I had the privilege of first seeing Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood at its SXSW premiere in March, the coming-of-age, fantasy adventure follows Stan, a young boy who gets recruited to take part in a top-secret Apollo mission in preparation for the moon landing. Having grown up in the suburbs of Houston, where the legacy of NASA’s space program still looms large, I was transfixed by the animated rendering of my hometown—bursting with a mixture of pride and amazement at the wonder of going home, and back in time, on the big screen.
And while I’m truly lucky to share such a unique and singular connection to the film, I believe what makes Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood truly special is how universal it is. For anyone who has ever dreamed of going to space, the film serves as a colorful ode to the power of a child’s imagination. It also acts as a time capsule of sorts, with directors Richard Linklater and Tommy Pallotta painstakingly researching everything from NASA transcripts to old TV Guides and cinema schedules to create an exacting snapshot of the 1960s cultural zeitgeist.
Here in an interview with Awards Daily, Linklater and Pallotta discuss the years-long process of making Apollo 10½; using rotoscope animation to create the film’s dream-like sequences; and returning to their childhoods for a third collaboration.
Awards Daily: I have to tell you, Mr. Linklater, I grew up a stone’s throw away from the Johnson Space Center, and seeing my hometown on screen has meant so much to me. I had the opportunity to see Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood at the SXSW premiere in March with one of my closest friends, and we had a blast pointing out all the familiar landmarks; it was surreal and so special. So I have to ask you what our chunk of Texas means to you and how you came to this idea.
Richard Linklater: Oh, it’s everything. You know, everybody grows up somewhere. It’s interesting as you get older to process your life and your own times through that filter of memory, experience, and maturation. I’ve done that in other films too. Kids have no control over where they live or what they do; you’re just living your life. But years later, I thought, ‘Wow, that was a pretty interesting time and place to be a kid. It felt like the whole world was focused there, in the shadow of NASA, leading up to the moon landing. I started thinking, ‘Oh, that’s kind of a great story.’
Everyone’s familiar with the Apollo program. There have been good movies, and every angle you could take has been taken on that. But I said, ‘What would it be like to see it from the bottom-up, kid’s view of just what it was like to be near it? I think that the achievement of it was big enough to warrant the mouse in the corner’s view of the proceedings.
And that’s how I saw it, from a little kid’s point of view who doesn’t fully even understand what’s going on but is motivated to dream and have these fantasies. So it became a combination of fantasy and a historical recreation of a moment in time to the best of my ability, interweaving a lot of things.
AD: Richard, I came across a quote of yours from a recent interview: “I think for every story, there’s a hidden way to tell it best. And your journey is to try to find what that avenue is.” Why was animation the right avenue to tell this story?
RL: You know, I consider animation as just film. You spend years thinking, ‘How should it look?’ I mean, that’s what a director does. You’re writing the music for the piece. What should it sound like? What’s the texture? What’s the tone? How does it feel? How do I want people to perceive it?
And live-action wasn’t quite working in my head. The fantasy aspect felt too literal and kind of goofy and unbelievable. When I jumped to animation, I thought maybe it could all work. And I’m just lucky because I understand animation; I’ve worked on it for years; it’s a storytelling color on my palette. It was an exciting canvas.
Tommy and I have been friends all these years. We push each other in our thinking. We were developing something almost ten years ago that never happened, but we felt we had taken the techniques we had used before and were taking it in a new direction. Tommy has continued on with that professionally, and it was just great to come together for this particular story, which really required a multitude of looks and textures. We could bring, I would say, an indie-spirited feel to the genre. Most animated films strive for a certain consistency. A certain uniformity is what’s demanded.
We went outside of that all together in our look and feel to what we felt told our story properly, we didn’t adhere to a lot of the norms, but it worked for this story. So it’s not that different than how I would do anything else live-action. It was just a really fun, expressive way to tell a story, and I’m just blessed to work with a lot of great people who want to play.
It was fun to come up with a multi-textured 60s scrapbook look. The animation is a throwback, even though our challenge was to create a very analog world by digital means. You don’t see many period animated films, like scratchy documentary footage. And I think animation just heightened all of that. Apollo 10½ felt very cinematic and animated at the same time.
Tommy Pallotta: We always start out saying you should never really animate something unless it really has to be. You have to make a really compelling argument for it. I got into the film business and did live-action first before animation. And like Rick said, “It’s not about this is animated, and this isn’t.” It’s really about the best way to get this story out into the world. And I think with Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood; it seemed very clear to me that because it’s dealing with the very subjective perspective of childhood and also dealing with memory; I think that the kind of animation that we do deals with those types of themes very well, and that you can have this very subjective, fantastical story, but make it feel very grounded at the same time.
When Rick first told me about it, because we make no assumptions and we’re friends, every story he tells me, I can’t be like, ‘Yeah, but can we animate it?’ But with this one, I was really thinking, ‘Oh man, this would be the right one to animate, you know?’
He’d been working on it for years, and I never said anything, and then one day he calls me up, and he is like, ‘What would you think if this was….’ And I said. ‘Yes, I’ve been waiting for this!’
