Interview with Director David Sington
In the Shadow of the Moon is the opening night presentation at the 2007 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on April 19th. Directed by David Sington, this film focuses on all nine Apollo astronauts who went to the moon or set foot on its surface. For the first time ever, these astronauts are able to share their own stories in their own words. Filmmaker Sington recently participated in the following e-mail interview about the film.
Question: In the Shadow of the Moon contains stunning NASA film footage -- much of it never seen before. I'm curious what the reason for that is and how you managed to get access to it?
Sington: The NASA archive in the film really falls into two categories -- the material that was shot in space (much of it by the astronauts themselves) and footage shot on the ground, both in mission control during the missions, but also film of the spacecraft being built, training and so forth.
During the time the Apollo missions were flying, NASA public affairs used this footage to make a series of 30 minute documentary films, one for each mission, which were released to the media, and itís these films which have provided the archive basis for most of the TV documentaries made about the Apollo Program. Thatís why one sees the same rather limited repertoire of shots over and over again, getting fuzzier and fuzzier as copies are made of copies! But of course, only a fraction of what was originally shot was ever used in these films. All the precious space-based 16mm film footage was placed by NASA under liquid nitrogen, and has been difficult to access for obvious reasons to do with preservation; the other material was kept in the main NASA archive.
We knew when we were starting on the film that NASA had decided that digital technology had advanced to the point that they would take the space-based material out of cold storage and transfer it to high definition digital video, and so this material would be available to us in its entirety for the first time. As for the other material, in principle there has been nothing to stop people using it, it has just been a question of time and resources. NASA have something like 10,000 film cans, all properly catalogued, but as with any film archive, you have to open the cans and view the film to know whatís really in them. Our archive producer Chris Riley and our producer Duncan Copp spent several weeks in the NASA archives going through the entire paper catalogue, and viewing thousands of rolls of film to select the 100 or so rolls that we ourselves transferred, with NASAís kind permission, to HD video. This formed our raw material, along with a lot of archive material that didnít come from NASA.
Question: How did the idea for the film come about?
Sington: A few years ago Duncan and Chris were working on a BBC space-based drama, and got to know Dave Scott (Apollo 9 and 15) who was acting as a technical consultant to the project. The idea for the film really arose from conversations between the three of them. Dave felt it was time to get the surviving moon walkers together, and Duncan thought that one way to do this was a ďvirtual reunionĒ in the shape of a documentary feature film. I thought it was a brilliant idea!
Question: What message would you like audiences to take away from the film?
Sington: I think at a time of uncertainty and disillusion, itís important for people all over the world, but especially in America, to be reminded what astonishing things this great country can accomplish when it has the courage and vision to follow its best instincts. Apollo for me represents America at its best: enterprising, innovative, open, confident and generous-hearted. We need that spirit today more than ever, especially to tackle the looming crisis of climate change.
Question: In the 1960s the U.S. and Russia were racing to get a man on the moon. If the Russians had beaten the United States to the punch, what do you think would have happened?
Sington: Thatís a really interesting what-if question! I think it would have had huge repercussions. You have to remember that in 1961 it seemed far from clear that the West would prevail in the Cold War. Marxism still exercised a fatal attraction for many people all over the world, associated as it was with the end of colonialism. It was still plausible to think that centrally-planned economies could deliver the goods. If the Red Flag had flown first on the Sea of Tranquility, I think it would have persuaded a lot of people that Communism really was the future. Conversely, the Russian failure was I think in many ways the first really clear sign that an open democratic society was always going to be stronger technologically than a closed society -- a lesson that many in Russia itself drew from the events of July 1969. I think that itís quite likely that a Russian success in the Moon race would have given the Soviet Union another 20 years of life -- it might still be around today.
Question: Neil Armstrong is known for being a bit of a recluse. I noticed that heís absent from the film, most likely because he doesn't like the spotlight. I was wondering if he knew about the project, and, if so, what were his reactions?
Sington: We have been in contact with Neil Armstrong throughout the project and he has been very encouraging and helpful to us -- but heís been reluctant to see himself on the big screen! I very much respect his desire for privacy and I think that in fact heís made a very wise decision in being sparing in his public appearances. I think his dignified reticence has, as Alan Bean says in the film, helped to preserve the magic of ďone small stepĒ. Heís obviously a huge presence in the film, but the fact that I didnít interview him directly allows the other astronauts to talk about him, and I think they paint a very intimate and warm portrait of him, so that in many ways his personality emerges more strongly perhaps than if he had taken part in the filming. I think he made a very smart decision for us!
Question: When the lunar module was trying to land, an alarm kept going off about its computer being overloaded with too much data. How much danger was Armstrong actually in at the time?
Sington: The general view at the time was that the LEM could not be landed without the computer. A computer failure would have meant an abort and a tricky return to rendezvous with (astronaut) Mike Collins. So the real danger was that they would have had to abandon the landing attempt. Fortunately, the ďguys at MITĒ had designed the tiny (by our standards) computer so that it could cope with the spurious data it was getting from the rendezvous radar. It adapted its behavior to concentrate on what was really vital -- an example of adaptive artificial intelligence which was well ahead of its time!
Question: The film allows the astronauts from the Apollo missions to tell their own stories in their own words. This really hasn't been done before. Why not?
Sington: Donít ask me! It seems such an obvious idea -- but sometimes things arenít done just because they do seem too obvious. Certainly, to me the fact that this film is carried entirely by the astronautsí own words gives it a special quality, and allows them to come across as the witty, charming, down-to-earth individuals they truly are.
(In the Shadow of the Moon screens on April 19 and April 20 at the 2007 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. For tickets, call the festival box office at 416.588.8362 or go to www.hotdocs.ca. )