Apollo 11 is a recently released space documentary, utilizing never-before-seen 70mm footage and audio to detail the now famous 1969 moon landing. 50 years on, and with a UK release on the 28th June, I sat down with Apollo 11’s chief archival producer Stephen Slater, to discuss the film. Stephen originally began his career as a director, before moving into more specialist archival work in documentaries such as Hillsborough (2014) and George Best: All By Himself (2016). Shifting towards a focus on recapturing the intricate moments of man’s first lunar exploration, Stephen explains how Apollo 11 rocketed from a shared small passion project, to a feature length cinematic experience.
This year of course marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission- was there always an aim to get the film done by now, or has the project been in the making for a while?
Stephen Slater: “It started actually with a small crew of us doing a short 30-minute film about Apollo 17, which followed the last visit to the moon in 1972. We partnered with CNN films and Statement Pictures, a company I have been working with, based in New York. Like Apollo 11, that short only used archival footage of the astronauts, with no discernible narration. I had endeavoured to manually lip sync the available audio onto the footage of Mission Control staff in order to make the experience look and feel authentic. It took hours to pour through and edit. After I finished, the end result encouraged me to reach out to director Todd Miller in early 2017. I told him that I had more footage covering Apollo 11, and asked whether he wanted to do something for the upcoming anniversary.”
At what point did you realise the project was developing into a full-length feature?
SS: “Probably about five months in- during research, we come across this incredible cache of 70 mm film in the US National Archives. It gave us a lot more footage of the actual launch. It allowed us to transition from a relatively small film that may have had a home online or as a CNN broadcast, to a feature length documentary with a worldwide IMAX release.”
How were you able to discover the footage- was it a stroke of good fortune?
SS: “It fell of a lorry *laughs*. No, no, essentially, when you are shooting on film, you are always trying to track back to the source and find those original reels- they are often referred to as negatives. The same principle applied with our research- we wanted to source the best, most original material. We knew that was in the Maryland National Archives, which is the end repository of any film underwritten by the US government. When we got there, the archivist said, “by the way, there are 165 reels of 70mm film, if you are interested”. It turned out about a third had “Apollo 11” on them.”
One of the strengths of the film remains how unadulterated the footage is- there is no traditional narration or talking heads. Was that always the approach that the creative team strived for?
SS: Definitely. I mean there is an element of narration in one sense; there was a man who was sat next to the flight director at Mission Control, called the Public Affairs Officer. He would come on the air when this feed went out to the world, with the astronauts voices heard to the world- he would cut in to say, “This is Apollo Control at 304 hours and Neil Armstrong is entering the capsule”. But we wanted the focus to always be on the footage itself.”
You were responsible for the sound sync of the 16mm footage, which particularly focuses on the Mission Control footage of the tech staff. Did you find that process to be a labour of love or where there times it proved tedious?
SS: “To coin a phrase from Blackadder, it was like trying to find a small bit of hay in a massive stack of needles. It was very time consuming. But it was all about balancing authenticity with clarity. I will give you a good example. When the astronauts are on the (moon)’s surface, Richard Nixon was patched through to the crew. His voice had effectively gone up to the moon and back again, so it was badly garbled. Originally, we intended to use that audio- but there were cleaner recordings of him, so my suggestion was to go with them. Ultimately, that worked out better, but the counterargument was of course that it was not as “spacey” and authentic. So, these were the kind of the discussions we had to have.”
Editing wise, Apollo 11 seems to have strong invocations of 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Scorsese’s Woodstock- how much were they a source of inspiration?
SS: “The answer is (Stanley) Kubrick filmed the whole thing, he faked the moon landing * laughs*, – we were always on the lookout for him at the back of shots. No, it was eerie that it is so similar to something filmed a year earlier by Kubrick. I think a lot of it was because the equipment used, such as the 70mm cameras, was the same. Woodstock, I know, was a definite influence for our director- it allowed the film to develop strong cinema verité style”
What would you say is your favourite movie on space exploration?
SS: “I have been doing other interviews recently where a lot of people have been asking me what got interested me into space exploration, and a big part of it was seeing Apollo 13 at the cinema when I was 8 years old- that really got me hooked. I also really enjoy Shadow of the Moon (2007), which documents astronauts’ stories, including 9 of which who visited the moon. It intersperses their memories really nicely with footage- great music too! I would definitely put that up there with some of the best.”
To listen to the full interview, go to Oxide Film