Apollo 10 1/2: Richard Linklater Recalls the Space Race’s Forgotten Culture Wars

Richard Linklater and Glen Powell discuss Netflix’s Apollo 10 1/2, the natural charm of Jack Black’s voice, and forgotten tensions around NASA and the space race.

Family in Richard Linklater Apollo 10 1:2 movie
Photo: Netflix

It’s been 16 years since Richard Linklater last made a film in the art style he helped popularize with movies like Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). At the time, he thought he’d taken the rotoscope technique—where animators draw artwork, frame by frame, atop live-action footage—as far as he personally could with a film that featured Keanu Reeves losing his grip and perception on reality.

And yet, when thinking back to his own halcyon days as a child growing up in the Houston suburbs during a time of technological innovation and wonders—the time of the Apollo 11 mission and when a man walked on the moon—he realized his own nine-year-old understanding of the world wasn’t that different from, say, Keanu’s dream life. And exploring that paradox is what gives his ultimately semi-autobiographical reverie, this weekend’s Netflix release of Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood, its enchanting quality.

“I kind of chose to do it in animation for similar reasons [to those previous movies],” Linklater tells us when he stops by the Den of Geek Studio at SXSW. “Not that it was a drugged out mind, but it was maybe more of a memory/fantasy mind.” The mind of a child. As he later adds, “I have a really fun view of the ‘60s, because like the movie; it’s from a kid’s perspective. Like I was there, but I wasn’t there with my full maturing, critical thinking brain.”

Linklater’s ability to walk between the hard-nosed historical data of the NASA program which put a man on a moon and his own childhood fantasies of being up there with them—or just finding the simple joys that existed in remembering the girls next door and how they ran home to watch Dark Shadows after school—is what gives Apollo 10 1/2 its curiously unique sense of authenticity.

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So when we sit down with Linklater, as well as one of the leads in the film, his frequent collaborator Glen Powell, we discussed that thin line between memory and fantasy, as well as the history and details that often go overlooked from that era, be it the optimism of a bygone age or the cynicism that existed even then for NASA and the space race. We talk about all that and more… such as why Linklater’s School of Rock muse, Jack Black, needed to be the narrating voice of his childhood.

How long have you been thinking about doing a movie based on your childhood?

Richard Linklater: A long time. The concept of it as a movie [goes back] to 2004, maybe? That’s when I first started thinking about it, that I wanted to explore this little memory from childhood that I had. And then the typical gestation, thinking about it for 10 years, taking a bunch of notes, reading a bunch of stuff, and then getting serious about it.

Glen Powell: Is this the longest that you’ve thought about any movie? I feel like I’ve heard you talking about this for a while.

Linklater: Yeah, I think it is… This movie’s gestation to final form far exceeded the man-to-space mission. From ’61 to ’72, we had seen the whole [Gemini] and Apollo programs. 

But it was always based on that memory of a dream you had where you were on the Apollo mission.

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Linklater: Yeah, the two ideas were there from the beginning. The childhood fantasy and the exact recreation [of that era]. That was going to be the fun, trying to mash up those two worlds. I thought that would be a good way to see the mission from the kid’s perspective, which was actually pretty exacting in details. Everything they say in the movie was from a transcript or a broadcast. It’s all very exact to what happened, just now with a kid.

Can you think of those formative years without thinking of the space race or are they intrinsically linked?

Linklater: They’re pretty linked. That was the air I was breathing. You know you’re a kid, so there’s sports, whatever’s going on in the world, but this was the persistent thing, especially living near NASA at that time. I was out in the southeastern suburbs for about 18 months, but it was those kind of crucial, end of ‘60s months where we did walk on the moon. In Houston, the whole Apollo program was very special, and NASA in general. People there felt like they owned it.

Glen, how would you describe your role in this film?

