There have been many narrative films and documentaries about the United States’ efforts to get to the moon, but nothing is quite like Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11. Using all archival footage and no narrator, the documentary gives us such a realistic portrait of America’s patriotism that we feel like we are transported to the late 1960’s. Throughout the doc, we hear Matt Morton’s electronic, pulsing score. Using only instruments that were available at that time period, Morton’s music dives us into this well-told story and makes us forget that we know the outcome of the Apollo 11 mission.
Some instruments from the 1960’s aren’t readily available, but Morton lucked out with finding an iconic synthesizer that worked perfectly to enhance the beauty and the tension. Electronic music might not be everyone’s immediate choice when they think of scoring NASA’s iconic mission, but Morton uses it so perfectly that it only enhances your emotion of everything that’s underscored. He also knows when to take a step back and let the footage speak for itself.
We have seen the success of the Apollo 11 mission countless times, but Morton’s music lets us hear it in an entirely new way. It’s bold and beautiful and he lets us hear the wonder of a new frontier.
Awards Daily: I love Apollo 11 so much, and I think your score is exquisite.
Matt Morton: Thank you so much.
AD: I think a lot of people might not think that an electronic score would fit the story of the moon landing. Was it instinctive to go that route?
MM: It kind of started with a short film that we did for CNN Films in 2016 about Apollo 17 called The Last Steps. It was a 30-minute cut that went to a few film festivals, and there’s a 20-minute cut that’s still available online right now. Great Big Story does bite sized, micro docs, so we were part of a bath of 8 or 10 films that was their first foray into somewhat longer films. That was our first all archival doc, and that was like a miniature Apollo 11. No narrator. All old footage. With that one, I did start to experiment with electronic music, and I didn’t restrict myself to any group of instruments or any era.
AD: Oh cool.
MM: Some of the textures feel very modern. Modern drum loops and modern reverbs and it sounds very 2016 or like now. There was a cool juxtaposition there. The electronics spoke to me in how electronic music feels futuristic the same way the visuals do in a space film—even though that was from 1972. I can’t imagine how futuristic that might have looked to someone who was alive at the same time as The Wright Brothers.
AD: How hard was it to find that technology from the time period?
MM: It wasn’t in this case. When I was watching The Last Steps, I dug the score, but it was kind of jarring and messed up my ability to fully get into 1972. That’s why I wanted to use sounds that could’ve been made at the time. We are taking away that barrier for someone to feel like they aren’t there. Some of the instruments are pretty rare or cumbersome or expensive. I happen to have a Hammond A100 organ which is like a B3 or a C3, but it was the home version of those. The B3 was for touring musicians, the C3 was for churches, and the A100 was for people at home. That is just a 350 pound organ. Not too many people have those.
AD: I can’t imagine they would.
MM: I had a buddy whose aunt had one for 50 years, and he called every church and school and nobody wanted it. They wanted the portable keyboard that’s easier to maintain and doesn’t run on tubes. He gave it to me for free. I didn’t want this piece of history to get scrapped, you know? It only lived in one room for its whole life, and I’ve wanted one my while life since I’m into reggae and classic rock. That one was easy to come by in a sense but it was still expensive to move. I came upon the idea of using the Moog and the synthesizer because I was looking at the fact that the Apollo program was the cutting edge of science. It was credited with fast forwarding the normal technological pace for 10 or 20 years, so what was going on in the music world at the time of the mission that was just becoming available and ending up having a huge impact on future musicians. The Moog was getting a lot of attention because Wendy Carlos released an album called Switched-On Bach.
AD: I feel like I’ve heard about that.
MM: It was a bunch of Bach tunes done on the Moog synthesizer. It was really novel, because, while these instruments were developed in the 60’s and being used by rich commercial composers, Switched-On Bach blew people’s minds. I believe it won a Grammy and sold more than any classical album in history.
MM: It was just starting in 68 or 69—that was the high mark of the Moog synthesizer. The Beatles have one on Abbey Road and Keith Richards had one. Keith Emerson actually bought one for a four synthesizer concert at MOMA in New York in August of 1969. At the time, they were rare, because they cost 10 or 15 thousand dollars in that time. If you had the means, it was the thing to have. Once Switched-On Bach came out, these Moog versions of songs were coming out. It was a big fad. Because of how expensive they were and how hand-built they were, they didn’t make very many.
When I was coming up with this idea to use period instruments, it was kind of a high hurdle to have, but I lucked out when the Moog factory reissued the C3. They made 25 units of it in 2017—right around the time I was starting in on the score. They used old methods and materials, including obsolete transistors and resistors and all these parts that would make modern builders say, ‘Why would you want to build with this junk.’ The sound of those instruments comes from their imperfection and their inability to hold steady. I got serial number 19 of 25 (laughs).
AD: I love how the film, at times, feels like a thriller. It makes us forget that we know how the mission went, and we feel like we don’t know what’s going to happen. The launch gave me anxiety.
AD: The pulsing in the track called “Countdown” really amps up that tension. Can you tell me about that?
MM: We wanted you experience it in the way people would experience it. At the time, they didn’t know they were coming back safely. The astronauts had a three in four chance of making it back alive which are pretty terrible odds. Would you get in your car and go to the grocery store if you knew you had a one in three chance of dying? Very early one when we got the 65 millimeter film and doing some test scans with this prototype scanner, we had to pick a few reels of Apollo 11 footage. One was the liftoff and one was the suiting off. A couple of days before the launch, they did a dress rehearsal of them getting suited up and making sure everything was good to go. In that footage, you an see them joking and it’s light-hearted. No pressure. They are professionals but you can tell they aren’t going to fly that day.
