In October 2002, I interviewed David Sander, the creator of Man Conquers Space, a mockumentary chronicling the first fifty years of an alternative-history space program that takes as its’ inspiration a series of articles published in Collier’s magazine in the 1950s and featuring the art of Chesley Bonestell, among others.
Cinescape ran a short piece by me drawn from the interview, but I wanted to provide the complete interview as well. You can read the article in issue #68 of Cinescape, which features either a Daredevil or a Frodo cover (they issued it with both versions).
This introduction will be published prior to each section of the interview, which will be presented over a period of five days.
Mike Whybark [MW]: I contacted you originally because I had seen the trailer for MCS on your website. Can you talk a little about how the film started, and what it’s becoming?
David Sanders [DS]: Some time ago, I was given original Collier’s Magazines as payment for a job I did for a friend of mine. I had heard of Collier’s and the space articles, and seen portions of them (or Bonestell’s corresponding artwork) featured in books on space history and the like … but here they were in the flesh, and they were quite stunning. It was pretty much at that point that I asked myself: “Gosh, I wonder what these scenes would have looked like if they had actually happened?” The thing is, Bonestell’s art (along with Klep and Freeman) had a luminous quality about it that was also viewed from points of view unattainable in reality – this gave each painting a certain surreality that was quite lovely, but at the same time fictional.
I wanted to see how these things would have looked as if they had been photographed by a photographer standing on the ground, riding in a vehicle, floating in a spacesuit, or if the camera was an automatic one strapped to the wall of the cockpit or launch support truss – where genuine footage tends to come from. How better to illustrate this than to make this imagery look like it was from documentary footage? Thus, MCS was born.
MW: Was it originally a demo reel? When you had the idea for the mockumentary, how much work had gone into the sequences?
DS: MCS was never a ‘demo’ reel. I have never used it to acquire paying work, and it certainly never started with being a demo reel in mind. From the beginning, it was thought of as a free-standing film, paralleling The Space Movie (1979) but shorter, and having this alternative view of history.
MW: You showed the film, in the half-hour format, to a US audience in Spring 2002. On your website, you note that a number of changes came out of this experience. What sorts of changes? What was the audience reaction?
DS: There were a number of emails that resulted from the screening in the US. Some made specific references – shots were too short, too long, too obscure, too grainy – others made comment on narrative and the like, still others discussed the audio (quality, clarity, content). The version that landed in the US was rushed, the audio track was all wrong, the soundtrack hadn’t been mixed properly, the edit was rushed, shots were missing, there were gaping narrative gaps, and whole sequences that should have been in there were not there.
I sat down and watched the cut again just the other day, and I remain convinced it was nowhere MCS needed to be before being seen publicly. My own problem was I had been staring at it for so long I had become too familiar with it and not critical enough. It took fresh, experienced eyes to see what needed to be done, and those emails, combined with some help closer to home has changed it around to what is currently being worked on.
MW: Can you summarize the film’s current plot and structure for me?
DS: Well, here’s where it’s going to get a little sticky, as I’m not releasing certain information until the film’s release. What I am prepared to tell you though is that the way the narrative is told is very different to the way it was before. I had originally looked to The Space Movie for the narrative structure of MCS, as it was the closest to what I was aiming for (and it remains one of my favourite films, too). The mistake I made with that idea – that I have realized more recently – was that with The Space Movie, it told a story known the world over of real and well publicized events that had happened only a decade earlier.
MCS on the other hand was of events that never happened, purportedly many decades earlier, and there were things that needed to be explained or described in ways different to what I was doing so that the film would connect properly. Now that this issue has been addressed, the narrative is very clear, very straightforward, and this means it should connect on a number of levels with a broad range of viewing types. How exactly this is achieved is something I’m going to keep for the film’s release, which is why portions of the website remain the way they are even though they are now superseded and therefore technically incorrect.
MW: Who created the original art, and for what purpose? How influential was it at the time?
DS: Cornelius Ryan, a senior editor at Collier’s (who also penned many great books in his own right – including some remarkable accounts of events during WWII) managed to attract a group of eminent scientists, technicians and professionals to help put together the series of articles that would run in Collier’s from 1952 to 1954. Chesley Bonestell, already well known for not only his space art but works for Hollywood and even Collier’s itself, was approached to illustrate these articles, with Rolf Klep and Fred Freeman providing many of the illustrations as well.
The most prominent exponent amongst all the authors was Dr. Wernher von Braun, whose astonishing spacecraft designs would feature as the most outstanding elements throughout the whole series. Dr. von Braun was arguably the most vigorous space advocate of the group – even more than the well published Willy Ley. With his infectious enthusiasm, optimistic approach and starry-eyed dreamer visage (certainly a very potent form of escapism in the era of post-war recovery), Dr. von Braun’s space exploration epic became even closer to reality than his ebullient text could manage through the vivid illustrations provided by Bonestell, Klep and Freeman. The effects on the reading public (this happening only a few years before television was widespread and popular enough to become the preferred medium) was sensational – here was presented something that was so fantastic and yet achievable at the same time.
Here was something that was a project on a grand scale, but was not war-oriented (although it could be used militarily if the need arose); could benefit a large number of people; and could pave the way to the next great frontier of space. There is little doubt that the Collier’s series had a deep impact on society, paving the way for understanding, acceptance, and even support of the real Space Age when that kicked in some years later. I also have no doubt many of those who pursued roles in the space program were themselves motivated to do so by the Collier’s series.
MW: Was the Bonestell art used in conjunction with a series of Disney films made sometime after the original magazine series? Are the films in print or available today, if that assumption is correct?
DS: The Disney Man in Space series did not use any art that featured in the Collier’s magazines, and no art by Bonestell, Klep or Freeman features anywhere in them. The Disney studios in fact altered the designs of the spacecraft slightly to avoid any problems that may have arisen otherwise, even though their designer (Dr. von Braun) appeared in one of the films. I have seen them, and they pop up on TV from time to time, and there was mutterings made some time ago that Disney intended to release them on DVD (and presumably VHS), but I haven’t come across any reference to that recently. I certain hope if they haven’t done so already they consider doing so – they are quite excellent.
MW: Has the fact of these movies made getting the rights to the Bonestell designs more difficult? Are you having to deal with Disney? Have they contacted you?
DS: I have secured rights to using artwork by Chesley Bonestell from the owners of Bonestell’s estate, who have been astoundingly helpful with MCS all the way along, and have been my guidance with issues of rights and so forth. I have not had to deal with Disney at all, as MCS is suitably different from the Disney programs. In fact, except for one shot where Bonestell’s space art features (deliberately as a ‘Bonestell gallery’), no material from anyone outside the film’s production actually features in MCS – all shots are created for the film from scratch. There are a number of shots that deliberately mimic Bonestell – composition, content and so forth – but this is deliberate tribute. I am not ‘animating’ Bonestell’s paintings as such – I am creating what those scenes would have looked like if they had been shot for real.