When the film was first released on 16 March 1979, nuclear power executives soon lambasted the picture as being "sheer fiction" and a "character assassination of an entire industry". Then twelve days after its launch, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. It was commented how the events had left nuclear executives embarrassed with egg on their faces.
Because the Three Mile Island accident, which resulted in the release of radioactive steam, occurred just weeks AFTER release of this movie, many people associate the movie with Three Mile Island. However, the potentially FAR more dangerous "Incident at Browns Ferry" (Alabama) happened in 1975, four years earlier, and was caused by a number of construction flaws, operational issues, and safety failures. Brown's Ferry Alabama is more properly the "true" basis of this story. No similar situation happened in California.
The first script for the film was written in the mid-1970 Michael Douglas initially wanted to produce this film immediately after One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Jack Lemmon agreed to play his role as early as 1976. Douglas was enormously grateful to Lemmon as he remained ready to start work at very short notice for over a year before production started and in the process cost himself a lot of other work. To return the favor, Douglas amended the shooting schedule to allow Lemmon to attend rehearsals for the Broadway stage play of Tribute (1980) which Lemmon would later star in the film version.
Breaking her ankle on the set of this film meant that Fonda could no longer practice ballet as she had been for years. She took up aerobics instead, which led to her famous exercise home video franchise.
All of the music in the film, including the title song "Somewhere In Between" by Stephen Bishop, comes from normal sources of music within the film: car radios, barroom jukeboxes, television commercials, etc. There is no traditional "soundtrack" of music that the audience can hear but the characters cannot.
The model for the control room of the plant was based upon the control room at the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Rainier, Oregon (along the Columbia River). At the time, it was the only nuclear plant in the US to offer tours that included a tour of the gallery that looked down into the control room.
Actress Jane Fonda dyed her waist-length fair hair to a show-stopping red for the film. This was because she had noticed that most of the on-camera female newscasters she had observed had sported dyed hair. Fonda once said of this: "I'm acting out my Brenda Starr (1989) fantasy!".
The Ventana Powerplant was based on the experimental nuclear reactor that Rocketdyne operated at its Santa Susana Field Laboratory east of Thousand Oaks, California, in Ventura County. The Rocketdyne reactor also had numerous failures and accidents (due to its experimental nature, not shoddy workmanship), and was finally shut down, but to this day it remains in place as one of the first nuclear reactors in California.
Stephen Bishop was brought on late in production to write the film's title song, "Somewhere In Between." Producers wanted a song to replace the one originally chosen for the titles, which they felt didn't fit the film. The original song was a then-unknown song called "What A Fool Believes" by The Doobie Brothers.
The movie's title is based on the theoretical but implausible notion that if a nuclear meltdown were to occur in the United States, the nuclear core would melt all the way through the Earth's core and emerge on the other side of the world. However, China is simply a metaphor for the other side of the world. Such an event could never occur as the molten nuclear core would have to defy Newton's law of universal gravitation.
Michael Small composed a complete musical score for this film, but director James Bridges and the producers of the film did not like it. This is why the film was completely devoid of music except for the song sung by Stephen Bishop at the beginning of the film. In 2009 Intrada Records released and extremely limited (1000 copies) CD of Small's score which sold out in 24 hours.
Columbia Pictures studio executives originally wanted to change the movie's title of "The China Syndrome". They referred to research that showed that the public tended to think that the word "syndrome" was a medical term associated within disease. The execs suggested alternative titles such as "Power" and "Eyewitness". Interestingly, during the next decade in the 1980s, Hollywood movies were actually made with those titles, and both films, Power (1986) and Eyewitness (1981), were both flops. However, actress Jane Fonda, with a lot of clout, made the studio accept "The China Syndrome" title.
Screenwriter Mike Gray's early background as an engineer and technical writer gave the scenes in the power plant the kind of drama that defies fictionalizing. During initial development, producer Michael Douglas brought in another writer, T.S. Cook, for script polishing, attracted the attention of the Columbia Pictures studio, and secured a commitment from actor Jack Lemmon for a crucial role. Lemmon recalled: "That script had a kind of maverick quality. I was hooked".
