Interview with Harry Winer Director of SPACECAMP
This interview originally appeared with the Anchor Bay DVD release, printed on bi-fold leaflet, inside the clam shell.
SMB - Did NASA have script approval?
HW - They had to review the script. When they read the script there was hardly anything controversial about the material other than the fact these young people went up into space by way of an accident. They just wanted to to make sure that it didn't look like something NASA was responsible for. So of course in the story it was the robot, which was purely fictions.
Director Harry Winer
SMB - Did they advise in any other way?
HW - Well they did provide us access to lots of information in order to make parts of the story more accurate. We had access to both the facilities in Houston and Florida. To witness the launches, see footage that had been taken of the lunches, speak to experts, go through all the testing equipment which was part of the training missions for the astronauts. One must remember that this was a very buoyant time in NASA. The irony was during the making of
the movie it was a time filled with optimism. It was the first time a lay person, a non-scientist, a non-military person was going up in the Space Shuttle. It was a teacher and a fore runner for every other normal human or lay person to have the opportunity. It was personifying the dream that it was going to be available to everyone. As you may recall it was also the time people were
booking reservations to be on the space shuttle. Quite in contrast to what was to happened right after the Challenger disaster.
SMB - So the footage of the Shuttle lifting off was NASA file footage?
HW - Yes. We used footage of actual lift-offs in our film. To the best of my recollection it was footage, lift-offs, that had taken place in the previous couple of years. Every lift-off was photographed and there where several documentaries that were made at that time. Obviously there was also a tremendous amount of news coverage that allowed people to place cameras actually on the Shuttle, on the platforms, as well which gave way to a numerous amount of angles to choose from. NASA wouldn't allow a Hollywood film company to place cameras at the time. Subsequently they have, for APOLLO 13, but at that time only scientists were allowed to place the cameras.
SMB - Did NASA use 35mm?
HW - They did. They used 35mrn, 16mm and video tape. One of the things we found was some of the best angles were on video tape so we used the video tape on on the monitors in the mission control scenes. So we were able to make use of some of the best images while looking appropriately on the monitors.
SMB - There was one great shot as the Shuttle lifts-off with a bird flying by - was that NASA footage?
HW - (Laughs) ...yes that bird.
SMB - (Laughing) Poor bird.
HW - (Laughing) Yes. That was NASA footage and it was shot several miles away from the lift-off filmed in 35mm.
SMB - NASA doesn't use scope though?
HW - No.
SMB - So it was filmed in 1:33.1, then later cropped to fit how you needed it.
HW - That's correct.
SMB - The shots taking place in Mission Control - was that a set?
HW - It was.
SMB - So everything taking place through the windows was rear screen projection.
HW - Correct.
SMB - In terms of the robot - was it always part of the script, and reason to cause the accidental launch of the shuttle?
Also, when you came onto the project was the script complete, or were you there in the beginning when it was being written?
HW - Leonard Goldberg (Executive Producer) had already purchased the script and sold it to ABC Films. There were some modifications, some polishes that were done on the script once we had gotten into production, but there was already a script in place which I read, that was handed to me that got me involved in the project.
SMB - ABC Films did a lot of TV product at the time, was SPACECAMP always planned as a theatrical release?
HW- Oh yeah.
SMB - So, getting back to the robot, it was in the script from the beginning.
HW - Yes it was. It's interesting how all these little details of a movie come together. Actually there was some controversy over the robot because the image of R2D2 was so vividly in place; it was hard to over come that. Also this was the time that the John Badham movie, "Short Circuit" came out around the same time. So we were trying to steer clear of those interpretations. The robotic character was so integrated into the narrative we couldn't leave it out. I still question whether or not the story could have been more or less effective
with the robot, but at the same time I know for young audiences the robot proved to be an effective character.
SMB - You really didn't want the robot?
HW - I was more concerned because we didn't have very much money to make the movie. Also, we had a very short period of time for development once it was green lit. We had to move forward very quickly. Unlike something like Star Wars which was developed over a period of years as opposed to months in order to refine all the developments, and create the ideal sort of personality and architecture of the mechanical character. It's always hard when your in the midst of creating something when you have a strong arch-type created by someone else, very effectively, to try to create something original because everyone's imagination is significantly impacted by the imprint of R2D2. So we had to go through many versions in the development of the robot character and what it would look like. The production designer, Richard MacDonald, was one of the most brilliant guys working - in the business at that time. There were many conversations with him in terms how to make it original, and ultimately leading to the character we came up with.
SMB - Was it always intended for the robot to have a voice?
