An Amarillo State of Mind

The Plutonium Circus Comes to Town

by Marc Savlov

George Whittenburg Ratliff is not the kind of guy you would peg for one of the most talented filmmakers around these days. Tall and lanky, with an unruly shock of dirty-blond hair and large piercing blue eyes that seem to take in everything and everyone at once without alarming you, he's soft-spoken and speaks almost shyly of the documentary film he's made - The Plutonium Circus.

Set in the Texas Panhandle town of Amarillo, The Plutonium Circus focuses on the gargantuan Department of Energy Pantex plant, which looms over the sprawling North Texas Plains like some evil, radioactive monarch. Since the 1950s, Pantex has been the final assembly point for every nuclear weapon made in America. This is the place where the gadgets, gizmos, priming devices, and plutonium cores arrived, by unmarked train, to be finessed into the country's arsenal of democracy. Sort of like a General Motors plant headed not by Lee Iacocca, but by the military industrial devil himself.

Amarillo, a hometown I share in common with Ratliff, has always been behind the plant 110 percent. The Pantex plant (or death factory, according to a few observers) is now engaged in the business of dismantling our nuclear stockpile and storing the deadly plutonium on-site, despite the fact that the plant rests directly above the precious Ogallala Aquifer, which is the largest fresh water aquifer in North America and the primary source of drinking water for the people of Amarillo and surrounding towns such as White Deer and Claude (site of the film Hud), as well as eight neighboring states, and the land and animals that supply 70 percent of the wheat, corn, and beef grown in the United States. The people of Amarillo have wholeheartedly embraced the plant with open arms because employment and the local economy are the issues here (the plant is said to be responsible for a total of 11,000 jobs, a figure that includes all the local businesses that service the plant), not lymphoma statistics and the perpetual possibility of disaster. It's a mindset that's hard to swallow, but then, so are most Panhandle politics.

Literally a world unto itself, Amarillo exists on the periphery of anarchy, a notion presented with relish in the film by local eccentric-cum-millionaire Stanley Marsh 3, creator of the famed Cadillac Ranch and an irascible, thoroughly charming throwback to the days of Mark Twain. Marsh also delights in ridiculing the prominent, old-money, Amarillo family the Whittenburgs, of which the director and interviewer is an obvious offshoot.

Ratliff's film, his debut, has already garnered high praise from many critics on the festival circuit. They're right, every one. When it showed at the March 1995 SXSW Film Festival, The Plutonium Circus won the best documentary award. Personally speaking, The Plutonium Circus captures not only the low-level madness inherent in an operation such as Pantex, it also captures the bizarre, surreal nature of the town itself. If you've never spent any time there, this film is like a window into another world, another time. It is, very much, a trip, populated by oddball characters such as the charming and demented artist/collector Charles Johnson III, a man who will gladly guide you through all the eccentric curios stuffed into every inch of his home, showing off such prized possessions as Charles Manson's fingerprints, David Berkowitz's (the Son of Sam killer) mocking notes, and, my favorite, a gorgeously warped portrait of the Pope at play, complete with riding crop and the words "Love" and "Hate" tattooed - in Latin - on his knuckles. Like the film and the town itself, the characters here are one of a kind, off kilter, and oddly endearing.

On the eve of the release of this stunning work, I spoke with Ratliff about the making of the film, the Amarillo we know, and, uh, love, and the art of documentary filmmaking. It turns out that his cousin Drew was one of my best friends way back when. Small world.

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Austin Chronicle: Did you have any sort of formal background in filmmaking before embarking on Plutonium Circus, or did you just leap right in?

George Ratliff: I went to University of Texas, actually. I got an English degree first, and then toward the end of that I finally got into some RTF production classes. So I received my English degree and then my RTF degree right after. I've always studied on my own, but in the past three years, I've seen more movies than I've seen in my whole life. I feel like I'm not watching enough if I don't see about two a day.

AC: I know there's a lot of contention over the film school issue these days. Do you feel that the time you spent in film school at UT was a waste of time and money, or would you recommend taking that route?

