receptive audience at the 10th annual Middleburg Film Festival – cpn

Director Ryan White and his new film “Good Night Oppy”

In October I had the pleasure of introducing director Ryan White to a warmly receptive audience at the 10th annual Middleburg Film Festival. They’d just screened his buzzy documentary Good Night Oppy and there was lots of love in the room. That’s been a through line with the film wherever it’s shown. The space exploration documentary has since received glowing notices and several awards including five wins at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards. The charming doc about two sister robots on Mars, “Opportunity” and “Spirit”, who wildly surpassed initial expectations, also represents a change of pace for the director. He’s always had range. His previous lauded projects have included films as varied as the Oscar finalist short Coded (2021) about the gay golden age illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, the Emmy-nominated political doc The Case Against 8 (2014), the Emmy nominated unsolved crime doc-series The Keepers (2017), and profile docs like Ask Dr Ruth (2019) and Serena (2016).

When we first met Good Night Oppy had not yet reached Amazon Prime but it was headed there for the Thanksgiving holiday. A feast it would likely be to families that gave it a try. I was delighted to catch up with White to talk about the film again now that it’s available to a wide audience…

NATHANIEL: Ryan let’s start with the awards thing. Are you enjoying campaign season?

RYAN WHITE: I’ve done the Oscar thing a couple times. This year has been really fun because some of my best friends are on the same circuit with me. So, like Margaret Brown (Descendant) and Matt Heineman (Retrograde) and Andy. These are all good friends of mine so hitting the same spots with the same people has been really fun. Awards aside, the fun part is showing the film to audiences.

Recently — it wasn’t an award screening — we did an educational screening in San Francisco. I walked into the theater for the final minutes of the film for the Q&A. We looked at each other and we were like, oh my God, this must be a terrible screening. Everyone is talking. The theater was so loud. And then this really bright shot of the movie came on, and we looked at the audience and it was 25 fourth-graders and they were standing up and screaming at the screen. It was incredible. They cheered for the final five minutes of the film, which would normally be a nightmare for a filmmaker because you couldn’t hear the dialogue. But it was so sweet. Screenings like that have been really fun.

It’s a very family friendly movie, which is a little bit unusual for a documentary!

RYAN WHITE: We weren’t making a kids movie but the best family films don’t dumb it down for kids, anyway. I loved space films growing up. ET and Flight of the Navigator were two of my favorite films in the 1980s. And I wanted to make something that I could have watched when I was growing up. It is totally rare as a documentary filmmaker that you can make something family friendly. My nieces and nephews can’t — I don’t think they can watch anything that I’ve made.

It was always the goal to make something that families could watch together.

 

I wanted to ask about the cyclical nature of public interest in space exploration. People don’t care about it for awhile and then it’s suddenly a thing again that everyone is talking about!

RYAN WHITE: I think NASA’s whole lifespan has been very cyclical in the way you’re saying. This tweet went viral in 2018 or 2019 when Opportunity sent her last communication to Earth, which was, ‘my battery is low and it’s getting dark’. I think it was like this global gut punch to people. It was very WALL•E esque, like this robot’s in trouble on this planet and it’s all alone.

I think that’s sort of the genius of this mission. It wasn’t by accident that they designed this creature that people could fall in love with. And I think that’s because they wanted us, the taxpayers who pay for these missions, to come along for the journey. I’m hoping that’s what the film does as well, that it invites people along for the adventure.

I asked you this at Middelburg but we have to talk about it again. One of the things that struck me about the movie was that, because it takes place over such a long span of time, it felt like Boyhood, you’re watching the engineers and scientists and everyone onscreen age. One of characters is a teenage student when you first see her and later she’s an adult at NASA!

RYAN WHITE: I forgot that you made the Boyhood comment! We were incredibly lucky that NASA are incredible documentarians themselves. Just as they created Opportuniy by design, they are also very conscious that documenting these mission is important for storytelling. It’s amazing because they don’t do it themselves. They hand this over to independent filmmakers like Todd Douglas Miller who made Apollo 11 an incredible film. But they document the hell out of these missions. There was one DP, his name’s John Beck Kaufman, who shot most of Opportunity and Spirit’s missions. We inherited that footage which was almost a thousand hours. So, yeah, you really do see people grow up in front of the camera; Kids become adults and there are plenty of people in my film who have passed away.

I’d never made an archival documentary before. The fun of making this film was the discovery process. You have to watch every one of those thousand hours. It was like looking for needles in a haystack. And whenever we would find them, it was just such a rewarding moment.