HW- Yes. It was critical in the narrative to unfold the bond that would evolve between Tate Donovan and Leaf Phoenix, the boy who was the Star Wars fan.
SMB - Do you remember who did the voice for the robot?
HW - (Nervous laugh)
I don't unfortunately. It was a guy who was famous for doing a multitude of voices. One of these great Hollywood pros who comes in and says, How about this one. Or how about this one."
But it was a combination between something he hit upon and later how we treated it electronically in the post.
SMB - Okay, lets talk about the problems of doing zero gravity. You must've had problems doing that!
Well, you know, that's funny because when I first sat down with Richard McDonald, whom I had met in the first film had ever been exposed to doing in Hollywood. I had gone to U.S.C. grad- school for film and I had made a film, and won a scholarship for the AFI for a director's internship scholarship to work on a feature film with an established director. It was a great honor and I got to work with John Sleshinger on "Day of the Locusts", so that's where I met Richard MacDonald who was the production designer of that film. I learned more from that man about the power of images and the utilization of the plastics of film, and set construction, and the contrast between images, than from any other person I've come in contact with - before that time and even after that time. So when I got SPACECAMP I knocked on Richard's door and he said the only way he was going to do this movie is if we can try to create a sense of three-dimensional space because most space movies that have been done look 2 dimensional, very flat. So he got into his mind a notion of trying to create a dynamic within the stars, ever moving in different planes, because they all move in different relationships to one another. It seems to be a minor detail but I can't tell you how many pursuits he went though to achieve this quest. I don't know how successful he was but it was used in the matte shots seen through the windows of the shuttle and when the characters float from the shuttle to the space station. In some instances it was a futile effort but he created actual lights that were going to accomplish his idea that never worked. He spent a tremendous amount of time trying to achieve it. Ultimately we had to go to effects houses to try to accomplish the same thing. Any way, all,that translates to.... oh lord, what was your initial question?!
SMB - No. That was all great stuff. But what I inquired was the problems you encountered doing the zero gravity.
HW - Right. Well dealing with space, the stars and such, as it had never been dealt with was a bee in both of our bonnets as part of my commitment to Richard; to lure him to the project. So we looked at all these space movies and we noticed that nobody dealt with weightlessness. Certainly Kubrick whose very movie was the very reason why I got involved in film, was a source of enormous inspiration. He dealt with it in a profound way. That was certainly
beyond our means. But there really wasn't, even in 2001, people floating around in the space station. Only in the course of making our movie did we realize why. The objective to Richard was to design a piece of machinery that rotated on six axes of motion in the center of which was going to be the set of the Shuttle where 40% to 80% of the action would take place. I'm talking about a7 ft. by 9 ft. interior where 6 or 7 characters would be. This was basically an iron lung that rotated. The thought was we would fix the camera to a strut of the set, or iron lung, and rotate it to create the illusion of weightlessness. Well, the problem that occurred on the first day of shooting was that the iron lung was supposed to be finished a week before so we could all practice how to maximize its use. But it wasn't complete. Then it became vividly clear when we all arrived, with great anticipation on the first day of filming, was
that this iron lung, or space capsule was 40 feet off of the stage floor. What we had failed to conceive was how to get equipment up into it.
SMB Let me see if I'm picturing this right.... the entire set of the shuttle was suspended.
HW- It was suspended in this iron ring that rotated in 6 axes of motion. I'm talking about full on out iron welding.
SMB - So it was like a gyro-scope. Like the Manned Maneuvering Unit Lea Thompson rides in the film during training.
HW- (With a laugh) Yes! Exactly. But very much larger. So grips and electricians would have to climb up the iron struts with a light or piece of camera equipment. The camera could not be placed up there on a dolly. Also we had to work remotely with a Luma crane and it took so long to set up the first shot that at the end of the first day of filming we were 5 days behind. As we committed to doing weightlessness the mechanics that were involved enabled us to do only one shot a day. Which as you can imagine is hardly desirable, or greeted warmly by all the production people involved. Everyone was committed to help me fulfill this sense of weightlessness. So what we did we used a combination of wires. At the time CGI was just a hope. It wasn't a reality. Lucas was pioneering all this stuff but it wasn't certainly readily available. For the most expensive movies ILM was available to do some work but that certainly wasn't in our budget. So we had to use wires. We put people on what was essentially teeter-totters as well with part of their bodies supported on a foot that would enable them to push off this teeter-totter with a mechanical, or effects guy pushing this stuff up or down so it gave the impression of floating. I also had to get all the actors to act in this rhythm of moving a little more slower. Larry B. Scott happened to be an incredibly agile gymnast. He would do acrobatics, one handed push-ups that were incredible. I wish there was someone photographing when there were 5 or 6 people in the Shuttle, all of them floating in one form or another. As with anything in film there's always one detail that sells it - 2 or 3 moments that sell it. Once you establish that then you can rely on more primitive means to sustain the illusion.. One clearly was when they first get out of the atmosphere and into weightlessness where we were able to use wires and some matte work. You know, green screen work. It was suppose to be blue screen but because all the uniforms were
blue it had to be green. So we sold the weightlessness and once again, part of that was our acrobatic young actor pushing himself up towards the camera. But with the gyroscope we had created we could turn the camera so many different ways in relationship to the actors in the set it would look like some-body was floating down, when they were actually pushing themselves up. I think out of everything in the movie, when I look back, that's what I'm most proud of, in addition to some of the joy I think we tapped; periodically in the movie. The little details you put in - like the earrings floating in the zero gravity- that sold the whole weightless premise quite well.
