Only twelve people have ever set foot on the moon, the last of those over four decades ago. By virtue of returning to the Lunar Module after his colleague, Eugene “Gene” Cernan, Commander of Apollo 17, is that last man. A charismatic figure who flew to space on two other occasions, Gene has remained a strong supporter of further exploration, and a proud participant in the Apollo programme.
In one of the most personal films to be made about the journey to the moon, The Last Man on the Moon tells his story, covering both success and regrets against the backdrop of space. Ahead of the launch of the film, Culturefly had the opportunity to speak to director Mark Craig, who discussed how he found the project, the decision to make it a personal story, and just why the moon continues to fascinate.
Culturefly: I understand you came to the story through Gene Cernan’s book. What made you pick it up in the first place?
Mark Craig: I was a child in the 60s and remember very clearly the whole space race and the big push for the moon. Comics were full of moon stuff and ice creams were rocket shaped. We even had a G.I. Joe spaceman. It was the biggest thing that had ever happened on this planet and we were all caught up in it so it made a big impression. I remember my dad taking me out in the garden and pointing at the moon and impressing on me that there were guys up there. All that stuff lodged in my brain.
It was then a chance meeting around 10 years ago with an author, Andrew Smith. He’d just written Moondust. It was all about the astronauts and what became of them. The book really connected with me and I began reading any number of astronaut autobiographies. Gene Cernan’s happened to be one of those. I was only reading them for my own interest but suddenly his story and the way he was telling it leapt out and I thought this feels like a film I want to make. CF: What was it about his story over all the others that drew you in?
MC: He’s so open in his emotions and the things he regretted doing or not doing in terms of his family. Other than walking on the moon, there were numerous other aspects to his story: helicopter crashes, his Gemini 9 spacewalk, and just the way fate played a hand in shuffling the pack of contenders for a rocket seat to the moon. Suddenly this guy, who by his own admission was an underdog, found himself headed to the moon. It had all the ingredients of a fantastic drama but with the grand scale of space at our disposal.
CF: Why do you think he agreed to take part, and what was the working relationship like?
MC: He likes to say I stalked him for two years, just chipping away. He didn’t say yes but he didn’t say no. We got to a point where I was able to impress on him that I was very serious. That was when I teamed up with Mark Stewart Productions. Together we worked on him for another couple of years, but he didn’t come easy. For the longest time there was no guaranteed outcome. It took about five years of meetings and lots of discussions. He was a guy who’d had all the media he could ever want and was at a point in his life where time was precious.
When he realised we weren’t going away, we started talking seriously and luckily it all happened. Once we began the process of filming he opened up his doors. He could make calls to his colleagues and say these guys are ok, please speak to them. Many of the characters he had in his book then became available to us. It was an absolute treat and a delight for me to be interviewing the great flight director Gene Kranz in mission control at his old desk, or Chris Kraft whose name is on the whole mission control centre, never mind all the guys who walked on the moon, and Jim Lovell who nearly did. And all the fantastic wives and women in the story because that was a very important ingredient for me as well.CF: You obviously spent a lot of time on this project. How much of what you first envisaged became the final film and how did it change over the years?
MC: Gene published his book about ten years before we started filming so I knew there was a whole decade of more recent story to get in there. His book focused on the past, and his part in the Apollo story and I was very aware that there has been many films and documentaries told about going to the moon. There was no point in retelling too much of that so we stuck to him and his story.
I could plan a certain amount of the shoot because I knew his story but in terms of his life today and his relationship with others, that was more exploratory. I’d say to him what are you doing today or what do you like to do at this time of year and we’ll just film you doing that. If he was thinking of going for a horse ride with his friend, I’d say do it and we’ll film it and put a couple of radio mikes on. He basically said yes to everything. As we built up a relationship and some trust with each other, I was able to capture him at some quite intimate moments. His story came out in those moments. They make a vital addition to the film.
CF: The space programme is often treated in such reverential tones that the personal stories can be missed. You have Martha Chaffee breaking down discussing her husband and Dick Gordon expressing understandable bitterness about losing command of Apollo 17 to name just two examples. How did you manage to get such intimate and personal reactions?
MC: A lot of the people involved come from a military background, a macho environment. In the days we’re talking about, these people were not very open about feelings. Even the wives were military wives and they were tough and they stuck together. But age brings a certain mellowness and different perspectives. I think they were ready to talk about things in a different and more personal way. Then it’s about building a relationship with a subject. My approach is to share a lot of personal stuff about myself before we do the interview. They then get the idea I’m going to take them to some more personal places.
Particularly in the case of Martha (wife of astronaut Roger Chaffee who died in the Apollo 1 accident) she knew I was going to ask about the Apollo 1 fire and she was pensive about it. When we did come onto that subject she broke down. It was a very powerful moment. Other people broke down during interviews as well. It would have been easy to take all that and make it overly sentimental but that would have been slightly more manipulative and you begin to get into other people’s feelings and stories. The golden rule of the editor I work with is stick to the main character. Otherwise you go off on too many tangents. But the short answer is it’s all about building a relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. If you build that closeness and trust, even if you only have a short time to do it, the emotion will come.CF: You mention keeping the focus on Gene. There are only twelve people who’ve ever stepped onto the moon. What impact do you think achieving something like that has on a person? Gene appears to have embraced it and others haven’t.
MC: Whatever type of person you are, you are changed forever. Each of those guys came back with a different experience. Some found God, some hit the bottle, and others became reclusive. I think there were a handful of people, Gene Cernan included, who welcomed the public interest and were only too happy to share experiences. They were all great flyers and great astronauts, but not everyone was charismatic and articulate in terms of how they felt about it. Gene Cernan was one of those guys, another reason I was keen to work with him. I think as we document in the film, he got a little too caught up in that kind of stuff.
That’s one of the reasons his first wife said I’m done with this. It was too much for her. The moon didn’t let him go and he didn’t let go of the moon at that time. I think for those twelve moonwalkers, it must have been like being one of the Beatles. Once you’ve been so famous, people will never let you forget what you once were. In the intervening decades there are new generations interested in space who want some kind of contact with these guys. Much as he’d like to sometimes shake it off and spend quiet time on his ranch, he’s on that treadmill and there’s no escaping it for him. He has to embrace it otherwise he’ll go mad.
CF: What do you think it is about the moon, and having gone to the moon, that still fascinates people?
MC: Human kind since we first evolved has been looking up at the moon trying to figure it all out. I guess as we evolved and technology came along to make it possible to get there, that time 40 odd years ago was just the fulfillment of a long fascination with the moon on all kinds of levels. It was such a great achievement that while it’s still in our living memory, and while these guys are still alive, people get so caught up in it. It’s a perennial subject for discussion and viewing.CF: Do you think it’s something that’s about to be lost? Gene, along with other astronauts, has been a vocal defender of future space projects, but do you think further space exploration can capture the imagination in the same way the moon did?
MC: In terms of the big leaps forward in the future, they may only occur once or twice in the average human lifetime, but I have no doubt we will go to Mars, and maybe even venture beyond. It all depends on a certain number of factors aligning, like stars and planets. You need the money, you need the political will to do it, certainly in the future you’ll need international collaboration. I think you need the public behind it as well. A lot of factors have to come together to make great leaps. And often it’s times of conflict that are the great catalyst. It was the Cold War that began the space race. Who knows what factors, be they geopolitical or environmental or whatever, are needed to take us out to the next place. I’m afraid I don’t have the answer for that.