GR: The great thing about UT is that it's dirt cheap - at least, for an undergrad. Graduate school is pretty expensive. Another good thing is that they have a lot of the equipment. They have some Arriflex S's, some Nagras... you can get your hands on all the equipment. As far as teachers, it's got good theory courses, I think. It had one good guy who was excellent for learning about the real shoestring budget stuff - as far as how to shoot things cheaply - named Steve Mims, and that's who Robert Rodriguez really learned his stuff from, too. He's no longer with the University, though; he's now with Austin FilmWorks, basically teaching the same thing.

UT, though... it's horrible the first couple of years, but once you get in, you need to learn how to... hustle. There's a load of money and things here, it's just that you have to figure out how to weasel into it. Weaseling into film production classes is the one thing it took me three semesters to do - just to where you got your hands on a camera and can do a picture, you know? I think it's a little more realistic in that it teaches you how weasel into things. I mean, we had to weasel our way into Pantex, and that was no easy task.

AC: What were you involved in before Plutonium Circus came up?

GR: We did three short films, in three film classes. I wrote for newspapers. I wrote for The Daily Texan. I wrote for a journal in Costa Rica called Mesa America. While I was in Costa Rica I wrote a column [published] in Amarillo, and that's how I got my name out in Amarillo so that a lot of people knew me who didn't know me before. This was in '93. It was basically a "local boy does good" kind of thing. Kind of a humorous column, I mean, the same kind of humor as in Plutonium Circus.

I grew up in Amarillo, and half the people in the movie I'd met or seen before. It's a fairly big city but it's got such a small- town feel.

AC: How did the idea of doing a documentary about Pantex come up?

GR: Just growing up around it, I'd always wanted to do something about Pantex, really. It's a very eerie feeling to grow up with that sort of thing there. Of course, I didn't consider it eerie growing up, I considered it sort of... comforting. It was sort of an easy way out, if and when the world ended. I grew up always thinking the world was about to end, and I think that's a pretty common belief for everyone in Amarillo. And that's a very good excuse, a very powerful reasoning to not keep up with what's going on out at Pantex anyway. I think most of the United States, and Amarillo, as far as the religious thinking, feels that the world is going to be over any time anyway, so why worry? They've watched Nostradamus a few too many times, I think.

AC: Why a documentary for a first film?

GR: I think documentaries are great for a first film, and this is a specific type of documentary. One reason people don't make documentaries is the same one [used by] people [for not writing]: People don't read anymore. The average American family reads one novel a year, and they see even fewer documentaries. It's just not that interesting to people. I think documentaries are the most wide-open form... there's still so much that can be done with it. This [The Plutonium Circus] is just one avenue of many to take, where the characters just speak for themselves, there's no voiceover narration or prompting or any of that.

AC: Exactly. It's hard to think of The Plutonium Circus as a real, honest-to-god documentary, because it's all so surreal. It's almost like it's got that Spinal Tap vibe going, like a mockumentary...

GR: That's funny you should mention that. We just played the film up in Vancouver at a festival, and there was actually a wonderful documentary that played there as well, called Daytown. It was one of the fullest, best documentaries I'd ever seen and, then, at the end of the movie, you find out it was completely fiction, all actors, and totally made up. It's a fabulous movie, but it's a lie. So, I made a big point at the beginning of The Plutonium Circus to announce to everyone that this was a real documentary, these are real people, nothing is made up, and no one's an actor. It had to be that way, just because, you and I know what's there, but for anyone else, it's just... you have to be there to understand it.

My original intention was to make a documentary solely about Pantex, but the characters just ended up taking over. I met Charles Johnson III, the guy with all the death items, in a bar, the Goldmine on the original Route 66. I started hanging out there and I met this guy who was talking about being around Richard Leakey, and so on. I always hear bullshit in bars, so I just kept listening to all this crazy stuff.

