report (EIR) this summer and we anticipate it will include everything we've fought against. We believe they'll allow the responsible parties to break all their cleanup agreements and will leave the Santa Susana Field Lab dangerously contaminated.”]

Last question, has there been anything you’ve watched lately that you’ve especially enjoyed?

There’s a documentary I really loved from last year, it was called Time.

Time was incredible.

There were a lot of parallels to Melissa’s story. It follows a mom struggling to raise some awesome kids and is also fighting against injustice. It was just told brilliantly. I think what stuck with me was the use of music. If I remember correctly, there was a repeating piano score that was just so awesome and I remember leaving that film floored and pissed off but also really appreciating what this mother went through. It propelled us into wanting to make a good movie that did some justice for the community.

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