Any moon-landing conspiracy theorist who sees director Todd Douglas Miller’s mesmerizing documentary “Apollo 11,” which captures the 1969 lunar adventure of astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, will feel put on blast. Miller’s digital restoration of never-before-seen NASA footage marries the pulse-pounding Apollo journey itself, to the moon and back, with the efforts of ground control to orchestrate a smooth trip.
At a recent International Documentary Association (IDA) screening in Los Angeles, and as a kick-off to the IDA’s annual awards-season lineup that looks back on the year’s best nonfiction films, director Miller spoke to an enthralled audience in a conversation moderated by IndieWire Associate Editor Steve Greene.
“The imagery is so striking, and we wanted to use every foot of it that we had,” Miller said. “It really puts you into that time period… every day was a treat to get into a time machine and do that.”
After working on a short film about the Apollo 17 journey, and directing 2014’s archeological deep-dive “Dinosaur 13,” Miller was approached to create a 50th-anniversary tribute to Apollo 11. He turned to independent archivist Stephen Slater, who is based in based in Sheffield, England, to make sense of hours upon hours of footage, and 11,000 hours of audio, that needed to be synced up. “I like to think he’s in a basement bunker in Sheffield, with no social life, but he had the crazy idea to take all that MOS footage” — meaning without an audio track — “and what was publicly available at the time, which was all the audio, and try to sync. It’s real work.”
Miller said it was Slater’s idea to “take the hundreds of hours we have of mission control, and try to find moments, and literally lip sync audio. It was crazy work that took the better half of a year and a half, and that’s on top of all the years that he spent putting all the 16mm [material] together.”
Miller wanted to maintain fidelity to what he initially set out to achieve with “Apollo 11” — which is more of an installation-style art film, rather than a conventional documentary with talking heads.
“The hardest stuff is trying to stay on target with what we initially sought out to do,” said Miller, adding that astronauts and other NASA associates started coming out of the woodwork during the making of the film, eager to participate. “Once we started engaging with the astronauts, they started turning over a lot of things to us — home movies, pictures. It was very tough to say to Neil Armstrong’s son, I’m sorry, maybe we can put it in a deleted scene but we really want to keep it on this trajectory.”
Take a look at video highlights above from the full International Documentary Association Q&A with Todd Douglas Miller. “Apollo 11,” though best seen on the biggest screen possible, such as an IMAX, is currently streaming and available on home video. To date, it’s the highest-grossing documentary of the year theatrically.