Likely unthinkable 50 years ago, one of the most daunting challenges Todd Douglas Miller faced with compiling a history of the Apollo 11 moon landing was to restore a sense of awe to it. With the images of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins bouncing around in the psyche of so many as they did in zero gravity, it has become all too easy to take one of the most rewatched televised events in world history for granted. It helped matters that Miller, who previously chronicles the discovery of the most complete set of Tyrannosaurus Rex bones in “Dinosaur 13,” had uncovered 61 previously unseen 65mm source reels of the Apollo 11 mission as well as a treasure trove of audio recordings from mission control to offer something new to contemporary audiences for “Apollo 11,” but the film, which strictly adheres to the chronology of the mission as if it were playing out in real time, albeit condensed, goes far further in recreating the exhilaration that accompanied these images the first time around.
Astonishing doesn’t even begin to describe what Miller has done, not only in resurfacing footage not known by many to exist, but in putting it into a new context, often juxtaposing shots of mission control and the astronauts orbiting the earth in such a way as to see actual cause-and-effect in split-screens and using seemingly mundane scenes from NASA’s cafeteria or the surveillance cams on the space shuttle that could help with docking to understand everything that happened over the course of the nine-day mission, articulating how all the working parts and decisions made went into making the trip to the moon seem like a reasonable endeavor. Short on the personal histories of all involved – simply immersing an audience into the mission – but bursting with personality, the film ably presents this great technological achievement through an undeniably human lens, realizing both how monumental an effort the Apollo missions were and the truly humbling nature of the unknown that the astronauts were thrusting themselves into. On the eve of the film’s release, which will begin with an exclusive run on IMAX screens, Miller spoke about pulling together all the resources necessary simply to be able to make a project like “Apollo 11” possible, creating a gripping narrative entirely out of archival material and how his own contribution to preserving this bit of history is part of a continuum.
How’d you get interested in tackling something like this?
Actually [during] our last film “Dinosaur 13,” we were working on a space-oriented film that dealt with the subject of the provenance of one particular moon rock that was collected during Apollo 17. In order to understand where that moon rock came from, we enlisted the help of some archivists, which ultimately led to working with NASA and the National Archives and [eventually] with an archive producer named Stephen Slater based in the UK. Stephen’s lifelong goal is to sync all this audio from Mission Control that has not been synched before, and he has arguably the best private collection of Apollo era footage, so we worked together on cultivating a bunch of footage for this other film. Then CNN who acquired “Dinosaur 13” was interested in working with us for our next film, but we move annoyingly slow, so they said, “Look, while we’re waiting on your next feature, what about short films?” So we ended up taking some of the footage that we had from Apollo 17 and turning that into a short called “Last Steps.”
Steven had always told me with Apollo 11, he had a lot of really great footage, so I said, “You know, I’m pretty much spaced out at this point,” but as the months went by, we were working nights and weekends on it, just in our spare time and then it kind of became addictive. [laughs] Subsequently, I found out that no one ever had made a major effort to scan or have any telecine done of existing 16mm or 35mm related to Apollo 11, so about three years ago, CNN said they were interested in doing [something] for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and I said, “It’s probably going to be more of an art film, but I’d really like to go in and rescan all of this footage.” Then I inquired with the National Archives and NASA about scanning every available Apollo 11 piece of footage and audio — after they told me I was nuts, several months later, we sent Stephen back in to organize all that and work with the archive team there. That started what became years of work, not only scanning all that 16 and 35 [mm film] and the discovery of the 65mm, but building of custom equipment to be able to handle all that stuff. Then ultimately [we started work on] the feature, which is half of the project, and the other is to preserve and archive all this material.
When you allude to thinking of it initially as an art film, did you have the purely archival form of the film in mind from the start or did you figure it out based on what material you were discovering in that process?
