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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“I Think for Every Story There is a Hidden Way to Tell it Best, and Your Journey is to Try to Find It”: Director Rick Linklater on Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood

Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood (Courtesy: Netflix)

When Richard Linklater was in second grade, he became enthralled by the historical moment that was happening right in his Houston backyard as NASA prepared for the Apollo moon landing. Decades later, it occurred to Linklater that he was probably the only filmmaker who remembered the excitement of that moment and was also that geographically close to NASA, a realization that led to his latest feature as writer-director, Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood. Combining the delicate observational eye and ear of Boyhood with the more fantastical animated approach of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, Apollo 10½ tells the story of a young boy growing up in Houston against the backdrop of the Apollo 11 moon mission. By following the adventures from both the protagonist’s 10½-year-old perspective and that of his adult self years later (voiced by Linklater regular Jack Black), Linklater creates a story that works as both intimate, Truffaut-esque coming-of-age tale and broader social-historical commentary. I spoke with the director by phone a few days before the movie’s South by Southwest premiere on its way to a permanent home on Netflix.   

Filmmaker: One of the things that I found most astonishing about this movie was your seemingly flawless sense of recall – I couldn’t believe how detailed the film was in terms of all the pop culture details that defined the era. How much of that is from your own memory, and how much research did you have to do to write the script?

Richard Linklater: The one thing I’m either blessed or cursed with in this world is a very exacting memory of things that I’ve experienced. My mind is cluttered with this stuff. So maybe the whole movie is a childhood purge of all these trivial, ephemeral things from a moment in time, mixed with something that’s grand, maybe the grandest thing ever. It’s a memory film for sure, but even then, doing the research was fun because I’m trying to get it factually accurate. All the newscasts and all the transmissions and the Apollo elements, those are all from transcripts, so there’s that element mixed with personal trivia, I guess you could say.

Filmmaker: When did you first start thinking about this movie?

Linklater: In my second year of shooting Boyhood I was really contemplating second grade, and I thought about how interesting it was that when I was in second grade I was living close to NASA during a unique time in history. At the time we thought it was just the beginning – we went to the moon, then we would go to Mars, then we would go somewhere else – but now you realize, oh, that was the apex moment. You don’t really appreciate it when you’re in it. And over time that became even more pronounced.

Another idea was that the way people parent now is very different. I tell my kids stories like, “Oh yeah, we would get paddled, and we would ride in the back of a truck.” And their eyes widen. They can’t believe it. It’s almost like I’m telling them child abuse stories, but I’m telling them, “Oh no, it was a really fun childhood.” They go, “Fun? That sounds terrible.” So it was my way to show this free range childhood of that era and how different things were. But I just really want to tell an entertaining story. I want people to laugh.

There is another layer of cultural analysis from an adult perspective; I kind of have it both ways in the narrative structure. You get this kids’ adventure and then you also get an adult view of those times and a little bit of analysis. But mostly I was just trying to capture the dissonance in my head at that age. “What the hell’s going on? My life seems pretty good and I’m excited about Apollo and all things science. But the world seems crazy.” The door would open in the morning and my sister would say, “Oh, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia.” Like, “Huh, are we at war?” “Oh, Kennedy got shot.” “That was five years ago.” “Robert Kennedy.” “Oh, fuck.” It was riots, and craziness, assassinations. The culture was just tipping. It was breaking apart. 

Things were crazy, but we were strangely united about one thing in a way that we aren’t united now. Not completely – the film shows some dissenting voices, and that I missed as a kid. I don’t remember dissenting voices who were crapping all over the Apollo program. As a kid I thought it was the coolest thing ever, but doing the research I realized, oh, there were a lot of people who thought this was a total waste of money and a kind of militaristic venture. But to their credit, and I show it in the film, Cronkite and others would have those dissenting voices on TV as part of the discussion. 

Filmmaker: So you started thinking about the movie all those years ago. What finally cracked it open and made you ready to tackle it?

Linklater: It was when I thought of making it animated. It wasn’t quite working when I was thinking of it in terms of the literalness of live action. From about 2004 to 2012 or ’13 it was just pure gestation. Then about 10 years ago we got serious; we started doing more research and digging in. The exactitude of this movie was historically researched. I mean, why not? At that point, you know what date it is in history, it’s July 19th, so which episode of The Beverly Hillbillies was on? You can look that up. What films were at the drive-in that night? Okay, those are the four films we’re going to have in the movie. So it was that kind of exactness we were going for, which is kind of a narrative trick, to just lather it in specificity of a time and place. Music, everything. You pull the viewer into that reality and I think it makes the more fantastical side of this feel more real. And the animation smooths out the entire thing where it’s taking place in this part of your brain that is kind of a memory or fantasy place. I was thinking that’s a good way to perceive the movie.

Filmmaker: How was the approach to the animation similar to what you did in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, and how was it different?

