Interview: Filmmaker Ryan White on How Good Night Oppy Humanizes Robots, Channels E.T. and Got Those Wake-Up Songs

For most of his career as a documentary filmmaker, director Ryan White (Good Ol’ Freda, Serena, Ask Dr. Ruth, Assassins) has told the stories of individual human beings who have in some way either changed the way we look at something (the Beatles, tennis, sex, hired killers). But with his latest work, Good Night Oppy, White follows two robotic rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, that were sent to Mars in 2004, both of which were expected to last for about 90 days (at least that was what the warranty said). Remarkably, Spirit lasted six years before it ultimately failed, giving NASA geologists some of the most valuable data about the Red Planet ever collected. Opportunity, on the other hand, carried on for even longer…much longer, in fact. And the information both rovers provided scientists brought us many steps closer to figuring out if water, or even life, could have existed on Mars.

Working with visual effects teams from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and even roping in a producer named Steven Spielberg, White has given us a film that not only captures the scope of these accomplishments from the point of view of the creators and scientists on the ground, but also shows us a vibrant view of the rovers traversing the surface of Mars in the most realistic way possible, using thousands of still images and turning them into re-creations that look remarkably real. Throw in Angela Bassett reading some of the NASA team’s log entries from various points on the rovers’ functional existence, and you have a film that is tense, thrilling, adventurous, and even emotional. Good Night Oppy is one of the most impressive docs I’ve seen in 2022, even if it marks something of a slick departure by White, whom I was able to speak with recently about the painstaking work he and his team did on this slice of reality that feels like science fiction at times. The film is now streaming on Prime Video. Please enjoy our talk…

Having seen all of your feature-length docs, this is the slickest one you have ever done by far, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. If you’re going to make this movie about one of NASA’s greatest achievements, it should be slick; it should involve the greatest visual effects house in existence. At the same time, did it take you a while to get used to using re-creations, using special effects in a documentary? How long did it take you to wrap your brain around those concepts?

Oh yeah. It was very intimidating at the beginning, but one of my favorite things about my job is taking on something new. I never know the methodology of the films that we do, but one big factor of that is this degree of difficulty, and how there’s something about the film that makes us say “We have no idea how we’re going to do that. We’ve never done that in our filmmaking careers. But wouldn’t it be amazing to learn that?” And for sure, for this film, it was the visual effects. Like you said, I think you have to swing big if you’re going to make a film about such a huge technical achievement. The motto at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is “Dare Mighty Things.” They were told it was impossible to land a vehicle on Mars, and they figured out a way, failed many times along the way, and they succeeded many times, and it felt like, if we’re going to make a film about this, let’s swing for the bleachers. 

I think the through line for many of my films is that they’re not really historical films; I didn’t want to make a look back at Opportunity’s life on Mars. If I made the film, I wanted to make a huge adventure story that made the audience feel like they were on that journey. And the way to do that began with NASA giving us this massive archive, and we realized, “Holy shit, the audience can be in these moments while they’re happening because NASA was there from Day 1 shooting it.” So can we take the audience to Mars in a way that’s never been done before, which is totally photo-real and as authentic as anyone has ever seen? We know what it looks like; I didn’t need to use my imagination. In fact, that was one of the biggest challenges for ILM because I was coming to them saying “Don’t use your imaginations, which you are so good at. Use your technical expertise and make this look like these hundreds-of-thousands of photographs that we had.” I hope that pays off in the film; I hope that the audience feels like they are there on this journey, with these little rovers on a planet that we’ve never seen before with our own eyes.

And now that you’ve worked with ILM so closely, I’m guessing you’re ready to direct your first Star Wars project. I assume that’s the next step.

[laughs] That’s the really funny thing about learning all of this, you feel like such an imposter. “How am I going to direct 100 artists at ILM?” Then you leave the process feeling like you’ve mastered something. I feel totally capable in that world now, and I loved working there. Who knows.

This is an Amblin production as well, so was Steven Spielberg involved at all? What were his contributions, if any?

