‘Belushi’ Documentary is an Intimate Portrait of a Hilarious ‘SNL’ Icon

One of the opening scenes of the documentary “Belushi” features a packed audience at the Hollywood Bowl, waiting for the Blues Brothers to make their grand entrance. There was something about the size of this crowd which blew me away, and their excitement at seeing John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd come onto the stage as Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues was very palpable. When they do finally appear, it’s an exhilarating moment as Belushi in particular looks as though he was on top of the world, and back in 1978 he certainly was. But then we hear a voiceover from the late Harold Ramis who says about Belushi, “Knowing his appetites, I don’t think he’ll survive this.” As we all know, he didn’t.

Like another documentary about another “Saturday Night Live” star who left us way too soon, “Love, Gilda,” “Belushi” is at a disadvantage as we all know what happened to this beloved comedy icon and of how he died of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles on March 5, 1982. Several books have been written and several movies were made which detailed his life and death, and Aykroyd once said how many of them were written by “unfeeling, unqualified personnel.” But with “Belushi,” writer and director R.J. Cutler takes the time to look at him not so much as a comedy icon, but as a man who had his passions and loves which deserve more of our attention than his excesses ever did.

Among the most interesting parts of “Belushi” come at the beginning as animation is used to illustrate his life as a young boy in the west side of Chicago. It was a kick to learn how he would sometimes go to homes of his neighbors to tell stories or do performances. Seriously, John was the kind of person William Shakespeare wrote about, and this is summed up perfectly in his line of “all the world’s a stage.”

To learn of John’s troubled relationship with his father, an Albanian immigrant named Adam Anastos Belushi, was a revelation of sorts as I am tempted to think this played a large role in his development not just as an artist, but as a person as well. Adam expected John to take over the family business which was the Fair Oaks Restaurant, but John was determined to become an actor. There is something about the last meeting between these two which seems to linger throughout the documentary to where I could not help but wonder how deeply this affected John throughout his life. Of course, I have to remember I am not a psychotherapist.

One of the benefits of “Belushi” is it contains interviews which are featured as voiceovers throughout. These interviews were conducted by Tanner Colby for his book “Belushi: A Biography,” and in this documentary we get to hear these interviews for the first time. Whether or not the thoughts of Aykroyd, Lorne Michaels, Carrie Fisher or John Landis surprise you in the slightest, I am thankful we get to hear their most specific thoughts about John as they help to fully describe a man who would have truly done anything to get a laugh from everyone and anyone.

But perhaps the most telling addition to “Belushi” is the participation of John’s widow, Judith Belushi-Pisano who shares, among other things, the letters John wrote to her over the years. In those letters, we see how John was hungry for success, that he did not want to be like his father, and how even he knew he was on a path to self-destruction. The one letter which stood out to me the most was when John confessed to Judith of how he didn’t know how to be comfortable with himself in life. This is a man who yearned to connect with other people, and the one thing he craved, success, kept him from do so.

There was a point where John was in the number one movie in America (“Animal House”), had the number one album in the country (the Blues Brothers’ “Briefcase Full of Blues”), and was starring on the television phenomenon “SNL.” While this may have seemed like a tremendous accomplishment, it is almost treated as though it were a death knell for John as he had nowhere to go but down. Lorne Michaels once said drugs did not kill John, fame did. After watching this documentary, I could not agree more.

Watching “Belushi” quickly reminded of other documentaries about other tremendous talents whose lives were cut far too short. There was Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” which gave Amy Winehouse the eulogy she never would have received from any other filmmaker, and we watched as she walked up to the stage in one scene to accept an award, and the applause from the audience kept getting louder and louder to where any cries for help were forever washed away from our collective consciousness. And then there was also “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” which chronicled the life of the Nirvana front man, and the interview with his mother when she realized just how famous Kurt was going to end up being still haunts me as she quickly realizes he will not be able to handle in a healthy way. Like John Belushi, these are talented artists who the song “Shooting Star” by Bad Company was all about, and their lives were quickly swept up in the tsunami of fame.

Granted, there are some problems with “Belushi” as I was hoping this documentary would go a little deeper in certain areas. When it comes to movies like “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers,” they deserve their own documentaries as their reputations remain very enthralling, but I would have loved to see Cutler examine John’s performance in “Continental Divide” a bit more as this was a movie in which he dared to go in a more serious direction. And yes, there is the issue of Cathy Smith being omitted from here. Cathy gave John the controlled substances which ended his life at the far too young age of 33. I am not saying Cathy deserves to be crucified, but her role in John’s death does deserve some more insight as it may allude to how certain people treat celebrities who are at their most vulnerable.

Regardless, “Belushi” represents the kind of documentary which digs deeper than the average showbiz expose ever does. So many movies on famous people like this one typically just skim the surface and focus on the most controversial moments at the expense of everything else, and this one does not. For that, I am very thankful as I have always been a big fan of John Belushi, and until Cutler’s film, I truly felt I never got to see him as an individual. Regardless of how you feel about him, John Belushi was a human being like the rest of us who craved love and respect, and he should still be with us all these years later.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Robin’s Wish’ Sets The Record Straight About The Late Mr. Williams

As with the deaths of Jim Henson, River Phoenix and Phil Hartman, Robin Williams’ hit me like a punch in the gut and left me speechless for a time. Here is a man whose work I had followed ever since I first saw him in Robert Altman’s “Popeye,” and we have always known his brain to work at 100 miles a minute. He was an extraordinary talent who kept us laughing hard as he managed to improvise routines out of what seemed like thin air. The fact we were now living in a world without him seems unreal even today, and there are times when I think August 11, 2014 should be designated as the day the laughter died.

Among the striking images shown in the first few minutes of “Robin’s Wish,” other than the beautiful vistas of San Francisco and Marin County, are images of newspapers, magazines and tabloid rags which pondered over why the Oscar-winning comedian committed suicide. Was it because he suddenly left a 12-step program where he was dealing with alcoholism? Was he in dire financial straits? Was he upset the show which marked his return to television, “The Crazy Ones,” was cancelled after only one season? Did he really never get over the death of John Belushi? Did all those years of drug and alcohol abuse finally catch up with him? In the wake of his passing there were many questions, and they eventually became rumors which spread like wildfires. As many sought to get to the truth, the rest of us felt so far removed from it.

The documentary “Robin’s Wish” is filmmaker Tylor Norwood’s attempt to set the record straight about what really happened to Robin Williams and why he died. It also serves as a deep examination of disease Lewy Body dementia (LBD) which may sound new, but has actually been around for many, many years. We also get a close and personal look at Robin’s last days before his tragic death, and it proves to be both very sad and yet hopeful all at the same time.

