8 Days: To The Moon And Back

ight days, three hours, 18 minutes, 35 seconds. That’s the total duration of the most important and celebrated space mission ever flown - Apollo 11 - when we first stepped foot on the moon. 

8 Days: To The Moon And Back, a feature-length drama documentary marking the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, will bring the untold story of the mission to life.

With access to hours of declassified cockpit audio recorded by the astronauts themselves, the film uses cutting-edge digital effects and dramatised performances to create a stunning 21st century visual journey, taking us inside the capsule and closer to the three astronauts than ever before.

8 Days: To The Moon And Back (1x90’) is made by The Science Unit, BBC Studios, co-produced with PBS and The Open University, in association with Canal +.

Q&A - Anthony Philipson, Director

You weren’t born when the Apollo 11 landed on the moon. When did you first hear about it?
Growing up, space travel was very much something that captured our imagination. A magical, almost superhuman endeavour encapsulated by the birth of the Space Shuttle programme.

Launches were broadcast live and our school would gather to watch these incredible machines blast off into space. As children this fired our imagination and peaked our interest in the origins of space exploration, from the original Sputnik programme right through to majestic Apollo programme. Although I was only born in 1971 the original moon walk was still very much alive, most notably in the Saturn V rockets I coveted in toy shop windows!

What attracted you to this project?
Quite simply the opportunity to tell the story of one of the most famous moments in human history, from a completely new perspective.

What did you set up to achieve?
I wanted to bring the audience inside the Saturn rocket to experience the entire mission as if they were the fourth crew member.

To understand how it felt on a personal level for all three astronauts to undertake such a momentous mission, to see what they saw and to feel what they felt. Using the flight logs and data we wanted to ensure every moment depicted was true to the real mission. Ultimately I wanted to make sure nothing was heightened or overly dramatised. It’s all as it happened, as never seen before.

What challenges did you encounter?
The challenges were two-fold. Firstly getting our cast to manage the huge demand of lip-synching the original recordings, and the second was pulling off our ‘Hollywood’ ambitions on a fraction of their budget.

My incredible cast managed to pull off the first challenge beyond even my ambition. They were simply incredible at bringing the three iconic astronauts to life. The second was achieved through a combination of the incredible talents of the Matthew Button’s designer team, the Director of Photography Tim Cragg, and the VFX team at BDH. Without them we would never have been able to create the environment both inside and outside the rocket to simulate space flight.

How did you bring your vision to life?
A combination of incredible actors pulling off the lip-synching and the hugely talented and dedicated graphics team at BDH. With painstaking attention to detail they mapped out the exact flight plan to make sure the visual elements of the mission were accurate at every point of the journey. The distance to the moon, the trajectory of approach, and the landing were all analysed to ensure what the audience sees is as it was for Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong. These graphics elements, combined with the immersive performances from my actors within the lifelike sets, made for the perfect combination.

What made you decide to use the actual cockpit audio recorded by the astronauts themselves?
It was never in doubt to use the actual recordings. It would have been far more straightforward transcribing the recordings and have our cast perform the words as recorded, but nothing can compare to hearing the real voices themselves. That’s what unique about the film. Hearing Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong in their own voices makes the viewing experience undeniably more engaging and provides a perspective on the story that hasn’t been seen before.

Why should people watch 8 Days: To The Moon And Back?
That’s why I hope people watch 8 Days: To The Moon And Back. It’s a familiar story told in an entirely unfamiliar and unique way. We all know the iconic moments of the mission, the famous quotes that will live forever in human history, but what most people haven’t heard is what was said in the lead up to and after these moments. It’s three men hurtling towards the moon in a tin can whilst the whole world watches on in awe. Hopefully this film re-engages our wonder at this amazing human achievement and the prospect of further space exploration.

Q&A - Philip Ralph, Writer


You weren’t born when the moon landing happened. When did you first hear about it?
I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Moon landing. I was born a few weeks after Apollo 14 - the third successful mission - and the narrative of the Apollo program and the bravery of the astronauts pervaded my childhood.

