Today’s Guest: David Sington, director, In the Shadow of the Moon
In the Shadow of the Moon, the new documentary directed by David Sington, captures all the emotion and enthusiasm about space travel that once transfixed the American public and seems strangely absent from today’s world of technology.
I was eight years old when the Eagle landed on the Moon in July 1969. I haven’t been the same since. I anticipated a lifetime ahead of flying around the neighborhood with jet packs, manned missions to Mars, and all kinds of things that, before that July day, were science fiction and after, well, they seemed just around the corner.
Now I’m approaching my 47th birthday, and none of my expectations of a space age came to pass. None. Zero. Zip.
Watching In the Shadow of the Moon, I remembered that lost feeling. It’s a wonderful experience, which is why I looked forward to talking with director David Sington.
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I loved the movie. It really did take me back to a point where I thought anything was possible and that all these things were going to happen. What do you think went wrong?
DAVID SINGTON: Well, I think, if you want to sum it up in one word, I think it might be Vietnam, for a couple of reasons. One was that Vietnam was a huge financial drain on the U.S. government, and I think that when the decisions were being made around about the time of the Eagle landing, actually, in ’69-’70, NASA was making plans for what to do next after the Apollo landings. They drew up plans that would’ve taken American astronauts to Mars, certainly by the early ‘90s if not the late ‘80s. But, I think that those plans partly fell victim to just the issues, of course, which were exacerbated by the Vietnam War.
And the other reason, of course, is that if you can feel a sort of counter-factual, a what-if argument, if America hadn’t got tangled up in Vietnam, if perhaps President Johnson had sort of kept things scaled down rather than escalating, he might very well have gone on to do another term in ’68 to run again. And he was a great supporter of the manned space program in a way that President Nixon really wasn’t. And I think if there had been more money available and if Johnson had been in the White House, I think the plans to go to Mars might well have been laid down. Whether they would’ve been followed through in the ‘70s with the oil shortage and so forth, I’m not quite so sure. But I think Vietnam actually has a lot to do with it.
ANDELMAN: In the film, you have President Kennedy’s challenge to America to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade of the ‘60s, and you have some other films of him that I loved was him at what was then Cape Canaveral.
SINGTON: It was Rice University, out of Houston, in fact.
ANDELMAN: Oh, it was Houston? For some reason, I thought it was Cape Canaveral. How did you kind of walk the line between politics and space in the movie? There’s not a lot of politics, but there was some.
SINGTON: I set out to make a film which was really about the human experience of leaving the earth and going to the moon. These guys had this completely unique experience in human history. They’re the first people to really see where we are in the scheme of things, to really, in a sense, understand what a human being is in some way. So my aim was to focus on that. The film then also, as it started to come together, all these things changed for us so it became about what you were talking about earlier, how that experience was shared all around the world. So it sort of became a film about America and partly about America in the world and how America is seen by the rest of the world. Inevitably, it starts to pick up some contemporary echoes actually, and it sort of became a movie that seems, somehow, strangely timely even though it’s, in some sense, a fairly historical story. It’s not much about now explicitly in there, but I think there’s implicitly something about now. And in a way, it became a movie about America, but I don’t think it’s a political movie. It’s not, in any sense, by design left or right. It’s really about what makes America great, what’s wonderful about America and, as it were, what America could be, should be, sometimes is, sometimes isn’t, its aspiration as a nation to represent the best of humanity and to represent the future of humanity.
ANDELMAN: David, Americans always seem to think of the moon pursuit to be distinctly theirs, something of which they can claim ownership. I think one of the Apollo 8 astronauts says in the movie, “It was a time when we made bold moves.” And I wondered, not being American, how you viewed the space program and all of this as a British citizen.
SINGTON: I think that because I’m not American, I saw in Apollo something about America, not just something that America did but also something that expresses what America is, certainly what America is when it’s at its best. And I think that sort of had its influence in the way that we do the music. The music is a very sort of American feel to it. It’s quite deliberate. I’m saying, in a sense, that the continuity between, it’s not a terribly reasonable observation perhaps, but there is a continuity between the pioneering spirit of the American settlers and what was happening with Apollo. It’s interesting that the astronauts are all kind of small town American boys. They’re all from that kind of stock. And so in a way, that forms a sort of nostalgic hymn of praise to America. I think there’s something very generous about Apollo. It was an American enterprise. It was spurred by competition with the Soviet Union and all those things. But in the end, it was, I think, a step forward in the development of human understanding of who we are and where we are. That was a gift from this country to the rest of the world. And in a way, the film’s almost a sort of, I almost think of it as a thank-you note. I think America did something wonderful with Apollo, and I think Americans should be proud of it. I think it’s also quite interesting to see the way that in Britain, for example, the people are saying, “It’s great to see a film which makes us feel good about America.” It’s not just here.
ANDELMAN: Let me ask you from that same British perspective, how do you view the Russian — at the time the Soviet — space program? Does it have a different feel to it than the American?
