Shot on Location

'For All Mankind' filmmaker Al Reinert goes walking on the moon one more time

Apollo 13 crewmembers train in January 1970.
Apollo 13 crewmembers train in January 1970.

Once upon a time, men walked on the moon. As the years of the Apollo space program recede further into history, that fact seems more like the stuff of fairy tales, but Al Reinert has the film to prove it. The former reporter for the Houston Chronicle and Texas Monthly was allowed into the vaults of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to pore over hundreds of hours of footage taken by American astronauts in the Sixties and Seventies, and from that he created For All Mankind, a film that took the space program out of the box – that 19-inch TV on which most Americans watched the NASA missions – and gave many people their first look at the moon as the astronauts saw it: life-sized and in vivid detail. Reinert's documentary marks its 20th anniversary this year with a new high-definition print developed by the Criterion Collection for release on Blu-ray. (On seeing the new transfer, Reinert, a self-described "low tech guy" – "I've still got a dial-up modem," he admits – was "astonished at the jump in clarity and color and brightness.") Lucky Austinites will get to see this print on the big screen at the Paramount Theatre on March 21 as part of South by Southwest.

Austin Chronicle: When did you get the idea for the film?

Al Reinert: I had written stories about NASA and had met a couple of the old Apollo astronauts. And by this time it was eight years or nine years since they'd been to the moon, and they were more relaxed about it. I mean, they had the kind of perspective that we all have on important points in our life that we don't get until years later. When they were going to the moon, they were obsessed with what they had to do; it was such a complicated mission that it was all ticky-tock. But that's not the way they remembered it years later, and I knew they had these great stories to tell, and that's when I discovered the film [at NASA]. I had the idea early on that this would make a great film, but I was not a film person. I had no idea how difficult it would be.

AC: How resistant was NASA to letting you see this footage originally?

AR: They weren't resistant. They were very welcoming. NASA was kind of in the doldrums. It was after the end of Apollo and before the space shuttle really got rolling, and they weren't that busy. I was the first person who showed up and said, "I want to look at everything." I didn't have a clue what I was getting myself into. I mean, we're talking hundreds of hours of raw footage. I would drive down to NASA, and they didn't have the kind of security they have now. I would just drive right through the main gate up to the front door and check in and just look at film for hours and hours. You couldn't do that now. A lot of it was just luck.

I kept a little catalog of the coolest shots, everything that I thought was terrific. We had only seen little dribs and drabs of it on television on this tiny little screen, when they were out there on the biggest set in the history of cinema. The goal was to blow [the 16-millimeter originals] up to 35-millimeters, which had never been done. And I, being a journalist, didn't have a clue what a challenge we were setting for ourselves. But we did it. We had to jump through all these hoops to get NASA's permission to do that. It's the first and last time they've ever done it, you know, actually take the original magazines out of the film vault.

AC: What footage really took your breath away?

AR: Once they got to the moon, I would look at that stuff, and I found it hypnotic. Which is why I love the Brian Eno music with it. Eno's music – at least the music that he did for this – is very hypnotic itself, and the combination .... We have single shots that run two or three minutes, that nobody else would ever do, but they're beautiful shots, and when you put them with the music, well, I don't mind watching it that long. Greg Curtis, the old Texas Monthly editor, he's the one that told me about Eno. I had an editing table in my living room, and I'd get up in the middle of the night and look at footage and play records to try and find the perfect music to play with the footage. And Greg Curtis turned me on to Eno, and it was an instant fit in my head.

AC: The film is 20 years old, and it came 20 years after the first moon landing. Looking at it today, the whole Apollo program looks more improbable than ever – that these people pulled all that off with that level of technology.

AR: The whole thing is surreal, in a way that we didn't appreciate at the time. I remember watching that first landing on television, and I thought it was pretty spectacular, but I didn't really have an appreciation for it. It was too bizarre to really sink in. I think [that's true for] all of us. We appreciate it more in retrospect than we did at the time it was happening.

Going to the moon was an incredibly romantic adventure, and that's missing from American life these days. Obama's a pretty amazing character, but I'm not sure he could mobilize the country to do something that audacious, even if he wanted to. And that's sad. One of the great things to me when we took the film around – 'cause I spent a year on the film-festival circuit – was to see the way kids light up about it. Everybody needs that in their life, that kind of big, collective, communal adventure, and there just haven't been many lately.

AC: Are the kids who see it able to wrap their heads around the idea that we once had guys walking around on the moon?

AR: Yeah, they are, because the movie brings it home. One thing I'm really looking forward to at South by Southwest is this is all going to be new material for this audience in a way. We always had great discussions afterward, because it would pump them up, and more than the screening itself, I'm looking forward to the dialogue we're going to have afterward.

AC: If you were starting this project today, knowing what you know, how would you approach the subject differently? Or would you?

AR: I don't know if I would or not. I'd like to think I would make the same movie over again. I'd seen all the documentaries that had been made before it, and they were all information-driven, and that didn't satisfy me. What I wanted to do was make a film that communicated what it felt like to go to the moon. Really put you in the shoes of the astronauts. That's still the kind of movie that I would want to watch.

For All Mankind

Special Screenings, HD Premiere

Saturday, March 21, 1:30pm, Paramount

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For All Mankind, Al Reinert

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