Yeah, it was certainly my plan from the start. Even before the discovery of the large-format [footage], I was such a fan of large format films in general, mainly historical ones that involve the pre-IMAX stuff from the ‘50s and ‘60s, fairly obscure stuff but occasionally gets shown. And a lot of that deals with fractured narrative or immersive cinema experience, and I knew that style of filmmaking would certainly be applicable here. It certainly helps that NASA inside mission control had four main public affairs officers who during the mission in essence acted as narrators to tell the story of what exactly was going on. Sometimes they get a little bit technical, but for the most part, it’s really dumbed down for someone like me to really understand things like what the spacecraft is doing during the mission or things that are about to happen or things that did happen.
It feels like every shot in the film was one I hadn’t seen before – were you pretty conscious of what was out there in the public already?
Yeah, I’m such a fan of space films, and when we started this project, I was seeing everything again ad nauseum, so I knew what was out there, but probably more importantly I was researching all of the autobiographies that the astronauts had written. In particular, Mike Collins wrote a book in 1974 called “Carrying the Fire” and he wrote it by himself [without a ghost writer], which is unusual, but he also did it fresh off the mission, less than five years after. In there and certainly in [Neil] Armstrong’s book and some of Buzz [Aldrin]’s books, and in talking with Buzz and Mike, it was very important to highlight some of the things that they thought were major parts of the mission.
For instance, Armstrong did an interview for the 40th anniversary about his most indelible moment, [which] was actually not planting his foot down or having the first steps or landing or even the recovery or even the launch. It was seeing the moon during the solo eclipse. But that was on the way to the moon and having just this amazing visceral reaction – all the guys said that. Then it was really cool to go back into the archive [where] they had a shot of that from a previous mission. We showed it to Buzz and said, “Does this sort of look like…?” and got some feedback on that. Another one was during the trans-lunar injection maneuver, and it was a very technical, but very important scene that I’d never seen depicted properly, whether it was in a fiction or nonfiction film. Basically when they light the engines that go to the moon after a couple of orbits around the earth, all of them called it “TLI right into sunrise” so the actual burn starts on the dark side of the earth. They actually witnessed the sunrise over the earth and they all talk about how beautiful it was and how it stuck with them, so again, on one of the earlier missions, they filmed that and we got to showcase it there. We worked with NASA’s history department to make sure the symmetry was accurate and that kind of stuff, I was personally really dying to do because I hadn’t seen it done before in a film.
When you’re noting things like the velocity and the fuel and the altitude as you’re seeing the footage in real time – do you have to pull all that information together from various different sources to figure it out?
Yeah, it’s become almost more important than the film to be technically accurate [for the long run]. We went out and got all the best tech experts to consult on the film, working with NASA’s history department and that entire team has just been amazing. Case in point – if you watch a film like “Apollo 13,” the thinking [at the time] was the spacecraft, on the way to the moon and on the way back, goes into what’s called a passive thermal control maneuver. They called it PTC and if you can imagine bullets getting shot out of a gun, it’s like that [spacecraft is a] bullet pointed towards the moon and rotating. But our research indicated that strictly just looking at the photography they couldn’t have gotten the images they did out the windows if the spacecraft was oriented that way. So we asked the astronauts and they couldn’t verify what it was.
The historians office at NASA actually had to go back to the MIT archives and there was a group there in the Flight Dynamics office that actually had schematics and drawings that showed that it was in fact, the command module was actually oriented 90 degrees and pointed up to the celestial north on the way to the moon and pointed to the celestial south on the way back. As [NASA’s] Bruce McCandless says in the film, [it resembled] a rotating restaurant that just had these windows that they went around and that’s something that to NASA’s mind had never been depicted yet, so there were little things like that.