Powell: I play a guy who works at NASA. We all make mistakes [laughs]. We all build capsules a little too small, and that’s sort of where my character comes in. I think the best part of watching this movie is that it feels like when I was watching John Hughes movies growing up. The kid is the hero, and the adults are making the dumb mistakes. There’s sort of a wish fulfillment in that, [with kids] looking up at the adults who say, ‘Okay, shoot, I screwed up, now I need your help.’ And that’s my role in this movie. I’m the adult who screwed up and needs the kid’s help.

Was the fact you played John Glenn previously in Hidden Figures a reason Richard thought of you and NASA as linked?

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Linklater: It didn’t hurt. [Laughs] I think that was part of my pitch. I was like, ‘Hey you’ve been on the mission! Do you want to now control it? Do you want to be mission control this time?’ I thought he’d like to see it from that side, perhaps.

Powell: It doesn’t take Rick much to pitch me on anything.

Linklater: Basically, Glen was doing me a favor to come in and do this, and he and Zack came in and killed it.

Speaking of casting, what made you think of Jack as the voice of your childhood, of your youth?

Linklater: That’s really a big role even though it’s narration, and there’s something about Jack’s voice. There’s a certain playfulness. I always wanted the film to be clearly comedic in that way. I thought he’d have fun with the ironies and pulling out little expressions. It was really fun working with him. I probably spent more time working with Jack than anybody, because we were just back and forth through the editing process, constantly.

And I don’t know, even if he’s off-screen, just hearing the voice, I think people love Jack and I just thought it’d be a fun vibe. Even if you don’t know it’s him, subliminally you go, ‘Is that [Jack]?’ Something positive, whether it’s Kung Fu Panda or Jack Black, is coming out of that voice that’s funny too.

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When you first had the idea of this movie way back in the 2000s, did you know Jack was going to be the voice of your youth?

Linklater: No, no. I wasn’t that far ahead.

The fantasy elements are very natural. When I see a lot of family movies, it feels like they’re talking down to kids. This doesn’t. Was that important to you?

Linklater: I wanted to make it from the kid’s perspective. I was just trying to get in the mentality of a kid of that time. So if you work from there then you don’t get that condescending thing, which Glen was talking about earlier. The kids are kind of in control, the adults are manipulated. So it’s kind of a fine line there, but you get in this territory where it’s easy to be sentimental or too sweet. The movie has a lot of fun little edges, because I really was trying to capture the dissonance of a young person’s mind, the confusion, like how the world works. You really don’t know.

There’s all this crazy stuff going on in the world, and doom and gloom, and yet it’s so optimistic, I was just trying to capture the cacophony and the confusion that goes on in a little kid’s head while you’re trying to figure out the world. Yet you’re still young enough and naive enough to actually still have these crazy fantasies because you don’t know how the world works.

Powell: Something really fun about watching the movie is it’s like a nostalgia bomb, but you’re nostalgic about little tiny things. And the things that are world-big moments, you sort of move past that, which is really fun. It’s really how someone sees the world when you’re a kid, and you don’t think about big epic moments where Walter Cronkite is on TV or doing that stuff as seminal moments. You think about the girl who’s living next door or ‘oh my God, I want to launch this little rocket.’

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Linklater: They’re equal. The scale is off in a young person’s life. Obviously it’s a huge deal walking on the moon, but so is having to take out the trash. [Laughs]

Was it fun to revisit the lifestyle of a suburban kid back then? For instance, you show TV shows no one else remembers except you 50 years later.

Linklater: The backdrop of this movie is really television, and Walter Cronkite is in the movie himself. He kind of says it at the end, that this great engineering accomplishment, and this great human feat also came along simultaneously with television. Doing the research of this, I was struck by just how much of a TV production the moon landing was. It’s incredible if you look at it. It’s a very impressive production with Cronkite and all these experts, and all these science fiction writers and guests. The simulations, the timing, they knew so much, it was a really, really impressive television accomplishment.

I appreciated it more now, going back and looking at all that in our research. And Cronkite himself says it. TV came along at the same time as this incredible era, and so I wanted to capture that. We were all watching it on TV. It was really compelling television.

I want to talk about the rotoscope. When A Scanner Darkly came out, you said it might be your last film in this art form. So when you were thinking about this, what made you circle back to it for a personal story?

