by filmmakers Lydia Dean Pilcher (right) and Ginny Mohler (left)
Radium Girls is based on an American historical tragedy too few people have heard of: the 1920s factory workers who painted glow-in-the-dark watches while slowly being poisoned by the radioactive paint they were required to use.
Some brushed off their plight as the tragic cost of scientific progress—saying the company could not have known of the danger. But they did. In fact, the radium company had commissioned a study that identified the toxicity of radium and kept it under lock and key while dial painting work carried on, profits rolled in, and the company doctors diagnosed the sick workers with syphilis.
Ginny stumbled across an obscure reference to this story eight years ago while working as an archival researcher on a documentary about the atomic bomb. She and co-writer Brittany Shaw wondered, “What would it feel like to learn that your employer was poisoning you? To learn that you, your sisters and friends would die within the decade? To be slut-shamed and publicly slandered for questioning why?” An early draft of the screenplay coincided with a time that Lydia and her company were seeking a story that would blend her passion for environmental justice with her narrative storytelling career.
In developing the script over several years, we worked closely with Brittany and our producer, Emily McEvoy. There was an underpinning of an aesthetic that crystallized as we delved deeper into the visualization of our work. We pored over diaries and letters from Radium girls, 1920s footage, mapped out character arcs, and came to know our cinematic Radium Girls inside and out—their hopes and dreams and hardest hours. We searched for the rest of the team that would help bring them to life.
Every creative department head brought a unique way of seeing and feeling to their work.The production designer, Emmeline Wilkes-Dupois explored the bold design aesthetics of the 1920s and ways that the working class families of the Radium Girls may have incorporated the trends of the time into their spaces and styles. Our cinematographer, Mathieu Plainfossé, worked with us to explore different contrasts of light versus dark, color versus monochromatic, and cool and warm colors. Matthieu worked mostly with natural light and we loved his beautifully emotional camera style. Sylvia Grieser, our costume designer, worked with Mathieu and Emmeline to unify the color palette by discovering vintage pieces from the 1920s, and modifying modern pieces to fit the style using details and hand sewing techniques of the period. Our composer, Lillie Rebecca McDonough, wove sound design into a classical score that breaks into moments of playfulness and joy—and inevitably, melancholy. We hear factory sounds in Lillie’s score and when the musical ideas of Egypt and the Book of the Dead bubble to the surface, we are elevated into a feeling of transcendence in the internal worlds of our women.
Our editorial team, Giacomo Ambrosini and Tia Douglas, found a distinctive and poetic rhythm in cutting our story in color with the archival footage we used to create a sense of context for the cultural and political landscape of the time. The archival creates a sense of scope for the larger world outside the factory in Orange, Jersey where our women sat at their benches painting watch dials. After all, New York City, teeming with life, was just across the river.
This world-building component of our visual style springs from Ginny and Brittany’s archival experience in researching the era. Some of the volatile events we layered into the story have also been hidden in history—like the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, which seems to have only entered our collective conscience during this current moment of cultural reckoning in 2020. The Radium Girls were one part of a much bigger picture.
For our modest production, the period locations in Lake George and Glens Falls, New York had many rich gifts from the era as well. We centered production at a Victorian estate, the Wiawaka Center for Women on Lake George, New York. Gifted by an heiress in the early 1900s to the local factory women as an affordable holiday getaway, Wiawaka is the oldest operating women’s retreat in the country. Not only were we able to film around the gorgeous Victorian buildings, but we housed ourselves there for the duration of the shoot!
It felt like destiny to be at Wiawaka as the early women’s political movement is a core part of the Radium Girls story. They were empowered and lifted up by local women activists and scientists who were parts of national networks working to protect women’s rights and worker’s rights.
We want people to learn about the story of the Radium Girls, to stare injustice in the face, to feel the outrage and the stakes, and to find the courage to act. The Radium Girls did. And while they did not live to see their impact, these brave teenage whistleblowers are part of our collective memory. Now we can begin to understand what their story truly meant.
Posted October 30, 2020
Photo courtesy of Juno Films