After a while, he figured out that I wasn't believing him, so he took me to his home and showed me the pictures. That's how we met. He looks like he's acting, but this is the type of guy Charles is. He finds people, takes them home, and shows them all his weird shit. He's the type of guy that if you knocked on his door, he'd let you in, tour you through his house, and tell you about his artifacts.

As far as the rest of the characters... I told them I was making a documentary. I told them that it was going to have both sides presented, no voiceover narration, and no subtitles whatsoever. And everyone agreed. After we shot it, we let them hear the audio tracks. Before I asked them the questions, I told them what I was going to ask, gave them time to think about it, then, after everything was said and done, I asked them, "If you like it, sign this release form, if you don't like it, we'll throw it away." And they all signed the release form. So, there's nothing they can do. It's all true stuff.

AC: That seems like a pretty strange way to do a documentary these days.

GR: Well, it's just playing with human nature, you know? Amarillo is a place that's different than anywhere in the world. It's a strange place, but when you're in Amarillo, you just think the rest of the world is really whacked out. You think that you're the only island of sanity in the whole world. That's what Amarillo thinks. And so this is basically, really, an anthropology film, or a sociology study. It's giving you a slice of a different type of society and showing you all these outrageous people. In my opinion, it's a very funny film. It's something that's straight out of the Fifties. It's an island stuck in the Fifties.

AC: What about your budget? The film looks like a totally professional studio job.

GR: It's an increasingly popular thing to sort of lie about how low your budget was, but The Plutonium Circus - the print and all the film processing - cost us about $50.

AC: Uh...

GR: Just kidding. We made it for actually $50,000, which is dirt cheap. And it looks like we're going to be getting a good return on the investment. It'll take a little while, but it's coming. We've now got a distributor, Greycat Films (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Twister). It's going to play in 12 cities and I got to pick the cities.

AC: Is Amarillo one of the 12?

GR: Yes. Although it's kind of a tricky situation. We're receiving some flak. Right now there's a lawsuit against Stanley Marsh, the owner of the Cadillac Ranch. It has nothing to do with the documentary, it's the Whittenburgs suing Stanley Marsh, but...

Essentially, right now, we're doing an Academy [of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences] qualifying run, because, supposedly, there was some hint to the distributor that it would have a chance. That would be just nuts, but... we'll see.

AC: What was it like being inside Pantex?

GR: It was weird as hell. This is a place where they won't let you near the fence; they've got sniper towers, razor ribbon strung up everywhere. The saying out at Pantex is that you take down a fence and you go to prison. Incredible mercenary forces everywhere. All that stuff. It was real spooky. Funny. Surreal. We all got a big kick out of it. I was running a fever of 101deg. at the time, lugging this horrible WWII tripod around...

We went in where they store the plutonium pits, where they disassemble the bombs. Of course, it was a fairly limited tour. We didn't really get into the real stuff. They're doing a lot to open it up, compared to what it had been like before. It used to be that people who worked there weren't allowed to tell their husbands, wives, or children what they were doing for a living. Now it's common knowledge.

They didn't make public that it was the final assembly point for every nuclear weapon made in America until the late Seventies, and that was just a slip-up, really.

My only real beef with Pantex is plutonium storage. That doesn't create any jobs. That's just storing stuff in a ditch that you have to watch for 24,000 years. Literally. The only jobs that's going to create is for a couple of people to guard it. If they want plutonium storage there, Amarillo's behind it, even though it's above the Ogallala Aquifer,
which supplies most of the drinking water to eight states.

AC: What are your thoughts on the Austin independent film scene these days? It seems like an unnatural amount of talent is being regularly spit out of our fair city.

GR: There's no one in Austin whose uncle runs a studio, or whose dad is dating Glenn Close, or anything like that. Here, you have to produce something, you have to pull it out of a hat. There's also a real sense of community here. I loan my equipment to people here, and they loan me theirs. Waterworks, this video post production place where I moonlight sometimes, just got some film-to-video transfer equipment that they do a cheap rate on. It's just getting more and more primed to get... bigger. Like everything else. n

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