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SxSW 2017 Interview: MISSION CONTROL: THE UNSUNG HEROES OF APOLLO director David Fairhead

by Jason Whyte

"Ever wondered how we put a man on the Moon? Mission Control tells the extraordinary story of a group of people from ordinary backgrounds, who worked together as a team to achieve one of mankind's greatest achievements." Director David Fairhead on MISSION CONTROL: THE UNSUNG HEROES OF APOLLO which screens at the 2017 edition of the South By Southwest Conference.

Congratulations on your film playing in Austin at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

Yes, it is my first trip to SxSW, although as an editor, I had a film in competition here two years ago called THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON. I am thrilled to be taking part, and can't wait to see how the audience reacts to the film. I will be at the first screening of the film, which will be our World Premiere.

Even before film editing, how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on before.

I got into this business over thirty years ago! I started in the days of film, editing TV documentaries in the UK for the BBC and Channel 4. In 2006 I edited IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON, which won Best International Documentary at Sundance in 2007. That was my first feature documentary, and essentially I have worked almost exclusively on theatrical documentaries since then. However, MISSION CONTROL is my first film as director.

So how did directing MISSION CONTROL come together for you?

This film came about through my work on LAST MAN ON THE MOON with Gareth Dodds, who was one of the producers, and Executive Producer Keith Haviland. They had a new project and asked me if I would be interested in directing, rather than just editing. Of course I said yes! I didn't actually have any problems in making the step up, and so I just enjoyed the opportunity to research, prepare for and meet the extraordinary men who appear in the film. However, there is an old adage in film-making which says that a director should never edit their own material, and I did have a few concerns about that. Would I be able to maintain enough distance from the subject? Could I be ruthless with the material? In the end, it turned out that with the support of my colleagues, I could!

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

Professional pride, a commitment to the subjects of the film and a desire to tell a great story are all big factors. Also, as this was my directorial debut, I wanted to make sure that I got it right. For that I needed to rely on the input and feedback of my colleagues. Making a film is a team game, and so as a team we worked together for many months to hone and sharpen the finished movie. Oh, and I find it helps to drink a lot of English tea!

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The biggest challenge was to do justice to the Flight Controller stories. I have worked on a number of films about the Apollo Program, but they have all been from the astronaut's perspective. This film was to be about the same events from a different angle. Would we be able to say anything new about what to us were familiar stories? Could these men, often thought of as nerdy engineers, deliver the emotion and excitement the film required? The answer was yes! Through careful research, we were able to focus on a number of key missions and tell the stories in the voices of the people who were there in the control room as events unfolded.

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie and how it came together photographically.

As the rushes come into the cutting room, the Film Editor has the unique advantage of viewing the work of dozens of directors of photography. One of those whose work really stood out for me was Ian Salvage. So I was delighted when he was available to work with us on MISSION CONTROL, and even more delighted with the results. My focus is always on the story, and I wanted Ian to be able to get on with what he does best, frame beautiful shots, without having me cramp his style. So we would discuss what we wanted each sequence to achieve, and he would get on with it. We shot in 4k on the Sony FS7, using mainly Canon primes. To achieve our tracking shots we used a Sony FS5 on an Edelkrone slider, and crane shots were with a Jimmy Jib.

So what are you looking forward to the most about showing MISSION CONTROL movie here in Austin, so close to the home of NASA?

I am looking forward to the reaction of the Texan audience! Mission Control is just down the road in Texas terms, and I'm sure everyone is really proud of their achievements. Combine that with the fact that we will have a number of our stars, the Flight Controllers, in the audience, and I know that we'll be in for a very special evening.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?

We have further screenings planned, both in the US and the UK. The film is being distributed by Gravitas Ventures and will have a theatrical release across the US from April 14th.

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

We have a special screening planned at the Mission Control Center in Houston for NASA. I think that will be pretty unique!

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie, either at your MISSION CONTROL screening or in general?

I would ask that person to have more respect. Not all films will win awards, but all films have had vast amounts of time, passion and effort spent on them. Try to appreciate that!

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

It is very hard to say just one thing! Be persistent; be enthusiastic; be helpful. Try hard, work hard and be good at what you do. And don't give up!

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I was blown away by TO HELL AND BACK AGAIN, which was directed by Danfung Dennis. I saw it at Sundance in 2011. It seemed to get under the skin of modern war and how people deal with its consequences.

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2017. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 10-18. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 03/08/17 06:33:32
last updated: 03/08/17 10:17:14
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