The first thing I ever wanted to be was an astronaut, and during my youth I read everything I could get my hands on about the missions, knowing the names of all the astronauts and their exploits off by heart. As the years have passed since the final Apollo mission in 1972 my interest in the story has only grown, and I have eagerly watched all the films and series and read all the books on the subject. It’s been an absolute privilege to play a small role in telling the story once again for the 50th anniversary.

What was it about 8 Days: To The Moon And Back that was so appealing to you?
As a self-confessed Apollo fan, the idea behind 8 Days: To The Moon And Back caught my imagination from the start. The opportunity to dig into the audio transcripts of the mission we didn’t see or hear - and to really draw out the human experiences of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins - was an irresistible challenge. This is a classic case of history smoothing over the dangers of what actually happened.

Fifty years on, we know they achieved their goal of landing on the Moon and returning home safely. It all now seems like it was a foregone conclusion. The reality at the time was that no-one had any idea if they would return at all. It was truly a voyage into the unknown, quite possibly a suicide mission, so to get the chance to see it all with fresh eyes - to actually be in the capsule with them, to view the Earth from orbit, to cross the black miles between the Earth and the Moon, to be on tenterhooks as they approached the Sea of Tranquility with program alarms blaring and running out of fuel, to be with Armstrong as he took that first step, to sweat as they wondered if the ascent engine would successfully blast them off the surface, and to celebrate as they splashed back down on Earth - it was an opportunity of a lifetime.

What was the process in writing the script?
The production team sent me a huge amount of material that they had already gathered before I came onto the project - transcripts, audio recordings, images, and video. I poured through all the transcripts of the astronauts' communications and began to select the key moments of the mission: blast-off, Trans-Lunar Injection, docking and extraction of the LM (Lunar Modul), Lunar Orbit Injection, Descent Orbit Insertion, Landing, EVA etc.

The narrative of the mission is well established, and it was vital that I hit all the expected beats but, alongside all of this, I was looking for unexpected and unheard moments of the astronauts' reactions and their relationships with each other. Once I had all of this in place, I then looked for details and ‘colour’ for the story by accessing the archives of CBS News coverage of the mission, anchored by US TV legend Walter Cronkite. This enabled me to cut away from the astronauts from time to time to explain some of the more technical aspects of the mission without resorting to using voiceover.

Once I’d gathered all of this material, I then crafted the script, editing and honing it down into a 90-minute narrative, highlighting which scenes would be archive footage and which would be recreated by the actors lip-syncing to the archive recordings.

There are hours and hours of declassified cockpit audio recorded by the astronauts. What made you want to include the lines used in 8 Days: To The Moon And Back?
The brief was always to put the audience in the capsule with Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. The media commentators of the time in 1969 often complained that the three men were 'taciturn' and not very talkative. In studying the transcripts, it turns out that nothing could be further from the truth! They talked all the time but, to the chagrin of the TV pundits desperate for exciting stuff to share with their audience, the vast majority of what was said was hugely technical, complex and unintelligible to the layman.

Obviously, I needed to include a fair proportion of this since the science and technical achievement of the mission is the heart of the story, but in addition I was really looking to find moments of human connection, wonder and reaction to the unique and unprecedented experience they were going through. I wasn’t disappointed. All three men - including Armstrong, famous for being a man of few words - shared jokes, awe, wonder, and fear with each other throughout the mission.

Uncovering this hidden layer of human experience was truly thrilling and really opens up the story of Apollo 11 in a completely new way. I often joke that they were actually three men on an eight-day trip in a rather high-tech campervan, with all the hilarity and mundanity that goes with that. Finding these moments of humanity amidst the technical jargon really brings that home in a brand new way.

