Exclusive SXSW Interview: NASA Astronaut Eugene Cernan talks about being The Last Man on the Moon with Director Mark Craig and Executive Producer Mark Stewart

lastmanonthemoon

In Austin for the North American Premiere of the film about his own life, The Iris’ Johnny Au meets the final NASA Astronaut to step foot on the moon, Astronaut Eugene Cernan, to talk about the Documentary The Last Man on the Moon. Eugene talks about having his life documented in conversation with Johnny, the film’s Director Mark Craig and the Executive Producer Mark Stewart.

Johnny Au: Well first of all guys, congratulations on the film.

Eugene Cernan: You’ve seen it?

I have seen it, I saw it this morning on my flight over to Austin and I gotta say, it’s a really deeply classical film for me. When I was watching it, I was expecting a space film, but no, it was a personal story. So my first question is to the producers of the film. What attracted you to Eugenes story to begin with?

Mark Stewart: Well to begin with Mark Craig (lots of Marks around here) came to me with the idea and he said read this book. And it was a book that Gene had written called the last man on the moon. I’m a dyslexic and reading is not my forte but I did take it and I read it from cover to cover. I was in the Middle East and I was out there filming and any moment I had I read it. I immediately realized what Mark Craig wanted and why he wanted to make this film. It’s a fascinating story, it’s a human story, its not just about Gene Cernan, it’s a whole story of a young boy who wants to make it and dream and actually do what he dreamt, and far more. I just find it a really good story and we’ve been making documentaries for 21 years now and this one – I’d like to say we’ve been practicing for 21 years to make this. So it’s thanks to Mark Craig that we started this journey 5 years ago.

Lets talk about that 5 year journey. The time frame, it’s a really long time frame. Is there any particular reason why it took 5 years to make this film?

MS: Well that’s a very good point. And actually – and I’ll hand you over to Mark Craig but people who make films, this is not uncommon. And if you’re trying to make a super doc like this is which is not just your average little documentary, it takes a budget, it takes getting the right people together. It takes convincing this young man here that he wanted to do it in the first place because he didn’t want to do it to begin with, it wasn’t that easy to do. But Mark, before he had come to me, had been trying very slowly to get through that drying concrete (laughs) and you can continue on…

Mark Craig: I mean Mark said it all really but it did take – it was actually a 7 year journey – and 4 of those were probably spent in the early days, as Mark Said, just trying to get the whole team together to get Eugene on board. But I think when I began having conversations with Gene to say, “look, I really want to make this film”, I was surprised to hear him say to me “why do you want to make this film about me?” And I thought well, here’s why: There is really just two reasons. I know several people have been to the moon and they all have their own story but Gene was the last man on the moon and it was important to me and significant that we haven’t been back in 40 odd years and maybe there was something interesting to say about that.

And number two, there were some incredible astronauts who went to the moon and did many other things but not all of them speak as charismatically and with great articulation about that and I think Gene is one of the few great speakers who can really convey what the experience was for him and actually take us to the moon. And so what I read in that book was yes, a man with a great story but a great gift with telling that story and I knew as a filmmaker what I could potentially do with that on screen and that’s why I was really keen to make the film.

MS: The thing that really drew me in and that I didn’t mention earlier, was the title. And if I could get that title, if we could USE that title “The Last Man on the Moon” for me was the most appealing. I just thought it was such a cool title to have.

Eugene: That’s interesting because I wanted my title to be “Destiny from Something” and that title was just the way you looked at it. And the publisher said “that’s the title we’re gonna use, the title tells us something that the books about”.

Mark: It’s just intriguing, it’s exciting, it’s mysterious. Its “wow, I want to read more and that’s what it did”.

GC: The thing going back, and this does go back to when Mark first came to me, he did an interview – nice guy – and he wants to make a movie about me about my book and my life. And I said ‘sure, I’ve heard that before.’ But with Mark, the thing I’ll remember most about him is that I didn’t hear at the time. I remember the words but didn’t understand what you were saying. He said ‘Gene, I want to do a movie because kids 25 years down the line have got to reach your story.’ And he said that. I don’t know if you remember it, but I remember it specifically. And I didn’t hear him. It just didn’t ring a bell but that’s where we’ve come. And thanks to these guys, thanks to Mark’s persistence and Mark Stewart’s willingness to pick up the book because the book was very well received. I hear from so many people today just what you said: ‘Gene we were there, we were with you.’ A friend of mine said the third human being to walk in space had a lot of trouble. He says ‘you know, I knew how it came out but I wasn’t sure how until I came to the end of the chapter.’

That’s a great compliment. I was convinced by a friend to write the book, but I needed to find somebody to help me. I wrote it but I had a lot of help. I didn’t want to write a book – born, went to school, had a baby, went to the moon etc. This was not another space book, my intent was for me to share my feelings and my thoughts to answer every question you might have: how does it feel? What did it look like? Do you feel closer to God? Were you scared? Anything you ask, I wanted to scare those answers to those questions through on the experiences I went through in my life. And I found the guy who I was willing to work with, a guy named Don Davis who’s written a lot of great books, and he knew what I was trying to do. So we’d do it in person, we’d do it on telephone, and finally he realized and understood what I was trying to accomplish. When it came to finding publishers we got a lot of ‘oh wait, another space book?’ and we had a hell of a time finally finding someone who we could convince that no this was not a space book. The movie is not a space movie. Space is a backdrop; it is an environment which I lived. It’s not about space.

MC: And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to make the film as well. There had been many documentaries and TV programs made about space and going to the moon and I didn’t want this to be a history lesson on the screen or a science lesson. All those documentaries had been made many times. It was about taking Gene’s story and his experiences in space and on the moon and somehow bringing them alive on the screen. We worked very hard to put a team together that could enable that to that happen – fantastic cinematographer, some really top sound design, we used a lot of the stills that were taken by Gene on the moon because they were much higher resolution and can take the viewer to the moon in much more vivid ways than the grainy black and white video footage. So I was very keen to, with the creative approach, to use all those canons in the artillery because I don’t think many or any documentaries have done that in the past.

GC: With over two years of filming and so forth, there’s so much that we covered and so much that we keep saying ‘we should’ve said that, we could’ve said that’ but we did say that. But there’s only so much we can say, we’ve only got an hour and 30 minutes, we can’t say everything, so there’s a whole wealth of what we’re talking about left. And no matter where this film goes, no matter how successful we are or not, what these guys have given me is a real legacy to leave to my grandkids.

Two things really stood out for me in the film, two particular scenes. The first is when you were a kid, with the launch pad and we see obviously the pad itself is rusted and there’s wild grass around. And secondly, is the personal cost involved with not just yourself but all the astronauts in the whole space program which went to Apollo 17. You even said in the documentary, 60 per cent of the marriages broke down. I’ve never heard of that, that’s quite astounding for me.

GC: There were a lot of emotional, nostalgic places that these guys took me back to. And the pad as the kid was hard because I kept thinking I went to the moon both on that pad and this one. I left this earth and went to the moon and I look at them and they had a crew of guys working on the one pad that we visited, and the only reason they were working was to preserve what was left of that to keep someone from getting hurt. Remember that? That was like a knife to my heart. I don’t know whether that came through, like I said in the movie I’m almost sorry I came here – there’s too much history that started right there. And I tell you it’s easy to take myself back up to the top, I’m sitting on top of that space craft and I’m known, I’m there, I know what it’s like and I hope other people get that feeling as well.

The Last Man on the Moon had its North American Premiere at SXSW. Transcript by Ryan Champion and Debbie Carr. Interview by Johnny Au.