Whether it is a fictional (but plausible) link between a disease and a symptom, downloading a human into a computer, or wormholes between universes, The Exchange’s consultants certainly have fun extrapolating science for fiction’s sake. But often our consultants are on hand to provide authentic scientific details to a television or film project, like advice on accurate laboratory equipment, or in the case of Apollo 18, realistic space suits, lunar modules, and astronaut/mission control center “talk.”
Apollo 18, released in theaters on September 2, is a found-footage film of the final Apollo mission that followed Apollo 17. Even though the film is a work of fiction (Apollo 18 never existed) and it takes a science-fiction turn (aliens!), the premise of Apollo 18 requires a certain adherence to authenticity. The characters’ suits, for example, need to look like suits from the Apollo 17 mission. The film may veer off into science-fiction territory, but it needed to be grounded in a real, historical setting.
To help base the science fiction in fact, Apollo 18 producer Michelle Wolkoff contacted The Exchange and, in turn, was connected to Gerry Griffin, an aeronautical engineer and the former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “The first time I talked to [Michelle], she said ‘What we’re looking for is to look authentic to the degree that we can,’ remembered Griffin. “When I talked to the director [Gonzalo López-Gallego] there the first time, he said the same thing, that he wanted authenticity.”
Authenticity is a sort of specialty of Griffin’s; he previously provided technical advising for Apollo 13, Contact, and Deep Impact. Apollo 18 though, he explained, differed from his past film experiences. “Apollo 18 used a lot of hi-fidelity sets and props that were very much like the lunar module and the command module that we actually saw in the mission. But there also very few on-screen actors. Everything else is off-screen voice from mission control, so it’s entirely different. It’s a mission that has very much an Apollo-like quality to it, and starts out in a very normal way. It’s very realistic.”
Bringing realism to the script and setting took some time, but Griffin was dedicated to the task. “In November , I went to Vancouver for the first time and right away, we dug into the script,” recalled Griffin. “I had several private sessions with the writer, Brian Miller, sitting in a hotel room, going through the script – in some places line by line – tuning it up and making it a little better.” He was also involved in production meetings and decisions on settings, like a full-size lunar rover, and props. “I answered a lot of questions about suits. In the movie, the two astronauts spend a lot of time in their space-walking suits when they are out on the moon,” said Griffin.
Early on Griffin became the director’s right-side man, helping to answer questions about the setting, props, astronauts, mission control, and realistic dialogue. “Quite often, Gonzalo would turn to me and would ask ‘Is that okay? What do you think?’ I would say ‘Looks good.’ And he’d say ‘Good. We got it. Let’s move to the next scene.’ And if I said, ‘You know there’s something there that can be done better,’ he’d normally do it,” Griffin explained. It was not an easy task but making the film authentic was important to the production crew and even Griffin himself. “The responsibility is quite large. That’s one reason why you work 10 to 14 hours a day. Sometimes we would get into things that I knew were coming up the next day, where I would spend a couple hours on Internet research, speeding myself back up on how we did something and why we did it. It’s a lot of work – but I enjoyed it.”
Still, how does Griffin, who had not seen the final cut of the film as of this interview, feel about his suggestions ending up on the cutting room floor? “I don’t question those decisions because the directors and producers know more about the business than I do. I give my best shot and if they don’t like it, so be it,” explained Griffin. “For sure, they have their own idea of what they want to present, but the director in every film I’ve worked on has been receptive to the changes. The people I’ve dealt with have just been top-drawer, hard-working folks that are really trying to turn out a good product that the audience likes.”
In fact, Griffin’s experiences on the set of Apollo 18 reminded him of another hard-working group, “In many ways, they had a work ethic like we had at NASA during the Apollo years. A big team of people working toward a common goal, spending hours at it, whatever it took to get it done and get it done right.”