There is definitely a glint of mischief in Žiga Virc’s eyes, and once you see his feature debut “Houston, We Have a Problem,” you understand why. A fascinating deep dive into Yugoslavia’s burgeoning aerospace program at the height of the space race during the 1960s, the film tells of how the country’s charismatic President Josip Broz Tito sold America on Object 505, an engineering effort that was competing to land the first man on the moon, to the tune of $2.5 billion, labelled covertly at the time as “developmental aid.” With plenty of rare archival material and present-day footage with the few still alive and part of the elite circle to know of the deal such as NASA engineer Matthew Jones and Ivan Pavic, a Yugoslavian engineer who gave up his family for the cause, only to return to his native home to reunite with his daughter now, the film uncovers a historical moment simply too good to be believed — and it is.
When speaking to Virc a day after the film’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, he seems unconcerned – and arguably delighted — about spoiling the fact that there are no facts in “Houston, We Have a Problem,” but that’s likely because he has created such a compelling case otherwise in search of a larger truth. As he dazzles the eye and ear with the usual distractions that carry a narrative to audiences, even in documentaries, he probes how a certain presentation makes us so susceptible to accepting information when intuitively it should all fall apart if the simplest of questions was raised. Having noted Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Žižek on hand as a guide, the film is almost cruel in how entertaining it is, making it all too easy for one to respond emotionally rather than logically, yet still in mining actual footage from an era of such great secrecy among governments and the act alone of conveying strong sentiment as fact, “Houston, We Have a Problem” speaks volumes about the power of myth, not only in storytelling but in international politics as well.
While in New York, Virc spoke about how he developed such a crazy idea and putting the work in to make it real.
How did this come about?
Before doing this film, I did this short film called “Trieste is Ours,” which was a gold finalist for the Student Academy Awards in 2010 and it was also about the past in Yugoslavia. When people saw this short film, they were all really intrigued by it – we had opened up this box of Yugoslav topics and I started thinking, “Okay, what can we do with these topics?” We started looking through archives and doing research and then we found out there’s a lot of footage from the past and there were also maybe myths about Yugoslavia. It was full of mythology of UFOs and this “Object 505,” which is a bit like Yugoslavia’s Area 51 [with stories of] UFOs and planes landing directly into [black] holes. We figured out if we take all these little bits and pieces and combine them into a strong narrative, it could be something new. It could tell much more than just a classical narrative to make people think.
What’s it like to piece together this history from the clips you found? Did you actually find the narrative there first and then go and shoot or was it the reverse?
It was back and forth actually because we had this idea of how the story should look and be told. You never know what you’re going to find in the archives, right? You have this idea, like Tito doing something, then you go the archive and you don’t find that thing that you were waiting for, but you find something else such as Tito smoking a cigar with Nixon. Of course, [we thought] this is so crazy we have to include it in the film. I think this really tells a lot about Tito and the guts that he had. On the other hand, shooting [present-day] footage, we did it very close to the style of documentary filmmaking, which means even in the post production, we ended up having a lot of footage. We had 45 shooting days, which is quite a lot for that kind of film and a lot of story was actually done in the editing.
Music seemed to play a major role in pulling this off – how did those choices, which are often big and bold, come about?
I’m fan of films like “Lord of the Rings,” so I wanted to have this bizarre combination of having documentary-style footage but [also] big, proper music. Of course, we had a limited budget, so there were two options. I had this idea of having a full-size orchestra, but only had the budget for two musicians in the studio and [since] we are combining existing footage [with new footage], why not combine existing music [with original music]. There’s this really great company from London called Audio Network and they have thousands of [pieces of] music – whatever you want, you can choose. It was actually recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Abbey Road studio, so you really get the best quality. It was actually much better we have music already written than writing it afterwards, because we wanted some inspiration from the music, too.
Visually, the film seems to place a premium on keeping things moving and perhaps it was just as easy as putting a camera on the shoulder, but was there some steadicam work?
At the very beginning, the first option was to shoot on the ARRI Alexa [a high-grade digital camera], but when you want to achieve this documentary visual style, we had to downgrade the quality of the picture itself. That’s why we shot the film on the Lumix GH3 camera. We wanted to have these handheld shots, but for some of the stronger visual effects, we also use those remote controlled helicopters and gyro handheld devices, which gives a good effect, but you don’t want to overuse that. You just want to put it where it’s really necessary.
How did the story of Ivan Pavic come into this larger history?
Yugoslavia had this weird position in between the East and West. There were actually some people working at NASA also – there was one [Yugoslavian] guy who received an award from for his work on the Apollo program. When combining all these stories together, we wanted to make to cover all sides of the Yugoslavia regime at that time, [including] the personal stories that told what the system was doing. Ivan’s story fits into that in a more symbolic way because you have a lot of people who are very nostalgic [who think] Yugoslavia was great, everybody had jobs, social security, everything. On the other hand, there was this prison camp where you could go if you were just a little bit too much against the system, so we wanted to cover that with Ivan’s story.
Was the fact that Yugoslavia has always flown just under the global consciousness part of the reason you wanted to make this?
Definitely, because Yugoslavia is still an enigma. It’s really interesting because I got a lot of feedback from [America] and Yugoslavia has always had this weird, special position in a way in the minds of people here, this position of being a global player at that time because when Yugoslavia fell apart, all the republics became just classical normal countries. For instance, I’m from Slovenia, which has a population of two million people, but what can you do on the global scale [with that sized population]? Nothing much. We’re part of the European Union and stuff like that, but Yugoslavia at that point was something or at least it fueled itself with this mythology about the greatness of the country itself. I think that’s why people are so nostalgic about it. It could be just the propaganda that made it appear bigger, but certainly Nixon came to Yugoslavia to discuss his thoughts on the relationship between Southeast Asia with Tito, or the Gulf countries at that time. Tito was Christ to everybody. One day he would go to North Korea, the next day he went to visit Poland.
You have some clips of American astronauts there too – how did you find those?
There are actually two parts in the film with astronauts coming [to Yugoslavia]. One is David Scott, and [someone from] Apollo 8 – I don’t know why, but there were many astronauts actually coming to Yugoslavia. On Lake Bled, there’s a skiing resort and they went skiing there. We could actually be quite picky about which astronauts we used. [laughs]
You weave in an interview with Slavoj Zizek, who talks about the lure of conspiracies. How did those come in?
At the beginning, we knew that we were dealing with something that is quite fragile, this concept of docufiction, so we wanted to have somebody on board that would do this job, [to say] “What you’re about to see, we aren’t going to tell you what to [think is real] exactly, but think about it. For a change, be critical what you’re seeing.” We were thinking about many different options, but at the end, philosophy is something that was used in ancient Greece not to solve problems, but to start thinking about [things], not giving answers, but asking questions, so I thought of course, Slavoj Zizek, He’s one of the most famous Slovenians apart from Melania Trump…looks like we are exporting quite interesting people.
What’s it been like to make this kind of powder keg of a movie and see the reaction?
Yeah, that’s what the film is! The reaction was something that we were looking for because people started asking things that we wanted them to start asking themselves and us. It’s always good to have this dialogue between people that don’t believe in this Yugoslav space program and some who are totally convinced that it existed. Then you tell them, just think about it or go Google it. That dialogue is something that we wanted to achieve and I think this started yesterday [at our premiere]. I always think when analyzing which films are the best, if it’s a really bad movie, after it finishes, you say, “Okay, what are we going to eat for dinner?” That’s it, you’re finished with the film. If the film is good, you start talking about it — what was that? How did that happen? After seeing this film, I think people go to the cinema and [afterwards] the only thing they’re talking about is the film, which I think shows that we did something that’s probably quite engaging.