Director Diary: ‘In The Shadow Of The Moon’

Last week, we presented an interview with famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who discussed his participation in the stunning new theatrical documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon,” which covers the American space program from the viewpoint of those who visited Earth’s closest celestial neighbor. Today we bring you a column from director David Sington, who reveals why his space-centric film is so different than those before it.

To Boldly Go…where many others have gone before.

For a filmmaker, the US space program is the best — and worst — of subjects. Best because it is one of the greatest adventure stories in history, full of drama and pathos; worst because it has been done before…many times! You know that your work will be compared to films like “Apollo 13″ and “The Right Stuff,” and those are tough acts to follow. So I approached this project with considerable trepidation: I knew that we would have to do something different and new.

The most important thing we had going for us was the fact that we could put on-screen the astronauts themselves. I felt that if we could just get across the real personalities of these remarkable men, then we would have something that no fiction film could match. So we went to a lot of trouble to persuade the astronauts to give us enough time to really get to know them and to give the interviews a bit more depth than they usually have. We were very lucky that several of them allowed us two full days. Over that time a genuine intimacy can develop, and as I hoped they would, the interviews proved revealing and sometimes profound. What I didn’t expect was that they were also really funny. Several of the astronauts could pass master in stand-up. I began to relax a bit once I realized that ours would probably be the funniest film ever made about Apollo.

Our other ace was new footage. We knew going into the project that NASA were planning to take a lot of film shot in space during the Apollo missions out from cold storage, where it had long been largely inaccessible to filmmakers, and transfer it to high-definition video. We would be the first to be able to make full use of this amazing material (which meant that we didn’t need the huge special effects budget we didn’t have).

What’s more, my producers Duncan Copp and Chris Riley had worked before with the NASA film archive at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. They were pretty confident that among its 10,000 film cans were gems that no one had seen since they were filmed back in the sixties and seventies. Sure enough, after several weeks looking at miles and miles of film, Duncan and Chris emerged with a great deal of delightful and dramatic footage never seen before: President Kennedy with a mock-up of the Command Module; the Apollo 1 crew clambering inside the spacecraft in which they would die just a few days later; engineers working on a balsa-wood model of the Lunar Module (no 3-D computer-aided design in the sixties!); Neil Armstrong ejecting from a crippled test rig just two seconds before it crashed in flames; some fabulous footage from Mission Control as the Eagle approached the Sea of Tranquillity, and much else besides. All this footage, carefully re-mastered, gives the film a visual immediacy that rivals the best drama.

Another vital ingredient for any film is music. Our composer Philip Sheppard has written a luscious full orchestral score, based on the rhythms and harmonies of American traditional music. In other words, a soundtrack you might hear in a Western. I wanted to bring out the pioneering spirit that Apollo represented, and so I think it’s appropriate that as the astronauts lope across the lunar surface we hear a melody that could accompany a wagon train crossing the prairie. The subliminal message: these men are the real Space Cowboys.

Whether in the end our film stacks up against the dramatic competition is something for audiences to judge. I hope that if you enjoyed all those terrific feature films that manned spaceflight has inspired, you will not find 100 minutes spent “In the Shadow of the Moon” entirely wasted!