SXSW Q&A: The Filmmakers of Lunarcy!
It's been 40 years since we've sent anyone to the Moon, but that doesn't mean people have stopped dreaming about going there—and Lunarcy!, which played the SXSW film festival this week, explores how these lunar dreamers plan to make the trip. We sat down with director Simon Ennis, producer Jonas Bell Pasht, and, eventually, documentary subject Chris Carson, to talk about why people still love the Moon so much. Lunarcy! airs April 3 on EPIX.
m_f: How did you find out about these people, and what made you want to make a documentary about them?
Simon Ennis: Originally, the idea for the documentary was a lot more straightforward. It was just going to be a film about all the different ways people have seen the moon. But as I started interviewing people, I got a lot more interested in their stories, so it quickly became more about the people than about the moon.
Everybody in the movie, for the most part, I was familiar with what they did or had read about—except for Chris [Carson]. He was the one true discovery. I was at my very first shoot, which was at the Space Access Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, a conference for people working in the commercial space industry—NASA, Boeing, Virgin Galactic, all that stuff. It was a total washout. It was literally one presentation after another, saying, “With this new propellant I developed, we can get three tons more payload up into the lower-Earth orbit.” I talked to Jonas at night and he’d ask how it was going, and I’d be like, “It’s great! You know … networking … maybe we’ll go talk to Virgin Galactic later,” or something like that, but really I was getting nothing.
Then, two days in, the elevator doors opened and out walked a guy with a phenomenal mustache and vest that said “Luna City or Bust,” so I went up to him and said, “Hi there, will you tell me what this vest’s all about?” and he said, “Well, my name’s Chris Carson, and I’m starting a DIY space program called The Lunar Project. I want to be the first person to leave Earth and never return. I want to live on the moon.” We found the one and only five-foot-five background in the entire hotel that was at all photogenic, which was the karaoke stage of the hotel bar, and we talked for an hour and I thought, “This guy is a movie star. He’s a natural.” And then we spent, on-and-off, the whole next year together traveling the States.
m_f: You talked to a lot of interesting people who have very interesting ideas. Why did you choose to make Chris the central character?
SE: It happened on its own. As we were cutting, we were figuring out [that we needed] more Dennis [Hope], who owns the moon, or less or more of Alan [Bean], the astronaut from Apollo 12. Also, because Chris was like going for something a little more tangible—he was actively going places and doing things—he just became a natural fit.
Jonas Ball Pasht: He had a clear arc. He was on a mission to accomplish something. The film is populated by these really eccentric and compelling characters who are doing interesting things. But Chris had the ultimate hero's journey to go live on the moon.
m_f: Did you ever have any hesitation about including Dennis? He's selling property on the Moon based on a loophole that he says gives him ownership, but his claim on the Moon obviously isn't legitimate.
SE: I had absolutely no hesitation whatsoever. Hearing about his story was actually one of the reasons I wanted to make the movie in the first place. I thought it was the greatest idea I ever heard—his whole claim of ownership is predicated on the fact that he sent a letter to the United Nations, U.S., and U.S.S.R. saying, “I’m going do this unless I hear from you that there’s a legal problem.” They never wrote back, so he took that as the tacit acceptance of his ownership, and I’m such a fan of that idea and of the narrative that he’s built.
I actually don’t really care about the “Is it real? Is it not?” He’s been interviewed many times, and there are two ways people interview him: “Haha. This is hilarious and ridiculous and it’s just this shtick,” or “How dare you do this!” And I thought both of those ways were boring. I never really wanted to question his claim, I just wanted to see how big and how far and how vast his narrative was. We spent three or four days with him and it goes really far—
JBP: It goes real deep.
SE: He’s an incredible guy. After a day or two, Jonas said to me, “What if everything he’s saying is completely true?” and that’s how I like to think of it. I didn’t ever want to break down the barrier and [Dennis] never did, not even when we were off camera. I couldn’t tell you 100 percent if he’s a true believer in what he’s saying, but if he’s not, he puts on an amazing show, because he never once broke, and he has a really good sense of humor about … I mean, he knows it’s funny and it’s kind of ridiculous, but he’s absolutely committed.
m_f: Why do you think people are so fascinated by the Moon and the idea of living on the Moon?
SE: I think people are fascinated by the Moon because it’s an easy thing to project your dreams on. Whatever you think about the moon, it says more about you and your hopes and aspirations than it actually does about the moon. I think that it’s kind of the biggest and most obvious symbol of the greater universe—if you just glance up, you immediately know that it’s a huge universe that we’re just a tiny part in. It’s crazy that there’s almost this other planet in the sky every night, and I think that’s why it attracts people.
JBP: I think in terms of colonizing it, there are scientific and evolutionary applications and reasons why people are devoted to that. I think our film is really about what Simon just put his finger on.
m_f: One thing the film touches on is the fact that our space program has stalled, that we no longer put people on the Moon. It's very sad.
SE: I completely agree with you. It was wonderful when we talked to Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon. He’s such an inspiring guy and has an amazing, positive attitude and great stories, so it’s wonderful spending time with him. But it’s also really sad. There were only 12 people who walked on the moon and they’re all really old. As a kid, I remember—I guess it was during the shuttle program—that NASA seemed like it was the future. And now it doesn’t. I think that we’re in a transition period, and hopefully commercial companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic will take the reins.