Linklater: Yeah, I kind of chose to do it in animation for similar reasons. Not that it was a drugged out mind [like the protagonist in A Scanner Darkly], but it was maybe more of a memory/fantasy mind. When you think of this movie as live-action, it didn’t quite work. The line is so literal, that blurry line where the film transitions between real and fantasy, I thought the animation really smoothed those out. Once I started thinking of it that way, it had to be animation.

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That said, it’s a completely different technique than what we did way back when with Waking Life and Scanner Darkly. It all had to be created, so it was much more—I wouldn’t say it’s a totally traditional animation film, but we’re using traditional technology in 2D and 3D. But it’s also a period film, so it’s a challenge to make an animated film that’s a period film, that’s also has these documentary elements. So it was really more about the ideas and the looks and textures that was fun to explore in animation.

Is there a lot of pure animation in this when it comes to a child walking on the moon or going to a place that doesn’t exist anymore like Astroworld?

Linklater: Yeah, we had to recreate all that. We built all that in the animation, so that’s not rotoscope. We did that in Amsterdam and here in Austin too. But it had that imaginative element, you know when you’re on the moon, we shot all of it on a green screen. Every shot in the movie was a special effect.

So you weren’t in a NASA office then?

Powell: No, we were at Austin studios. [Laughs]

Linklater: We were at Troublemaker [Studios] behind a lot of green screens. But I’ve spent a lot of time at NASA. I’ve been to mission control, I know NASA pretty well, I know people down there. So it was fun recreating. It’s kind of great—you production design the movie until it works. You just have to design it, you have a lot of references, photos to get the right period in.

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Powell: What’s interesting is when you watch period pieces, everybody puts in a lot of filters on things or they shoot it in a way that feels nostalgic. They’re trying to evoke nostalgia, but in this form I feel like you don’t have to try. Nostalgia comes from a different place, you can watch it from a different view because of the animation.

Linklater: I think animation can be nostalgic. We were also going off Saturday morning cartoons, which were a big influence on us, as much as anything. The Saturday morning cartoons [of my youth].

In the movie, your older sister seems more tapped into the zeitgeist than the character who resembles you. I’m curious when people talk about the ‘60s, do you feel like you lived that decade or do you feel kind of a disconnect?

Linklater: I have a really fun view of the ‘60s, because it’s like the movie; it’s from a kid’s perspective. Like I was there, but I wasn’t there with my full maturing, critical thinking brain. That all comes later and that’s how history goes. You find moral clarity and all this in the future, but in the moment it is really kind of a mess, so I think the film is trying to depict that. There isn’t this clarity.

History says everyone backed the space race. No, no. If you do a little research, you find a lot of people weren’t for it. It seemed very militaristic, very nationalistic. The hippies didn’t like it. If you were kind of counterculture, it was a huge waste of money that had a military vibe. So there was a lot more contrary opinions than history says, so I wanted to show there was a dialogue going on.

Yet by showing Houston in this time period, you show how much more faith folks had in their government and in their future. Do you miss that sort of optimism about the future today?

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Linklater: A little bit. I mean with NASA, I think it took decades to really understand what the NASA program of that era, to get a guy to the moon and back, to understand that it had been a bit of a Cold War exercise. You don’t get a blank check for, as they said, the largest undertaking in world history that wasn’t military. That’s huge. But you realize it did have a little military in it. It’s kind of a Cold War thing. Kennedy had a goal, and we did it.

It’s such a success, it’s such an achievement, all the other stuff sort of goes away. Nobody says today I wish we hadn’t done it. That’s impossible. But there’s always a dialogue. What’s unique looking back is the absolute bipartisanship. It went from administration to administration, Democrat, Republican, back to Democrat. No mention, not a whiff of partisanship, our country was doing this.

So yeah, you have to kind of miss everybody being on the same page. That seems technically impossible now, but everybody’s got to buy in if you’re going to do something great.

Apollo 10 1/2 is streaming on Netflix now.