While it might seem like humans haven't achieved anything exciting in space since the moon missions of the late '60s, Good Night Oppy, the new documentary from director Ryan White, has quite a story to tell. The film, out now on Amazon Prime Video, follows the incredible journey of NASA's Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The two robots were designed to explore the red planet for just 90 days but ended up surviving for 15 years, forging an otherworldly bond with their Earth-bound engineers in the process.
White not only spoke with the scientists behind the remarkable rovers, but he also recruited Industrial Light & Magic to recreate their Mars experiences via special effects. He also landed Black Panther star Angela Bassett as the narrator for the project. Ahead of Good Night Oppy's streaming debut, EW spoke with White about his invigorating space movie.
Amazon Prime Video The new documentary 'Good Night Oppy' tells the story of the Mars Rover that was only supposed to last for 90 days but survived for 15 years
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What has been your relationship with space? Were you one of the kids that wanted to be an astronaut?
RYAN WHITE: It's all of the above. I was a total space nerd growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut, but I don't think that's rare.
I also loved film in general and obviously went down that aisle instead of the planetary exploration aisle. So when I became a documentary filmmaker, the coolest part about my job is that we get to go to these incredible places. Whether that's literal or metaphorical, we're in these incredible situations, and we get to do that for a couple years at a time and then move out of that incredible place and then move into another incredible place.
And so I knew I had the type of job and career that could probably still allow me to explore those things that I loved so much as a child if I found the right story that I wanted to spend a couple years on. And so I was looking for my entire career for a space story that I felt like I loved enough to spend that few years on it. This ended up being the one for many reasons, but it was pitched to me by Film 45, which is Pete Burke's company and Spielberg's company, Amblin Entertainment. And it was Industrial Light and Magic who did the visual effects. So these were my filmmaking heroes as a boy growing up, and getting to creatively collaborate with them on something that was such a joy to make because of how heartwarming the story is.
Were you following news reports of the Mars rovers as this all was happening at the time?
Yeah. Definitely, as I entered adulthood, I stopped following space missions as much as I had as a kid and teenager, but I still always followed them from afar. And so I 100 percent remember the launch of Opportunity and Spirit, and I remember news coverage of some of the critical junctures in their lives. And I definitely remember at the end of Opportunity's life in 2018 when a tweet went viral where her last communication with Earth was, "my battery is low and it's getting dark." And it was such a devastating message from this robot who was alone on a planet and in trouble and eventually led to her death.
And so when I sat down with Film 45 and Amblin, Opportunity had just passed away a few months prior, but NASA had documented the hell out of the mission. We had all of the footage, from the moment that Spirit and Opportunity were just an idea in people's heads in the late '90s all the way through both of their funerals, so to speak, at the end. And so there was this amazing archive that we had to work with where we felt like we could show this story unfold in front of the audience's eyes.
You were just saying that you always had your eye out for a compelling space story. Was it this trove of footage that NASA had collected? Or was it also getting to know the NASA scientists and engineers who had worked with it?
Yeah, I think I assumed that scientists and engineers would be very difficult documentary characters. But from the moment we began to meet what I call our "human being characters," that was the most pleasant surprise was the way that they talked about this robot. And that's when I knew we had something special. I always wanted to do a space story that was character-based and everything that I had been pitched was much more mission-based or scientific. I love that stuff, but not as a filmmaker telling the story. I never thought that the main character would be a robot, actually, [it's] people that really interest me.
When the logline is a robot that was supposed to live for 90 days but survived for 15 years, it's a logline that you can fall in love with right away. But the human beings are the ones that really end up bringing the heart to this movie, I think. It's because of their emotional, almost familial bond that they formed with these robots that they created or drove or operated every day.
I think it was somewhat cathartic for them because this mission had just ended, and it was quite fresh in their minds that this creature that they had loved and worked so hard on wasn't alive anymore. They very quickly have to move on to the next shiny thing, so they don't get a ton of time to grieve, for lack of a better term. So I think this film, in a lot of ways, was allowing them that grieving process and that ability to look back on this incredible experience after they've already moved on to the next mission on Mars or Europa or whatever it is.
Obviously, you have Angela Bassett involved as the narrator. What did she bring to the film?
So this is the first documentary I've written a screenplay for. It was because we had to do so many visual effects, and that was going to take years. And we also discovered this thing called the Analyst Notebook, which is also referred to colloquially as the rovers' diary. Every day someone at NASA took a pen and paper and wrote this first-person, very heartfelt recap of what happened that day. For me, as a storyteller, it was an incredible narrative device to have because, by the time I began this film, the mission had ended. So anyone I was going to sit down in an interview chair inevitably is going to be speaking about this story in hindsight. What we had was the words of NASA in first person whenever they're in the middle of an emergency or a crisis or something joyful. They were writing about that every day.
And so, we read all of those analyst notebooks from both missions, and we started inserting them into our screenplay in a way that could keep the audience along for the journey instead of feeling like they were looking back on something that had already ended. And from the very beginning, I had Angela Bassett's voice in my head for two years. She's playing the voice of NASA. And so once we finally were able to record with Angela, and she was so connected to the story and loved it so much, it just took the film to a completely different level.
What do you hope people take away from this movie, especially the new generation of space kids out there?
Well, I hope families go see it together. I hope a lot of young people watch this film. Some of the most fun parts of unveiling the film so far has been having kids in the audience who have been very engaged, which is rare to have as a documentary filmmaker. I hope that young people see themselves represented in the human beings that are in our film. Another really surprising part to me in choosing the people that would be in our film is that almost all of them are outsiders in some way. They're from all over the world, all different backgrounds. Most aren't from big cities and [didn't have] privileged upbringings. A lot of them say that they weren't great at math and science growing up, but they had a love of space or engineering like I did.
And so I hope kids who maybe think this is not a viable career for me, might watch this and see themselves represented in some of the human beings in the film. And whether that's going into math and science or engineering or space, or even going into filmmaking, it's the brilliant engineers at Industrial Light and Magic who created these visual effects. They have a very similar education and skill set to the same people that were building these robots. Some of the most fun parts have been getting to watch the engineers at Industrial Light and Magic nerd out with the engineers at NASA.
So it's through the film just inspiring kids. And even if that's not going into STEM or anything like that, that idea that things that you're told are impossible are achievable. And especially, it sounds cheesy, but this is a story about humans working together in a way. I think it's rare that you have people from all over the world working on something collectively that is intended. The intent of the mission is to make life better on Earth. And this was a very rare example, I think, of people worldwide coming together to work on something that can achieve that.
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