Think back -- all you former hippies -- to what you were doing in '69 when you heard
that NASA had put a man on the moon: Walter Cronkite mediating Neil Armstrong's "giant
leap for mankind" -- live! from the moon! -- on your living room TV, Houston control
center's rows and rows of crew-cutted, horn-rimmed nerds with headsets riveted to
their screens, the rhythmic beep of the monitoring equipment. Many of us of a certain
age, filmmaker Al Reinert included, were too otherwise occupied with the zeitgeist-in-the-streets
to take more than cursory note of NASA's moon shots. Does anyone remember that there
were nine of them in four years? At the time, the space program was dissed as expensive,
irrelevant, cosmic navel-gazing. A transparent diversionary tactic of the military-industrial
complex. But have you ever seen the planet Earth as a thumb-sized blue marble suspended
in pitch blackness -- from the far side of the moon?
Neither had Reinert, until he got to rummaging through NASA's six million feet
of archival footage while researching a story for Texas Monthly about the
Apollo astronauts -- 10 years after -- in 1979. "I was amazed that no one had
made a movie out of this stuff," he recalls. "Television was the worst
way to see the moon; the more you shrink what was the biggest location shoot in cinema
history, the more it looked phony. It just had to be seen on the big screen."
For All Mankind, the documentary that Reinert released in 1989, to across-the-board
acclaim including that year's top honors at Sundance, gives us a chance to revisit
the Apollo voyages -- now 30 years hence -- with fresh, apolitical eyes. The film will
show at the Alamo Drafthouse on January 13 as part of the Texas Documentary Tour,
with Reinert on hand.
The doc that Reinert thought would be a piece of cake to make -- "I figured
that NASA had already done everything that was expensive: They'd hired the cast,
built the props, and filmed it" -- turned out to be a 10-year classic independent
film nightmare. Beyond the financing, which came in outlandish fits and starts, there
was the small task, once he'd screened the existing footage, of enlarging the 16mm
film he had selected, which had been shot on special outerspace film that by law
could not be removed from the Johnson Space Center premises. It took a year and a
half to print 80 minutes of film, using a special optical printer moved onsite and
painstakingly enlarging the film, frame by frame. "There isn't a movie in history
with an editing ratio approaching ours: editing a short film from thousands of hours
of footage, winnowing and organizing and trying to tell a story with all that silent
film," the filmmaker recalls.
Reinert decided at the outset that the best use of the footage from all the flights
was to collapse it into one composite trip. So the film intercuts scenes from the
different flights without identifying or differentiating the astronauts. "I
thought that was the way to do it," explains Reinert. "As the years go
by, all those flights blur together, the players, too -- they're all white guys in
space suits -- you can't tell one from the other. In the long view of history, going
to the moon is going to the moon; no one's going to differentiate between the different
flights. I was a little worried about the astronauts' reactions but, as it turned
out, they all agreed that that was the way to go."
Reinforcing this notion of the fuzzy overlay of memory on reality, Reinert further
messes with the traditional documentary form by scrambling the footage with the sound,
splicing real-time sound and voiceover commentary from his later interviews with
the astronauts onto the composite footage. "Every sound in the film was basically
a choice and not just the music we commissioned from Brian Eno," explains Reinert.
"We were using the film NASA had shot but very little of the videotape they
shot. We took sound bites from Apollo 12 and paired them with footage from 15 because
we thought it was a nice fit. But we just made it up, those sounds never happened
in real life. There's less than four minutes of actual sync sound in the movie."
So, we might be watching Neil Armstrong disembark from the lunar spaceship while
listening to another unidentified astronaut recount a dream he had while spending
the night on the moon. In fact, the genius of the film is its home-movie feel -- the
human stuff -- that we get from listening to the astronauts recollect the indescribable
experience we're watching on the screen. Who, for instance, would have guessed that
an astronaut getting suited up hours before he would be blasted into the unknown
would think of himself as "in his work clothes, ready to go to work"? Or,
as another walked the plank, minutes before being strapped in for a trip as far away
from family and home as one could go, he would admit to feeling just a small part
of a mission, the whole of which he really didn't understand?
For All Mankind was released on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo missions.
