Wait Till the Real One:
An interview with Jenny Perlin about her documentary feature film, BUNKER
by A. S. Hamrah
How did you start making Bunker?
I started after the election of Donald Trump, and began by looking for bunkers to go visit. There was one in upstate New York that I wanted to go to, but it was off limits. So I found the person who had sold the bunker to the upstate New York people, and that person was Edward Peden, in Kansas, who ran a real estate business called 20th Century Castles. I contacted him through his website, then I had several long conversations with him and decided to go visit him. I needed to visit him quickly, he said, because he was selling the bunker.
You're talking about Ed of Subterra, as he’s called in the third section of Bunker?
I'm talking about Ed of Subterra.
That's a decommissioned nuclear missile silo, that's partially, or mostly, underground.
Yes, right. Ed was a history teacher in a high school. And then after he salvaged his own missile silo in Kansas, he began buying up decommissioned missile silos throughout the United States and reselling them to his clients.
How many decommissioned missile silos are there in the United States?
There are hundreds of decommissioned missile silos in the U.S., and not a lot of people are refurbishing them, certainly not the way Ed did. First of all, because if you did it right, it would be very expensive, or it would take a lifetime of work, which is what Ed has put in.
So Ed basically became a realtor of sorts selling these to other people?
While I was there, Ed was in the process of trying to sell his bunker and he was very concerned about it because the people who were ostensibly going to buy it wanted to make a neo-Nazi compound out of it. And he didn't think that that was good for the karma of the space. But he also was hoping to make some money by selling a different missile silo to some investors in Montréal.
Did these neo-Nazis end up buying the bunker?
No, they didn't. Ed was upset that these people who were going to be buying his place were also taking non-refundable $250 deposits to get a space in this future compound. But the deal fell through.
It seems like that in selling decommissioned nuclear missile silos and military bunkers there could be a lot of grifters and con men. And looking at Ed, he doesn't seem like that type of person, but nor does he seem like he's done particularly well in this business.
Ed came to this world with a lot of idealism. He wanted to make spaces for alternative ways of living. He also wanted to have a place where there could be drum circles, and healing, and crystals. He had a very active social life and lots of people would come for solstice events at the silo. Ed believed that in restoring this silo and bringing in his and his friends' energy, he would clear out the kind of militaristic war-like powers of destruction that were there. He didn't do very well financially and his wife had left by the time I got there. He had occasional roommates and was living on Social Security.
When you decided to go shoot Ed first, you were just going to make a short film about him, which you did make. How did you go about doing this? You just showed up with a camera and did everything yourself?
There's a vetting process involved. People who live in bunkers don't want to do things by email. There are a lot of phone calls where they're checking you out. Ed and I had many long phone calls. And only right before I went did I realize how stupid it was for me to be going by myself to a nuclear missile silo in the middle of Kansas to stay with a stranger.
So what does that mean, you buy a plane ticket, you take your camera, you rent a car, you drive to the middle of nowhere where this nuclear missile silo is?
Precisely. I borrowed a camera, I got a plane ticket. I rented a car. I drove, oh, I drove really far. I flew to St. Louis and I drove three and a half hours west through Topeka, had some breakfast in Topeka. And then went on to meet Ed, who, when I got there, immediately grilled me and asked me if I was CIA, or what my background was, and what I was doing there. He didn't actually bring me downstairs into the missile silo until after I had answered his questions upstairs. It had been a long time since people had come to visit him.
Did you have a sound man or anything? Or was it all just you by yourself?
It was all me by myself. I stayed in the upstairs apartment in Ed’s silo, which was just shy of ground level because Ed thought I would be more comfortable. Then I spent four days there with him.
There is something a little awkward about Ed that makes him seem slightly menacing. Although he also seems friendly. After you did this one, the other bunker situations that you put yourself in don't seem as wholesome, somehow, as with Ed.
After spending time with Ed I felt more comfortable going to places by myself and meeting people in bunkers. I felt like I could be more honest with the people who were asking me about what it was I was trying to do. The next thing I filmed was Milton of Vivos and that vetting process was pretty extreme and challenging.