What did you find most challenging throughout the project?
Having to work so fast! I came on board the project in July last year after the production team had been planning and gathering material for quite some time. I needed to read, digest and process all of the archive as quickly as possible, and then write and deliver the script in order for the film to be shot, edited and ready in time for the anniversary in July this year.

It was a huge amount of material to process and I was eating, sleeping and breathing Apollo 11 for many months - which, of course, was an absolute joy for the little boy inside me who still wants to be an astronaut! Even as I was writing I was constantly finding some new piece of archive, some new detail or moment that absolutely had to be in the story. It was an all-encompassing task and I loved every second of it!

I should also say that a big challenge was realising quite how much lip-syncing I was suggesting in the script that I wrote. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, to lip-sync to 50 year-old audio recordings and make it look natural - but I felt it was the only way to communicate the astronaut’s experiences.

Fortunately, the producer, James Van Der Pool, and the director, Anthony Philipson, embraced the idea and the three actors did an absolutely amazing job. It really takes the viewer inside the experience and adds so much to the finished film - I forget that they’re not actually speaking after about five seconds!

Rufus Wright plays Neil Armstrong


What made you want to be a part of 8 Days: To The Moon And Back?
I’m too young to remember the moon landing happening: I was born five years after Apollo 11. But the story of the Apollo missions, the staggering bravery and imagination of the thousands of men and women involved, and the sheer scale of it, have cast a long shadow over the experience of growing up in the late 20th century, and I was eager to be involved in helping to retell the story in an entirely new way.

Actors often talk about reading a script for something they’ve been sent while they're on the bus, and being knocked out by it - possibly by brilliant writing or characterisation or an unforeseen plot twist. I found myself missing my stop on the tube as I read the descent to the lunar surface. It’s not as if I didn’t know what was going to happen, or even that the characters of Neil and Buzz were suddenly brought alive as living, complex characters. If I’m honest it’s just a series of incredibly quickly delivered instructions, figures, speeds and trajectories but, again, the sheer bravery of these men, the extraordinary skill required... I thought, if there’s any way we can look again at what these men went through, and what made them tick, dramatise it, tell that story, I’m in.

How did you prepare for a role of an astronaut?
I read as much as I could about Apollo and the Gemini and Mercury missions before it, and about Armstrong in particular. I watched First Man and Apollo 13 and researched what I could about early space flight. But you could spend years looking at that and still only scratch the surface. I only got the part a couple of weeks before filming, so time was very limited. As with any role, it was a case of doing as much research as you can around the subject, then always returning to the text. You can learn a million facts and figures about translunar injection burns, but if you don’t know anything about Neil’s basic mannerisms and speech patterns you’re not going to do a great job.

So actually this was a role in which I had to replicate as closely as I possibly could Neil Armstrong’s appearance and vocal and physical tics. 8 Days: To The Moon And Back uses the original audio from Apollo 11, which we lip-sync to. So we are literally giving one half of a full performance. The other half - the voice - is Neil. My job was to sell that as well as I could, so that I was literally speaking. So creatively it wasn’t a creation of a character from scratch, I’m literally filling in what we imagine the visual half of the story is from the audio we have.

The other aspects of playing an astronaut - the physical demands, the restriction of movement in the space suit, the weightlessness in space and the one sixth gravity on the moon - we had to prepare for, but basically learn on the job. It was extremely physically demanding. And with the helmets on, with an air pump loudly blowing under our chins to clear condensation and help us breathe, with audio playing in our earpieces and the director giving instructions at the same time, strapped tightly on our backs on our launch seats, which were being shaken violently by the crew to simulate take off... it wasn’t the cushiest job. Though about one percent of what the real astronauts went through.

Why should viewers tune in to watch 8 Days: To The Moon And Back?
8 Days: To The Moon And Back is ideal for Apollo 11 enthusiasts and space fans. It uses previously unheard material and an incredible amount of new research into what happened on the voyage. Imagine you were a fan of something of which there is only the grainiest footage and scratchy audio: a fragment, a distorted memory. Now imagine that entirely recreated and shot in cinema-quality HD, in which every frame is an attempt to create what this all actually looked like - what shape the windows and handles and buttons were, what they would have seen out of the window, and even how Neil and Buzz would have responded when they first saw and walked on the moon. That’s what the makers of 8 Days: To The Moon And Back have done.