First of two back-to-back consecutive films playing a television journalist character for actress Jane Fonda who would do the same in her next movie The Electric Horseman (1979). Fonda prepared for her role in The China Syndrome (1979) by going the rounds with Californian female television reporters.
Star Jack Lemmon said of this film: "I signed on for 'The China Syndrome' and then waited over a year for filming to begin. Not only did I get a marvelous role but I had the satisfaction of being part of a film project that deals with a very dramatic subject, and it makes for a very dramatic movie."
The picture was nominated for the prestigious Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979. The movie was also nominated for 4 Academy Awards in 1980 but failed to win an Oscar statuette.
Since the movie came out only twelve days before the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, some conspiracy theorists claim the studio deliberately staged the accident to publicize the film. There is, of course, no evidence for this.
Rob Dixon of "Turner Classic Movies" has said of the production of this picture: "The genesis of The China Syndrome (1979) came partly from Jane Fonda's roots as an outspoken political activist. Opposition to nuclear power was a centerpiece of the program of the Campaign for Economic Democracy, founded by Fonda's then-husband, Tom Hayden (one of the original Chicago 7 activists tried for their part in the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention). IPC Films, the company founded by Fonda and Bruce Gilbert, was scouting around for a script about nuclear power and tried unsuccessfully to buy the rights to the story of Karen Silkwood, a power plant worker who died under mysterious circumstances after discovering safety violations at a facility in Oklahoma. Then they discovered the script for this film by writer Mike Gray, who was originally slated to direct (Gray had attracted some attention as the producer of The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), a controversial documentary on the late Black Panther). IPC bought into the project with Gilbert as executive producer and actor Michael Douglas, who had established his producer's track record with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), as producer".
In the final screenplay, where much of the action emanates from the round-the-clock teletype rhythms of the station, another tableau is now exposed: the internal corporate operation of the television news media and the implicit power of the press to influence public opinion.
Jane Fonda said of this picture: ''On one level, it's a terrific thriller, like Klute (1971), who won her Best Actress Oscar for her melting performance as the hunted call girl in the 1972 mystery. "But, on a deeper level, 'The China Syndrome' is quite a complex human story about the consequences of choices. Everyone needs a job; almost everyone wants to advance. People are constantly compromised or requested to compromise their ethics in their jobs. I think this is a movie that will speak to a lot of people".
Producer Michael Douglas feels that what The China Syndrome (1979) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) share in common is the classic dramatic situation of man versus institutions. In the case of The China Syndrome (1979) those institutions are the many-headed monsters of modern media and technological corporations. Douglas said: "It's Man vs. Machinery. Basically, I find I like stories about heroes and, frankly, I think most people do. When I first read 'The China Syndrome', I was knocked out to find a very exciting story in which the leading characters are faced with dramatic choices, decisions that could make them heroic.This is the same plane on which 'Cuckoo's Nest' [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)] was so involving". Douglas added: "Although we're dealing with complicated and controversial issues, the story is presented in a straightforward fashion, just as in 'Cuckoo's Nest' [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)] . There were a lot of people who thought Big Nurse [(Louise Fletcher)] was right, that she was just doing her job. Conclusions belong to the audience, not the filmmakers".
Actor-producer Michael Douglas had read hundreds of scripts before an original screenplay by Chicago documentary filmmaker Mike Gray riveted his attention. While Gray had caused a sensation in the court-rooms of Chicago and the screening rooms of the Cannes Film Festival with his Black Panther documentary feature, The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), in Hollywood, Gray found few established producers who would read a script by, no less meet with, a new writer in town with no agent. Douglas stated: "I think my biggest asset as a producer is having good instincts. I really loved the story. My other asset is tenacity. I just hung in there until it all finally came together".