Instead of a full-fledged biography, Norwood looks specifically at Robin’s evolution as an actor and comedian. We see Robin talk about how the brain is “an extraordinary three-and-a-half-pound gland” and that he does not have an act as much as he does a “cesspool of consciousness.” He discusses his time at Julliard in New York where he got heavy duty training as an actor, and of how he left before he could have graduated and moved back to San Francisco to find acting work. When he couldn’t find any, he started doing stand up comedy in which he succeeded in, as one close friend put it, in “demolishing” every single audience he performed in front of. Back then, everyone was in awe of his talents as his mind moved at lightning speed, and this was only the beginning. Like them, we were in awe of what he could do.

Throughout, the documentary moves back and forth from his life to the subject of the LBD which, while it may pale in comparison to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or ALS, can be every bit as debilitating and deadly. UCSF Professor Bruce Miller is shown describing it as a devastating disease which is fast and progressive and a killer. It also increases mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, and paranoia and delusions are also major symptoms. There is no none cure for this disease as of yet, and it usually ends in suicide. But even worse, is often misdiagnosed.

Robin’s widow, Susan Schneider, did not have a name for what killed her husband until she read his autopsy report. Initially, Robin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but this was not the case. Susan says had Robin known what he was suffering from while he was alive, then he would have at least had some peace. As for Professor Miller, he described Robin’s case as being the most devastating case of LBD he had ever seen, and he was amazed the “Good Will Hunting” actor could move or walk at all.

As “Robin’s Wish” goes on, we see how LBD came to affect the actor long before he died, and it is devastating to witness the effect it had on his comedic gifts. Whether it was on the set of “The Crazy One” or the third “Night at the Museum” movie, he started to have trouble memorizing his lines and coming up with stuff to improvise. At one point, he tells someone how he is not himself anymore, and you feel his disassociation around everyone to an infinite degree. To realize you are not who you once were has got to be horrifying.

Learning about this mental disintegration from friends and colleagues such as Rick Overton, David E. Kelley and Shawn Levy helps to shed light on what Robin was going through as LBD was already taking its toll on him. To see someone lose gifts few are ever endowed with is painful, and it also reminded me of the last time he was a presenter at the Oscars. Whereas in the past he would come up with some hilarious thing to say or take aim at Jimmy Swaggart (“Remember, there is no such word as audit in the Bible, okay?”), he simply just listed the nominees and read the winner. Many wondered why he seemed so listless, and now we know.

Schneider deserves a lot of credit for being so open about Robin’s struggles as she still feels the pain of his death from day to day. The love they had for one another was very real, and we see the two of them at their wedding and in many pictures which illustrated just how close they were to one another. She also shares why the two of them had to sleep in separate beds at one point as Robin’s insomnia worsened to where he woke up at early hours and accidentally injured her.

“Robin’s Wish” does make a solid case for how serious a disease LBD is, and after watching the documentary there is no doubt this is what killed him. It makes clear what a wonderful soul he was as he took the time to meet with soldiers who were wounded, children who were sick and others who needed a laugh during a dark time in their lives. It also makes clear of the fact Robin was clean and sober at the time of his death. Drugs and alcohol did not rob us of him.

If there is anything I feel is left out here, it is the thoughts and feelings of others close to Robin such as his children or his ex-wife Marsha Garces whom he was married to for 20 years. Their absence here makes me wonder how they feel about all of this. Perhaps they were not invited to participate or chose not to. Even though this is not meant to be a full out biography of Robin Williams, it feels like some pieces are missing which would have made this portrait more complete.

“Robin’s Wish” is not the easiest documentary or movie to sit through as we know how it ends. The void the famous comedian and actor left in his wake is still deeply felt all these years later, and it is impossible not to feel bad for his closest friends. This is especially the case for the one friend who was informed of Robin’s death over the phone by a reporter who said he died by suicide. This is not the way to inform someone of their friend’s passing.

Nevertheless, as sad as “Robin’s Wish” may seem, it also filled with hope. As debilitating as LBD was for him, he fought it like a warrior even if he did not know exactly what he was fighting. We are also reminded of his perspective on life which he earned through a lot of life experiences and mistakes he learned from. To him, life was always about other people, and he simply wanted to make everyone feel less afraid. Norwood definitely finds the right note to end this documentary on as, while Robin may be gone, he shows we can still carry on his legacy from one generation to the next. No one who knew Robin Williams will ever forget the impact he had on others, and no one ever should.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to find out how you can donate to the Lewy Body Dementia Fund of the American Brain Foundation.

Underseen Movie: The Interrupters – Trying to Stop Violence in America

“The Interrupters” is a truly brilliant documentary which explores violence in America, and of a group of people working desperately to stop it. It covers a period of a year in South Side Chicago, but the events we see could be happening in any other city where violence has long since engulfed its citizens. At its center is the non-profit group CeaseFire (now known today as Cure Violence) which treats violence like an infectious disease, and those employed by it work to stop the violence before it happens. While the description of this documentary sounds bleak, it is full of hope and redemption that most fiction movies can only dream of portraying honestly.

What makes CeaseFire an especially unique group is the workers have been on the wrong side of the law in the past. These are not just citizens wanting to live peacefully, but those who were once as bad as those gang members they are working with and trying to help. They are well-meaning and working to find redemption for their wicked pasts which could easily have destroyed their lives. Among them is Ameena Matthews, whose father, Jeff Fort, was a notorious gang leader. Through finding peace in her Muslim faith and having children, she turned her life around and started helping those who are travelling down the same path she once did.

The most compelling moments in “The Interrupters” involve the workers of CeaseFire themselves. We watch as Ameena struggles desperately to get through to a deeply troubled teenage girl who seems stuck in between going into a life of crime and seriously trying to find a way out of it. Seeing Ameena working with her is understandably exhausting emotionally; we all want the best for this person, but there is only so much that can be done.

Next there’s Cobe Williams who spent much of his years in and out of prison before joining CeaseFire. Cobe manages to get some footing with the toughest of people through his genuinely good nature and disarming sense of humor. Then we have Eddie Bocanegra, who served 14 years in prison for a murder which haunts him to this very day. His attempts in teaching art to children show how sincere he is in his efforts to help them avoid the mistakes he made, some of which can never be undone.

Directing “The Interrupters” is Steven James, the same filmmaker who is responsible for one of the greatest documentaries ever made, “Hoop Dreams.” Not once does Steven try to beat us over the head with statistics showing us how bad things are. We can tell the situation is bleaker than many of us could ever imagine. In capturing the memorials of those slain (most in their teens or early 20’s), we feel the innocence cruelly deprived just by looking at the names listed underneath them.