But as much as it’s manna from heaven for completists, it’s a perfect introduction to the Apollo 11 story for people with little or no knowledge. The use of archive footage of Walter Cronkite and the CBS news coverage really helps the viewer feel what it must have been like to watch the moon landing occur. 8 Days: To The Moon And Back also looks at the human side of things - the emotions these three men went through. I think people watching it will have a window on what it was really like to land on the moon.

Jack Tarlton plays Buzz Aldrin


What made you want to be a part of 8 Days?

I was gripped by Philip Ralph's script. Although the keys events of the moon landing are now so well known, each step towards the moon and back felt utterly real and new - from the dedicated team work and technical achievement required, to the practical life aboard the craft, to the worldwide implications of success or failure. As all the dialogue is taken from on-board recordings, mission control archive and news services, it read like a great mix of thriller, social document and verbatim film-making. So I was very excited about climbing into my spacesuit and trying to make that all work.

How did you prepare for a role of an astronaut?
By listening to the on-board recordings of Buzz Aldrin, watching interviews and videos of him training and reading his books, Return To Earth and Magnificent Desolation. Although a large portion of the books deal with his life after the moon landing they gave me a real insight into his fascinating, contradictory nature. I was left with a huge admiration for him and what he has had to overcome.

Moonshot by Dan Parry was very instructive too and I also had a long chat to a friend who has spent time with Buzz and other Apollo programme astronauts.

Why should viewers tune in to watch 8 Days: To The Moon And Back?
If you weren't around 50 years ago to watch the moon landing live, then now is your chance! And if you were, then you can now experience what it was like for the astronauts themselves, you can be there when Collins loops around the far side of the moon, as Armstrong and Aldrin step out onto its surface. It remains one of humanity's greatest achievements and I do think that this film captures what it must have been like for the individuals involved.

Patrick Kennedy plays Michael Collins

What made you want to be a part of 8 Days: To The Moon And Back?
It's simply one of the best stories in the history of mankind - an epic of discovery, a paradigm shift in our understanding of our place in the universe, and carried out by people who had both extraordinary scientific acumen and rare courage. The whole project was driven by unusual personalities. Given all that, it is a story that mostly unfolds minute to minute in relatable detail.

It was interesting to hear in the cockpit recordings how the astronauts' fear is sublimated by technical talk and moments of humour, and a tetchiness between them that came from three very different men being thrown together. Collins was seemingly the most personable of the three astronauts, and he had a humorous, somewhat aristocratic disposition, which made him a good foil for the more challenging personalities that he rode with to the moon.

The cockpit recordings are for many hours terse and technical, but then there are passages that make you want to weep with the drama and danger of it all.

How did you prepare for a role of an astronaut?
I read the books the astronauts had written and talked to our researchers. If I'd had the time I probably would have gone to Jacques Lecoq because simulating zero G was the biggest challenge - that and lip-synching to the audio. It's amazing what you can do with an office chair on wheels though. Most of the work was listening and listening and listening again to the audio until we knew it backwards. Then you can interpret that as any actor would for what it means to the person saying it.

Why should viewers tune in to watch 8 Days: To The Moon And Back?
I think people should watch it because it's a wonderful historical record of one of the greatest adventures ever undertaken. We've faithfully edited the recordings from the cockpit of Apollo 11 recordings into what we hope will be a true and exciting dramatisation.

It's possible for the layman to grasp the overview of how the moon landing was achieved, but I think it will be a revelation for people to hear how it was done in detail, moment to moment, the human decisions and skill that made it possible.

July 3, 2019 10:40am ET by BBC TWO  


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