How did you find out about Milton?
I wanted to go to Vivos. They have a number of sites, one in Indiana, one in South Dakota. And they were planning one in Europe. I contacted the company and the second-in-charge there interviewed me for a long time about what I wanted to do, agreed to let me go film there, and then put me in touch with their representative at Vivos, who was Milton. Milton was the first person who was living at Vivos full-time who, as far as I understood, was also helping to pay off the cost of his bunker by doing interviews and showing people around.
He doesn't seem like a corporate kind of guy who would be in charge of PR for any kind of company. Milton, of all the men that you speak to in this film, really seems kind of lost.
Milton did his job quite well when I went to meet him. I met him at the gas station and then we drove out to Vivos. He toured me around, he showed me all the different sites. But then I spent more time with Milton in his bunker, and the other kinds of things that you see in the film came up.
When you say you met him at the gas station, what does that mean? Where is this gas station in relationship to these bunkers?
Vivos is on ranchland, and there are 575 munitions bunkers there that are part of that complex, but there's hundreds more on the same land. Cattle are grazing all around the bunkers. The munitions bunkers are in South Dakota on land that was part of the U.S. Army’s Black Hills Ordnance Depot, a place called Fort Igloo. There's a town about twelve miles away.
There are a thousand of these bunkers?
Not quite a thousand. They’re from the 1940s and were used to store munitions for the military.
So they were not meant for human habitation. They were storage facilities.
Yes. They're placed at distances from each other so that if one explodes, the other ones won't all just go up, too. It is quite remote, but the town of Edgemont is twelve miles away. It's got two bars that were for soldiers. It's got a gun shop, it's got a tiny library, a small recreation center, and two gas stations. It is many hours from an airport. Close to the Wyoming border, near the corner of Colorado. The biggest town anywhere nearby is Rapid City.
“We left Rapid City and cursed its name,” as Sissy Spacek says in Badlands. So you just showed up on your own in this remote area, and you spend days with Milton?
Yes, but I did not stay with Milton in his bunker like I did with Ed. I stayed in a hotel near Mount Rushmore.
You said you started thinking about this right after Trump was elected, but how did you come to find out that there were many men living alone in bunkers throughout the Midwest?
I've been interested in repurposed Cold War architectures for a long time. The Perlin Papers, which is another film I made, also treats that time period. I grew up in a place in southwestern Ohio where there were a lot of nuclear facilities disguised as farms, dry cleaners, all sorts of other things. And so I've been interested in what has been hidden and is still hidden under the surface of bucolic American landscapes. I think that when Trump was elected I very strongly needed to go see these spaces and go back to the Midwest. Growing up in a rural place made me really want to go see what was going on.
Trump barely comes up in the film. There's a news report that someone watches on a television on Fox News. But the men that we meet aren't necessarily right-wingers. Ed is quite liberal. Milton’s politics aren't apparent. The people selling these things, however, seem very right-wing. How would you characterize their worldview?
All of them, or just the selling people?
The people who are selling the refurbished bunkers. Or the people who are maintaining these facilities. One of the men we meet is someone who is essentially the superintendent of a compound that's all bunkers, that look kind of different than the other bunkers in the film.
The ones who are selling and building bunkers are mostly libertarian or right-wing and they're often ex-military, and that's a very important part of the process for getting these jobs. Steven, from Fortitude Ranch, was living up in Maine. He went on a message board about jobs for former military and found and interviewed for this one down in West Virginia. The person who runs the chain of Fortitude Ranches is retired from the military, and former Pentagon. Fortitude in particular is marketing itself to a Washington, D.C., group of people who want shelter and protection.
Is it across the political spectrum of people in D.C. who are interested in owning a bunker?
My sense is it's a military bunch who are interested in either learning about or continuing their relationship with being prepared, and with weaponry and with self-sufficiency. But self-sufficiency is something that both the left- and the right-wing have come to in this time. So it's not like it can be separated out.
