[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
David Sington is no stranger to filmmaking. For 30 years he’s been making nonfiction work for the BBC, including the science series “Earth Story” and the Hugo Silver Award winner “The Day the Oceans Boiled.” For his Sundance World Documentary competition entry, “In the Shadow of the Moon,” he documented the stories of all the surviving members of the Apollo missions – something never done before. Sington combines these personal interviews with never-before-seen footage from NASA and audio from Mission Control into what Sundance describes as a “nostalgic and inspiring cinematic experience that provides unparalleled perspective on the fragile state of our planet.”
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets do you explore (music/painting/writing etc.)?
I went to Cambridge University in England, which has a strong tradition of drama and especially comedy, even though, or perhaps because, the University doesn’t offer courses in those subjects. I was into all that, and thought that I would probably pursue a career in the theatre, until a friend suggested we make a film. We got hold of a clockwork Bolex (I still have it) and made a 5 minute silent comedy. Shown as part of a revue, it always got the biggest laughs. I was hooked!
The other important thing that happened around then was seeing Godfrey Reggio‘s “Koyaanisqatsi.” It was amazing to me how a storyless, wordless film could nevertheless grip an audience by the sheer power of images married to music. I love music, and one of the great pleasures of directing is being able to commission music and working with the composer. For example, I’ve worked a lot with bluegrass musician Judith Edelman, who wrote a wonderful witty song for one of our television documentaries. We have a fantastic orchestral score for “In the Shadow of the Moon” by Philip Sheppard, and the film has its “Koyaanisqatsi” moments; so I feel I’ve come full circle!
Did you go to film school? Or how did you learn about filmmaking? How did you finance your own film?
I had the opportunity to go to film school after Cambridge, but I also got offered a job by the BBC, so I took that instead. I was working in fact for the World Service, which was only radio in those days. I spent a lot of time editing 1/4″ tape with a razor blade, which proved incredibly useful, since I learnt a lot about speech patterns and became expert at editing speech in a seamless way. This is a vital skill in documentary filmmaking, and even today I can edit an interview in my head as I am filming it, which really helps you know when you have got what you need. All the time I was working for the World Service I was making my own films, really teaching myself how to do it. After about four years I made the move to BBC Television, where I spent 12 years producing and directing television films, before leaving to establish my own little indie production company, DOX Productions.
Please tell us about your film, and how did the initial idea come about?
The idea for In the Shadow of the Moon came from my producer Duncan Copp, his colleague Chris Riley, and Dave Scott, the commander of Apollo 15. Dave had been working as technical adviser on a BBC science-fiction drama that Chris and Duncan had been producing, and together they came up with a simple but very appealing idea: gather together astronauts from every Apollo mission that went to the Moon and let them tell their own story. Amazingly, this had never been done before. Also, Chris was pretty confident that there was a lot of previously unseen Apollo footage buried in the NASA archive, and that if we had enough time and money we could track it down. In this he proved triumphantly correct!
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
The biggest challenge we faced was in persuading the astronauts to take part. Some of them rarely give interviews, and others have given a lot and are a bit bored by the whole process. Dave Scott was absolutely crucial to our success in getting everyone on board. It made a huge difference that the initial approach was coming from a former colleague and that Dave had worked with Chris and Duncan before and could vouch for our bona fides. But it still took two years to get everyone signed up!
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
Before the shoot I watched every previous documentary about Apollo I could lay my hands on. Some are good, most are pretty poor. I felt that while one learnt a lot about the Apollo program, one came away with little sense of who the astronauts were, what they were like as people. So the real challenge was to do a different kind of interview, one that would be much more personal and revealing.
We prepared very carefully for the interviews, not just researching our contributors’ own stories, but test shooting different camera and lighting set ups until we had something that not only looked right on screen, but felt right in the room. It seems to have worked, because the interviews were a joy to film. I had a fantastic time, and I think the astronauts also enjoyed themselves. I think we did achieve our basic goal, and at the end of 90 minutes the audience does feel it really knows these remarkable men – and feels genuine affection for them.
What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?
Obviously I am hoping that people will like our film, and that we can secure the right kind of distribution deal, one that will give the film the maximum chance of reaching the wide audience I believe it will appeal to. Beyond that, I am just looking forward to mixing with other filmmakers. I am new to the theatrical world. I went to BritDoc 2006 in Oxford in July, and I found the atmosphere really refreshing. There seemed to be a sense, especially amongst people involved in theatrical documentaries, that we are all in it together, and that what’s good for one is good for all. So I found people really helpful and supportive, which isn’t always the case in TV!
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance, where were you, and how did you react?
I was in the edit, since we had broken the cardinal rule, and submitted to Sundance a roughcut of the film which was, in my view, a bit too long! So I was trying to wrestle 10 minutes out of the movie without ruining it, when my colleague Sarah rang with the news. I was actually pretty cool at first. It wasn’t until people started ringing from all over – NY, LA etc. – and going stratospheric that I started to get excited myself. Now, of course, I am really excited and not a little nervous!
What is your definition of “independent film”?
It resists definition, but you know one when you see one!
What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?
Not to ski into any trees before Sundance. Not afterwards either, for that matter.
Get the latest coverage of Park City ’07 in indieWIRE’s special section here at indieWIRE.com