‘Good Night Oppy’ director Ryan White on documentary filmmaking and working with NASA on his latest

Ryan’s latest film chronicles the story of twin rovers — Opportunity and Spirit — that were sent to Mars for a 90-day mission, but which ended up lasting a decade-and-a-half

Updated - September 19, 2022 03:01 pm IST

Published - September 19, 2022 02:57 pm IST

Ryan White

Ryan White

Ryan White, the Emmy and Academy Award-nominated documentary director, sat down with The Hindu to talk about his latest project, Good Night Oppy. Known for his work on titles like Netflix series The Keepers and Sundance favourite The Case Against 8, in recent years,Ryan has established himself as a tenacious talent to watch out for.

In collaboration with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Industrial Light & Magic, Ryan’s latest film chronicles the story of twin rovers — Opportunity and Spirit — that were sent to Mars for a 90-day mission, but which ended up lasting a decade-and-a-half during which they relayed photographs of the neighbouring planet.

Excerpts from an interview:

How did you approach the research of the subject, and how did it materialise into a project for the screen?

An article had gone viral in the lead-up to Opportunity’s death and her last communication with Earth was, “My battery is low and it is getting dark.” For a lot of people who read the article, it was an emotional gut-punch even if they had not been following the journey for 14 years. I remember reading that article, and feeling incredibly sad and invested in her survival.

I sat down in March 2020 with Film 45 and Steven Spielberg’s company, Amblin, who are the producers of this film and they pitched the story of Spirit and Opportunity. I couldn’t have jumped at the project faster! It was the beginning of the lockdown and the next two years of making it were incredibly challenging under the constraints of COVID.

‘Good Night Oppy’ is really only about a pair of twin rovers, and the footage for the most part is just a sea of red or scientists looking at black-and-white pictures captured by the rovers. Are you afraid that the audience might get bored?

People would get bored if we showed the day-to-day lives of the rovers for 15 years because they move quite slowly. Taking a 15-year story and simmering it down to 90 minutes gives you the liberty to choose the most dramatic and adventurous moments. Half of the film is CGI created by Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas’ company, and they have done graphics for some of the best films. So, I was in good hands working with a genius company like that in creating a photo-real Mars.

We were not creating a fantasy version of Mars — that we have seen in films for the last 100 years — but an authentic one that is completely based on documentary captures (that the robots themselves took) and satellite imagery. Even if we did show the day-to-day life of Spirit and Opportunity, for me personally, it would be very exciting to be transported to another faraway world.

Was working directly with NASA arduous with respect to permission and bureaucratic processes?

Working with NASA was actually smooth sailing. I am a space geek, and grew up loving NASA. I still pinch myself that I got to be in the room at Kennedy Space Centre in June 2020 when Perseverance was launched. NASA and the people there have always been heroes of mine, and I have always wanted to make a space film. I just had never found a story that I loved enough to justify the couple of years that we, as documentary filmmakers, put in to make a film. 

However, it is nerve-wracking when you are working with a government agency and they own all the archival footage you are using. We got boxes and boxes of footage — almost 1,000 hours — and they had to vet the footage we wanted to use in the film. We were nervous that NASA would want some oversight to tell us what we could and couldn’t include, in a way that would be detrimental to the film, but that didn’t happen.

A still from ‘Good Night Oppy’

A still from ‘Good Night Oppy’

The only things we were asked to change were shots when classified information was on computers in the frame; we either had to replace the shot or just blur the information. They were deferential to us creatively. They knew that the story of Opportunity and Spirit could touch lives, and recognised that this film would be a wonderful way to invite people into the Mars programme and cultivate interest in young people.

What attracts you to documentary filmmaking, considering documentaries are not as accessible as scripted cinema and have a very niche audience? 

Documentary films can be as accessible as scripted filmmaking, and it does not have to be as niche as people think it needs to be. That is being proven with how many documentaries people are watching lately, and I hope Good Night Oppy takes a step towards making them accessible. It is a subject with a broad appeal; just like any fantasy or sci-fi film that people have loved through the years... except that it is a true story. It does not have to be boring or educational and feel like homework; it can be an adventure just like some of Spielberg and George Lucas’ films have been!

What is the relationship that the director of a documentary shares with the subject? Do you get emotionally invested in them or maintain a safe distance?

I think every documentary filmmaker sees that differently. It changes from film to film, and depends on what the expectations of a particular project are. In the process of making The Keepers, I spent years with women who were reliving the worst traumas of their lives and got incredibly close to them; I still talk to many of them regularly. This, on the other hand, was a joyful team experience and the story had ended by the time I started working. My interactions with the scientists were limited to the five hours we spent in a room for the interviews. However, now I am travelling with some of them to film festivals and watching them talk to the audience is quite fun.

While approaching a subject, do you already have a set narrative in your mind or let it unravel as you shoot? 

A famous line among documentary filmmakers is, “If the finished film you make is what you thought it was going to be at the beginning, then you have done something wrong.” And that’s the fun part about documentary filmmaking. I love my job because I am at the mercy of the story; I cannot plan anything that will dictate what my final project is going to be.

However, this one (Good Night Oppy) is a little different, as I wrote a screenplay, which I have never done before. We had to write it mainly for the visual effects; the world on Mars needed to be written like any fiction film. However, there were also incredible surprises in the editing room that took the film into different directions.

Do you hope to travel to or live on Mars someday? 

Never, never, never! I would love to travel to Mars only if it were possible to come back to Earth. I have been invested in the weather and terrain of Mars enough to know that it is not a pleasant place to be in, especially for a human being. I have no interest in visiting for now!

Good Night Oppy will premiere on Amazon Prime Video in November

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