SINGTON: Definitely. Yeah, I remember, I’m just about the same age as you are, and I remember it as a small boy, and I guess I was taken up with the rocketry and the adventure of it, but my political awareness was just beginning. I was just beginning to understand the way the world works, and I remember being very struck by the difference between the Americans and the Russians. When the Russians sent something up into space, they announced it when it was safely up there and achieved something extraordinary, whereas the Americans invited you to the launch. As (one of the astronauts) says, “It’s just rather worrisome for the astronauts because if I make a mistake, it’s gonna be immediately apparent to 3 billion people.” And it was just obvious that there was something different about the two, which had nothing to do with the technology but to do with the attitude toward openness. The NASA program was a civilian program. That the plans were not state secrets. You could go and look at the plans for certain flights whereas the Russian rockets were all top-secret. I thought that was a very telling distinction.
ANDELMAN: The open versus closed society.
SINGTON: Exactly, and I think if you think back to 1961 when Kennedy makes his speech to Congress saying, “We cannot leave space travel to the Russians, we must do it.” This represents, in some sense, the direction humanity’s going to go in, and we must take the lead in that. I don’t think it was obvious to people then, necessarily, what was going to happen with the Cold War, which wasn’t just a struggle for, if you like, geo-political supremacy. It wasn’t just about whose tanks are parked where. It was about which system represents the future of mankind. And there were lots of reasons for thinking, perhaps, that the planned collectivist societies of the East might have an advantage over what was called the wasteful competition of the West. Why have 18 brands of toothpaste when one will do? Wouldn’t it be much better to just have one and put that money in something else? A lot of people were so persuaded by those kinds of arguments. But I think that the way in which the space program developed really started to show that open, democratic societies, when they decide to do things, when they come to a collective decision about what they want to do, that an open and dynamic society actually is able to out-compete these sort of planned economies. And I think that when Neil Armstrong took a step on the moon, that was a big nail in the coffin of the Communist system.
ANDELMAN: One of the attractions, I think, of your film is previously unseen NASA footage, and I wondered if you had a favorite sequence or shot from that.
SINGTON: Well, there is some astonishing, there’s lots of wonderful stuff, but I remember, I’m sure it was the same for you, but there were two things in the late ‘60s, that I remember as a kid. One was the Apollo flight and the other was going to see 2001 by Stanley Kubrick. It had a huge impact on me, and I think it was the thing that started my thinking and becoming interested in film. But we have a sort of 2001-type film, more than one actually, but there’s one shot in particular which is a shot of the final stage set by firing which is the stage which took them up into earth orbit and then took them out of earth orbit on the way to the moon, and there’s an extraordinary shot from earth with an automatic camera mounted in the housing. This rocket fires and it’s leaving, it’s going off into space, and then the housing slowly rotates, and then you see earth coming into the shot, and then the camera ejects and starts its descent. This is the beginning of its descent back to the earth. And to my mind, this is the best shot in history, because it looks absolutely beautiful. It’s stunning in the way it looks. It represents the most astonishing thing. It represents human beings leaving the planet Earth for the very first time in our history. I think it’s probably the most expensive shot ever you could see if you think about what goes into it. So that’s my vote for best shot in the history of cinema.
ANDELMAN: I think that shot is in the trailer, too, isn’t it for people who haven’t seen the film yet.
SINGTON: Yeah. It’s a little bit in the trailer, yeah.
ANDELMAN: Were you surprised at how poor the film quality was from Apollo 11 compared to what there was later? I mean, it’s not like better equipment wasn’t available by 1969.
SINGTON: The TV footage is very poor quality, but some of the film footage is fine. Our shots of Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon are not the ones that we are used to seeing, which is the TV downlink which is very, very fuzzy, but it’s a shot on film from inside the LEM, and you can see the reflection of Buzz Aldrin, the reflection in the window of Neil Armstrong taking that first step, so there is some pretty decent 16mm film footage, but there isn’t very much of it. There is a very small quantity. It’s interesting how the TV footage, though, improves between Apollo 11 and Apollo 17. By the time you get to Apollo 17, the color pictures coming back from the moon are getting reasonable quality, though they’re never as good as the actual film footage shot on the moon, which we sort of show quite a lot of that, which is absolutely stunning because it’s so clear.
ANDELMAN: I think the sequence that I liked in addition to the one you mentioned of the breakaway is the lunar rover on the moon. Again, it just made me think, my God, why did we give up on this so easily.
SINGTON: I know. It’s fantastic stuff, and it’s terribly exciting to see it.
ANDELMAN: The other exciting thing in the film is the new footage that you shot with so many of the Apollo astronauts. As the director, how do you balance how much you’re going to use of each to get that balance just right? And I must say that based on my, I saw the film, and I’ve been reading the reviews. The reviews have been spectacular, so you obviously got the right balance.
