While browsing a thrift store in Portland several years ago, filmmaker Matt McCormick stumbled upon a scrapbook from 1958.
In the scrapbook was a meticulous record of a 3,200-mile road trip by four women from Seattle – Sissie, Berta, Clauris and Bev – through Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon as told through photos, postcards, receipts, menus and brochures.
McCormick was intrigued and knew instantly he had found his next project.
“When I saw this, first I was amazed looking at this beautiful document of this region I was interested in,” he said.
McCormick decided to, as closely as he could, retrace the women’s road trip and present a then-and-now-type film.
That film, “The Great Northwest,” will screen at the Magic Lantern Theater on Tuesday, and another of McCormick’s films, “Buzz One Four,” will screen on Wednesday.
Recreating the quartet’s trip meant traveling from Seattle, over the Cascades, through Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, down the Idaho panhandle into Oregon and up the Oregon coast before heading back to Seattle.
McCormick, who has lived in the Northwest since 1995, enjoyed seeing how much the region had changed since the women completed their trip, change that was especially aided by the addition of interstates and dams.
Vantage, Washington, McCormick learned, was essentially relocated after construction of Wanapum Dam put the original town under water. The old Main Street, he said, is now a boat ramp
“That was what was fun about this project is it really forced me to look at the region in this different lens because it’s so easy for us to take everything we see for granted,” he said. “Between dams and the freeways and general development, we have really reshaped this landscape.”
But humans aren’t to blame for all the changes in the region. The eruption of Mount St. Helens had a lot to do with it too.
“As much as we’ve done, we’re still not as powerful as Mother Nature,” McCormick said.
McCormick embarked on his road trip in 2010 and released “The Great Northwest” in 2012.
McCormick’s latest film “Buzz One Four” hit a little closer to home, although the action takes places on the East Coast.
“Buzz One Four” tells the story of McCormick’s grandfather, and others like him, who flew B-52s loaded with nuclear weapons in what was called Operation Chrome Dome.
The operation required Air Force pilots to fly these planes for nearly 28 hours, until just before they reached Russian airspace.
If they hadn’t been given the order to fire by the time they were nearing that airspace, the pilots would turn around and fly back to America.
“It was the early days of the theory of mutual destruction where the idea was even if the Russians surprise us and completely take us out, at least these bombers will already be up in the air ready to retaliate,” McCormick said.
During one routine trip home, the plane McCormick’s grandfather was flying hit a patch of winter weather. The tail broke off, something that had happened to other B-52s, and the plane crashed in western Maryland, about an hour from Washington, D.C.
“The two bombs that were on board were something like 1,100 times more powerful than the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima,” McCormick said. “You can imagine if they had gone off the East Coast would look real different right now. The area around there would be like Chernobyl is today.”
Fairchild Air Force Base, McCormick said, was used as a Chrome Dome base.
While researching this film, McCormick also learned that Air Force doctors created what we now know as crystal meth to help keep pilots alert during the long Chrome Dome flights.
“We had, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, airplanes with a known structural defect being flown by exhausted soldiers on speed with nuclear bombs on them,” McCormick said. “Once I started putting all of that together, then the filmmaker voice in the back of my head was like ‘Why haven’t you made a movie about this yet?’ ”
“Buzz One Four” was completed in 2017.
These Magic Lantern screenings mark the first time Spokane audiences will be able to see McCormick’s work in town.
McCormick, whose films have been screened internationally, including at the Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, the Reykjavik Art Museum, SXSW and the Seattle Art Museum, moved to Spokane in August to launch a film program at Gonzaga University.
So far, students have been excited about the classes, which McCormick hopes to use to both teach the creative process of filmmaking and further Gonzaga’s mission of social justice and activism.
McCormick is excited for the opportunity to introduce himself to Spokane through these screenings and hopes that in the future, it will be his students showing their work at local theaters.
“While I was in Portland, I not only was making films, but I was always very involved in the local filmmaking community,” he said. “That’s something I hope to do here. In a lot of ways, this screening is my way of saying ‘Hello Spokane. I look forward to working with you.’ ”
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