• The Apollo 11 crew. (Bettnam Archive)Source: Bettnam Archive
Documentary director Todd Douglas Miller talks historical accuracy, archive discoveries and that "profound moment" on the moon.
Travis Johnson

17 Jul 2019 - 5:50 PM  UPDATED 17 Jul 2019 - 5:52 PM

Created to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 mission, Apollo 11 is a new documentary that looks at humanity’s first trip to the moon through fresh eyes. Painstakingly assembled from a wealth of archival material, including newly discovered 65 mm footage of the event, the film traces the entire eight-day return voyage without the use of modern day interviews or narration. 

The result is a stunning work of documentary recreation that brings home the sheer scale of the Apollo program. We spoke to director Todd Douglas Miller about the challenges he faced in bringing Apollo 11 to the screen.

Growing up, how did you feel about the space program and the Apollo missions? What was your personal relationship to the moon landing?

Well, I wasn’t born! I was negative seven when we landed on the Moon. I grew up in Ohio in the States and Neil Armstrong is from there and it’s the birthplace of aviation. Other astronauts like John Glenn – you walk around and all the buildings are named after those guys. So that was my first exposure but I’m sure like you, being a kid and watching the space shuttle program, the Challenger disaster in ’86 – Neil Armstrong was on the commission for that – so I was interested in space as a kid. I wouldn’t say I was a full-fledged space nerd just yet, but I’d say I definitely earned that title after this film.

How did the project initially come together?

We had made a short film about the Apollo 17 mission called Last Steps where we really played around with the structure and the form in ways that would ultimately inform Apollo 11. My archive producer in the UK, Stephen Slater, just kept hammering me about the anniversary coming up, and how we should do what we did on 17 for 11. Over the course of months it really became an editing exercise. I had a relationship with CNN Films because they had acquitted my last feature (Dinosaur 13) and they helped us produce the last film, so they got on board very early and were very supportive of the creative direction we wanted to take, which was somewhat surprising because it was more of an art film than anything else. That’s really how it started.

We already had our contact at the NASA National Archives, so we just challenged him to quantify just how much material they had related to Apollo 11, and in the course of that research they generated a progress report and that’s when we were alerted to this large format collection. Obviously, the project took a different turn after that.

The large format collection you refer to comprises 65 mm footage that was heretofore unknown to the public. How exactly did that discovery change things?

The mission spans eight days and some hours, so from the very beginning we developed a nine-day timeline and we just wanted to see everything that was available to us and just drop it into that timeline. That included film, video, stills, all the audio elements. Around the same time as the rediscovery of these large format films, NASA had provided us with 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio that related to Mission Control. So we put all of that in the timeline and we just started whittling it down – going through the exercise of just listening to all of it, watching all of it, figuring out where it goes, talking to the astronauts, talking with their families, talking with people who were there. We had test screenings with the astronauts and their families to see if we were getting things as accurate as we could, and then we shaped the film into what the film is today.

Strikingly, this film, which covers a lot of technical information and depends on historical context, has no talking head interviews and no modern narration. When did you decide on that approach?

It was very early on. When we did the short film for 17 we found out there was a wealth of narration provided by the public affairs officers who sat inside Mission Control. They were there in the room, they witnessed what has happening, they worked in shifts like the other flight controllers. They were extremely knowledgeable and they could also take this technical jargon and distill it down for consumption by the general public. So, I knew early on that we could utilise them. It was an easy decision – I had my narrators who were already recorded, so it was just a case of putting the jigsaw puzzle together along the way. 

What did you personally learn during the filmmaking process? What was new to you?

Pretty much every scene! I just read so much and talked to so many people, and there were so many mainly technical things that had never been presented in a fiction or non-fiction film. A good example, as simple as it sounds, is something called a Passive Thermal Control Maneuver. That’s NASA’s way of saying they’re going to spin the spacecraft so it doesn’t get too hot in one side. I was looking at pictures and I could tell from the pictures that there’s no way they could have taken some of the photos with what we perceive to be the original orientation of the spacecraft. So we worked very closely with NASA’s History Department, led by their Chief Historian, Bill Barry, and any time we had a question like that they would go away and research it, and it turned out that this would be the first time that the Passive Thermal Control Maneuver would be presented correctly. That was surprising not only to us but to other historians – we’ve been able to correct the historical record on a number of points like that.

What are you hoping audiences will take away from the viewing experience?

I think the other major thing that surprised me was how large in scope this was, and if I want anyone to take anything away from it it’s that it was this global effort. These guys that did this represented all of us – it was humans stepping onto another world for the first time. It’s a profound moment in history, and I think it will be looked back on for thousands of years to come. I definitely want people to know how big it was, and how everyone came together – the collective consciousness of the planet.

Apollo 11 is now in cinemas. 

Join the moon chasers as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing
From PBS comes unmissable three-part documentary ‘Chasing The Moon’, in honour of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.