Amazon Studios releases Good Night Oppy in select theaters on November 4th, 2022 and on Amazon Prime on November 23rd, 2022.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Was it more challenging for you to decide on what note to end the film on or what note to begin it with?
Ryan White: Often, there are so many changes in the editing room. Whenever we're doing rough cuts, I like to experiment with openings which are often cold openings where you're dropped into the middle of the film and then you flash back. We tried a lot of different things. I have to give credit to Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios, because she had the idea for the opening [scene]. We were more starting with scenes that took place within the film and she said, "What if it was just a day in the life?" We tried it with the robot waking up and starting. I think that that was a brilliant idea. We wanted to get to Mars as soon as possible, so I always wanted my cold open to be on Mars, so it's just a matter of what took place on Mars. The ending was also very challenging, though, because we used to have an ending of our film that ended on the final rover diary that's just so beautiful and then the camera tilts up to show the night sky over Mars. It's a wonderful ending, but it's also an incredibly sad ending. It felt like a disservice to the whole larger scope of what the mission is about, which is just this relay race of passing the baton from humans to humans and rovers down to other rovers, and the legacy of Spirit and Opportunity didn't die when Opportunity's battery died. All of that knowledge has been handed down to the two rovers after her which are, as we speak, rolling across Mars. So, we wanted a more hopeful ending, but pointed to the possibility of the future.
NYC MOVIE GURU: I believe that a film is essentially a symphony of emotions. Which notes in that symphony of emotions was most challenging for you to get right in the editing room?
RW: I really wanted to capture those childhood sensibilities, like, wonder and awe that I felt as a little boy growing up wanting to be an astronaut and who loved space films like E.T. or Flight of the Navigator. As I started researching this project, I realized that we were one of the few non-fiction stories with those types of emotions as well. Once I began talking to the human beings who were involved in these missions, you could tell that they get to live these sensibilities every day--that sense of discovery and adventure. So, it was one of the more challenging parts to work into the film because we are a documentary and we're tied to reality, so we couldn't exaggerate the truth or put eyebrows on the robot like Wall-E has. It was really in the editing room that we weaved together the archival and the visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic that I think we found that sense of wonder and awe.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you have to omit to get the running time down to 1 hour and 45 minutes? What sacrifices did you have to make in the editing room?
RW: It's always so vicious at the end in the editing room when you start getting rid of things that you really love because you realize that they're not absolutely necessary to the story that you're telling. A lot ended up on the cutting room floor which really did gut me, but I don't think that it was completely necessary to our story. It was a lot of the backstory of the Mars program, so we had a lot about the missions leading up to Opportunity and Spirit. Not just that, but also the history of NASA in general. We had a whole section, especially of the older people in my film, remembering what it was like to see the moon landing in the 60's. So, it had a lot of backstory, but we felt like we really wanted to edit a film that invited families to watch it together. It's not a kid's film, but we wanted kids to be invited into the room and be able to follow it, so we always thought about that in our calculation. We had to get to Mars as soon as possible because that's when the story really starts for Opportunity. We couldn't get to Mars 45 minutes into the film. So, yeah, it was a lot of that archival backstory that ended up on the cutting room floor.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about the fact that your subjects, Opportunity and Spirit, are non-human, so you can't interview them even if you wanted to?
RW: I knew from the beginning that we were going to be totally tied to authenticity. That meant robots who had a very minimal amount of autonomy. They're strictly controlled by the humans guiding them. I think that all of the emotions or feelings that are anthropomorphised in the robot come from the human beings who drive them every day. These robots are stand-ins on Mars. They're avatars on Mars because we can't safely go there ourselves yet. NASA has figured out how to send these robots and land them on Mars, so the connection to them comes from the idea that we are them. They are the brain of the trepid explorer because we can't go there ourselves. The communication between the rovers and NASA plays a key role in the film. It's like a parent and child---giving them a laundry list of chores to do for the day and then reporting back on whether they did it or not or whether they succeeded or failed. So, I think that people relate to that kind of direct communication.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think makes a documentary like Good Night Oppy transcendent?
RW: I appreciate you using the word "transcendent." I wanted something cinematic. The motto of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is "Dare mighty things." It's a motto that I really love and that I find to be inspirational. I thought that if we're going to make a movie about these group of people nurturing these creations, we have to dare mighty things as well and have to swing for the bleachers--especially in the Industrial Light & Magic visual effects and in the sound design by Mark Mangini who did the sound design for Mad Max: Fury Road and Dune. We wanted the talking heads, the interviews, to also feel that cinematic, epic kind of scope. Most of them take place in this room where the ceiling is lit in an interesting way, but the background falls off almost to the infinity of blackness. So, it was just really important to me, as a director, if we were going to shoot interviews for the film, it was going to have some of the most innovative effects that have ever been in a documentary. The interviews had to hold up to that as well.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Which films do you think would pair well with Good Night Oppy in a double feature? Which films are kindred spirits with Good Night Oppy?
RW: I think my biggest model for this model for this film was E.T.. I wanted to capture a similar type of tone. I thought that it has a similar narrative trajectory which is quite simple. It's about a non-human character. In E.T., that character is coming to Earth; in Good Night Oppy the character is leaving Earth and it's about that character's journey in a new place. Hopefully, the audience feels an attachment to that non-human character. In the end, the audience has to say goodbye to that character, so it's very sad, but it's also very hopeful. So, those were the types of films that I was watching. I was also watching the film Her by Spike Jones a lot because I was just really fascinated with that kin between human and machine. Of course, I brought my documentary background to the film. I would argue that all of my documentaries have been about someone or a group of people on some sort of incredible journey. This was just an outlier because it was non-human, but it was still bringing all of the things I love about documentary filmmaking to me which is making character-based films of someone on an incredible journey.