Producer’s Perspective: Secret History of the Atom Bomb

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By Andy Rothstein

How many countries possess nuclear bombs? What’s the difference between regular and “heavy” water? Who the heck were Theodore Hall and Oleg Penkovsky? Did a meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen change the course of World War II? Why did the Mossad kidnap Mordechai Vanunu? What significance did Chairman Mao and Klaus Fuchs have on nuclear proliferation? How many kilograms of uranium does it take to wipe out New York City? Given the assignment to write, produce and direct a program on the Secret History of the Atom Bomb, I would soon be inundated with the many facts, figures and frantic fun of helping to put a show together.

Since the program will look at the proliferation of the bomb from World War II until tomorrow, there was a ton of archival footage to go through, make notes on and figure out when and how it would be used. It was a visual course in modern history… and one of the pleasures of this kind of work. The awesome power of a nuclear explosion is literally breathtaking. Since beginning this project I think I’ve seen footage of just about every one of them… they are terrifying but strangely beautiful.

Part of my job is to help decide what the content of the show will be and to become an “expert” on the subject in a matter of months. That’s the fun and the terror. “Do I have it right?” is a question that continually comes up, whether it’s fact checking, using the correct footage or the actual sequence of events. The research is immense but gratifying and on this program; I’ve learned a cornucopia of new and fascinating events and information! (For example I can answer all of the questions in the first paragraph above.)

For me, some of the most fun in producing a program such as this is directing dramatizations. This program has a few that were very gratifying. The train scene where Lona Cohen (a spy for the Soviets) tricks the military police by hiding nuclear bomb diagrams in a Kleenex box she is trying to get to her boss at the Soviet embassy in New York was great. We had a real train, we had authentic costumes and props, we had good actors, great interns, production assistants and a wonderful camera crew… we even had a fog machine to replicate the steam from a steam engine! (This all made me very happy since once on another production for another production company I had to dramatize a pirate attack on a Spanish castle with only three pirates! The secret to that is to have the cameraperson run along with them waving the camera every which way… )

I also enjoy the creative collaboration between producer and editor. The give and take can sometimes be furious… “That shot should dissolve into the next” “No, it should be a straight cut” yes, no, yes, no, yes, no… sometimes I win, sometimes not… but the finished product blossoms from the team work between us; it’s “our show”. On this project I’ve been blessed with a great team all the way up the line.

There’s a ton of fascinating and frightening information in this program and I hope you enjoy it… and afterwards, take a few moments to think about it.

Secret History of the Atom Bomb airs this Thursday April 15 at 9P et/pt.


  1. Kawena
    April 16, 2010, 4:49 am

    I was disappointed that no mention was made of Ethel and Julius Rosenburg. One would think that having be executed for their role in the leaking of secrets they would have been included in the show. Were they part of the transfer of information? You choose not to say.