When Todd Douglas Miller was editing his film “Apollo 11,” a sweeping, ambitious documentary about Neil Armstrong and the first moon landing mission, he envisioned building up to Armstrong exiting the lunar module, then silently cutting away into the widescreen, IMAX format to reveal the immense scope of the moon’s surface.
The only problem was, Damien Chazelle had done just that for his own film, “First Man.”
“I told Damien, that was my exact idea! We were editing pretty much around the same time,” Miller said he shared with Chazelle when the two met at Sundance. “I was at first a little angry, but the challenge was to come up with something else because I didn’t want to get into the same thing.”
Miller says “First Man” and “Apollo 11” “complement each other,” with both teams working closely with NASA and with the same chief historian. But they also both strip away the overt, starry-eyed patriotism of a story that everyone already knows. “Apollo 11” is made entirely with archival footage in a cinéma vérité style, and with the absence of talking-head historians or other scripted narration, the documentary gives a gripping, fly-on-the-wall vantage point inside the lunar module and the behind -the- scenes actions of the NASA command centers.
“I never saw Apollo 11 as something that was … I usually see it with a bunch of fanfare, chest-thumping, rah-rah moments,” Miller said. “I just want to see it as what it was. What did the astronauts experience? What did the guys at Mission Control experience? What did the people that witness the launch experience? What did that sound like? What did that feel like?”
In addition to the tense build-up to the launch, landing and re-entry, “Apollo 11” also features an intimate portrait of what American life was like in 1969. It overlooks a sea of a million faces, hairdos and sunglasses on beaches and in a J.C. Penney parking lot as they await the launch.
Starting in 2016, Miller was tasked not just with making a documentary about the Apollo 11 mission, but also with digitally cataloging, scanning and restoring archival footage of the mission ahead of the moon landing’s 50th anniversary. And their project changed drastically when they uncovered a mountain of large format, 65mm film reels and 18,000 hours of audio footage, 11,000 hours of it pertaining to Apollo 11 specifically. It also included stunning 16mm and 35mm footage shot by NASA, all in color, of regular people gathering to watch the launch from afar.
“Obviously, what we saw, our jaws just hit the ground,” Miller said. “The rest is somewhat modern history, but the project just took off from there, and obviously the creative didn’t really change, but the process in which we were going to approach the film obviously made a major pivot after that day.”
While 50 percent of the large format footage has likely never been seen by the public, virtually the entire film is new, with the filmmakers taking great care to digitally restore the 16mm archival footage for its IMAX release. For instance, audiences should be familiar with the images of Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Armstrong suiting up on the day of the launch, but it’s the large format film that gave a bigger picture of their surroundings and lent the moment some additional gravity.
“It really stepped into focus for me when we saw another reel which was from a few days earlier during training. They did a dry run in that same room. They were suiting up, they got in the Astrovan, they sat on the rocket, got out of it, and came back,” Miller said. “When you juxtapose that scene on the dry run with what you see on the day of the launch in that quality, the weight of the world all of humanity is just written on their faces. It was just really chilling to me.”
Neon acquired “Apollo 11” last year, and following the film’s premiere at Sundance, Miller says that Neon’s Tom Quinn saw the film and said it “belonged on IMAX” screens. “Apollo 11” opens today, Friday March 1 for one week in IMAX, and will expand to regular format screens the week after.