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Meet the DocuWeek Filmmakers: David Sington--'In the Shadow of the Moon'

By Tom White

Over the next couple of weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 17-23. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is David Sington, director of In the Shadow of the Moon.

Synopsis: Between 1968 and 1972, 24 Americans journeyed to the Moon. They remain the only human beings to have visited another world. In this film, the Apollo astronauts tell their own story, and share their reflections on what these great voyages of exploration meant to them and to humanity. The interviews are interwoven with re-mastered NASA film footage, much of it never seen before.


IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

DS: I started making films almost by accident when I was a student at Cambridge University, and quickly realised that this was what I wanted to do. When I left University I joined the BBC, working first for the World Service, the BBC's international broadcasting arm, which was then a purely radio service. So my first professional documentaries were in fact radio documentaries; this turned out to be excellent training. I learned how to use dialogue editing to weave together interviews into a narrative, and I learned basic journalistic skills, which are very important for a factual filmmaker. All this time I was making my own films, and after a couple of years I migrated to BBC Television, where over 12 years I produced and/or directed 22 films. I then felt ready to strike out on my own. The BBC was an excellent film school!


IDA: What inspired you to make In the Shadow of the Moon?

DS: Several of my most satisfying television documentaries have centered on older contributors looking back on the great deeds of their younger days. I find the perspective that time lends to their stories very powerful, and so when the opportunity arose, through our friendship with Apollo astronaut Dave Scott, to interview the men who went to the Moon four decades ago, it was completely irresistible! We also felt confident (from a previous film we had made with NASA) that there was footage in the NASA vaults that had not been exploited by filmmakers, and we would be able to show audiences some amazing things they had never seen before. So all of us on the production team felt this was a unique opportunity; it's not very often one has the chance to say something new about such a seminal moment in history.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

DS: There was obviously a danger with those astronauts who have been interviewed many times that the same old anecdotes trotted out for the umpteenth time would seem a bit stale. So the first challenge was to make the interviews fresh and genuinely candid. My approach was to eschew too fixed a view about what we should be covering, and simply to allow the conversation to go where it seemed most engaging. This certainly worked to make the interviews intimate and very different from what one might expect; but it also meant we had a lack of straightforward explanatory material, which posed a challenge to us in the edit, since I was determined that the story be carried solely by the astronauts' own words, without a narration; I always felt this was very important to the film's appeal. The credit for solving this problem lies largely with our editor, David Fairhead. At first we used a lot of contemporary news footage to explain what was happening, but as we got the structure right, we found we could do without most of this. So the action often advances simply by contrasts of mood. The music of Philip Sheppard is also very important in this regard; it's almost a narrator itself!


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

DS: I think that I went into the project with a very open mind about how it would turn out. I quite deliberately tried to avoid having an agenda. In my experience, the best films happen when you let the material speak to you. One surprise was how humorous the astronauts were, and we found ourselves using humor almost as a structural element in the film--building tension and then pricking it with a joke. Obviously the basic lineaments of the story were a given, but as the film came together in the edit, certain themes began to emerge. It's a film that looks back 40 years, but somehow it can't help but also be about now.


IDA: As you've screened In the Shadow of the Moon--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

DS: We first showed the film at Sundance in January, and since then we've taken it to a number of festivals ahead of its general release in September. I have found the response to the film quite overwhelming, in fact. The film seems to provoke laughter and tears in equal measure. The humor I knew was there, but it has been very gratifying to hear audiences roar with hilarity at various points. Laughter is always an unfeigned compliment (except when it's derisory!). The fact that people have found the film so moving is, however, something that I did not expect. It seems the film strikes a chord with audiences. It is partly that this is a movie about people at their best, at a time when much of what we see on our screens is humanity at its worst. The film also celebrates a moment when America lived up to its billing, so to speak, as the nation where human beings could achieve their full potential, when it genuinely led humanity to a new frontier and when the rest of the world was cheering America on. That's obviously strongly affirmative for American audiences, but also poignant, given the situation today.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

DS: When I first started making films I went to see Godfrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi, which made a very powerful impression on me. I don't know whether it's a documentary exactly--perhaps a cinematic essay without words--but the fact that I could be held spellbound for 90 minutes by a film without characters or story was very impressive to me. I have always sought out ways to use imagery and music to carry my films forward wherever I can. I think you can see that influence in certain passages of In the Shadow of the Moon! In preparing for this project, I watched Errol Morris' The Fog of War, which I admire very much. I have drawn a lot from the way Morris stages and cuts his interviews.


In the Shadow of the Moon will be screening at The LANDMARK.

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