But perhaps the most powerful scene to be found here comes when a former gang member, now released from prison, visits the barbershop he robbed with friends to apologize for what he did. It is an amazing moment, and one I do not often expect to see (but certainly hope to). You can feel the raw emotions of the employees as they respond to this most unexpected of visits, and if this does not make you believe in the power of redemption, you have a heart made of stone.

“The Interrupters” is a must-see documentary which captures moments that cannot be found elsewhere, let alone in many Hollywood movies which boast about being “based on a true story.” This is real life being shown here, and it is the kind many of us do not see up close. The hope and redemption it captures is completely genuine, and it is a one of a kind cinematic experience in this or any other year. This is a must see!

* * * * out of * * * *

Phil Joanou on How He Came to Direct U2: Rattle and Hum

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place back in 2012.

Filmmaker Phil Joanou was at New Beverly Cinema when the theatre showed two of his films: “Three O’Clock High” and the U2 documentary “Rattle and Hum.” While most of the evening was spent talking about “Three O’Clock High” as it had arrived at its 25th anniversary, Joanou did take some time to talk about how he was hired by U2 to direct their first music documentary (or rockumentary if you will). The story ended up becoming one of the strangest and funniest ones told on this evening.

Joanou was busy doing post-production on “Three O’Clock High” when his agent got him a meeting with U2 on the day before the band had to leave America for Ireland. They had already interviewed a number of directors already, but Joanou said they hit it off to where they asked him, “can you come to Dublin tomorrow?” He said sure, but he had to call the producer of “Three O’Clock High” to explain why he had to leave post-production on a little early. The producer apparently was not too happy about this sudden opportunity, but Joanou got to go anyway.

Once in Dublin, Joanou said U2 interviewed him for five days about directing “Rattle and Hum.” Where the story goes from there is not what you might expect as the band kind of left him hanging.

Phil Joanou: They would take me to a friend’s house and then Bono and Edge would leave and I would have dinner with the husband and wife. After that they took me to a wedding and they left me there as well. I’m there in Northern Ireland and I’m all by myself at an Irish wedding and I’m like, okay great! I don’t know anyone here. I had to figure out how to get home. So, they would do weird things like that to me. They’d drop me off at a bar and leave me. This went on for five days!

After all this craziness, U2 came up to Joanou and said, “alright, you can do the film.” Joanou said that to this day he still does not know what the criteria was for them hiring him, but he described making “Rattle and Hum” as being an “incredible experience.” Looking back, he described the Irish rock band as having taught him so much while being on the road and in the studio with them.

“Rattle and Hum” was greeted with a critical backlash when it came out as critics accused the band of being too grandiose and self-righteous. Watching it today, however, is a different experience as “The Joshua Tree” tour, as it is presented here, feels far more intimate than any tour they have done since. The musical numbers are exhilarating to watch, especially in black and white, and their journey through the American music scene gives us a number of unforgettable moments. But moreover, it was especially great to see it on the big screen for the first time in many years. Concert movies like these really need to be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.

American Teen – The Breakfast Club as a Documentary

“High school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point! Surviving it is the whole point!”

-Christian Slater from “Pump Up the Volume

High school. Like you, I do not miss those years, and you couldn’t pay me enough to go back through all that nonsense, and I see this even though I have credit card debt to pay off. The peer pressure, the rejection, the heartache, the unfulfilled longings and all the pressure which is unloaded on us by our parents when it comes to getting into a good college; I am stunned I survived any and all of it.

Still, I wonder what it is like for kids today. They have all these new advances in technology I never got to play with back then, but has the way we deal with each other in high school changed? Are people nicer now after horrible school shootings like Columbine or Parkland, or have things gotten worse? After you see “American Teen,” I think you will agree life as a teenager and in high school are neither better nor worse. In fact, everything remains the same. There are the cliques and the pressure to get into a prestigious college, and there are those who fit in and those who feel endlessly rejected. It has been more than 20 years since I graduated from high school, and kids still go through the same crap.

“American Teen” is a documentary by Nanette Burstein who previously directed “The Kid Stays in The Picture” and “On the Ropes.” Here, she gives us “The Breakfast Club” as if it were a documentary as she follows the lives of various teenagers as they go through their senior year at a small-town Indiana high school. There is nothing too edgy about this film, and it doesn’t deal much with drugs, sex, or school violence. What she is more interested in is taking the stereotypes of the jock, the nerd, the rebel, and the beautiful to where turns them upside down as she looks closely at the individuals inhabiting those stereotypes.

Burstein has gone on record and said that she considers herself a part of the “John Hughes generation,” and it’s very interesting how she takes the tropes of Hughes’ films and melds them into a movie filled with real people.

Unlike reality shows such as “The Hills” or “The Real World,” I think “American Teen” has a lot more to offer in terms of how teens deal with real problems, and I think it is also good viewing for those who are in high school right now as many of them likely think they are the only ones going through what they are going through. It’s important for them to know they are not alone, and we also need to listen to what they have to say.

Of all the subjects here, the most appealing one is Hannah Bailey, the liberal rebel of the highly conservative town of Warsaw, Indiana where this documentary takes place. She starts off as a free spirit and, deep down, she is the person many of us wanted to be like: free spirited and unconcerned of how others think of her. However, she is forever shattered when her boyfriend whom she was madly in love with, ends up breaking up with her after they have made out. Her emotional devastation is hard to watch as we have all dealt with the harsh pangs of young love. Hannah ends up getting so depressed to where she cannot bring herself to go to school out of shame and embarrassment. With her breakup comes a feeling of worthlessness which can easily engulf a young person and change who they are. From the start to the very end, Hannah is the one you root for the most.

We also have Jake Tusing, the nerd with a face ravaged with acne which cries out endlessly for the nearest dermatologist. Jake is a guy you at times feel sorry for, but you later find yourself cringing when he opens his mouth. A painfully shy kid who still suffers from the emotional scars he suffered in junior high, we see him being very uncomfortable around large groups of people. When a new girl moves into town, he sees this as his opportunity to get a girlfriend, something he hopes to acquire before he graduates. But soon, his defenses go up and he begins to push people away before they have the chance to do the same to him. In retrospect, Jake almost comes across as a real-life Dawn “Wiener-Dog” Wiener from “Welcome to The Dollhouse” as he goes from being likable to unlikable throughout the documentary.

Then there is Colin Clemens (no relation to Roger Clemens), the star of the high school basketball team in a town the sport is like a sacred religion. We see his dad constantly pressuring him to make those shots in the game when he is not doing his Elvis impersonation act for the local senior citizens in town (and who refuse to believe Elvis is dead). This intense pressure comes from the fact Colin’s family does not have enough money to send him to college, and his best hope is to impress the college recruiters so he can get a basketball scholarship. Colin comes across as a good kid whose parental influence leads him to make some crucial and painful mistakes, but he becomes a better person and teammate by this documentary’s end.

Finally, we have the most popular person at the school, and she proves to be a bitch beyond repair when you cross her. She is Megan Krizmanich, the daughter of a prominent local surgeon, the student council vice president and the homecoming queen. She is what many of us would call “little miss perfect” even though she is far from it. Like Regina George from “Mean Girls” in that she is one of the most popular people in high school as well as the one most loathed by the audience. She is under enormous pressure to get accepted into Notre Dame as all her family members have been accepted there. I won’t spoil it if she gets in or not, but when she gets the letter from the school, her expression isn’t so much happiness or sadness as it is sheer relief that the waiting is over.

One of this documentary’s taglines is “which one were you?” Taking that into account, you should be able to see yourself in all of these individuals regardless of what high school stereotype you ended up being trapped in. The pressures, the heartaches, the isolation; we have experienced it all. After watching “American Teen,” you may have felt like you lived through your high school years all over again. The high school pecking order on the social ladder has not changed one iota, and it remains an emotional boiling pot in the life of an adolescent.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

-Kurt Russell from “Escape From LA

I wanted to know everything there was to know about these kids as “American Teen” went on, and I wanted them to succeed in what they wanted to do and to be happy. Happiness can be in such short supply when you are in high school at times. This documentary is filled with animated interludes which serve to illustrate the inner lives of its main characters. With Jake, we see him as the hero of those “Legend of Zelda” games he loves to play, rescuing the princess he longs to have as a girlfriend. With Colin, we see his dream of playing on an NCAA team after graduating from college. Hannah’s animation interlude illustrates her painful post-break up existence as she feels so differently about herself, and of her deep-seated fear of ending up like her manic-depressive mother. Then you have Megan’s moment which you can’t help but laugh at as she sees Notre Dame as this heavenly place where she can meet a diverse crowd of people who are nothing like those she picks on at school.

This is a great documentary to watch with an audience because everyone is bound to have a strong emotional reaction to what is going on throughout. We share in Hannah’s heartbreak and her triumphs as she proves to be the real hero here. We cringe and laugh at the socially awkward Jake as he stumbles through conversations with potential girlfriends. When he talks, you can’t help but put your hands in your face and shake your head in disbelief. With Megan, you feel a hatred and resentment which dissipates when you get to know her better. All the same, she reminds me of the one blonde cheerleader in my Shakespeare class who interrupted the teacher by saying, “THERE IS A RUN IN MY NYLONS!”

All that said, “American Teen” is by no means a perfect documentary. It does feel a bit staged, and it probably was in some cases. Also, part of me wished Burstein went a little deeper with other subjects. We see Hannah’s best friend is a homosexual who is always there for her when her self-esteem plummets, but we never really get to know who he is or of how he deals with living in a very conservative town. I also wanted to see more of the adults and of how they went about raising these young adults. We complain about the way kids act, but a lot of it has to do with the way their parents spoil them rotten. Trust me, this was a big problem in the town I grew up in.

Granted, Burstein wanted things to be shown from as much of the teenagers’ lives as possible, but the adults factor into this more than what we are shown. While “American Teen” does show the relationship Colin has with his Elvis impersonating dad, we don’t get as much with the other kids. Megan ends up committing a slanderous act of vandalism which she gets busted for, but her dad isn’t so much mad at her for doing it as he is with her not being able to keep from being caught. You have to wonder what kind of values these parents are instilling in their children as some are not the least bit healthy.

We also Hannah determined to move to San Francisco, California so she can pursue a career in television and film. She is so determined to get out of Indiana and lead a life which is anything but mundane, and we want to see her accomplish this regardless of how the odds are against her. But her mother ends up telling her she is “not special, and this is one of “American Teen’s” most wounding moments. I think any parent who tells their child this should be slapped. The world is tough enough without our parents breaking us down like that.

There is also a good deal of profanity bleeped out here. “American Teen” is rated PG-13 despite the f-word being mentioned only a couple of times. If the MPAA thinks they are trying to protect the kids old enough to see this movie from the bad words contained in it, they have failed. You wouldn’t believe the amount of bad language I heard on the playgrounds of the elementary and junior high schools I attended. It reminds me of Roger Ebert’s arguing how “The Breakfast Club” should have been PG-13 instead of R because he felt it was more than appropriate for teenagers. I couldn’t agree more, and the beeping out of “bad” language is ridiculous and only draws more attention to what the MPAA is trying to suppress.

Whatever you may think about “American Teen,” you have to give these kids credits for bravery because what they did here will forever be captured on celluloid and burned into our memories forever. It will be interesting to see a follow up to this documentary on where these kids are today. I’m not talking so much about the effect of the movie itself, but of the effect their years in high school have on their lives today. After graduation, they have nowhere to go but up, but life still has its pitfalls. How will their past inform their present?

Go Hannah!

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains is an Unforgettable Documentary

Now I am sure many of you have long since become familiar with this story. On October 13, 1972, a young ruby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, boarded a plane which was going to take them to a match in Chile. Their plane ended up crashing on a remote Andean glacier, its fuselage torn off and wings shorn. Anticipating they would be rescued, they waited in the snowy wreckage for help, but none came. When they ran out of food, they were forced to eat from the bodies of those passengers who had died. Eventually, two passengers managed to breach the treacherous Andes Mountains and brought help to their teammates left stranded in what was left of the plane. Out of the 45 passengers on that plane, only 16 survived. They were stranded on that glacier for 72 days. The fact any of them survived is nothing short of a miracle.

This story caused a sensation when first presented on the news, and many focused more on the sensational aspects of what happened, namely the cannibalism or reports of it. It was later documented in the 1973 bestselling book “Alive” written by Piers Paul Read. I have not read the book, but I did see the movie it was based on back in 1993 which starred Ethan Hawke. I remember watching it with my brother, and we both dug the seriously nasty plane crash which opened it. The movie was okay, but even with a screenplay by John Patrick Shanley of all people, it got weighed down by an endless variety of clichés. There did not seem to be any real tangible way to really get at how those rugby players truly felt while they were stranded on a glacier which they seemed destined to die on. How could they anyway?

Decades after this plane crash occurred, we got a documentary about it entitled “Stranded: I’ve Come from A Plane That Crashed on The Mountains.” This one has the advantage of having all the survivors from the crash participate participating in interviews in which they recount all the horrors they were forced to endure, and it was directed by a documentary filmmaker who also happened to be a childhood friend of theirs, Gonzalo Arijon. Through archival footage, interviews and reenactments of the events, Arijon succeeds in creating a shockingly intimate look at what these people went through in order to survive, and it puts us right into the mindset of the survivors in a way no movie or book, however well written it was, could. It proved to be one of the most astonishing cinematic portraits I have ever seen about survival, and it has stayed with me ever since I first watched more than a decade ago.