I hope it happens faster—I’d love to go. I became a little bit of a space nut, making this movie. The idea of going up there and looking out is really beautiful and profound and thrilling. I think that there is some hope. With the Dragon capsule docking with the ISS, it looks like something’s going to happen. I just hope the will is there.
Without something as visible as the Apollo Program, I don’t know if kids now are as into wanting to be astronauts as they used to be. But I think as soon as anything happens, be it a private space mission to the moon or Chris getting his way, or China or India [going there], that spark will come alive almost immediately. If China puts a man on the moon, the U.S. will probably want to do something, too, because if you can control the moon then you can really do a lot. Although, obviously they’d have to talk to Dennis first.
m_f: Who were some people you filmed, but couldn't include?
SE: A lot of people. Everywhere I went, I tried to talk to as many people as I could. When we were at the worldwide science fiction convention, I talked to a psychologist who worked for NASA about the psychology of being in space—he was kind of more of an expert in deep space, like projecting if someone was going to be on a mission for six years and what that would do to them—and I had a lot of really interesting conversations and they just didn’t really fit with the film. In New York, we talked to an urban shaman, Mamadonna, who does the moon ritual in the movie. I had the full interview with her and I actually expected her to be one of the main characters in the movie, and she was a lovely person, but she just didn’t fit with the film. The first cut of the movie was three hours long, and it was just paring down and paring down.
Enter Chris Carson, who arrives with his bags and a Snoopy stuffed animal, which is dressed like an astronaut. Attached to it are conference ribbons from the places Carson has visited.
m_f: When did you first become interested in going to live on the Moon?
Chris Carson: I’ve been fascinated with space and space travel from the first that I can remember. I grew up in a household where these ideas were normal, and so to me, the fact that I got out into larger society and found that they weren’t considered normal, that people didn’t take them necessarily seriously, was astonishing to me. To an extent, I felt that it was my job to change that almost just because I understand these ideas to be very important. If you have an important idea, then you have a kind of responsibility to diffuse it.
But also, it was kind of tiring being around people who just said, “What?”, who didn’t understand what I was talking about, and so I’ve always had this kind of idea, so working through different plans—I’ve worked out all kinds of plans from high school onward—I came to the conclusion that the thing that would actually work is to use existing technologies, not new things that have to be developed, but existing technologies and existing capabilities and ones which are in the pipeline now, to go to the lunar surface and use the resources there to bootstrap as it were.
About 2007, I decided—because of some things that were going on in my life—that what I really needed to do was to stop what I was doing and go out and start proselytizing, start explaining this to people, start bringing this message to people and encourage them to actually do something about it because the fundamental issue we have is, people don’t believe and understand that it’s a realistic prospect, so they don’t do it. If enough people believed in it to put their money where their mouth was, we would have had this 20 to 30 years ago.
m_f: Can you walk me through your plan? What are some of the challenges we're facing in getting to the Moon?
CC: I have this crate here, of visual aids. I never travel anywhere without visual aids. You can see I have maps. These are papers out of old industry magazines, so for example this is from 1962. Many of the studies they did are still relevant today—you can make adjustments for modern technology, so all of the stuff that they’ve budgeted tons and tons and tons for, in many cases, we can now do with a few milligrams. A lot of the things are now much less massive than they were, and some things we’ve just discovered better ways [to accomplish].
This is a National Geographic article describing an army facility in Greenland, where they tunneled under the snow and they had a nuclear reactor for power, actually. The layout is very similar to what an early lunar base would be like because they dug these trenches and they put the shelters down into the trenches and buried them back over. And that’s insulation against the weather, but it also works on the moon as radiation insulation, which is the main hazard—space radiation.
Then there’s meteorites. Of course, with the [Russian meteor from last month], we are all much more noticing now than we were. And of course there’s a possibility that a comet will hit Mars next year, potentially destroying all of the probes that we’ve sent to Mars and creating a crater 2600 miles in diameter. So, you know, planetary defense is coming onto the front burner, as it’s been for those of us in the space community since at least the early ‘80s.
The fact is, there’s this global interconnectedness that we cannot ignore. The best investment strategy is to diversify, right? Because if one of your investments doesn’t do well, then another one will be okay. Well, in this same sense, we diversify ecologically. If one of our planets doesn’t do well, then maybe one of the other ones will be okay.
Right now, here on Earth, we have one biosphere. One of the things about living in space, whether it be on the moon, it be on Mars, it be in O'Neill colonies, which are the ultimate objective—because you can build them to be whatever you want inside, you could have something the size of Texas with the climate of San Diego if you wanted—the idea is, when you have multiple biospheres, you’re far more resistant. That if something goes extinct on Earth, but there’s somebody raising it as a crop on an O’Neill colony, then it can be re-imported.
When you go into space, you’re facing a harsh environment. You’re facing an unforgiving environment. If you make a mistake, if you screw up, you may very well be dead. It’s amazing that we haven’t lost astronauts in space. The people we’ve lost have either been coming up or down, which are very difficult stages, but you know how many astronauts who have had suit punctures? It’s more than you think. I've always said, “You can’t run away from your mistakes in a space colony.” On Earth, you can do all kinds of things and the effects don’t show up for a hundred years. In a space colony, your waste products come back to you right then. So you learn a lot more about managing environments.
At this point, we had to wrap up. If you'd like to know more about Chris Carson's Luna Project and his plans for getting to the moon, check out its website.