Before the launch of the Apollo 11 mission to land the first astronauts on the moon, NASA first secretly sent a fourth grader there.
That’s just one of the storylines in Richard Linklater’s new animated film, Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood, streaming now on Netflix. In the film, Linklater takes viewers back to 1969 and takes them on a nostalgic journey to not only see the moon landing, but to experience it, just as he did – growing up while living in and around Houston, Texas, lived.
“It was just so exciting to be alive back then, especially as a kid,” Linklater said in an interview with collectSPACE.com. “I’ve seen a lot of movies that come from the astronaut’s perspective, fair enough, but if you really do the math, there are 12 people who have walked the moon but so many hundreds of millions who have watched them walk the moon are.”
“So I thought it would be a good idea to try and capture that experience from the bottom up, from the consumer citizen perspective of how exciting it was to be alive at the time,” he said.
Linklater spoke to collectSPACE about the ideas behind the film, cast a real child of the Apollo program and took inspiration from old home videos. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Slight spoilers follow.
collectSPACE (cS): At the beginning of the film, NASA officials have come to the local elementary school to recruit a student, Stan, for a trip to the moon.
“We found you on the kickball field, we spoke to your teachers, we’re impressed with some of your science reports, and we’re thrilled that you’ve received a Presidential Physical Fitness Award three years in a row,” says Kranz (of Zachary voiced by Levi). “In short, we have selected you as the perfect candidate for this mission.”
Why does NASA want a child?
“Time is a factor here, so we’re going to be very direct: we accidentally made the lunar module a little undersized,” says Bostick (Glen Powell). “But we won’t let that set us back.”
Richard Linklater: That was just a silly fantasy I actually had, probably around first grade. Every kid wanted to be an astronaut. I remember having this fantasy.
I was thinking of weaving in that childhood fantasy [into the film] because this is childhood. Childhood is over when you know how the world really works and your little insignificant place in it. The fact that I was remembering it all these years later made me think it was worth moving on.
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cS: Speaking of memories, in 2017 you asked Houstonians to share their home videos and photos from the time of the moon landing. Did you end up using any of that in making the film?
Linklater: We could use it a bit in the film. It inspired the images we look at in the film and it was a nice reference too. It is difficult to explain to the animators in Amsterdam what the Black Dragon is [a ride at the former Astroworld theme park in Houston] looked like, but you can show some Super 8 footage to give them an idea.
We made this exact replica of a time on location, so the more pics we could get, the more references the better. So it was really helpful to have this community. We have a lot of photos and a lot of home videos.
We also had access to many of the city’s and NASA’s archives, so while the film was largely a fantasy, it became a huge historical research project at every level that we attempted.
cS: Milo Coy addresses Stan as a child, but the film is narrated by an adult Stan, played by Jack Black. There’s a mostly true meme that went viral recently about how Black’s mother was one of the engineers who developed the demolition guidance system used on the Apollo spacecraft. Given his family history, was it just a coincidence that you cast Black?
Linklater: It really wasn’t a coincidence. Having known Jack for a long time, I think I knew that about him and that’s one of the reasons he wanted to do the film. He said, “Yes, my mother was an engineer” and he never ceased to be amazed by her and what she was working on.
He said he couldn’t understand it, his brain just didn’t work that way.
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cS: Apollo 10 1/2 is animated with rotoscope, a style you previously used in your 2006 film A Scanner Darkly. What drew you to using it again for this film? (For those unfamiliar, rotoscopy is an animation technique that traces live-action footage.)
Linklater: Originally I was thinking of a live-action film, but the literal meaning of live-action occupies a critical thinker, while an animation takes your brain to a point that’s a little more imaginative, creative… maybe one where fantasies and memories are all kind of knitwear. And with animation, I thought I could pull this story off.
I’ve done two previous animation films and this technique has evolved quite a bit since then. So this is very different from the others. It has some elements of that, in the performance shot, but it’s really more of a traditional animation film.
It’s sort of a mashup of styles in 2D and 3D in this ’60s scrapbook, a multi-textured look that we wanted; a kind of cinematic timepiece.
cS: “Apollo 10 1/2” is more than just a story about children flying to the moon. It also captures the real moon landing and, perhaps most poignantly, Houston in the 1960s. Anyone who lived near NASA, then or now, will recognize many of the sights and sounds that you captured or brought to life in this film.
Given your own upbringing in and around the area, do you think there was anything unique about witnessing the first moon landing in Houston as opposed to anywhere else in the country or the world?
Linklater: You could get excited about it anywhere in the world. It was just an exciting thing to keep going. And it was so well reported, televised, and in the media, so obviously it was accessible to everyone.
The difference between Houston and especially Southeast Houston near NASA was that it was the local business, it was the employer. All your friends’ parents worked there, it was the local economy. There were always rumors about astronauts on the street. You always knew someone who knew an astronaut – and the astronauts were just the tip of the iceberg.
The more I thought about it, it was a bit like Hidden Figures. I wanted to shed light on all the 400,000 people behind the astronauts, the people for whom [the space program] it was just her job to do her best.
Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood, starring Glen Powell, Zachary Levi and Jack Black, was written and directed by Richard Linklater stream now on Netflix.
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