A documentary with reenactments almost sounds like an oxymoron. Certain other documentaries like “American Teen,” which came out in the same year, have been accused of restaging events that happened to the people, and it threatened to take away what felt truly real about it. The director of the movie, Nanette Burstein, admitted to restaging one event regarding a text message, and it did make for a good emotional moment, and I really do not blame her for doing so. I bring this up because the reenactments and restaging of events in “Stranded” serve to illustrate how incredibly desolate the circumstances were for these people, and they are necessary to show the way they survived. Plus, there is not a lot of archival footage for Arijon to work with, and without the reenactments, I am not sure he would have had much of a documentary.

The archival footage consists of photographs which were taken before and after the crash, and they are haunting to see as they show who these people were and what they ended up becoming. There are also some interviews shot with the survivors after they are rescued, and the audience reacted strongly when the interviewer asked them how they managed to survive. Their response to this at a later news conference brilliantly spells out why they did what they did.

The issue of cannibalism, if you really want to call it that, is handled very sensitively here. The reactions of the survivors to eating the flesh of those who have died goes through a variety of emotions from revulsion of even thinking about it to determination to survive and see their families again. But in the end, who are we to judge them for what they did? These were people pushed to the brink of madness and did whatever they could to survive, and “Stranded” puts us right in their mindset as they made their decision to eat from the bodies of their teammates. Do not even think you would have done things differently because you have not been through what they had. If you want to get cynical about it, those teammates were already dead, so they did not have a lot of say in the matter.

But the most astonishing moments in “Stranded” come from the survivors themselves. Their recollections of what they went through are still very vivid to them to this very day. The participation they gave to this project was invaluable, and we see them with their spouses and children as they go to revisit the site of the crash and go over what happened with them. What they do here is very brave, and their willingness to talk about what went on is beyond commendable. While this documentary may seem more about death than anything else, it is really more about survival and the power of the human spirit. It is also about the power of friendship and how indestructible it can be even in life’s worst moments.

With the aid of Arijon’s work, we see specifically how the survivors remember all the details of what happened. We see them lose their friends and of how they died, and of the ways they survived which included punching each other constantly so the blood would circulate better in their bodies. The moment we see those three men, which later became two, breach the Andes Mountains, we feel their desperation as well as their dwindling feeling of wanting to survive. All of these elements provide us with the most intimate portrait of this plane crash they could ever hope, or want, to get.

2008, the year in which “Stranded” was released, proved to be a tremendous year for movies set in the coldest of environments. During the summer, we got “Frozen River” which took place in the subzero weather of upstate New York. A few months later, I watched “Let the Right One In” which observed the tender relationship between a young boy and a female vampire in a frigid suburban neighborhood of Sweden. The details of these ferociously cold climates are almost completely dwarfed by the barren coldness which this documentary focuses on. Some of us are spoiled by the elongated summers we have in certain parts of the United States, but nothing we have experienced thus far will ever seem as cold as it is here.

“Stranded” gave me one of the most powerfully absorbing cinematic experiences I back in 2008. It is at turns thrilling and harrowing and, in the end, it is utterly inspiring as some of these passengers just refused to give up and die. Gonzalo Arijon brilliantly succeeds in capturing the events of this situation in a way no other filmmaker could, and it will stay with you long after you have finished watching it.

* * * * out of * * * *

Errol Morris’ ‘Tabloid’ is More a Love Story Than a Documentary

Tabloid movie poster

“What is a lie when every man has his own truth?”

-Clark Johnson from “Homicide: Life on The Street”

 “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”

-Bill Pullman from “Lost Highway”

 “Facts are simple and facts are straight

Facts are lazy and facts are late

Facts all come with points of view

Facts don’t do what I want them to

Facts just twist the truth around

Facts are living turned inside out

Facts are getting the best of them.”

-from “Crosseyed and Painless” by Talking Heads

The story at the center of “Tabloid” is further proof of how truth can be much stranger than fiction. It is an endlessly entertaining documentary on an utterly bizarre incident from 1977 involving former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney. She talks about falling head over heels in love with a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson, and of how he disappeared without a trace after they became engaged.

Joyce spent the next couple of years searching for Kirk, eventually finding him in Ewell, Surrey where he was working at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Desperate to be reunited with him, she flew to England determined to rescue and marry him as she sees her destiny as being with him until death separates them forever. But from there the story splinters into two heavily contrasting versions. Joyce claims the Mormon religion is a cult which brainwashed and robbed Kirk of his free will, and that he went with her willingly upon finding him at the church. However, Kirk later told police he was abducted by Joyce and chained to a bed in a cottage where she seduced and raped him.

Whatever the case, this story exploded in the press and became, as one interviewee called it, “the perfect tabloid story.” With its mix of sex and religion, this case came to be known as “The Mormon Sex in Chains Case” and “The Case of the Manacled Mormon.”

You may come out of “Tabloid” frustrated as it is not made entirely clear who is honest and who is lying, but getting to the truth is not the intention of this documentary. Morris constructed it in a way which tests who and what we believe in and how our perceptions have been molded over time by the media culture more than we ever bother to realize. It almost doesn’t matter what actually happened because the story is so weirdly captivating, and viewers find themselves wanting it to go in a particular direction regardless of whether the facts match up with that direction or not.

John Patrick Shanley was dead on correct when he wrote how doubt is a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. Everyone in “Tabloid” has an inescapable shadow of doubt hovering over everything they say and what they believe to be true. It’s like those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books we all read as kids. You know, the ones which tell you to turn to this page or another to where the outcome of your journey remains truly unpredictable.

Seeing the media at work on this “Mormon in Chains” case makes one realize not much has changed in their coverage of events. Back then, the public ate all the lurid details of this absurd story as it touched on those guilty pleasures we are never quick to admit we have. People like to believe they are above “trash” like this, but unconscious minds are always quick to wander to the magazine aisle in the supermarket to peek through the latest issue of the National Enquirer among other magazines which take the truth and manipulate into something wonderfully lurid. We know it is bad for us, but we cannot always keep our morbid fascination in check.

As an interview subject, Joyce McKinney is never boring for one second. At the start of “Tabloid,” she has an endearing quality which makes you want to spend all this time in her company. You will find yourself feeling for her when the world more or less threw her under a bus, and you will not be able to stop empathizing with her even after much of what she says comes into question. You can hear Morris interviewing her in the background, and every other question he asks sounds like, “Oh my god are you kidding me?!”

