Exclusive Interview with ‘Apollo 11’ Director Todd Douglas Miller
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.