When you talk about self-sufficiency, you're talking essentially about doomsday preppers, but the film really is not about preppers. It's not one of these exploitative documentaries or a reality-television show about people like that. It's doing something else. So, to you, what is the difference between Bunker and a reality-TV, doomsday prepper show, which really plays up the perceived threat of apocalypse and the idiosyncratic or even deranged personalities of the preppers?
It was important to me that I give time and space to observing and talking with the people who were doing this work. I didn't want to reduce them to categories. They were very suspicious of me wanting to box them in. They didn't want to be made to look like hillbillies or fools. They wanted to impress upon me the seriousness of their work. I think, for whatever reason, the way I was talking to them made them feel that they were being respected.
The film is a journey from the construction of, or the rehab of a bunker that we see at the beginning, through three men that you meet. It has a kind of a five-act structure. But then, by the end of the film, we meet someone who does seem different than the other men that we've met. And he is someone who is in charge of selling high-end luxury bunkers also in a nuclear missile silo that's in a very remote place. He implies his clients are from big cities, that they're very wealthy people. Yet, when we listen to him, he does not have a lot of credibility. Is he ex-military too? What's his story?
From what I understood, Larry was a military contractor. When he describes the costs of refurbishing this bunker to make luxury condos, he talks about it as one of the lowest-budgeted projects that he's ever done. Larry bought the silo from Ed Peden. All these guys either know or have heard of each other. They downplay each others’ plans as a way of promoting their own work.
He states that it would be better to live there and he says that his kids like it better there than they do in their actual home, wherever that is.
Larry and his family live in Colorado where there's a lot of military and ex-military. He says his kids are happier in the bunker. He seemed very happy there, too. He stays for weeks at a time and was very proud of it, particularly of the infrastructure in the site itself.
His happiness seemed performed, though, in a way. It doesn't necessarily seem genuine. He kind of talks at the camera in a way that the other men don't. He's a salesman.
He's selling. He is trying to drum up more press. Larry allowed me to visit mostly because of a scholar friend of mine, Bradley Garrett, who had written about Survival Condo. And yeah, Larry’s doing his pitch, but he does get excited when talking about the wind turbines, the way that the generators work, and the air filters.
He also inadvertently reveals that the survivalist aspects of bunker ownership are limited in ways that the potential purchaser of a bunker would not really understand. Because by the end of the film, he all but admits that when things get very, very bad, or there’s a sudden nuclear attack, if you're not in the bunker, it doesn't matter where you are, you will die. So the only solution is to live in the bunker permanently. Because if you're away from the bunker even for a day and something happens, you won't be in the bunker, and owning the bunker won't matter.
When these men talk about their silos and bunkers, they use the term life assurance rather than life insurance. It's more a question of when things go bad, do you want to be running around like a chicken with its head cut off? Or do you want to know where you're going and have things worked out? After I came back from seeing Ed, I thought to myself, Wow, I should really get some stuff and prepare in our apartment because another Hurricane Sandy could come. So I ordered a bunch of 100-hour candles and a wind-up radio and some emergency blankets and matches. And then that wasn't the emergency that came.
You didn't order any KN95 masks.
I didn't order any KN95 masks. Basically I had a lot of cans, so to speak, and no can opener. That was the situation with Covid. I think that the way these people are pitching it is, if you buy into our project, we'll have all that there for you. And you can rest easy knowing that you don't have to imagine all of the potential disasters. We've imagined them for you.
Then we see in the film that the kinds of things they have in some of these places aren't very appealing, even though they've tried to, in the case of the last segment of the film, they've tried to dress things up as luxury living. It's like set dressing. It has a kind of Potemkin village aspect where they've made things look like Whole Foods, but it doesn't seem to be shored up by much.
It's about selling a product knowing that the people who are buying it will probably never come. Certainly in the ones that are being sold for a lot of money.
When you say a lot of money, how much money are we talking about for one of these luxury high-end bunkers in a decommissioned nuclear missile silo?
