Neon came to Contenders London with their Sundance hit Apollo 11, a visually stunning documentary tracing the 1969 moon mission helmed by Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins. Whittled down from over 300 hours of archival footage, some of it on 70mm, Todd Douglas Miller’s film has, so far, grossed $11m at the US box office and looks set to figure prominently in the non-fiction awards race.
Amazingly, much of this footage had never been seen before, the director told Deadline’s Jake Kanter. “All these reels were sitting down in DC in cold storage for the better half of 50 years.”
Unusually, the film eschews the normal tropes of documentary filmmaking, with no narration, talking heads or simulations. Instead, Miller lets the story unfold onscreen, and he acknowledges that he was more than happy just to let the material speak for itself.
“While we were making this film, Dunkirk came out, and we were saying we wanted it to feel like Dunkirk in space,” he laughed. “But then, my favorite films are the ones where you don’t necessarily see the fingerprints of the people that made it. I just wanted to get out of the way and just let people experience it for what it is. Y’know, all of us were space nerds, so we wanted to show scenes that we hadn’t seen depicted in a fiction or nonfiction film before.”
That experience is, first and foremost, a story of human bravery and ingenuity. “We always wanted to tell the story of the mission itself,” he said, “and tell it in kind of a first-person narrative, with just the astronauts and the people in mission control. That was always the plan from the beginning… [But then] more footage started coming to us, and then NASA informed us they had 18,000 hours of audio that was just uncatalogued.
“So we knew, once we were dealing with that kind of volume of material, that our project wasn’t just a film any more—we were witnesses to history. We were participating in a project that was going to update the historical record and that work still continues. We’re still working with NASA to try to understand exactly what happened.”