June 4, 2019

How This Award-Winning Doc Gave a Lost Wyler Masterpiece a New Life

During World War II, director William Wyler went to Europe to capture American efforts aboard. But much of his footage was lost. Now, director Erik Nelson has assembled it into something spectacular. 

When America decided to join the fray in World War II, they knew they would need public support. They recruited from Hollywood and found five brave souls to take their cameras to the front. Frank Capra created Why We Fight, John Huston’s re-enacted The Battle of San Pietro, George Stevens investigated concentration camps and the prosecution of Nazis, and John Ford and William Wyler filmed the D-Day invasion from sea and air. They shot thousands of hours of footage, but much of it was lost to time. 

These men were heroes and members of their crew died making these films. 

Recently, all the raw color footage Wyler shot for The Memphis Belle, Wyler's film, was discovered deep in the vaults of the National Archives and, after a year of painstaking, shot-by-shot film restoration, Director Erik Nelson constructed a new film out of the material.

You can check out the original film in this link below. 

Nelson's new film The Cold Blue uses previously unseen and unrestored footage. It's billed as a meditation on youth, war, and trauma. The movie contains interviews with nine of the surviving veterans who lead us through the harrowing world that Wyler and his cameramen captured in the summer of 1943.

Check out the trailer for The Cold Blue and then read our interview with the director.  

NFS: Where did the idea come from? 

Erik Nelson: A longtime passion for WW2 history collided with a discovery in the National Archives. 15 hours of raw, color footage of B-17’s, directed by William Wyler. The idea for The Cold Blue emerged instantaneously—when I thought, "Let’s do Koyaanisqatsi with B-17’s."

NFS: How did you get your budget? 

Nelson: [I] funded the film personally, along with my partners at Vulcan Productions.

NFS: What did you shoot on and edit with?

Nelson: Wyler shot on silent 16MM—and the project, once transferred to 4K, and then to 80 terabytes of drives, we edited on Avid, and color corrected with the timely assistance of a new program called the “Diamant Film Restoration Suite”, which allowed us to digitally remove artifacts from the raw footage. The original interviews were shot on an entry level “Go-Pro” camera, again in 4K.

NFS: What was your distribution plan? 

Nelson: I wanted to get in theaters immediately after June 2018, but could not interest a distributor at the time, nor afford to self distribute. (This was before They Shall Not Grow Old and Apollo 11  proved that “Big Screen History” could find a mass audience. HBO then acquired the film for 2019 broadcast, and we were fortunate enough to partner with Fathom Events for a one-night nationwide theatrical premiere, before HBO’s June airing. The Cold Blue will also be released in the UK in July, so, all in all, we played the most effective “catch up”.

NFS: How has the festival circuit treated you? 

Nelson: Very well. We had two different AFI presentations, played at Traverse City and the NYFF in October, occasionally with a double bill of Memphis Belle, as well as appearing in Sarasota and the Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, later in June.

NFS: How will making a short help advance your career? 

Nelson: Ask me after the HBO premiere on June 6th!

NFS: What's your ultimate goal in Hollywood?  

Nelson: To do the next one.

NFS: What do you plan on doing next? 

Nelson: How does a nation convince themselves that perpetuating evil is a mission statement? How can reality be twisted into justifying any abhorrent behavior? When does “Fake News” cross over into propaganda? My next film addresses these questions head-on, in a look at the ultimate propaganda—a feature doc distilled from 150 hours of the weekly Nazi Newsreel, "Die Deutsche Wochenschau.”

NFS: What's the most important lesson you learned while making The Cold Blue? 

Nelson: Never underestimate the genius of musician Richard Thompson.

NFS: What's advice you'd give No Film School readers about making a short film? 

Nelson: To paraphrase Nike, “Just do it."


The Cold Blue hits HBO on Thursday Jun 6 at 8:00pm EST.  

What's next? Check out a Psychedelic Sundance Select Short

You can find inspiration for your short film everywhere, even in your neuroscience class. Just ask Winnie Cheung.

Writing and creating a short film can be challenging. But if you're willing to mine your own life, you never know what you can find! Albatross Soup is an animated short film where one is asked 'A man goes into a restaurant and orders albatross soup. After he eats, he goes outside and shoots himself. Why?' and must find an answer by working through only yes and no questions. It's a frustrating and tantalizing puzzle used in academic studies to map out lateral thinking.

Click the link to learn more!      

Erik Nelson is the president of production studio Creative Differences. Not only has he produced and directed documentaries A Gray State and Dreams with Sharp Teeth, but he has also produced several Werner Herzog projects, including Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss, and the Oscar-nominated Encounters At The End Of The World.

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