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‘Apollo 10 1/2’: Richard Linklater on Returning to Animation with His Most Personal Film Yet

The filmmaker tells IndieWire he drew from "Boyhood" even more than "Waking Life" for nostalgic look at the '60s space race. Watch the new trailer here.

"Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood"

“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood”

Richard Linklater is no stranger to animation, but “Apollo 10 1/2” is a world apart from “Waking Life.” The seminal Texas filmmaker’s new Netflix-produced project, set to make its world premiere at SXSW this week ahead of an April 1 release on Netflix, takes the filmmaker back to “Boyhood” territory: The charming immersion into the Houston of the summer of 1969 is a semi-biographical look at what it was like to be a kid when NASA landed on the moon.

There’s more texture to plot to the story of Stanley, who recounts his memories of that era through a feature-length voiceover provided by no less than “School of Rock” star Jack Black. Through Stanley, whose dad is an engineer at NASA, a unique moment in American consciousness comes to life. At the same time, the story is an ode to the fantasies of youth, with the young character imagining his own unlikely journey to the Earth’s closest neighbor. 

Linklater shot the movie shortly before the start of the pandemic and has been slowly assembling it this whole time. He spoke by phone from his home on the outskirts of Austin, recalling the unusual production process and how it emerged from his “Boyhood” experience. He also addressed broader questions surrounding the ever-changing industry and several upcoming projects. Watch the trailer for at the end of the interview.

Have you been hiding out in the countryside this whole time?

I won’t gloat about it, but we got so lucky we wrapped “Apollo 10 1/2” days before the shutdown. When we started, there weren’t any real cases. It was starting to hit the U.S. up in Seattle, then there weren’t any cases in Texas, but they shut down SXSW. Then it was like, oh my god. Just in our 20-day shoot, things turned, SAG wasn’t traveling actors and then everything shut down right when we wrapped. We made it just that close. Timing is everything in this world. I don’t think anyone thinks they have good timing in this business. Usually you just think you’re getting screwed by timing. But this time, I was definitely so lucky. 

So that was 2020. It seems like you really took your time on post.

It was two years well-spent. We had to edit, then do the animation. It was so good to be so focused. No one was working on anything else, and this was such a fun thing to be working on. 

You’re more or less the same generation as the character in this movie, which is a very detailed ode to growing up in Houston in the 1960s: The Space Race, Astroworld, eccentric Texans. How much were you drawing from your own experiences?

Definitely atmosphere, everything around it. It’s not point-by-point autobiographical, but parts of it. My dad didn’t work at NASA, but I had friends whose parents did. I just thought it would be funny — a job at NASA that just wasn’t glamorous. But the numbers are staggering: 400,000 people worked on the program. It’s the largest non-military undertaking in world history. There were 20-something thousand businesses contracted by NASA. Then 600 million people watched the moon landing on TV.

My big idea here was while we have a lot of movies about astronauts and their big missions, what about a film that really captures what it was like to be alive? What was it like to be adjacent to all that? Being a kid, that’s the autobiographical part. I was between second and third grade when they walked on the moon. For the movie, I kicked it up to fourth grade, because I wanted to work with slightly more mature kids. But fourth grade is still kid-like. It’s all over in fifth grade. There’s a big change that happens there. But the kid, Stanley, has a fantasy of walking on the moon in the movie. That was a fantasy I had. 

“Apollo 10 1/2”

You also address, through Stanley’s adult voiceover, the way the excitement around the Space Race was a way for the government to cover up bigger problems going on around the world — Vietnam in particular. When do you remember first growing more aware of this?

In the movie, I was trying to capture the dissonance in a young person’s head. It’s the age where you can still have these fantastic fantasies and dreams, but you just don’t understand how the adult world works. You’re hearing about problems on TV. There’s a scene where the grandmother offers doom and gloom for the future. I remember just being inundated with fear: You’re not going to be able to breathe, you’re going to have to wear your gas mask, you’re going to have to deal with all the trash, overpopulation…the world is fucked. And we might be all vaporized in just a second if the Soviets decide to push a button. So, I grew up under that.

But the parallel thing was that the space stuff was so fucking cool, fun, and optimistic. Because the narrator is an adult version of Stan, Jack Black’s part, there could be just enough critical analysis flowing through. As you grow older, you see ironies, fucked-upness, in your own youth. You lend a critical eye to your parents, a critical eye, at some point. The free-range childhood that the movie depicts, the fun and free aspect of running around, playing ball, getting into all kinds of trouble — that’s contrasted with the fact that we’re being poised, beaten in Vietnam. Overall, it’s a comedy, but it’s got an analytical thing to it. 

How much do you follow plans for the current Artemis missions to return to the moon?