Interview: Ryan White on “Good Night Oppy” and recording Angela Bassett
DateThursday, December 15, 2022 at 12:01PM
by Nathaniel R

Director Ryan White and his new film “Good Night Oppy”

In October I had the pleasure of introducing director Ryan White to a warmly receptive audience at the 10th annual Middleburg Film Festival. They’d just screened his buzzy documentary Good Night Oppy and there was lots of love in the room. That’s been a through line with the film wherever it’s shown. The space exploration documentary has since received glowing notices and several awards including five wins at the Critics Choice Documentary Awards. The charming doc about two sister robots on Mars, “Opportunity” and “Spirit”, who wildly surpassed initial expectations, also represents a change of pace for the director. He’s always had range. His previous lauded projects have included films as varied as the Oscar finalist short Coded (2021) about the gay golden age illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, the Emmy-nominated political doc The Case Against 8 (2014), the Emmy nominated unsolved crime doc-series The Keepers (2017), and profile docs like Ask Dr Ruth (2019) and Serena (2016).

When we first met Good Night Oppy had not yet reached Amazon Prime but it was headed there for the Thanksgiving holiday. A feast it would likely be to families that gave it a try. I was delighted to catch up with White to talk about the film again now that it’s available to a wide audience…

NATHANIEL: Ryan let’s start with the awards thing. Are you enjoying campaign season?

RYAN WHITE: I’ve done the Oscar thing a couple times. This year has been really fun because some of my best friends are on the same circuit with me. So, like Margaret Brown (Descendant) and Matt Heineman (Retrograde) and Andy. These are all good friends of mine so hitting the same spots with the same people has been really fun. Awards aside, the fun part is showing the film to audiences.

Recently — it wasn’t an award screening — we did an educational screening in San Francisco. I walked into the theater for the final minutes of the film for the Q&A. We looked at each other and we were like, oh my God, this must be a terrible screening. Everyone is talking. The theater was so loud. And then this really bright shot of the movie came on, and we looked at the audience and it was 25 fourth-graders and they were standing up and screaming at the screen. It was incredible. They cheered for the final five minutes of the film, which would normally be a nightmare for a filmmaker because you couldn’t hear the dialogue. But it was so sweet. Screenings like that have been really fun.

It’s a very family friendly movie, which is a little bit unusual for a documentary!

RYAN WHITE: We weren’t making a kids movie but the best family films don’t dumb it down for kids, anyway. I loved space films growing up. ET and Flight of the Navigator were two of my favorite films in the 1980s. And I wanted to make something that I could have watched when I was growing up. It is totally rare as a documentary filmmaker that you can make something family friendly. My nieces and nephews can’t — I don’t think they can watch anything that I’ve made.

It was always the goal to make something that families could watch together.

 

I wanted to ask about the cyclical nature of public interest in space exploration. People don’t care about it for awhile and then it’s suddenly a thing again that everyone is talking about!

RYAN WHITE: I think NASA’s whole lifespan has been very cyclical in the way you’re saying. This tweet went viral in 2018 or 2019 when Opportunity sent her last communication to Earth, which was, ‘my battery is low and it’s getting dark’. I think it was like this global gut punch to people. It was very WALL•E esque, like this robot’s in trouble on this planet and it’s all alone.

I think that’s sort of the genius of this mission. It wasn’t by accident that they designed this creature that people could fall in love with. And I think that’s because they wanted us, the taxpayers who pay for these missions, to come along for the journey. I’m hoping that’s what the film does as well, that it invites people along for the adventure.

I asked you this at Middelburg but we have to talk about it again. One of the things that struck me about the movie was that, because it takes place over such a long span of time, it felt like Boyhood, you’re watching the engineers and scientists and everyone onscreen age. One of characters is a teenage student when you first see her and later she’s an adult at NASA!

RYAN WHITE: I forgot that you made the Boyhood comment! We were incredibly lucky that NASA are incredible documentarians themselves. Just as they created Opportuniy by design, they are also very conscious that documenting these mission is important for storytelling. It’s amazing because they don’t do it themselves. They hand this over to independent filmmakers like Todd Douglas Miller who made Apollo 11 an incredible film. But they document the hell out of these missions. There was one DP, his name’s John Beck Kaufman, who shot most of Opportunity and Spirit’s missions. We inherited that footage which was almost a thousand hours. So, yeah, you really do see people grow up in front of the camera; Kids become adults and there are plenty of people in my film who have passed away.

I’d never made an archival documentary before. The fun of making this film was the discovery process. You have to watch every one of those thousand hours. It was like looking for needles in a haystack. And whenever we would find them, it was just such a rewarding moment.

 

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