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Emmys: Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel Discuss Bringing The Pages of National Geographic to Life in ‘One Strange Rock’

“It was such a huge task to go to 145 different locations and six continents.” Darren Aronofsky Discusses Shooting National Geographic’s One Strange Rock and capturing the orbital perspective for viewers of the show.

 

In One Strange Rock, we go to the most exciting and never before seen places on planet earth. We also go into space with ten astronauts, hearing their stories. National Geography and director Darren Aronofsky take us on a journey, one that is so visually rich and detailed showing us how everything on earth is interconnected. From a woman climbing the largest structure in South America to the hottest place on the planet, imagine National Geographic magazine come alive through this series, as the narrative is told through the story of the astronauts. Watching it is the only way to see the stunning beauty and richness of our world and Arofonsky brings it to us with fresh eyes. I caught up with Aronofsky and Executive Producer, Ari Handel to talk about the series.

If nominated, One Strange Rock would give executive producer Darren Aronofsky his first Emmy nomination. Astronaut Paolo Nespoli, an active astronaut in the European Space Agency is also eligible for a cinematography nomination.

 

Darren, what was it that made you say yes to doing a documentary about space?

There are many things that came together on this one. It made a lot of sense to do this one. The whole thing started off with Peter Rice approaching me who I’ve known from back in the Fox Searchlight days. He knew a little bit about me and all my different interests.

I heard about the mission of the project which was to do something that hasn’t really been done before. It wasn’t just to make a show about animals or about people, but to blend all the scenes to try to give a single portrait of life on earth. It was terrifying because of the daunting scale of that but understanding that National Geographic and their resources were behind us and that they were teaming us up with Utopia that had executed things on this scale before gave Ari and I confidence that it might turn into something really exciting.

What conversations did you and Ari have about the vision for the show because you cover so much in terms of landscape and terrain?

Darren: We are a narrative company. We are storytellers and we’re interested in creating material that gives audiences an emotional reaction. There was going to be a lot of science always with this project. I think Ari and I were really focused on how do you connect our humanity with all these different sciences. We were always searching for that type of chaos.

It’s interesting how the episodes actually work because I think part of the success of the show was that all of the science coming together with the personal testament of these astronauts climaxed into this emotional payoff at the end of each episode.

I loved the narrative and the opening of Chris Hatfield’s story and Peggy Whitson’s story. Talk about how the cut all came together.

Ari: One of the things we wanted to do was that we wanted to see if we could give an arc across the whole show and that’s why it ends with Home because it ends with a return and goes to a place. We start with the most familiar thing which is taking a single breath and hopefully, we take you on a journey where you go out and you start to see a little bit of surprise, a little bit of danger, then we bring you to space where you see things from another perspective and then we return you back home. The idea was to put in, even though we go astronaut by astronaut, really through a journey, of a single astronaut when they go up and they come back down and they have this experience. The whole show ultimately is about the perspective shift the astronaut goes through and that lets you see the planet through fresh eyes.

I’m assuming neither of you went on the spacewalk. One of my favorite shows is with Peggy in the cupola. Talk about working with Paolo Nespoli being your eyes up in space.

Darren: I think a lot of footage that we’ve seen on the space station is astronauts performing for the camera with all the fluorescents on. I wanted to do something that was a bit more documentary cinema verite style. So the first thing I asked was if we could turn off all the fluorescents and have the scene lit with the sun and the sun reflecting off the earth. Then I talked about really trying to find details on Peggy as opposed to the typical wide shot and everyone doing flips but really get into the details and the humanity. It was very much what we were doing on planet earth.

It was giving Paolo the tools and shot types we were doing here on earth and seeing if he could recreate them in outer space.

When you’re doing a show like this, what were some of the obstacles you faced?

Darren: It’s a very different process. When you make a narrative film, you have your screenplay which is your blueprint and you execute that blueprint with a very specific plan. With a documentary, you don’t know what you’re going to have until you shoot it. We were able to pinpoint places on the planet that hadn’t been used before and say, “Hey this would be amazing for an audience to witness.” Then, we’d interview the different astronauts and find out their interesting and personal stories. We’d match these locations to these different stories to try to bring them to life. It’s a very different process. You’re making it as the different elements come in.

What was it like seeing that footage come back?

Darren: They went to so many places and it was such a huge task to go to 145 different locations, six continents, to go to the hottest place on the planet and the coldest place on the planet and to capture such bizarre animals and human ceremonies and to blend them together. The footage was constantly exciting and thrilling.

It needs to be a coffee table book.

Darren: Ha. Watching an episode of One Strange Rock is like reading the Nat Geo magazine in the way that you flip through and you see all these different parts of the world. That’s actually why our subtitles are in yellow and when we go to different locations, it’s in yellow, I wanted to remind people of the yellow border on the magazine.

What was the most exciting aspect to learn while making this because it’s a whole new experience?

Darren: To hang out with all of the astronauts was such a treat because each of them is incredibly brave, courageous, intelligent.

Ari: Optimistic.

Darren: Optimistic. What blew me away was that they all have this cosmic consciousness. Even if you were in space, something changes fundamentally when you leave the earth and look back down on the planet and we tried to capture that experience of the overview effect for all of us earthlings.

Will you be doing more TV?

Darren: I hope so. We’ve been developing a lot of stuff for a while so hopefully, more stuff will come to light soon.