You want me to put you in touch? $1.5 million for a half-floor condo, and $3 million for a full-floor condo.
What are the lower-end bunkers going for? The Vivos bunkers certainly don't seem as nice as the ones that we see at the end of the film.
You can get a hotel-room-style space in Survival Condo for half a million dollars, but the Vivos bunkers were being sold for $25,000 for a 99-year lease. Then there were maintenance charges, but those Vivos bunkers don't have electricity and don't have any infrastructure. Last I heard was that you're not actually allowed to live in them. So you can park your RV and live in that and use the bunker for shelter. But you can't live there permanently.
When you started making this film, Covid had not happened. You started this two years before Covid.
I shot the first segment in January 2018.
You finished Bunker while Covid was going on and even shot some of it during the pandemic. The film seems quite timely now in a way that you probably could not have predicted when you started.
If you have your ear to the ground in bunker worlds, it's always timely. And these guys were always, always on the lookout for something. They're reading NASA websites looking for asteroids, they are following politics in Venezuela. They are following immigration policies here, waiting for people from the south to come and try to take our water. The nuclear scare from North Korea to Hawaii that was fake, was a huge point of conversation for these guys.
That happened while you were shooting this?
Yes. Both Milton and Ed referred to it. These guys talked about pandemics, especially the man who founded Fortitude Ranch. He specializes in bioengineered global epidemics, but he was reassuring his potential clients that Covid was nothing, wait till the real one, that one will come with a 99% death rate.
So he was wrong, essentially.
He was saying that Covid-19 was nothing to worry about, that the big one is coming. Most of these companies send out email newsletters describing what is happening and weaving it into a worldview of what they anticipate will happen. But they did not anticipate Covid directly. It was more of a potential threat, like so many others.
If this person has some kind of advanced degree in epidemiology or something, his place doesn't seem particularly ready for a medical disaster. It didn't seem ready for a lot of things that might go wrong. It just seemed ready for people to sleep in bunk beds and eat canned vegetables.
Fortitude is meant to be like a vacation getaway or a safe house. If you buy the cryptocurrency for the Ranch and use your Fortitudes to get your space, you can go there for up to eighteen days a year for free, and hunt, and fish, and camp out, and bond. And then it's available to you if other things happen.
There's a cryptocurrency element to this too?
Yes. Fortitude has their own cryptocurrency that is increasing in value and that they're actively working to sell. Much of it is also to invest in additional ranches that they’re constructing in half a dozen other locations around the United States.
You mentioned that a lot of these guys are ex-military. Do you think that their worldview is formed by some kind of rampant paranoia in the military that's not really based on anything except for something inside of that culture? Or is it a legitimate response to the world?
I've always thought that if you follow logically, if you read the news and you are not able to kind of put ninety percent of it out of your mind you would be just like these men. If I followed NASA's asteroid predictor regularly I would become totally paranoid. What would an asteroid do if it hit us? What if an electromagnetic pulse came from the sun and wiped out all the banking, all the electricity? Should I keep cash all over the house? People would come for your money, for your water. So you need your guns. And once you need your guns, you might need a bunker. So it's just following a kind of logic of everything in the world as potential threat. What Steven told me at Fortitude was that the military training helps with understanding multiple threat scenarios and how to protect yourself, but also about chains of command. And I think chain of command is a really strong element of all of these spaces as well. Who's in charge, how's it going to get defended, and how are we going to fix things after the disaster?
Is it that they want? To live in a world that's very structured and there's a clear chain of command, so they're relieved of a certain responsibility in situations that no one can predict or control?
They are people looking for security in their lives, yes.
They're all about self-sufficiency and self-reliance, which is kind of a national ideology that we haven't moved past.
Their project is entirely American. While trying to look for things like this on various blogs and websites in Europe, it just doesn't exist in the same way. The fact that you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get your own health insurance in the U.S. and that it's a point of pride for people to rely maybe only on one or two of their neighbors, but maybe on no one at all, comes straight out of the formation of America.