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 different footage?
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.
For All Mankind will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, January 13 at the Alamo Drafthouse, at 7 & 9:30pm; tickets for both shows go on sale at 6pm. Admission is $5 for the general public; $3.50 for Austin Film Society members and students. Al Reinert will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session after each screening. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW Film.