Netflix’s latest documentary film, Return to Space, is directed by Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi, and follows astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley as they embark on the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft in May 2020, marking the first flight of American astronauts on American-made rockets from U.S. soil after the last Space Shuttle mission in July 2011. Beyond these two astronauts, the film focuses on Elon Musk’s and SpaceX engineers’ two-decade mission to send NASA astronauts back to the International Space Station and revolutionize space travel.
In anticipation of the documentary’s release, Dorkaholics participated in a virtual roundtable interview with the directors.
The first question was by Jana Monji who asked Vasarhelyi, “what got you interested in this project?”
Vasarhelyi specified interests in the stories of space as well as the relationship between humanity and space.
“Like many people, we’re interested in space and the stories that have kind of captured our hearts and minds, but specifically it felt like this was a really important moment in that this is the beginning of a new era in terms of the relationship between humanity and space,” Vasarhelyi said.
The following question was asked by me: “what did you want to do differently with Return to Space to differentiate it from the other films and documentaries about space?”
“We just do what we do, in that, we’re interested in character and that’s what unites all of our work. It was about understanding who Doug [Hurley] and Bob [Behnken] were, why they were chosen to herald this first return to space in human spaceflight and understanding the engineers behind this and what they hope for,” Vasarhelyi said. “We were interested in knowing viscerally why they do this work, and what it came down to over and over again was that space exploration only underlies how fragile life is on Earth and how precious it is. That was why we wanted to make it, and it wasn’t about differentiating ourselves from previous work, it was about trying to get involved the way we always get involved with our films and finding the story that moves us most.”
Chin agreed with Vasarhelyi in that as filmmakers they don’t actively try to make films different from what others have previously made.
“I don’t think that’s the way we approach the films that we make. We have very specific interests in how we approach our films, what interests us, and certainly it is about finding the human character of each of the subjects because we believe that is how you bring the audience to feel invested in the storylines – when you are invested in each of the characters, you feel the film and it’s not just something you’re watching,” Chin said. “We want people to feel something and to be moved, to understand what the stakes feel like for these characters, and that’s how we like to explore our subjects.”
Gigi Lee from The China Press asked the pair about how the separation of work differed on Return to Space compared to previous work.
Vasarhelyi noted that due to the pandemic the stakes were very high.
“Because we have two small kids, one of us would travel and the other one would stay home. And I have to say, for me traveling, I’m normally always rushed home because of the children at home and Jimmy would be traveling,” she noted. “But Jimmy was at home, so I could take a little bit more time with our work and really stay for a lot of the moments that normally I’d be too rushed to stay for.”
Chin went on to elaborate on their working relationship being fairly fluid.
“We both have different strengths and different films, different moments require different things. At this point, it’s instinctual, we know what the strengths are of each other. And if the moment requires one of those strengths then we send the best person to do it,” Chin said.
Monji’s second question touched on the challenges in filming Return to Space.
Vasarhelyi noted the pandemic creating certain challenges for the team, but that also opened up unique opportunities.
“There were quite a few. First and foremost, we began this documentary at the end of 2019, and then the pandemic hit in March 2020. Working with institutions where intellectual property is very valuable and there’s a lot of concerns regarding secrecy, adding a pandemic on top of it all in terms of the health and safety of the astronauts and everyone involved made things quite complicated. But you know, and especially in nonfiction, every obstacle ends up creating an opportunity. And so, in this case, it was really special that the astronauts agreed to film themselves at home and gave us these very intimate moments that we would have never been able to get normally,” she said. “It also created this camaraderie between SpaceX and NASA and ourselves, where everyone wanted to try to get what we needed. So we worked with their in-house cinematographers who were allowed in because of COVID, which was very helpful in nurturing the film.”
It became my turn once again to pose a question, so I asked “how did each of your own personal experiences with this world’s space exploration and development impact the ways that you moved forward with making this film?”
Chin answered first, noting his childhood experiences involving space as well relating the desire to travel to space to human ambition and drive.
“Like most people at a young age, the idea of going to space is very intriguing. I grew up watching all of the launches of the space shuttle, reading sci-fi, and Isaac Asimov. The way that we came into it on top of that though is what our personal experiences are with people trying to achieve the impossible goal, their intentions, their process, why people do things, and why people you know spend their lives dreaming and trying to achieve something. And that’s what we brought to film as well,” Chin said.
Vasarhelyi followed up by noting her experiences and familiarity with members of the scientific research community.
“For me, my dad is a professor of artificial intelligence, so I grew up around a lot of scientists and am very familiar with the quirky characters that sometimes come along with that sort of intellect. It was comfortable for me to enter this world,” Vasarhelyi said.
The roundtable interviews ended with Lee’s second question, asking if winning an Oscar years prior has made their work easier or if they see themselves as having a greater responsibility to do a better job.
Vasarhelyi recognized both certain advantages after having won an Oscar as well as recognizing a need to utilize her platform as a filmmaker in a responsible way.
“Yes to all parts of that question. We realize that we do have a platform and so we have to use that responsibly. It was this idea of ‘I don’t know how many films we’re going to make so each one has to count, each film we make has got to have some meaning and it has to project the world as we hope it to be.’ That’s our responsibility,” Vasarhelyi said. “In terms of access after the Oscar, it’s a little bit easier for us to get access to certain subject matter.”
Chin agreed with Vasarhelyi’s statements.
“Having more access because of winning that award is true. It doesn’t make it easy, it’s still very, very hard to make documentaries, but it seems like we have a lot more resources available to us and we do feel an obligation and responsibility to use our platform well and to tell stories that we feel are important,” Chin said.
Return to Space is set to be released on April 7, 2022. Click here to watch the film on Netflix.
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