MM: But when you see the real footage of them, you can see they are dead serious. They are focused. I wouldn’t say they look scared, but Walter Cronkite has this voice over about the burdens and the hopes of all mankind is on their shoulders. Add to that the importance of the mission and the fact that it’s a 36-story rocket built by the lowest builder. A thousand things have to happen in the perfect order for them to come home safe, and you get a taste of the things that can go wrong if you see Apollo 13. A wiring issue from 2 years ago that nobody knows about could end up killing you. Todd [Douglas Miller] said early on that he wanted it to be Dunkirk in space. We wanted you to be on the edge of your seat. So many depictions of the Apollo missions take for granted that they come back safely. The music helps you celebrate the heroic and patriotic side of it, but a lot of times, in the films that I watched to help prepare, that it felt a little too lighthearted.
MM: When you consider the seriousness of what was going on. I just thought it would really cool to make it tick and give it its tension and danger. These guys were putting their lives on the line. I don’t know how much you know about the space program, but Apollo 12 was struck by lighting 30 seconds into launching.
AD: Oh, my god. I didn’t know that. I would’ve bailed so quickly. Those guys are so much braver than I am (laughs).
MM: Yeah. In the countdown, I purposely did some things to notch up your anxiety. I chose 60 beats per minute to put a kick in there and I used a couple drum machines from 1967 and mixed those together to get that warm heartbeat sound. You’re hearing it every second coinciding with that countdown. I’ve got the Moog pulsing at a quicker rate than that so they are constantly out of phase with each other, and that constant fighting each other has an anxiety inducing effect. Then you have those strings playing tremolo, and I throw in some discordant combination of notes that are meant to ratchet up the energy. It needed that or else it would be so flat (laughs).
AD: When I first saw it in theaters, I didn’t know how quickly the film was going to go by. It’s only a 90-minute film, and I had no idea that it was going to take me…on this ride. Your music enhances really drives it.
MM: Thank you.
AD: When we get to the moon, it’s really peaceful and cautious and quiet. We are trained to hear this triumphant music whenever we see moments like that in narrative films.
MM: After they’ve touched down and they are slowly panning the surface?
MM: Not including the montage of day 2 and 3 footage where they are doing science experiments and TV transmissions, everything was meant to give you that anxiety. But when they land, it’s a combination of that’s a relief and look at where we are. Look how beautiful it is. Can you believe what we are seeing right now? We get to be the first people on the moon! You’re right in that so many other films have taken a celebratory approach there. We didn’t feel we needed to do that, but at the same time but we wanted to take a different approach. Sometimes I default into thinking what I might be feeling if I was there. I would be feeling amazing, but it would be tempered with there’s no guarantees that we would get home. It was a muted sense of wonder, but you don’t get the full celebration until, basically, the end credits or after they splash down and they’re stable. It needed some moon magic. You’re on a different planet and on a different soil and feel almost slightly alien but magical and beautiful.
AD: There’s that shot—I’m not sure if it’s in that exact sequence or not—where see Earth in the distance. And that stark quietness is really effective and beautiful.
MM: And that’s a choice that was made from the top to not have music during the EVA or the extra vehicular activity or the moonwalk. In the choice to use Buzz Aldren’s view of first steps, we see it as they would have. There wasn’t music when they were doing all that. Another thing that a lot of docs about Apollo 11 do is as soon as they touch down, they cut to all this footage of people watching it around the world and the celebratory music is playing with a family in Tokyo with TV trays watching and Times Square. I thought it was cool that he delivers his line, and you don’t hear anything at all. You are reminded that it’s quiet. One of his jobs was to describe what it looked like, and I feel like that queue is the missing link between of the touchdown and quiet that you have coming for you.
AD: The film also doesn’t use music throughout it all the time. It allows the music to enhance the emotional beats. It has a clean intention whenever it’s present.
MM: It’s the never cry wolf thing. Less is more. Everyone has that relative or friend that doesn’t talk a whole lot, but when they do, it means that much more. You listen a little bit more, and their word carry more weight because they are a little more rare. In a documentary with such amazing footage and dialogue, it didn’t need as much? In general, we took The Hippocratic Oath approach and didn’t get in the way. It’s already great. The only way to mess this film up was overdo it. We spotted it pretty sparse as it is. If the music is there, it’s doing a job. I think that’s really important—not just with this film or a documentary—that if you just stick music underneath everything, you start to not hear it. Sometimes I’ll see a cut of a film from a younger filmmaker, and they will just plaster it with music and it can have the opposite effect.
AD: It can get in the way.
MM: Yeah. It’s like your eyes glaze over and you start hearing it.
AD: You sort of touched on this when you mention the patriotism, but I love that moment where the music swells in when the parachutes open. How did you go about creating patriotic music that doesn’t take the usual ‘stars and stripes’ route?
MM: I tend to be a minimalist musician. That comes from playing guitar for 34 years or something like that. I’ve always been a fan of soloists that play singable solos but use less notes to say more. Like Miles Davis more than John Coltrane blazing out and playing a million notes. Both have their place and neither is right or wrong. I like using less notes to really make sure they are the right notes with the right tone.
It’s kind of like ordering something in a restaurant like an artichoke dip that only has 2 or 3 ingredients. There’s nowhere to hide. It has to be made with the best stuff. You don’t need to try too hard and you get to enjoy the good ingredients. With that in mind, it’s very simple. It’s strings with brass strengthening it up. Playing chords at a slow tempo with a little bit of timpani and big orchestral bass drum. I chose a slow tempo to play against the elation of the scene. And against the major key. It would’ve been easy to play into everyone’s cheering, American flags are waving, people are breaking out cigars. It’s an amazing moment and it needed something to play against it.