... right. Well, we would choose a moment like that to sell it. Of course you can't do that all of the time. Years later APOLLO 13 was able to afford "the vomit comet" from the air force. They went up there and actually filmed in weightlessness. All things being equal, it probably would have been just as cost effective to do that. But it certainly challenged everybody's creative imagination in trying to accomplish some of these things.
SMB - Did you look at other films for comparison?
HW - All the other films we saw essentially conceived of ways in which the problem of weightlessness in the narrative was overcome. You know, like Velcro shoes or whatever. I can't think of one movie I've seen where it existed.
SMB - Well, there was MOONRAKER.
HW - What did they do in MOONRAKER?
SMB - It was all wire work... Then there was THE BLACK HOLE - the entire beginning of the film was done in weightlessness. They again used wires mixed with camera tricks. Such as hanging the actor upside down and turning the camera the same way so the wire is under them instead of above - tricking your eye where to Iook.
HW - That brings back memories. We would put a piece of plywood on a dolly then boom the actor by having them lay down on the plywood, then boom the dolly up and down. Or we'd put them on stage cranes and of course those teeter totters.
SMB - Were photos ever taken of the gyro-scope set?
HW - I can't imagine there wouldn't be somewhere.
SMB - Was there a Featurette made on the "Making Of"?
HW - No.
SMB - Too bad.
HW- There was all sorts of publicity junkets that would come in during the course of making the movie but it was so many years ago I just can't imagine that someone didn't catch it somewhere along the line.
SMB - How long was the entire shoot?
HW- Lets see. I think we started out expecting it was going to be something like a 44 day shoot and it ended up being, I think, double that.
SMB - ... because of the logistics of filming in a contained set?
HW - It was ..
... it was just unbelievable. You know, because of this gimbal, in which we had to film maybe 80% of the movie up there, it was so maddening to everybody, and we were so behind in production we finally decided to close down production and take the space shuttle out of the gimbal. So they had to bring in cranes in order to lift the set out of the gimbal. It had all been built inside the gimbal. So on the day they were pulling it out the crane cable broke and dropped the set and it went through the sound stage floor!
(Both start to laugh)
All can say is that when I think back on that movie I just remember these moments and sitting there thinking if I was going to survive the process.
SMB - The set wasn't destroyed?
HW - No it wasn't destroyed, but the stage floor was ironically. This is funny, one of the choices that Richard McDonald made, and all of us questioned whether or not it was a wise one... was that he built an exact replica of the interior of the space shuttle. What that meant was that instead of as one does in movies, expanding the size of the sets for the facility of the crew ...
You have to remember that it was literally a7 foot by 9 foot set that had all these actors in it and then you had to go find room for the camera. His pursuit, and my naive initial pursuit, of authenticity riding with his experience led us into these unrealistic close quarters. The set detail though was beautiful. I mean, once you poked your head into it you felt like you were really there.
SMB - Is that the reason why you shot it in 1.85:1 instead of 2.35:1?
HW - In point of fact we shot it in 1.66:1. That's what we originally intended for distribution for its primary exhibition. The reason for that was so much of the image, because of the small nature of the set, had a lot more vertical visual information for telling the story than 1.85:1 would allow. I'm trying to remember why we didn't use scope.
SMB - Probably for the same reason. If you couldn't bring your camera back due to the confines of the set to compose a 1.85:1 aspect ratio , 2.35:l would be impossible.
HW - You know what, you absolutely right. There was no room because we had to have camera right inside the set.
SMB - So when it was projected in theaters the image was matted?
HW - Yes. In most of the theaters. In premier exhibition theaters it was 1.66:1.