Still, it does at times feel like Joyce is putting on a performance for us, one which she has rehearsed for decades. Morris said she was the star of her own movie long before he started making this one, and it is easy to see how this is the case. Regardless, you will find yourself wanting to buy her story even as others come up with proof of how she lied.

With all the various facets of her life put up onscreen, you are eager to see where Joyce will take us next as it is unpredictable for those who are not the least bit familiar with this case. Even if she is lying about everything, it’s never less than interesting.

The truth these days is such a malleable thing as everyone shapes it to fit their own needs and beliefs. Others will say we are wrong or lying, but we are quick to defend what we know to be the truth. Many will convince themselves of what is true to where we can no longer be objective about the experience they had. We replay certain moments in our lives over and over again until they seem correct to us. Even Joyce says at one point, “You know you can tell a lie long enough until you believe it.”

What is great about “Tabloid” is how on top it is a love story of the most unusual kind. There is never any doubt that Joyce still loves Kirk after all these years. Even if you feel miles away from truth after watching this documentary, it is safe to say this much is certain.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

If You Like ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ Check Out ‘Senna’

Senna movie poster

To call “Senna” a brilliant documentary is not enough. You will get sucked so deeply into the life of motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna to where you will not ever feel like you are watching his life from a distance. It also shows all sides of this man to where he is shown to be complex and unlike any other race car driver in Formula One. His death during a race in 1994 still saddens many after more than a decade, and after watching “Senna” you will clearly understand why.

Director Asif Kapadia really lucked out as he had access to so much footage from Senna’s life both in and out of cars. We have racing footage of course, but there is also home video footage showing him to be a sublime individual and a genuinely nice guy. Kapadia succeeds in making “Senna” feel like we are spending time with a friend and not just another racing superstar.

Compared to others in racing, Senna comes across as being surprisingly humble and shy. No matter how many championships he won, fame never seemed to go to his head, and this is saying a lot. His personality ends up getting contrasted sharply with his fellow racer Alain Prost, and their intense rivalry becomes a big focus here. Prost comes off at first as being very full of himself, particularly while he is being interviews by a female journalist, and we come to see how his biggest strength is also Senna’s chief weakness: mastering the politics of Formula One. It becomes hard not to be on Senna’s side as their rivalry becomes increasingly bitter. While Senna proves to be ruthless on the race track, he is deeply spiritual and not ignorant of the fact he is as mortal as anyone else.

The racing sequences are exhilarating as we watch Senna do things with a race car no one else could. His brilliance while driving in the rain made him especially unique in Formula One, and it is astonishing to learn he never got hurt while driving in this weather. His donations to improve the conditions in Brazil never feels like a publicity stunt, but instead proof of how fiercely loyal he was to his native country.

But the documentary’s most unnerving sequence occurs a day before Senna’s tragic death when fellow racer Roland Ratzenberger was killed on the exact same track at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Senna becomes deeply upset at what has happened and vows to improve safety on all race courses, something he sadly never got to live to carry out. Watching it feels very eerie as we know the fate which awaits him, and even then, we find ourselves hoping and praying for a different outcome.

What makes “Senna” unlike your average documentary is while most are far removed from their main subject, Kapadia brings you up close and personal. Throughout its running time, Ayrton Senna is alive and not just another dead racer forever relegated to the past. It does not matter in the slightest if you are a fan of car racing or not. “Senna” is as enthralling as the best racing movies ever made as you experience it more than watch it, and it gives us a great respect for this racer even as it leaves us very sad that he left us at such a young age (he was only 34). But seeing him here alive once again gives us a great opportunity to know a man many of us never got the chance to in real life.

So, if you liked “Ford v Ferrari,” be sure to give this one a look. And if you did not like “Ford v Ferrari,” see “Senna” anyway.

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: Another great documentary by Asif Kapadia, and it is as great as this one, is “Amy” which serves as a much needed eulogy to the late singer Amy Winehouse.

‘Religulous’ Shows No Shame in Questioning Religion and Blind Faith

Religulous movie poster

I came into this documentary with much excitement as religion is such a fun and easy target to lampoon regardless of what your thoughts are on it. “Religulous” was directed by Larry Charles who directed one of the funniest mockumentaries ever with “Borat,” and it has Bill Maher interviewing people of different faiths. Apparently, the people interviewed were not aware Maher was going to be interviewing them until Maher showed up. This is made clear by certain moments where publicists come up to the film crew saying rather tensely that they do not want Maher talking to their clients because of what they believe he represents. Would that be logic and reason? The fact these same people still chose to be interviewed by Maher does show a lot of guts on their part as he lets them have their say even as he interrupts them when things don’t make sense to him (and this happens more than you might think).

“Religulous” starts with Maher talking with his sister and mother about why they all stopped going to church. He explains how he was brought up by a mother who was Jewish and a father who was Catholic, and of how he loved playing with his toy gun and holster which he refused to take off even when he went to church. We also get to see clips from when he was starting as a standup comic and talked about what the first circumcision must have looked like to the one it was being suggested to. Maher’s distrust and comments on religion still go on to this very day, and they are not just meant to be funny, but also to make you think about why people allow themselves to believe certain things which defy easy logic.

One thing which kept coming up is how many preachers go out of their way to purchase expensive clothes and live more luxuriously than Jesus ever did. Jesus wore robes and lived in a hut or some other dwelling, and we can all agree he did not care for making money in his father’s temple. Here, Maher interviews them while they are showing off their tailor-made suits, the kind you would never find at your average discount store, and they also wear gold rings because they feel God would want them to dress extravagantly. Maher intersperses these interviews with these same preachers hawking their own DVD’s among other items they have to offer, and it immediately reminded of L. Ron Hubbard’s response to someone who asked him why he was so keen to create his own religion:

“That’s where the money is.”

“Religulous” also opened me up to what Mormons really believe. I always thought they were the nicest people, and I did have a huge crush on one while I was in school, but I never had the slightest idea they held the belief that God is actually from another planet (I can’t remember the name of it). We watch as Maher gets kicked off of the lawn outside the Mormon Tabernacle Church, but he does get to speak with two men who have since left the church and dispute what the Mormons are taught to believe in. Every religion seems to have its own interpretation of God, and I can’t help but wonder if a consensus can ever be reached on this subject.

