Richard Linklater’s “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” is so nostalgic, personal and picture-perfect in imagining Houston in 1969 that it feels like it must be an autobiography of the Texan director. But Linklater explains that, like all his films that feel effortlessly conversational and natural, it’s all carefully constructed to bring you into that fantasy.
“You’re so pulled into the specifics that seem so personal that you buy the fantastic element that makes it seem real,” Linklater told TheWrap. “There’s still tricks you can do as a storyteller to lull the audience and pull them into a headspace. I kind of do that with a long take in actors: oh it must be real, it’s all so real. It’s not. It’s all written and rehearsed. Everything is a magic trick.”
“Apollo 10 1/2,” which premieres at SXSW, is one of his best tricks in years. The animated film — the third in his career after “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly” — transports audiences back to the space race in 1969 and the Houston, Texas, community that was centered around NASA, where all the action was happening. It imagines that NASA has accidentally built its space shuttle too small and looks to a pre-teen Houston local to secretly pilot its trip to the moon — a mission called Apollo 10 1/2 — all before Neil Armstrong actually gets there.
But that’s just the connective tissue for a movie that explores many facets of life in 1969 Houston and how it felt to be a kid at that moment in time. And the narrative grapples with how the world at large seemed to be rapidly changing in exciting and terrifying ways, all at once.
“Heart transplant, push-button phone, AstroTurf; it was all the same to me. Wow! What will they think of next? It’s so funny to me, we think, ‘Oh, it’s so archaic and backwards,’ and it’s like no, that’s not how it felt at all,” he said. “It was future shock. We were living in science fiction. It was so exciting, but it’s the olden days now. It’s how it felt to be a little kid. Technofuture was so cool and optimistic, and the real world — as the real world can be — there was a lot of doom and gloom in the air, too. I tried to capture the dissonance in a young person’s mind.”
And while it might seem like the protagonist in the film’s love of pop culture and baseball is the perfect proxy for Linklater himself, “Apollo 10 1/2” is not “specifically autobiographical.”
Linklater’s dad did not really work for NASA (though the mom of the film’s narrator, Jack Black, most certainly did), he didn’t go to the junior high nearest to NASA (just a different one nearby), and his family wasn’t quite the size of the boy in the movie (though he was the youngest sibling). He’d rather not get hung up on the specifics though.
“It was just called being a kid. I just thought I would smother people in absolute specificity. It’s kind of a trick, sort of like a good counter narrative,” he explained. “But at the top of the list is entertainment. You want to make a fun movie that wants to get what you want to express.”
“Apollo 10 1/2” was also done as an animated film when Linklater couldn’t crack how it would work as live-action. While it has some “rotoscoped” elements that resemble some of his past animated films, the technique used for “Apollo 10 1/2” was more traditional animation, which was necessary to give the movie a blend of realism and fantasy.
“The movie’s about creativity, it’s about the past and memory. It all takes place in the brain — it’s a construct, memory,” he said. “The whole movie I started envisioning this memory, scrapbook fantasy thing. We could achieve that in a less literal way than live-action.”
But “Apollo 10 1/2” does have some remarkable attention to detail that you wouldn’t notice just by watching it. Seemingly minor details about what they watched on television were carefully mapped out, such as that “The Wonderful World of Disney” was actually called “The Wonderful World of Color” at that time in 1969.
“If you really match up the times and dates, that episode that’s on ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ is the absolute episode that was on that day at that time. Janis Joplin was on Dick Cavett at that time. Those four films at the drive-in were showing that night in Houston, Texas, at drive-ins. We really tried to get that exact with those kinds of details,” he explained.
And Linklater spent years soliciting home movies and photos from people who lived it in order to recreate ’60s homes and Houston landmarks like the Astroworld amusement park that are long gone, all of which contribute to the film’s larger fantasy.
“We were finding images, kind of a lookbook for everything we’d have to create in the animation and we needed reference. It was quite an undertaking,” he said. “But it seemed appropriate for a movie about the Apollo era, those years, where everything was such a long process, a decades vision. It was a long, ‘someday we’ll have a finished film. Someday we’ll have our own little moonshot. Every film feels like that one, but this one especially feels like that.”
“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” premieres at SXSW on Sunday and debuts on Netflix on April 1.