SMB - So those who see this DVD are seeing more visual information, vertically then what was seen in the theaters.
HW - Yes. That's great.
SMB - Even though it was filmed in 35mm it was a common practice for films to be bumped up to 70mm for special presentations. Was that the case for SPACECAMP?
HW - Yes it was.
SMB - Did it have a 6-track sound mix with a split surround and separate bass track?
HW - Correct.
SMB - In terms of the actors, where any prefigured before you came on board?
HW - No. No one was prefigured. We started from scratch. It was tricky to find someone who would play Andie, the female lead, because major stars wouldn't be interested because it was an ensemble cast which was considered youth oriented. Then when Kate (Capshaw) came in we said she had such a fantastic spirit and could summon the strength, and by nature had the warmth, we felt would be appropriate for the character. So we worked hard to get her, and we did. I think she did a lovely job in the piece.
SMB - Which was the hardest role to cast and pin point to get across the character the way you hoped?
HW - That's a good question and it really brings me back a number of years. I had seen a screen test with Lea Thompson for BACK TO THE FUTURE and I thought she was just great. So I worked hard to get her, and did. But then I guess it was trying to find the role that Tate Donavan ultimately played (Kevin). Tate hadn't done anything. He had been in some theater, he hadn't done any television but came in and was such an honest actor, and had such a charming quality. He was up against a couple of other guys but caught our attention. It was a tough road for him having never been in front of a camera. Plus putting up with so many special effects, it was a big job for both him and me. But when I look back on it, I think he did quite a nice job. The hardest moment in the picture was with Leaf Phoenix. He was, at most 10 years old, maybe even a little younger, anyway, he was suppose to come out of the ship and into the cargo bay, out of the vacuum lock. In order to shoot that we suspended the vacuum lock on the ceiling of the sound stage and put the camera on the stage floor and pointed it up so the wires he was suspended from would be behind him So the doors would open, he would come toward the camera and it was his close-up just before we would lay in the wide matte shot of the whole cargo bay. The was the first time he was on wires and he was absolutely petrified. He wouldn't go up on the wires. You have to understand, at the time we were doing only one shot a day and this was it. I was already feeling so many intense pressures, as I've already told you, now I had this young boy who wouldn't do this one shot - which would put us even further behind.
So River, his brother, comes to the set with Leaf and his mom and there was this great moment where River takes Leaf aside and talks to him about the meaning of commitment. When you're doing something and how you're suppose to commit all of yourself because that's the challenge for each of us, and the responsibility we have to take. To this day that image River with his arm around Leaf that archetypal image of the older brother passing on the wisdom of what he's gleaned to his younger brother has lingered in my mind I must say. Then in the next instance Lief got into the wires and did what he needed to do. When you think about it, I don't know if you ever had the experience of getting into those wires, it's pretty terrifying. To be able to keep your composure is quite a challenge.
SMB - What was it about this film, that lured you in to do it?
HW - I think that if I hadn't gone into film-making my next passion was space exploration. I would have wanted to be an astronaut. I think that the romantic notion of exploring the unknown, that space symbolized, certainly for so many of us, was a quest worthy of my time and passion. I remember the first impression when reading the script that it had a nice action-type-adventure element to the piece. It also had a nice pace going for it and at the crux of it here were these young people who were witnessing space for the first time. What would that be like? I think its a fantasy, all of us hold. The opportunity to explore this realm, and to be able to see what that looked like through their eyes and feel what that felt like through their hearts was something that was eminently worth exploring. When I look back on the movie there's a certain innocence, an unbelievably chaste quality - particularly in light to where we are today. But there are moments of joy that I think were captured in the movie. Those moments of discovery, and triumph I'm really gratified by. The process of making that movie, as I'm only hinting at, was very difficult. Especially for a first film and the pressure that comes with that and the disappointment that came from everyone's expectation for it being a commercial picture. Then of course the Challenger blowing up and with it the hopes and dreams of what space offered and that innocence of new discovery that was hand in hand with the space program. It all lead to an era of cynicism that followed. Nobody went to see the movie, which was a great disappointment at the time. So it took, as it does with anything that takes a couple of year of one's life, a long time for me to go back and look at the film again. It was literally 10 years later that a friend of mine at a party had a screening of SPACECAMP. I was able to, for the first time see what we accomplished, and see what worked or didn't work with a much clearer eye.
At that moment, I must say it was a gift because I was able, after all that time because it was a painful memory, to really experience what we accomplished. Aside from how I might have handled things differently, or how I was held back from the medium of the day, there are moments of transcending joy that I think is infectious and I was really heartened by that.