One of the real pivotal moments comes when Maher interviews a “reformed” homosexual (talk about a contradiction). The fact that pseudoscience facilities which practice conversion therapy exist where people are send to be “cured” of their homosexuality, will always baffle me. Furthermore, this man Maher interviews is married to a woman who claims she was “cured” of being a lesbian. This all struck me as being completely odd and inappropriate as I was always under the belief God loves us all no matter who we are. That people allow themselves to be brainwashed into what others want them to be is frightening, and practices still continue even when people should know better. Seeing Maher hug the “reformed homosexual,” I kept waiting for the “Real Time” host to do something rather provocative, but even he has the good sense not to pinch the guy’s butt.

Clearly, “Religulous” is bound to upset many religious people as Maher shows no shame in picking apart faiths of any and every kind. I personally do not see, nor do I want to see, religion as being evil, but this will not step many from believing both Maher and Charles have made something both biased and hateful. Granted, there are many Bill talks to who will ever be quick to share his problems with religion, and we even see this here from one point to the next. But “Religulous” does indeed have a strong point of view as it never hesitates to call out those religious beliefs which prove to be both misleading and very dangerous. Maher also takes the time to find similarities between Muslims and Christians as each religion has their followers believing they are the chosen people and of how the world is coming to an end and that they will be the only ones left standing.

“Religulous” ends on an ominous note as Maher discusses how religions constantly talk about the end of the world and of how we should be wary of blind faith (amen to that). Religion is supposed to be about love, and yet there is a lot of hate and fear involved in many faiths. Hearing and seeing all of this takes me back to that scene in “A Bronx Tale” where the young kid asks a known gangster:

“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

His reply:

“I would rather be feared, because fear lasts longer than love.”

Maher remains one of the smartest, not to mention one of the most provocative, and “Religulous” is further proof of this as it shows he has balls of steel. He shows no fear as he questions the religion of those who may very well kill him for defying what they hold most holy. In the end, he makes a compelling argument of how religion can be dangerous and easily corrupted, and he also gets a lot of huge laughs out of the subject.

Like I said, there are moments where Charles puts in clips from religious shows, and there is one with a man talking in a language which makes him feel so good and yet has him sounding like a baby struggling to say their first words. It’s as gut busting hilarious as it is frightening. Whatever you may feel about religion, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion about it, “Religulous” will make you see the dangers of believing certain things and of the immense dangers of blind faith.

We all keep wondering when and if we will be saved from the horrors which keep engulfing this world we all live in. Maher meets a man who plays Jesus at a religious amusement park and asks him:

“Why doesn’t he (Jesus) obliterate the devil and therefore get rid of evil in the world?”

“He will.”

“He will?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s he waiting for?”

Yeah, what is he waiting for? And how do we know he is not actually a she?

Seriously, this documentary could make a great double feature with Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with ‘Apollo 11’ Director Todd Douglas Miller

Apollo 11 poster

For many of us, the events of the Apollo 11 have long since been relegated to the annals of history. Back in July 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were propelled into outer space to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 national goal of landing a man on the Moon and then returning him safely back to Earth before the end of the decade. Those who were alive back then cannot and will not forget this incredible event, but many who were born after it occurred observe it as a mere footnote in history which has long since passed them by.

This historic event was revisited recently in Damien Chazelle’s film “First Man,” but now we have the documentary “Apollo 11” which takes audiences right back to 1969 when the mission took place. Described as a “cinematic event 50 years in the making,” it has been crafted from a newly discovered treasure trove of 65mm footage and 11,000 hours on uncatalogued audio recordings. The end result is a motion picture which makes you feel as though you are watching America’s first flight to the Moon as if it just happened yesterday, and it is a movie which demands to be seen on the biggest screen near you.

“Apollo 11” was directed by Todd Douglas Miller whose previous films include “Dinosaur 13” which observed the discovery of the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever found, and “Gahanna Bill” which chronicles the life of Bill Withrow; a middle-aged, mentally handicapped man. I spoke with Miller about the making of “Apollo 11,” and he discussed why no narration or interviews were included in the documentary, the process of restoring much of the footage, and of how the discovered audio proved to be as informative as the visuals on display.

Ben Kenber: I love how the documentary opens with the image of the rocket and the capsule being slowly moved out to the launching area. It’s a fascinating way to start as we are reminded of the immense size of the rocket and also, more importantly, what humanity is capable of creating. What made you start the documentary with this image?

Todd Douglas Miller: One of the first images that we saw when we were doing some test scanning of the original film reel was the rocket being taken out on the crawler to pad 39A. It was actually upside down because the reel was wound backwards. So, we are looking at it and the way it comes off the scanner you only see an image every three or four seconds. And then we go, wait a minute, we know this is large-format but this is actually taken from a helicopter too, so we immediately put it up on the big screen in the theater and our jaws were just on the floor. I knew that I wanted to start this film to put the audience right in the moment, and I just felt like what better moment to see this giant 300+ feet tall Saturn V rocket and this amazing machine which was created to move it. It was really a no-brainer to start the movie there.

BK: I agree. Also, the resolution of the images you have to work with here is just breathtaking.

TDM: Yeah. Originally, we had set out to just rescan all the 16 and the 35mm film which we ultimately did. But when we dealt with those materials, some of them had been used over the decades, a shot here in a shot there, so there was a fair amount of clean and prep before we actually scanned them. With the 65mm, it was just so pristine, we really treated it with kid gloves in the color correction and the conform of it. It was just something that the technicians who were working with it on the scanners, they had just never seen anything like that: the condition and the way it moves through the machinery. Important to note too, the scanner that was developed for this was a prototype scanner. There is only one in existence created for just this project, but it actually moved the film through a series of air pressures. There was never anything physically touching the film itself. It’s a real testament to the guys who developed the technology created to handle it.

BK: In addition to all the footage which was discovered, there was a wealth of audio recordings recovered as well. Which give you more information and more help in making this documentary, the video or the audio?

TDM: That’s a great question. I would say if I had to pick because I am a visual guy, seeing the large-format film obviously informs some of the edit decisions as far as the eye candy shots go. But certainly, from a story perspective and how I want the shape the narrative of the mission, there was no better resource then the audio. We knew about all the air to ground audio and all the onboard audio that existed. When Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were in the command module while they were on, let’s say, the dark side of the moon and they weren’t in communication with the earth, they flipped on a recorder so we have recordings that were taken on board, and there were also on-board recordings from the lunar landing and some other key moments during the mission. But we didn’t know of and what landed in our lap was 18,000 hours of Mission Control audio that was recorded at Mission Control on 30 tracks of audio in the front room, an additional 30 tracks of audio in the back room, and 11,000 hours of the 18,000 hours was statistically Apollo 11. It was a real mishmash. It has been digitized by a team down at the University of Texas in Dallas. It was going through NASA exports control. We got it fairly early so we could rifle through it and kind of help with the effort to transcribe everything and see if there was anything questionable in there or anything we can utilize in the film. It turned out it became our main resource for shaping the structure of this story that we wanted to focus on this because there were things in there that had never been heard before, or there were lines in there that might have not ended up on the air to ground transmissions that were cleaner than this 30-track audio recording.