RL: [Laughs] It was so fun. And from that point on, it was a sprint. We didn’t have a long pre-production period. We just jumped in gear, but we’ve done that before numerous times, so it’s fun to just charge the hill.
AD: I love how meticulous the film is in recreating Houston and the cultural landscape of the 1960s.
RL: I remember everything; that’s my one gift in the world. [Laughs]. And I became obsessive about researching NASA transcripts and transcripts of Walter Cronkite’s broadcast of the moon landing. I thought the more specific we could be in the domestic realm, life at that time, if you get that part right, then you get sort of a pass on the super fantasy stuff, let’s say, the unrealism of NASA bringing a kid into the program. That seems real because everything else is real, even though it’s so not. So, it was this blend of specificity and cultural history, geographic history, mixed with this crazy fantasy that is in itself based on very specific facts about the Apollo missions. Everything in the NASA part actually happened, too; it just didn’t happen to him. That was interesting; being a science kid enthralled with all things Apollo, NASA’s always been very open. They were very educational. During the TV broadcast, they really teach you a lot. They were very open with their information, so you could feel really close to it and knowledgeable. Even as a kid, I remember feeling like I got what they were doing and how everything worked, so we carried that through to its full conclusion.
TP: In terms of the specificity that you’re talking about, I actually went back down to the Clear Lake/Friendswood/Galveston again; all of those main roads, they’re almost mapped out in the background.
There were also times when we were trying to figure out, “At that exact moment, on that date, where would the sun be?’ So that we knew how the shadows would be cast on the moon. How would it look to a boy who’s never been there?
AD: That’s incredible.
RL: Oh yeah, you have to try. We were going through the TV Guide and saying, ‘Okay, now who was the guest on The Tonight Show that night?’ Or, ‘What episode of The Beverly Hillbillies was playing? I mean, you might as well go all the way with it. Janis Joplin really was performing on Johnny Carson. All that’s real. Those were the films playing in the theater that night. It’s fun to get that exacting. It’s fun to contrast the gravity of the most significant achievement in human history with something as mundane as taking out the trash and playing in the neighborhood.
You know, people from Houston, especially if they’re anywhere near my age, usually approach me with wide eyes going, ‘Oh my God, that’s exactly my childhood.’ And I said, ‘Well, not exactly.’ [Laughs] But there’s a lot of connective tissue, culturally. Everybody’s so different, and yet we’re all sharing cultural sameness. We’re all living at the same time, so we’re all bound by that. I’m always interested in what connects us all versus what separates us all.
AD: Childhood, memory, and the passage of time; these are all themes that recur in your work. How do you think Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood fits in with those ideas?
RL: Yeah, exactly. I mean, this kind of grew out of Boyhood, in a strange way. I was going through the years of my life as I went through the years of that film. But this is what that isn’t, Apollo 10½ is a very specific period piece. I was using the architecture of my life, but this was a specific place at a specific time. In my mind, both films pass through each other in a certain way, but Apollo 10½ is as fantastical as it gets: a kid going to the moon and back, so the movie itself, on one level, is kind of crazy. But then it’s so grounded in, like you were saying, the specificity of it. I want the viewer to buy into the whole thing as a story.
In general, I do like carving out specific moments in time, culturally, and even times I haven’t lived in, I did a film called Me and Orson Welles that’s set in 1937 around his production of “Julius Caesar.” I had the same approach—try to get all the music, everything exact based on all your history and references—try to get it right and capture what it felt like to be alive at a time I didn’t live in. And then to hear from people who were alive then going, ‘Yeah, that’s how it was, you did a great job.’ The goal is to recreate something true to itself.’
AD: You’re considered a darling of independent cinema; what was it like to collaborate with Netflix?
RL: It was great. They liked the film. They really left us alone, and they gave us enough money to make the movie. I’m forever grateful that there was a lot of support. The experience of making it was wonderful but having it released on a platform was definitely a bit strange and different from what I’m used to.
AD: How do you feel about Apollo 10½ now that it’s out in the world? Have you had a chance to reflect on the experience?
TP: It still feels like we’re right in the middle of it. We’re in the eye of the hurricane. We have the benefit of having made two other animated movies, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, and both are not the normal animated film. So, there’s always a discovery process. And it’s very satisfying that people come up to me all the time saying, ‘Waking Life meant this to me at this point in my life.’ That new generations are discovering it. Animation is always meant to be evergreen, and even when we were devising the look of Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood, it was, ‘let’s make sure that this feels like it’s from that time. And 10, 20, 30 years from now, people won’t be able to tell when it was made by looking at the technology we use. I think that we have a very long view of storytelling. It’s not really about the opening weekend or whatever. You make something, and you hope for it to live beyond yourself and beyond your own life, and hopefully, it goes on and can be enjoyed beyond this little time that we’re on this marble.
RL: We’ve created an artifact that we’re happy with, that anyone can drop into and get our best shot of this moment in time.
AD: And what’s next for both of you?
RL: I just wrapped production of a film called Hitman. It’s a dark comedy with Glen Powell loosely based on a Texas Monthly story I read about 20 years ago.
TP: I’m currently working on a live-action documentary, but about a third of it will be animated.