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Intimate Space: 'In the Shadow of the Moon' Reflects on the Apollo Missions

By Tamara Krinsky

In the Shadow of the Moon, which opens September 7 through THINKFilm, is a visually stunning theatrical documentary that uses the big screen to take an intimate look into the hearts and minds of the astronauts who journeyed to the moon as part of the Apollo missions from 1968 to 1972. The film uses a combination of archival materials, audio recordings from Mission Control, first-hand testimony from the astronauts and exclusive, never-before-seen NASA film footage to capture a snapshot of a moment in history that still feels incredibly current.

One of the main reasons for this is the intimate nature of the interviews with the Apollo crewmembers. This is the first time all surviving astronauts have told their stories in the same film. The images on the screen shift back and forth between Mission Control, outer space and the vibrant, contemplative expressions of the astronauts, accessing for the viewer a secret portal back in time to experience the missions firsthand.

David Sington, the film's director, says that his experience making numerous documentaries for television held him in good stead for In the Shadow of the Moon, as one of the main challenges was getting past the sound bytes many of his subjects have been uttering for the past 40 years. "I've interviewed a lot of people, and I'd seen interviews with the astronauts," says Sington. "I was confident that I could get something different." He laughingly adds, "I'm not sure what that confidence is based on."

While Sington does not have a codified technique that he relies on, he believes that several steps in the process contributed to the intimacy of the interviews. The crew spent several days figuring out the camera set-up, experimenting with eye lines, background and lighting before shooting. They opted to go with large close-ups, with the astronauts looking directly at the camera--and, ultimately, at the audiences.

Once the production crew had determined the camera set-up, they then practiced putting it up and taking it down so that they could do it quickly and efficiently. Sington explains that his motive for such economy had to do with getting off on the right foot with his subjects, characterizing them as precise and punctual people. The filmmakers worked extremely hard to get the astronauts to agree to two full days of access. Once they had been persuaded to give such a large chunk of their time, they would have noticed if the crew had wasted any of it.

The night before an interview, Sington would always try to have a social dinner with the astronaut, his wife or family and the crew. A key element of this dinner was steering conversation away from the topics he was going to address in the formal interview the next day. Instead, they talked about everything from common interests to Sington's science films to updates on the other astronauts the crew had recently seen. Strangely enough, Sington often ended up talking about himself. "It's not an official technique, but if you want someone to talk intimately about themselves with you, such as their childhood and their dreams, you should be intimate with them," he maintains. "So I would talk with passion and candor about things that mattered to me." He likened the experience to a first date: You want the person to have a good time so they are looking forward to the next date--or in this case, the next interview. You want to like them, and you want them to like you. "It sounds more calculating than it is," he explains. "I'm quite talkative and chatty, so it's just natural for me to engage this way."

During the interviews themselves, the room was completely dark, other than the lights on the subjects and a light on Sington's face. "I wanted the astronauts to see my expression because non-verbal communication between an interviewer and interviewee is important," he says. "You don't want the interviewer actually saying very much, but he or she needs to give back a lot non-verbally. It's the way you look and react to what they are saying."

Sington's work results in frank revelations from the astronauts, whose observations are often reflective and moving and at times, unexpectedly funny. One area that many opened up about was how their experiences affected their faith and their thoughts about humanity's relationship to the Earth. The director, who has been influenced by films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, believes that In the Shadow of the Moon is about a step forward in human evolution, and that human beings can't fully know themselves until they have knowledge of where they are, literally, in the universe.

 "These are the guys who first went up and saw where we are, the context where human beings have their life," Sington notes. "The Apollo astronauts took an important step forward in the development of human self-consciousness. They have processed or interpreted that in different ways, depending on who they were as people. For some, it gave rise to religious or spiritual insights. For others, like Edgar Mitchell, it was a scientific cum deistic consciousness-raising, almost like an Eastern religion. For others, like Mike Collins, the interpretation is more political, scientific or environmental."

Nearly 40 years after the Apollo missions, humanity is still struggling with its relationship to the planet, yet this film radiates with the confidence that we can accomplish great things. In many ways, it is a very American film, chronicling us at our best and brightest, without feeling like a piece of propaganda. As many in the world currently question the US' actions, In the Shadow of the Moon is a reminder of a time when our actions were embraced around the globe.

Sington feels that as a British filmmaker, he was paradoxically able to create a film that is more about the US than if it had actually been made by an American filmmaker. "As an American, you take Apollo for granted," he observes. "It's part of your mental landscape. But when I came to talk to the astronauts, it struck me that the Apollo missions were such an American thing to do because it's about pioneering, amazing self-confidence and fantastic problem-solving--all things that are often different from the way Europeans think." As images of Abu Ghraib circulated through the news, it was a nice antidote for Sington to walk into the cutting room and be reminded of what is possible.

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.

For more from Krinsky on In the Shadow of the Moon, here are interviews that she conducted at Sundance 2007 with Sington and with Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step on the moon: