While directing the documentary “Good Night Oppy,” which recalls the 15-year journey of the Mars rover Opportunity, Ryan White interviewed NASA scientists, dug through exclusive behind-the-scenes footage, and worked with Industrial Light & Magic to recreate the robot’s journey. But highlight of the whole experience were the notes he got from one of the film’s producers.
His name was Steven Spielberg.
“It was crazy,” White said in a recent interview with IndieWire over Zoom. “Not to take anything away from other producers, but Spielberg’s notes were one of a kind. They were so incisive.” The veteran filmmaker’s involvement with the project came through his company Amblin, which set up the project with production company Film 45 and secured NASA’s commitment prior to White’s signing on. “Spielberg’s name played a huge role in getting NASA onboard,” White said. “They’re pretty protective.”
It’s easy to see why: “Good Night Oppy,” which Amazon will premiere at Telluride and TIFF this month, presents a far more emotional perspective of NASA engineers than the calculated image that the government body usually offers up. The story of the rover — which explored nearly 30 miles of Mars surface between 2003 and 2018 — features stunning, photorealistic renderings of what it looked like on the surface of the planet. Yet the movie stands out from a slew of space-themed projects because it’s just as much about the people guiding the mission, and often conveys a Spielbergian sense of awe.
White, whose previous credits include crowdpleasers “The Case Against 8” and “Ask Dr. Ruth,” may not seem like the most obvious fit for a big-budget documentary about planetary exploration. But he was sold on the basic pitch: the robot that was supposed to live 90 days and ended up surviving for 15 years. “I loved space films growing up and always wanted to do one once I became a documentary filmmaker, but all the ones that had ever been presented to us just weren’t the right fit,” he said, citing portraits of astronauts as the most common type of project making the rounds. “A lot of the things that I’ve been pitched aren’t the types of things that I would want to make,” he said. “It needed to be a real character-driven film.”
Using detailed footage the NASA command center, which also oversaw the mission of Opportunity’s twin Spirit, the movie explores how the Opportunity team cared for the machine they lovingly called “Oppy” despite the seeming absurdity of that relationship. Their investment in the mission is paired with recreations that stop just short of making the rover seem like a sentient being.
“The most common conversation in the edit room was how much we were anthropomorphizing the robot versus the people that were telling the story,” White said. “I don’t think any of us expected scientists and engineers to be this emotional or wear their hearts on their sleeves.”
White said Spielberg’s notes were crucial here. “The most important one I got from him was about walking that tightrope of emotion and not manipulating the audience too much,” he said. “His notes were incredibly helpful in that way of making sure that the audience does fall in love with the robot without forcing it.”
White and his filmmaking team were able to dig through some 600 hours of footage from the mission, and while NASA had approved all the footage it released for the project, producer Jessica Hargrave said that they never got involved in the editing process. “It never felt that there was influence or control coming from them,” she said. “They knew what we wanted to do.”
The mission control footage features staffers who grow up with the mission and many endearing scenes of the team’s rituals as they live on Mars time, including a string of hilarious “wake up” songs. As the filmmakers realized how the Opportunity mission became central to the lives of their subjects, their closeness to the robot grew more tangible.
But the real hurdle for the filmmaking team came from the animated sequences set on the surface, which take up nearly half of the runtime. White wrote a script for the movie and developed sequences with veteran storyboard artist Josh Sheppard (“The Batman”), but the filmmaker realized he was in new terrain — literally and figuratively — when it came to special effects. “At the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “All CGI starts as really crude animatics. As a director, you have to really trust that ILM is going to carry it out in a way that’s not cheesy. We were always saying we didn’t want it to feel like a cartoon.”
The VFX studio pulled from thousands of images of the Mars surface, including several taken by Mars orbiters that were originally treated as additional characters in the film for an earlier cut. The approach continued to evolve last year, when new rover Perseverance landed on the surface and captured audio of wind from the planet for the first time. Working with sound designer Mark Mangini, who recently won the Oscar for “Dune” and also worked on “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the filmmakers were able to incorporate the wind recordings into the soundscape of the movie. At times the images of the robot making its way through the desert landscape bears a marked similarity to “Wall-E,” a comparison that was not lost on the team. “We talked about ‘Wall-E’ a lot,” White said. “We were always reminding ourselves, ‘We’re making a documentary, we’re not making a Pixar film.’ The science and authenticity was important.”
Still, when White pitched the project to buyers in 2020, he brought up several narrative comparisons over documentaries. “We were always saying it’s like ‘E.T.’ meets ‘Wall-E’ meets ‘Her,’ because of the human-machine connection,” White said. (The ’80s were big on that theme: “Flight of the Navigator” and “Harry and the Hendersons” also came up.) “The idea was that the audience had to fall in love with a non-human character who’s going to leave in the end — or die, in this case — but it still had to be a family film,” White said. “At the same time, we didn’t want to dumb it down. We knew that would do no justice to the engineers and the scientists.”
They tested rough cuts with family audiences, including Hargraves’ young children. “They understood it less, but there was still that sense of wonder and awe, which would on’t feel as much as an adult,” she said. That response confirmed an observation by the former Opportunity scientist Steve Squires, who says in the movie that while an eight-year-old might not understand spectroscopy, “show them a robot and their eyes light up.”
With time, White said the enthusiasm for the robot’s journey was infectious. “We were also finding ourselves falling in love with Opportunity, even though we never knew her, through the people and their bond that they had with her,” he said. “It is a box of wires and it is an inanimate object, but it feels alive to the people who made it.”
He was concerned that Squyres (who will attend Telluride to promote the film) would be troubled by the way the movie turned out. “I was worried he was going to say something like, ‘This was way too much of a Disney film,'” White said. “But he thought it stuck the perfect emotional balance of how they felt about her.”
“Good Night Oppy” arrives at a pivotal moment in the history of planetary exploration, as NASA’s Artemis mission gears up for future missions to the moon and the privatization of the industry means many more missions are around the corner (including those from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which is not associated with the project). That bigger picture was intentionally left out of the movie. “It’s more about what we can learn from that planet and apply to ours,” Hargrave said. ” I think that’s why people have really tried to put forward the research that needs to go into that planet specifically — how it can relate to and affect this one.”
Needless to say, White said the experience made him curious about the possibility of traveling to space one day — but he was hardly interested in signing up for any future plans to colonize the red planet. “Mars sounds like an awful place to live,” he said. “It’s pretty boring, too.”
Amazon releases “Good Night Oppy” in theaters on Friday, November 4 and on Prime Video on Wednesday, November 23.