It’s funny how all the things that were predicted didn’t happen, like being on Mars by the end of the century. All that wishful thinking we had — it is happening, but not on that timeline. The taste for funding it went away. Now it’s coming around again. Now these guys who were young back then are putting all their money into this research. It’s fascinating. 

While the animation calls to mind “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” there are obvious “Boyhood” parallels here. How much were you thinking about that movie while crafting this one?

“Boyhood” is about the minutiae of life. “Apollo” is about minutiae as well, but it’s also about probably the biggest and grandest thing people have ever accomplished. But this very much grew out of “Boyhood.” I started “Boyhood” thinking, “Oh, I don’t have a special place in my childhood to make a movie about.” None of it was that interesting. I was trying to cover the whole slough of growing up. It was really after I became a parent that I started thinking that I wanted to make a film about childhood. I felt like I didn’t really have that specific moment in childhood, so I wanted to make a film about all of it.

That’s where “Boyhood” came from. But then I started making “Boyhood.” On year two, “Boyhood” really afforded me the chance to start thinking about my life. When I got to second grade with the film, I started thinking, “Wait, they walked on the moon that year! That was pretty interesting.” Then I started thinking, “Wait, that’s a fascinating time to have been alive!” And then I realized I was the only person who could make that film. I think I’m the only filmmaker who lived near NASA. As far as Houston filmmakers go, Wes Anderson was being born around this time. I think I’m the only one who remembers that moment. Once I had the idea, it was like 10 years of note-taking and research. At first I thought it would be live action, but it wasn’t quite working in my head, then I thought about the fantasy aspect. I found it confusing until I realized that animation would make it all come through. You’ve got to feel like you’re chosen, like you’re the only one who can make the movie. 

You made your first rotoscoped film, “Waking Life,” in 2001. “A Scanner Darkly” followed five years later. What was it like to return to this approach after so much time? 

“Apollo 10 1/2”


I know [animation director] Tommy [Pallotta] and I felt the same way about this. It’s been a while since “Scanner” now. For me, we were shooting that 18 years ago. So I had left it all on the field and I wasn’t imagining that look. I knew what we were doing had to be created. You know, Astroworld doesn’t exist anymore. Then you have the moon, spaceflight. I couldn’t just animated what we filmed. This world had to be very much created. About 10 years ago, Tommy and I made a leap forward in the animation concept because we had some money.

For a while, I was trying to do a remake or update of “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” with [Zach] Galifianakis. Talk about ’60s! They gave me some money to develop the animation aspect of it. That’s where we got going with this. It was like paining backgrounds, not rotoscoping, but more 2D alongside 3D. We were just calling it “two-and-a-half D.” This is ultimately a 2D movie with some 3D elements and some rotoscope. But the rotoscoping is very different from before. It’s not interpolated. It’s a much more minor aspect. But I liked the mashup of techniques. To me, that met our challenge of trying to make an animated period film. We needed this amalgam of styles to tell the story.

The way the story is being told, with this documentary element to it, means that it’s both a document of its time and this fantastical, imaginative thing. So you see a lot of different textures to it. But ultimately it’s like a ’60s scrapbook meets a fantasy meets a very specific time and place. 

And everything was in front of a green screen?

We shot the live action all in one green screen stage, so everything had to be pre-designed. If you’re at the drive-in movie theaters, you tape it off and say, “That’s this.” Or, “Here’s the moon.” So everything was a special effect and it had to be very precise. It was like making a big special effects movie with effects that hadn’t been designed yet. 

How much research did you do?

It was a huge historical research project. NASA is the greatest government agency ever. You can go online and they give you everything. They take that seriously. They’re like, “Hey, we’re tax-payer funded, so all this belongs to you.” All this footage! They’re remarkable in their support. It was weird. What we were editing was actors against green screen. It would be like, oh, they’re at Astroworld. Here’s a home movie image of something from Astroworld. Then we’d say, we’re going to show this Dick Cavett interview. We’d just put in crude images.

It was really tricky to piece together and tell this story. But then you have all these references — a massive file of references. Years before we started, we were collecting people’s home movies from the time. A lot of those images in the movie were just knocking off from our own research. I’d point to them for our animators living in Amsterdam. 

How did you wind up getting Netflix on board?

By their standards, we’re low budget. We’re in their third tier of animation. It’s not Disney-level stuff. We had to be really frugal. 

You’ve probably been answering questions about the growth of the streaming market and the existential threat that poses to movie theaters for longer than you’d like. It must be interesting to be on the inside this time around. 