Linklater: On one level it’s really different, because we shot it in green screen. Everything had to be created, it’s all animated. The character design elements were similar, but the worlds around the characters came from a completely different technique – a blend of 2D, 3D, and the rotoscope element. It’s a mashup of techniques to get the mashup of looks I wanted. It’s weird to do an animated period film – most animated films aren’t period, or aren’t historical in this way. 

Head of animation Tommy Pallotta and I have worked on all three of my animated films together, so it was fun conjuring up the look of what we were going for. We made a scrapbook of the time, of film stocks, and we were trying to make it feel very analog even though everything we’re doing’s very digital. We wanted to feel like it was somehow made back then. I’m a big fan of the animation of that era, Yellow Submarine and all that, and that was our leaping-off place. We were thinking a lot about Kodachrome as a reference – that color palette, and the certain texture that it had. And we referenced a lot of home movies – we used home movies in the movie. We have different color palettes for different elements; you’ve got to have some specific guideposts in your design, because in animation you have to communicate what you’re going for to a lot of people. You have to give quick yes’s and no’s.

Filmmaker: Backing up a bit, once you shoot all your green screen stuff, what’s the next step? I’m guessing just years of animating?

Linklater: Oh yeah, we’re two years in post. We edited the film using placeholders for everything that’s going to be animated. Like, here there’ll be a moon in the background, we’ll have a moonscape. You just put in a photo, or some moving images if you have them, as reference stuff. The editing of this is pretty bizarre to look at. You’re looking at a guy on a green screen, on a wire, or a family sitting around the table and everything’s green beyond the table itself. I felt like I was doing a big special effects movie.

But once you lock picture – and in the meantime we’re working on character design and all that – it’s go time on the animation, and then you really have to be efficient. The pandemic doesn’t help. Usually you have teams sitting together, or near each other, but in this case we had people work on it alone. It was an organizational challenge with groups of animators on different continents, with constant back and forth and different hierarchies of communication. I have a meeting with three people and my job is to give specific notes. If I’m giving a thumbs down to something I’m giving a specific note. It’s all about communication and trying to articulate your ideas as thoroughly as possible so we can arrive at the right place as quickly as possible. 

This movie’s about 180 degrees different from most animated films, where they’re designed and placed, and then they fit the story into that. We started with the story, we edited, and then we made the animation fit our story. We were kind of inventing that as we went. That was kind of fun; we shot it not even knowing how we could do it, just knowing we could figure it out. In terms of the performances and the storytelling, it’s not that different than any other film. It’s just, visually you’re taking some big leaps. It’s not all there. You have to be the one visualizing what is going to be there, and you work to get it there. That’s what we’ve spent these couple years doing.

Filmmaker: And what’s the role of the cinematographer on a movie like this?

Linklater: It’s interesting, we’ve got all the typical department heads: production design, cinematography, hair, makeup. We have a shoot, but it’s fairly brief. And then you kind of reimagine the movie. We’ve pre-designed everything but we’re building it in animation. We didn’t build it in the physical world, but it was there when we shot, because they’re acting in the space. It’s very specific. So it’s kind of an interesting hybrid of live action and animation, but the effort toward the animation timewise certainly swamps the minimal live action shoot. The role of the cinematographer…when you’re shooting, it’s go time. That’s what you’re doing. And you do light it, but you have a chance in post to relight it. And in a way we’re adding light, shadows, colors, and shading in the animation process. So you kind of perfect the look. But it’s like anything in filmmaking, every step is important. You’re only as good as your weakest element, so every step is a very thorough process and everybody’s got to bring their A game.

Filmmaker: I can tell listening to you that this all still gets you very, very excited. Have the things that drive you as a filmmaker changed, or do your enthusiasms still come from the same place as when you began over 30 years ago?

Linklater: You know, if there’s been one constant in my life it’s that I’ve awakened every day of the last 30 years excited about a story that I’m trying to make as a film. Something gets into you about a film you want to make, for whatever reason…you don’t even have to ask yourself, it’s just characters or something that you’re trying to express. I don’t really feel different. I feel more confident in certain ways, but still as uncertain and insecure as ever. The world’s always coming at you in different ways, so I’ve never headed into a film that didn’t feel like it had an almost insurmountable challenge had to be met, whether time, money, or something else that’s making it damn near impossible. There’s always a big challenge in the air. 

There are a lot of great stories in the world, and I’m always asking how to tell them. I’ve always been in the playpen of narrative, thinking about how to tell a story differently, or what would the best way to tell it. I think for every story there is a hidden way to tell it best, and your journey is to try to find it. And by the time you’re making it you obviously think you have found the way. But I usually give myself a lot of years to really think about how best to tell it, and I usually discover something about it that gets me excited – that I’ve uncovered some secret meaning in the form I want to use to tell this particular story.

Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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