The headshot on Christopher Carson’s SXSW badge was likely the only one to involve a space helmet, an image that meant more than simply attending the film festival for a film he was starring in. For Carson, it was the culmination of a dream shared by many of the people who appear in Simon Ennis’ documentary “Lunarcy” of putting on a spacesuit in preparation to venture up to live on the moon.
Nearly a half-century after Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on a surface other than the earth, it remains a seemingly unattainable goal for all but a precious few who have been propelled skyward on a mission of public exploration or with private riches to fund such travel. But as Ennis’ amusing and occasionally awe-inspiring film demonstrates, that hasn’t quelled interest in settling lunar territory, focusing on people who are actively plotting a life on a world beyond on our own.
In a style reminiscent of Errol Morris’ “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,” Ennis introduces us to a group of lunar enthusiasts who may seem like outliers on our planet since they believe they belong on another, whether it’s Carson, a refreshingly frank moon expert who is “not content to call my place home on this side of the sky,” Dennis Hope, an Oklahoman who believes he has the right to sell 10 billion acres of prime moon real estate, and Alan Bean, the fourth astronaut who walked on the moon who continues to relive his experience vicariously through the portraits of the night sky he paints in the present day.
“Lunarcy” paints its subjects with an equally aspirational brush, illustrating the practical steps that can be taken towards colonizing the moon while bringing out the uniquely human desire to continue exploring and while in Austin, I spoke to Ennis, producer Jonas Bell Pasht and Carson about how they dug into a film about this ever-increasing circle of lunartics, making it at a time when space travel is at a crossroads and the film’s unexpectedly death-defying finale.
How did this project come about?
Simon Ennis: We were looking for something to do together. We’d never made a documentary before. It was all narrative films. But in about the course of a week, I just happened to read three random articles about the moon. One was about Dennis Hope, the fellow who owns the moon and that was one of the greatest ideas I’d ever heard. One was about the moon and ancient religion and then the other one was a really scientific-based thing about harnessing moon dust to create energy with helium three. Originally, it was going to be a film about the moon in culture, science, art, history — just all the ways we’ve seen the moon and what that says about people. But as we were shooting it and talking to the subjects, we all became a lot more interested in their own personal passion and inspiration and the projects they were doing, so it became less about the moon and more about the people and their creativity and dreaming big.
Jonas Bell Pasht: Then we met Chris.
SE: Chris was the one person that I wasn’t familiar with beforehand, but at our very first shoot in Phoenix, Arizona, I was at a conference of rocket engineers and people who work in the commercial space industry and NASA and I thought it was going to be a wealth of wonderful interviews. And it turned out to be the most boring conference you could imagine. It was just one person after another giving these really dry presentations about rocket fuels and I thought we were going to be sunk. Our tiny budget was going to be wasted on this trip and about two days in, the elevator door opened and out walked this guy with a blue vest that said “Luna City or Bust” and I said, “Oh, wow, can you tell me about that?”
Christopher Carson: I’ve been going to the Space Access Conference because some of the most interesting stuff shows up there for a person like me. There’s the rocket guys showing films they don’t show to the general public, things like rockets blowing up, which a lot of people would see and be scared of, but the fact is actually that if you’re not blowing up rockets, it means you’re not stretching the limits of your technology.
I had gone up to my room and come down with this sign board that I sometimes wear just to make people aware of where I am, what I’m doing, who I am. And this scruffy looking guy with a camera comes up and says, “Excuse me, I’m making a film about the moon and the way people think about it. Can I interview you for an hour?” Three hours later, he says, “Can we do this again tomorrow? From there on in, from time to time, he’d phone me up or Skype call me to get my take on certain parts of the film.
JBP: Simon called me that night after being despondent about this particular conference he was at and that night after he met Chris, he called me up and said, “I found someone.”
The film comes at an interesting time for space travel. The opportunities for private citizens make it seem more possible than ever if you can afford it, but at the same, NASA’s shuttle program has been placed on hiatus. Was that informing the film at all?
SE: Yes, certainly and there are some parts of the movie that we contextualize it in the history of NASA and the Apollo missions and then how the shuttle Arrow was a bit of a disappointment. We don’t go into it too much, but now the hope likely rests with the commercial space industries. With Space X and X Core and Virgin Galactic and stuff like that, I’m not really an expert, but I really think we’re in a transitional period rather than at the end of something.
CC: The government space effort is at a low moment. It’s seen them before. We had hiatuses in the shuttle program after the loss of Challenger and Columbia. We had the long period from the end of Skylab until the first shuttle launch when there was no U.S.-manned space capability at all. At the moment, of course, we’re buying rides from the Russians, but that didn’t happen in the ‘70s. There was just nobody going into space from the U.S. So from my point of view, it’s a really opportune moment. There’s so much happening. Space X is launching rockets, you know, we’ve got the commercial space activity heating up, which means people are beginning to believe again. People are beginning to understand again that this is really happening, this is really a thing that can happen, so from that point of view, that’s one of the most valuable things for me is that people are beginning to believe again. And to the extent that I can promote that and to the extent that I can grab onto that and ride it for all its worth, this is absolutely an opportune moment.
For the filmmakers, was there a moment when you knew you had a movie?
JBP: For me, there were different stages of discovery. There was one very big one when we first met Chris and we realized this is the most fantastic hero’s journey of all time, the journey to go live on the moon. We realized, that’s what this movie is. That’s really when it became crystallized. I knew we had that film when we were in the desert with Chris overheating in an actual Apollo spacesuit walking towards a Saturn 5 rocket.
SE: Really? That was like the last day of shooting.
SE: I thought we had a movie earlier than that, but that was a magical day.
Since it’s at the end of the film, I wouldn’t want to spoil the scene which is a bit of a fantasy for Chris, but in broad terms, was it difficult setting up that final sequence?
JBP: Yes, it was because we actually did an entire shoot within a replica space capsule, so that happened at different stages. We had to shoot part of that at a soundstage and the desert posed many, many challenges.
CC: It was just miserable. We were out at Soggy Lake, California, which is the worst-named place I’ve ever been at and I’m there in the space suit and those things are bloody hot. There was a water cooling garment, actually very similar to the ones used in actual space suits because the company that does the props actually also does actual spacesuits for the commercial space industry, but the problem was the water cooling garment had developed a leak, so instead of chilling me, it was dribbling ice water down my back, which was not great. It’s great to talk about afterwards, but actually doing it was miserable.
Chris, there’s another great moment in the film where you’re obviously very touched when get to interact with high school students after your laser show. What’s it been like to have this film as a platform to talk about your interests?
CC: It’s immensely valuable to me. I went into this saying, “Okay, hopefully people will come to understand our message better.” And definitely I have been gratified by the response that it’s gotten. For example, it was showing in Toronto at the Bloor Cinema there, so they had like five shows. I went to four of them and there was a documentary film club from one of the universities that had shown up there and they were really interested in talking to me, so we actually went across the street to the pub and I hung around with them for three hours. They asked some very good questions, partly about the moon, partly about everything under the sun and that was wonderful. That’s the kind of thing that I really like to do, so it’s been very gratifying for me – the opportunities for doing that that the film has opened up to me.
SE: I really like traveling with this movie because it’s got a happy ending and it’s such an optimistic film. People seem to be really happy after they see it. If it has a message, it’s that we should all dream big. That’s something I really believe in and enjoy sharing it with people and people seem to really get a kick out of it.