SINGTON: Yes. Well, I think it’s one of those things. You just try it out in the cutting room. The big challenge with a film like this is editing, because we started with 60 hours of interviews with the astronauts plus a similar amount of archive footage that we already selected from thousands of hours, so you are starting with hundreds of hours of material. How do you pull that down to 90 minutes? And so what we did was we started by selecting some of the very best shots, and also some of the very best pieces, parts of the interviews, some of the nice, interesting, funny, surprising, moving parts of the interviews. And then you just try to organize that material so it starts to make sense and then bring in more material to sort of just keep the story going. There’s no great rule, you just start with more of the astronauts talking and relatively little archive. As the story comes together, then one’s able to put in more and more of the archive and start to put the astronauts’ voices as it were behind the archive, what we call voiceover. But I always wanted it to be absolutely clear, this is a film as if it were told by the astronauts. There’s no linking narration. It’s all the astronauts’ own words and words spoken at the time from the archive. It’s just a feeling thing. We want to see Mike Collins’ face at this moment, because his face is telling you something as well as what his voice is telling you. I think that was our criteria for when we look at these guys. It’s when you can tell something is going on behind their eyes. You can see that they’re there. You can see that they’re upset about something or they’re remembering something with joy, and all those emotions are written on their faces, and that’s really the justification for looking at the astronaut’s face rather than looking at the archive.
ANDELMAN: Would it be a safe guess that the DVD for this movie will be pretty spectacular?
SINGTON: I hope so, yeah! I’m just working on it now. We’ll certainly have a lot of, there’s a lot of really interesting stuff that just didn’t make it into the final movie. There is very nice archive material that’s really interesting but also some wonderful poignant and interesting scenes that didn’t make it into the movie that will be on the DVD.
ANDELMAN: I don’t know if this is a particularly American expression, but we often talk about the “800 lb. gorilla in the room,” and I wondered, I mean, the 800 lb. gorilla not in your film is Neil Armstrong, and I suspect that wasn’t for lack of trying.
SINGTON: No, it wasn’t, and we actually had a very interesting email correspondence with Neil about why he, as it were, really liked the film project and wanted to help us but didn’t want to talk about his experiences on the moon, which was the thing that we wanted to talk to him about as much as anything else.
You know, of course, he’s in the film. He’s a very strong presence, and in the end, I rather like the way that he is there but not there so that the other astronauts talk about him and you see him as he was then, and I think you get a very intimate portrait of what the guy’s like from his close colleagues, but he remains young, and I actually quite like that in the film. The reason he doesn’t talk about this is very interesting. If you look at the patches of the different missions, which are designed by the crews themselves; each mission had a mission patch. The Apollo 11 mission patch is the only mission patch that doesn’t have the names of the crew on it. It has “for all mankind.” I think that Neil takes that notion that they were merely representatives, merely messengers, they weren’t the message, and as he says in the film, “We, the crew of Apollo 11, are privileged to represent the United States in this venture, and one small step for man,” not one small step for me. And in the film, when Neil steps on the moon, the film becomes about how everybody around the world shares the moment, and I think that he takes that very seriously. “I’m just the messenger. Don’t worry about me. It’s what the message was, what we did that’s important. Don’t worry about whether my nose was itching or not.” We talked to the other astronauts about bodily functions on the moon, you know, but …
ANDELMAN: Yes, you did. You certainly did. Buzz Aldrin, I believe.
ANDELMAN: That was great. I do have to say that the footage that you do have of Armstrong’s parents was wonderful and so early in his career. I don’t want to give away what it is exactly, but it wasn’t from the day before he landed on the moon, it was from when he joined the program. It was very prescient. Finally, let me ask you this: this comes back to I think where we started. Politically speaking, do you believe that a movie can affect public policy, and would you like your film to impact America’s approach to future space exploration?
SINGTON: It’s a movie. It’s one thing among many things that we see, and I think… The media has a big effect on how people see the world through television, through movies, through newspapers, through books, all these things, so cumulatively, I think that the media has a huge impact on what happens. It’s idle to pretend that we are merely spectators and recorders of the world. I think we’re actually players in the world, and I get rather impatient with some people who want to deny the power of the media. When you make a film and lots of people are going to see it, what a big responsibility in all sorts of ways, to be truthful. There are a lot of films which exploit things like violence in a way which I think is quite irresponsible. I think lots of films have an effect. I don’t think one film can necessarily change the direction of public policy very easily.
What I would like American audiences particularly to come out of this film with is a sense of optimism about the future. I think what the film shows is what America can do when it really wants to, when it really needs to, and I think that’s a very encouraging thing to think, what we face everybody faces, lots of different, difficult problems, problems in politics and war and also in the environment and in all sorts of ways in society, and I think that what this film shows is that when a country like America that’s self-confident and is democratic and open, when it decides it really wants to do something, it can really move mountains. It was only eight years, from 1961, Kennedy, to Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon. That’s an incredibly short period of time, and an enormous amount was achieved, and I think that pessimism and cynicism are always the enemies of anything good happening. In order to make something, let’s make a better world, you have to believe that you can actually do it, and I think that’s the kind of general — not exactly a political message — but social message I hope that people take from the film.