Three years later, Reinert's friend, and former Texas Monthly editor, Bill
Broyles, heard that Ron Howard had optioned the film rights to astronaut Jim Lovell's
as-yet-unwritten memoir of the Apollo 13 mission. "Broyles called to ask whether
I knew anything about Apollo 13," Reinert recalls with a laugh. The two former
colleagues collaborated on the script for that feature film. That made three moon
shot stories. "Part of the reason I had to move out to L.A.," jokes Reinert,
"was to prove to people that I can write about subjects other than astronauts."
His next project, he says, is about country-and-western music.
Austin Chronicle: Telling the documentary story of something that happened
20 years ago, with someone else's footage, must have presented some challenges. Did
you ever wish that you had been along to shoot it as you'd seen fit? That you'd had
Al Reinert: Well, always -- but I probably wouldn't have had any say about
it anyway. Actually, it would have been worse if I had been making the film at the
time it took place because everyone would have been so intent on the boring stuff.
The astronauts were very boring when they were in the middle of it because they were
totally focused on the technical details that were keeping them alive. It wasn't
until 10 years later that they'd forgotten all the technical details and remembered
the stuff that was interesting. At the time it's happening, nobody has any perspective
-- it's current events. You need time to get perspective; this film couldn't have
been made 25 years ago, they had to percolate, digest the experience. Otherwise,
it would have been a massively technical, rather than a human, story.
AC: A lot has been made about the effects a walk on the moon has on a life
and the odd directions some of these Apollo fellows took after returning to earth
-- Alan Bean becoming a moonscape painter, Edgar Mitchell founding an institute for
ESP research, Charles Duke, a born-again Christian. What struck you about these astronauts
when you interviewed them 10 years after?
AR: It was the ordinary human stuff that surprised me, how the trips really
changed these guys' lives, opened up their minds. They say that travel is broadening
but there's no travel on earth to compare with what those 24 guys did. Something
about being able to cover up the planet Earth with your thumb puts life into perspective
for you. In some respects it's a very religious experience and many of them had very
emotional, spiritual, and religious awakenings.
Something that I found particularly endearing was that each astronaut was allowed
to bring a tape of their favorite tunes on the mission. I thought that was cool and
went to great lengths to find out what music each one took and then, while I was
interviewing them, I'd play that tape. They would completely space out and the music
would trigger some powerful memories -- it was a way to get into these guys' heads
that was totally emotional. My goal was to get to know them really well and get each
one to relax enough to talk about what it was really like instead of all the tech
stuff. That happened with about half of them, probably having most to do with who
I was able to spend the most time with, that being those in Texas who were the most
accessible. Remember, I was just a poor, broke independent filmmaker.
AC: Is there a stereotypical astronaut, a certain macho type that gravitates
to this kind of work?
AR: Not any more macho than your basic United Airlines pilot -- they're
just pilots, professional fighter and test pilots. They don't consider what they
do to be all that macho. It wasn't until they all got famous that they got carried
away -- like The Right Stuff astronauts. Anyway, by the time I caught up with
them, they were retired astronauts, they'd become who they felt like being instead
of who they were supposed to be.
AC: There's that one "decisive moment" shot, for me at least,
when the lunar module makes it to its ultimate destination, it lands on the moon
and the engine shuts off, just like a car pulling into a garage. Of course, unlike
the liftoff with the NASA support crew hovering everywhere, out there, all they have
is their faith that the technology will work like it's supposed to. One of the astronauts
recalls wondering at that moment how they were ever going to get that spaceship started
up again to take them back home. Did any of these guys admit to being afraid?
AR: I think I'd call it apprehension, not real fear. These guys were trained
professionals. They were cautious and apprehensive but never shaking in their boots,
paralyzed with fear. Otherwise, they would have been in another line of work. It
was tougher on their families, that's where the real fear was.
AC: Having told a moon shot story in three different forms -- magazine story,
documentary, and feature film -- what do you think For All Mankind does the best?
AR: Going to the moon was a spiritual quest and adventure and it's very
hard to capture that on any kind of film. You have to be subtle and indirect when
dealing with spiritual subjects, you can't nail them on the head. You can't name
many films that have successfully captured spiritual subjects. I was trying to communicate
a spiritual vibe to what I considered a spiritual story. So the parts that I'm most
pleased with were the long visual scenes paired with Eno's music, when they first
get to the moon and go around it. I thought the music was brilliant, it fit the pictures
perfectly and evoked the spiritual quality of the journey. I don't think there's
another documentary about going into space that does that.
--Anne S. Lewis
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