The reporter Jane Fonda plays is based on a composite of real -life prototypes, women whose professional growth and rising stature had been obvious in recent years. However, their newly-apparent prominence in news programming is not simply a natural reflection of a progressive women's movement. The filmmakers uncovered the powerful influence of media consultants who "design" a news show, manipulating all the possible elements, especially the use of female personalities on screen.
Director James Bridges said of this movie: "The story itself involves very decent people who are trapped by technology. As each character responds to the same event, we become aware of lives compromised by careers and perceptions clouded by competition. In 'The China Syndrome', we're dealing with two forms of power, literal and symbolic, both equally paralyzing".
Director and co-writer James Bridges offered a provocative metaphor about the picture: "An electronic personality and the technician who records her image encounter the man who supplies the electricity. Where the power lies is something they are all surprised to discover".
Executive producer Bruce Gilbert said of the film's writer-director James Bridges: "The practical advantages of working with a writer-director are obvious, but Jim Bridges [James Bridges] proved to be an invaluable collaborator. Contributing first as a writer, he read researched and absorbed all the ideas that were in motion. His greatly expanded script is extremely rich in concepts and characters which parallel and interweave with fascinating complexity. Inspired by a location, a prop or an actor's suggestion, Jim often presented newly-revised scenes during shooting, creating a highly spontaneous flow to the long filming schedule. As a director, Bridges is both straightforward and subtle, a rare combination that provides great satisfaction to both audience and actor".
For his role as an anguished engineer in this film, actor Jack Lemmon returned to the kind of dramatic performance that earned him a second Academy Award for his starring role in Save the Tiger (1973). Lemmon's first Oscar win, for Best Supporting Actor in Mister Roberts (1955), was for Lemmon's endearingly funny 'Ensign Pulver' role. For The China Syndrome (1979), Lemmon was Oscar nominated again, in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category, but lost out to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).
Producer-actor Michael Douglas explained the selection of James Bridges as director and co-screenwriter: "Jim Bridges was an ideal choice for many reasons. As actors, we were attracted to his ability to elicit very natural performances. As viewers, we observed that he is able to create great suspense. Above all, he is an accomplished writer with a strong feeling for people".
The film's writer Mike Gray was originally scheduled to direct after his documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971) had been successful but the Columbia Pictures' executives rejected Gray as he was an untried commodity and as such Gray was replaced with James Bridges.
Immediately upon completing the editing of The China Syndrome (1979), writer-director James Bridges began writing "The Urban Cowboy", whose final title would be Urban Cowboy (1980), which Bridges directed on location in Houston, Texas.
Star Jane Fonda and her company partner Bruce Gilbert vowed that their production company IPC Films would never be involved in a film that was cynical. Fonda stated with conviction: "I feel what we need instead are more complex movies like this one that show people as being brave and intelligent and complicated, as people are".
Like many of the young new-breed producing teams, dedication and mutual respect brought Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, and Bruce Gilbert together and their parallel searches for a project of substance were fused in "The China Syndrome".
Concurrent with Michael Douglas' activity, Jane Fonda and her partner Bruce Gilbert were at the Columbia Pictures studio in the early stages of developing another story set in the explosive field of power, and its abuses, under the banner of their company, IPC Films, Inc. The basic story of "The China Syndrome" contained many of the elements IPC was seeking. From their own research, Fonda and Gilbert had some specific creative ideas for expanding the scope of the story.
Executive Producer Bruce Gilbert stated: "Like Coming Home (1978) [which also starred Jane Fonda] this is exactly the kind of film, combining entertainment and awareness, that Jane and I went into partnership to produce. The story is extremely exciting and the characters very real. The situations they move through at the power plant and the television station have been scrupulously researched and re-created. The scariest part about this thriller is its frightening duplication of real life".
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
In the scene where Jack Godell notices that he is being followed while he is on his way to speak to the regulatory committee, he uses a speeding firetruck to make his break for freedom. That truck was "Engine 51" from the hit T.V. show, Emergency! (1972)