And then we had access to 11,000 hours of mission control audio, which has been released to the public late last year through NASA, but through our efforts, we cleaned it up and everything’s [now] in synch. Through that process, we found that some of the transcriptions of events that not only happened on the moon, but certainly on the journey to the moon and back were off by a couple seconds here and there. It’s not a big deal, but it certainly highlights the real need of people like us, volunteers that have come before us, working in conjunction with NASA, all the great people that worked there, to understand all the technical minutiae and the overall cannon of what is the Apollo 11 mission and all of the Apollo missions. What I think a lot of people don’t realize is when they go to NASA.gov and they read the transcripts from these missions, they’re actually a work in progress. They’re all the work of volunteers over the decades and we’re just another link in that chain. And I know just from us curating these materials and preserving them properly, there’ll be people that come after us that could help with that effort and ultimately understand exactly what happened even better than what we do.
There’s this great moment in the film where you let the song “Mother Country” take over after it emerges from being played on the space shuttle. Both specifically and throughout, was it interesting extrapolating cinematic moments in the little details you may have found in the footage?
Initially, when we had what’s become known as the 30-track historical voice recordings, which is the 11,000 hours of mission control audio, we also had all the air-to-ground audio over the nine days and then onboard audio as well. So we had to have a divide-and-conquer approach with the team, even if they weren’t audio-oriented, to split it up and listen to it because there was so much to go over. Certainly, the goal was trying to find little moments that maybe hadn’t been discovered yet or if anything, even the big moments we could create themes around.
My producing partner Tom Petersen and I would just listen to it on our iPhones walking to and from work and he came in one day to the office and he goes, “You’ve got to hear this.” On one of the onboard [recordings] there was that song and if you played it a million times, I probably would not catch it. I still to this day don’t know how he did, but it was kind of mashed in there with about three or four other songs and the minute that we knew what it was, we immediately reached out to John Stewart’s widow Buffy Ford Stewart. She’s up in Sausalito and we played it for her. She’s an amazing witness to history and as it turned out, she and John were both huge fans of the space program — John had written all these other songs around the space program, so there was a song called “Armstrong” and a song called “Walk on the Moon.” They were friends with astronauts. So we just hit it off and it was a no brainer to use it in the film. Certainly, I think it just adds another layer [and] speaks to the humanity of these guys that they had early iPods with locked in playlists. It’s certainly one of the most fun moments in the film.
It was also intriguing to see in the credits that the score was composed by instruments and effects that were limited to the time period – what was it like to work on?
Yeah, my composer Matt Morton and I have worked together forever. He typically does classical scores, even though he’s been in a rock band for a long time, but usually the way we work is I’ll put in a bunch of temp music and he’ll post-score it. For this, he said, I want to do a period score with a modern composition. And I said, “What the hell does that mean?” [laughs] But he said, “I’m going to go out and buy this Moog synthesizer. They have a reissued one from 1968 and I only want to use instruments that were around pre-1969.” I was a little skeptical at first because this was a new way of working, but he said, “Look, I’m just going to do all this pre-scoring and I’m going to give you hours of composition” — and this was over the course of years as he was learning how to play this [Moog synthesizer] and now he’s become an expert on it — but it was just a pleasure to edit with because I could mould this incredible Moog score [around the footage]. It was like musical silly putty and in fact, for all our next films, we said this is the only way we’re going to do it because it was so fun.
After carrying this around for so long, what’s has been lift off been like?
It’s just been an incredible experience. You realize that close to half a million people worked on the Apollo project, spread across 20,000 companies. It was just an immense undertaking. In fact, we didn’t have 20,000 companies working on this [laughs], but at times it felt like we had just as many people. To see it up on the big screen is an amazing testament to the skill and precision of all those people back then that made it happen, and it goes too to the technology that exists today to showcase this imagery, not just from our team, but the IMAX team — I was back in L.A. watching the 4K IMAX laser and I thought the film was great as it was [at Sundance], it just got kicked up a million notches. So we’re just so lucky to have a project like this and I look forward to so many people getting out and supporting the work that all these guys did.
“Apollo 11” opens exclusively in IMAX theaters on March 1st before expanding on March 8th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.