BK: This documentary has no narration, but it really doesn’t need it because you can tell everything that is going on. Was it always your intention to not include any narration in this documentary, or was it something which came up during the editing process?

TDM: Yeah. One thing that you discover when you listen to all the mission audio, NASA broadcast what is basically the flight directors’ loop. So, if you hear any of the four flight directors (Gene Krantz, Clifford E. Charlesworth, Gerald D. Griffin and Glynn Lunney) talking with the other guys and also the flight capsule communicator in direct communication with the capsule, that gets broadcast.  But a lot of times it’s just a lot of technical jargon and numbers. They are inputting data into their local computer, the command module and the lunar module. So, what’s great for the average viewer or for a filmmaker was there was also four public affairs officers stationed in Mission Control that were of functioning as narration for the general audience that was listening via TV or the radio and would kind of dumb it down for people like me. You could get kind of a blow-by-blow, it’s almost like watching a live sportscast, of exactly what’s going on. From a filmmaking perspective it was really great that they so happened to have the voices of airline pilots. They were just this really calming influence and it certainly translated very well into utilizing them in the guise of the film.

BK: I was also really fascinated with how fast the spacecraft goes. It’s frightening when you realize what the velocity is. The scene where the astronauts land on the moon is almost terrifying because they are descending so fast and I found myself wanting to yell at the screen, hit the brakes!

TDM: (Laughs) Yeah, it was really fun to deal with all that telemetry and hours and hours spent with the consultants trying to figure out different angles and the velocities and approximate altitudes for different things. It really puts in perspective the technical accomplishments in this year expertise that these astronauts had to fly these machines and land them safely. It’s really incredible.

BK: “Apollo 11” deals with some very iconic moments, and yet it all feels like we are watching this event for the first time.

TDM: Thanks for saying that. That was definitely the intent. We joked that from the beginning we wanted this to feel like “Dunkirk” in space. It’s an analogy in that if you think about just being dropped into a situation, even though you know how it ends, that it’s definitely going to take you for a ride just by the sheer imagery involved. Some of the imagery that was captured, whether it was Buzz Aldrin operating the 16mm camera during the landing or Michael Collins during the lunar liftoff when the lunar module was coming off the surface of the moon towards the command module to dock, those two scenes we wanted them to be unbroken shots because they are two of the most iconic things ever captured on celluloid as far as I’m concerned. I think that too often it gets kind of missed on people how special that imagery really is when you just see it in bits and pieces or sped up, or it has too much flash to it. To see it as it was, it had an emotional impact on me for sure.

BK: The film score by Matt Morton helps to heighten the more dangerous aspects of the mission. Every once in a while, we are reminded of how dangerous space travel can be just as were while watching Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.” What was it like working with Matt on the score?

TDM: Well I have known Matt since we were kids, and he’s my oldest collaborator. Typically, the way we work is we do post scores so I’ll temp in music to a team and then give it to him, and we talked about it and then he goes off and does his magic. With this, he told me very early on even when we were in the research phase of the film that he wanted to do a period score with modern composition and I said, what does that mean? (Laughs) He said I actually want to go out and only use instruments that were made pre-1969, one of which is a Moog synthesizer. Moog at the time was reissuing their 1968 synthesizer. They only made 25 of them and he got, I don’t know, number 13 or 14. I was scared at first but I didn’t tell them. I trust him but he didn’t know how to play one, and it’s a monster thing. It takes up an entire wall. It’s huge. He would go off and give me these hours and hours of these Moog compositions, so we ended up pre-scoring most of the film that way and it was just an absolutely wonderful way to work. It is one in which we, moving forward, want to do more of. It’s really just a testament to Matt and his skills as a composer and his versatility too. I’m just lucky that I get to work with him. I think his skill set as a composer is really in the spotlight and this one, and I’m just really proud of the work he did.

BK: “Apollo 11” is dedicated to Al and Theo. Can you tell me about those two people?

TDM: Al was Al Reinert, and he was a filmmaker. He made of film in the 80’s called “For All Mankind.” We became friends. I reached out to him when we did a short film which was really a primer for this film called “Last Steps” about Apollo 17. We just really hit it off, and he was working on a space themed film. We were doing some resource sharing and I was really looking forward to sharing this with him. Unfortunately, he passed away not too long ago before he could see the film. It’s one of the things I regret most, not showing him an early cut. Al was also the screenwriter on “Apollo 13,” and his films had at impact on me as a filmmaker. But I’m also lucky enough to call him a friend and develop a personal relationship with him towards the end of his life. Theo is Theo Kamecke, and he also passed away during the making of our film. Theo was the director of a film that’s become a cult classic among space fans called “Moonwalk One,” and a lot of the imagery that’s in our film “Apollo 11” was created for “Moonwalk One.” He was known as a really good editor too, and he actually worked on an Academy Award-winning short film called “To Be Alive!” which was produced by the Francis Thompson Company which ended up producing “Moonwalk One.” There was going to be a contingent of myself, National Archives and Maps and some of the team were going to show him some of things we discovered, and unfortunately he passed away a few weeks before this happened. So, we dedicated the film to those two filmmakers.

BK: You are known for another documentary you made previously called “Dinosaur 13.” I was curious, between that and “Apollo 11,” which was the tougher documentary to make?

TDM: That’s an interesting question. I think in terms of sheer scope, this was more difficult. We knew from the very beginning the immense responsibility we had. The fact we were transporting priceless materials up the I-95 corridor from (Washington) D.C. to New York led to a lot of sleepless and restless nights. We shot a lot on “Dinosaur 13,” but the narrative kind of set itself, and we were purely focused on just the film. With this, it wasn’t just the film. It was also the preservation and curation of all these materials that we were generating, and also the ones we were utilizing. We just felt a real pressure to get it right, so I would have to vote for this one.

BK: I imagine it’s a lot more challenging to get the details right something like this especially when you have this treasure trove of material which was left unseen for far too long.

TDM: Yeah, and I am so proud of all the work that everybody did on this, and I am proud of the work everybody did on “Dinosaur 13.” That was definitely a big project to pull that all together. We used a lot of archival material on that as well and filmed as much as we did. With “Apollo 11,” we didn’t shoot it ourselves. We had the responsibility to honor a lot of these filmmakers who are now deceased.

“Apollo 11” opens exclusively in IMAX on March 1st for one week only, and it will open in theaters everywhere on March 8th. If you can, see it in IMAX. It is an extraordinary cinematic experience.