The Berlin Wall was six years from falling when “The Day After” premiered on television in 1983. The film, shot in Lawrence, follows three Kansans as they fight to survive the immediate aftermath of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
Erin Johnson, a sound and video artist and a visiting assistant professor of art at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, revisited the film and its legacy for her video installation, “The Way Things Can Happen,” at the Lawrence Arts Center.
Johnson’s piece explores the relationship between the film and the city of Lawrence, as well as the emotional impact of nuclear war, by continuing the film’s story 34 years after its release. Nine actors, all residents of Lawrence or the surrounding area, appear on camera to recount the aftermath of the fictional attack. Though there's no mention of "The Day After" in Johnson's 19-minute, the actors, who also appeared as extras in the original film, speak into the camera as if the attack were actually something they endured.
“The strength and the power that the movie provided the country when it was produced was that it drew us into this fictional world in which this thing did really happen," Johnson says. "And so I wanted to continue that original fantasy — or nightmare — into the present.”
“The Day After” stoked so much existing paranoia about the threat of nuclear war that ABC set up a 1-800 hotline for traumatized viewers. Then-president Ronald Reagan watched the movie, which reportedly made him rethink his stance on nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The people of Lawrence have a layered history with “The Day After.” The film cast 5,000 locals as extras and employed area filmmakers to work on the crew.
So the impact was especially powerful when Lawrence residents turned on the television that night to see their homes destroyed and their loved ones killed, says Jack Wright, a retired University of Kansas theater professor who was responsible for guiding hundreds of local extras through each day's shoot.
During the filming, he says, “I don't think anybody realized — I know they didn't — the significance that the film might have. It was just another film.”
Johnson says the filmmakers selected Lawrence to maximize the effect on viewers: If nuclear war can destroy a small college town, it can destroy the world.
“(Setting) it in the Midwest in general was this moment to kind of point to the idea that there's nowhere that will be safe if there is nuclear war,” Johnson says. “It's not just going to affect New York City or L.A. It's not just going to affect the coast. It will impact everything.”
“The Way Things Can Happen,” through August 25 at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence, Kansas 66044; 785-843-2787.
Courtney Bierman is a KCUR intern. Follow her on Twitter @courtbierman.