Into the Capsule
Cold War space thriller gets Texas premiere
By Richard Whittaker,
1:15PM, Tue. Sep. 20, 2016
The space race was Russia versus the U.S.A., right? Wrong. For a brief period, there was a third runner: Great Britain. Because that era was shrouded in secrecy and Cold War paranoia, much of its involvement has been hidden. Now speculative history Capsule tells a "what if?" story of the UK in orbit.
The film, which receives its Texas premiere on Sept. 21 as part of Other Worlds Austin’s year-round programming, enters the cramped confines of the first manned space mission. Although, in this version, it’s not Yuri Gagarin looking down on Earth from Vostok 1. In this alternate history, it’s Royal Air Force test pilot Guy Taylor (Edmund Kingsley) trapped in the ailing Hermes, pinwheeling across the heavens and leaking oxygen. His only hope is help from Earth via radio, but the divided nations across the globe have their own schemes for him.
Producer Paul Forrest wrote the original treatment, which writer/director Andrew Martin then turned into a full script. Martin had a personal interest in the topic, inherited from his father. He said, “My dad was an engineer back in the Seventies and Eighties, and had a keen interest in aircraft. From an early age, I had always known about the aero industry, so I had a rudimentary background that helped.”
However, much of Britain’s involvement in the space race was hidden under the Thirty Year Rule – the blanket period under which secure government documents are kept from the public. When it came to researching the actual space program, Martin said, “Not much was out there.” However, there are new resources, such as the Cold War museum at the RAF’s base at Cosford in the South of England. Martin said, “Myself, Edmund, and our historical consultant Sam Wiszniewski went on a tour to get a feel for the aircraft and technology of the day, to get a grounding in what was happening back in '59. The team at Cosford really helped us to fill in some gaps about the look and feel and the extent to which some kit would have looked rudimentary. “
One part of the research was picking the era. It had to be in the narrow window between the launch of Sputnik, the first ever artificial satellite, and Gagarin’s orbit, but there was a specific moment that stood out to Martin and Forrest. In late 1959, Britain was testing its first intercontinental ballistic missile capable of space flight: the Black Knight. Martin said, “Engine tests were happening on the Isle of Wight, and test rocket launches of a craft capable of taking a capsule into space were being launched from Woomera in Australia.”
Little components suddenly worked themselves into the script. For example, one of the five scheduled flights in 1959, Rocket Number 7, disappeared from its scheduled launch – coincidentally, around the same time that the U.S. launched Little Joe II with simian pioneer/test subject Sam the Monkey on board, “so that’s when all the pieces came together with the year.”
That point in time also placed the story deep in the freeze of the Cold War, and much of the story involves Taylor, trapped and dying, trying to negotiate help from untrusting Americans and paranoid Russians, all wondering why a British man is calling from space. Martin gives credit to Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy (“A bit of cloak and dagger”) for the paranoia, and The Hunt for Red October for claustrophobia. “A space capsule is a submarine in space,” he said, “so you can’t beat Red October for Cold War submarine thrillers (maybe apart from Sean Connery’s Russian accent). The soundscape involved in the film was immersive, so that’s something we wanted to do in Capsule. The creaks and groans of the hull were important and were written into the script from day one."
While he and the team have received plaudits from engineering and military historians for creating a convincing alternate history, for Martin the emphasis is on the story of one man facing a cold, lonely death. He said, “You have to strip away at where blockbuster films would take it with an infinite budget, and focus on the core story. It is Guy Taylor in a British capsule. You ask a lot of questions. Who is he, who does he talk to up there, why, and what are their motives? You only have a voice on the other end of the radio, or the capsule itself for Guy to interact with.”
Other Worlds Austin presents the Texas premiere of Capsule with a Skype Q&A with writer/director Andrew Martin and producer Paul Forrest, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 9pm, at Flix Brewhouse, 2200 S. I-35, Round Rock. Tickets at www.flixbrewhouse.com.
Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival runs Dec. 1-4. Visit www.otherworldsaustin.com for more info.