It was a theoretical question for the longest time. As a filmmaker, you’re constantly asked, “So what about theaters and streaming?” All you can do is pontificate. This time, it was interesting to go through the process. I’ve never been so precious about things. I can’t afford to be. I’m just trying to get my next film made. The bottom line is that Netflix wanted to make the movie. They really thought it could be good. They took the leap that someone has to make: We like you, we like the script, we like what you say it’s going to look like — do it. Production-wise, it’s been a dream. They were the best partners. No crazy notes. It’s been wonderful. It got the film made. It was seriously one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. 

And how about the question of the theatrical release? 

Richard Linklater attends a special screening of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" at Metrograph, in New YorkNY Special Screening of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette", New York, USA - 01 Aug 2019

Richard Linklater

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

This new phase we’re in right now — ask me when it’s over. It’ll play at SXSW, maybe a week here and there, then it’ll be on Netflix. I’m assuming that won’t feel all that different from a lot of films I’ve made: Oh, it played a week somewhere? That sounds like a lot of indie films these days! It really depends on what Netflix does with it. There are categories of Netflix releases. I don’t know if I’m getting the full one yet. 

“Dazed and Confused” is almost 30 years old. That was a studio movie made for around $7 million, which is a budget level that studios don’t really meet anymore. Your movies generally hang out in that vicinity, so it’s not surprising you’d wind up at a streaming company with more flexible spending habits. 

Even the indies have different tiers. These are such interesting times. As a filmmaker, you can’t be precious. I think there’s like five filmmakers in the world who can be super-selective and get exactly what they want. What has our film industry ever done except adapt to things? You could leave filmmaking altogether and go make TV. That’s an option. But if you really want to stick to feature films, which I do, how do you make that work? That’s the question of our age. Fortunately, it seems that they want films.

What’s so interesting about Netflix is that it’s like a different audience for them since they have subscribers. Even the executives are thinking that way. It’s a different mentality. It’s a lot calmer, too. The panic in theatrical is that you live and die by it. If you can convince people to go out and pay money for the first weekend for a movie, the fear and panic that reverberates through marketing and other decision-making is so real. I don’t miss that. I like confident people. They’re like, “Oh, we’ve got a couple hundred million subscribers worldwide and we want to reach them.”

I like that mentality. It’s not fear-based the way theatrical movies are. My last couple of projects have been killed by that. In my mind, it’s been so treacherous out there in the changing environment if you’re going to make adult-ish content that aren’t the kind of films people are flocking to see. 

Meanwhile, you’re shooting “Merrily We Roll Along,” based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical, over the course of 20 years. Talk about risk. What will movies even look like when you’re finished?

Whatever form will be in place when that film gets done, it’ll just be whatever it is at that time. The bottom line is that I don’t really have to think about all that. I have to think about telling a story and making a movie the best I can. The form is surviving. There will be people who still like films. This has been coming on forever. I don’t obsess about it too much. 

How much of that movie is completed?

One down, eight parts to go. We shot the end. We’re making it as we go. It’s not “Boyhood.” There are a ton of gaps. Nine times in 20 years. So far, it’s been a wonderful experience. It’s really cool. But come on, it’s so far off. I’ve got nothing much to say about it. 

How much feedback did you get from Sondheim before he passed away?

It was so, so sad to lose him. I’ll be forever blessed to have had some serious time with him, both in person and on the phone. I went to some plays with him, sat with him. I feel really blessed to have had his generosity. I got to experience that. 

IMDb has you down for two biopics in the works now, one on John Hinkley and the other on Bill Hicks. So what are you actually working on?

Those things go up and they never go away, do they? It’s funny that both of those are true stories about people who really made their mark. They’re both kind of just hovering there right now. Nothing to report. This “Apollo” movie was gestating for 18 years, longer than the whole initial space race. I’ve exceeded Kennedy’s timeline for putting someone on the moon. I’m supposed to be making a film this spring. I hope to be doing that. It’s another Houston movie, a true crime story that I wrote over the summer. Looks like it’s happening, but I don’t know for sure. It’d be fun to make a contemporary Houston movie now. It’s a really underutilized setting in the national consciousness. It’s a crazy-fun place.

Meanwhile, we’re heading into a gubernatorial election year for Texas. When Beto O’Rourke ran for Senate, you created some comical TV spots to try and help him beat Ted Cruz. Now, Beto’s going up against Greg Abbott. So I guess you must have some ideas here. 

Well, to be clear and FCC-appropriate: Those weren’t Beto spots. They were anti-Cruz spots. With Super PAC money, you can’t be pro, but you can be anti. Those are the regulations. I have plenty of anti-Abbott spots spinning in my head constantly. It’s hard to live in Texas and not. It’s a long summer and the election is not until November. A lot can happen between now and then. 

Check out the trailer for “Apollo 10 1/2” below. The film will release globally on Netflix on Friday, April 1.

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