My favorite film as a little boy was E.T., and it’s still my favorite film today. Spielberg is obviously one of my filmmaking heroes; I think that’s true for a lot of filmmakers. So Amblin brought me the project, brought the idea to me, they pitched it to me. It was incredible to work with them, and no, I wasn’t on the phone to Spielberg every night talking about Good Night Oppy, but his fingerprints are all over the film in many ways. And my producers from Amblin, Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank, knew that if any documentary fit in their brand, it was this one, so they really gave me the resources and held my hand through a lot of things I’d never done before, teaching me how to do those things. And Spielberg did watch the film, and we got feedback from him, and I’m going to keep that private, but it was one of the best emails I’ve ever gotten. He did love the film and is proud of it. There weren’t many documentaries that I saw as as forerunner to this, but E.T. was always my North Star. Not that I thought we would make the cinematic masterpiece the E.T. is, but tonally and narratively, that’s what I wanted to strike. If we make this film correctly, audiences will fall in love with this non-human character, and it will be very sad in the end to say goodbye to that character, but it will also be very hopeful and leave you with that childlike sense of wonder and awe. That was always my model, to try and make something like that.

I couldn’t help consider all of the balances you have to strike in this film. It feels like science fiction, but it all happened; these rovers start to feel like they have personalities, but we have to remind ourselves that they’re robots. There are moments in this movie, and I won’t ruin anything, when crying might occur. Again, you don’t want to be too manipulative, but you can’t help but get drawn in. Were there moments like that for you, where you had to pull back sometimes and remind yourself not to go too far in a direction that wasn’t factual and science-based?

Yes, and I’m glad you’re asking that question because that’s a testament to documentary editors, because they’re the ones really experimenting with all of that and throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks and then scaling that back. Our mantra in the edit room was always that we cannot anthropomorphize the robots more than the human beings who are in the film. As much as we might want to, we can’t put eyebrows on Oppy like Wall-E had because eyebrows are very expressive. So we had very little to work with to show expression in these robots, but we weren’t willing to verge from reality. So the Opportunity and Spirit you see in this film are prototypes of the 3D model that NASA had of them, down to the solar panel, and they don’t do that much. They swivel their head a little bit, there are a few lenses that change as the aperture changes in their eye, and they drive less than 1 mph. And Mars itself is not that exciting a place, as much as you would love to write in some sort of crazy action scene happening. Aside from some dust devils, which turn out to be friendly foes, and dust storms that end up being their killers, we’re documentary filmmakers, so we can’t create drama that wasn’t there. 

I found that we leaned on the human beings. We couldn’t have drama without the human beings telling the story, because you’re living it through their day-to-day eyes, and that’s why I think Angela Bassett is key to what you’re talking about. I didn’t write her words; she’s not the narrator; she’s playing the voice of NASA because they wrote daily diaries of these rovers that are these pen-to-paper, heartfelt, first-person, present-tense journal entries. When I found those, I was like “This is a way to keep the audience in the journey day to day because they’re writing in the present tense.” No matter how hard you try with an interviewee, they inevitably slip into past tense when they’re telling a story that has already ended. So once we found those and got Angela, an incredible actor, to read them, they were a way of staying completely rooted in reality. These are the words of NASA; we’re not writing them; but they keep you rooted in drama and suspense.

I’m glad you brought up the interviews, because my dad was an engineer, went to MIT. These interviews with the NASA engineers are the least nerdy interviews from engineers ever captured, I think. But the person I found myself most drawn to, in terms of her story arc, was the woman who was in the room as a visiting high school student when the one rover landed, and she was able to continue on for the duration of the project. She was the heart and soul of this story because of her youthful enthusiasm about space travel in general, but she got to turn that into her work. At what point did you realize, she would be something special in this storytelling?

You’re referring to Abigail Fraeman. She was a high school intern who got picked in a competition to be in the room. She didn’t even know that footage of her existed. This was like an archival treasure hunt, and when she saw the film, she was like “Oh my god, I had no idea I was on camera in the background.” I’m glad she’s a crowd favorite because she’s a particular type of journey. One of the many challenges making this film was deciding which human beings are in the film, because it’s thousands of people, and I’ve got a lot of them in here. They all have incredible stories to tell and they’re all nerdy, which is not mutually exclusive with being a great storyteller—you can be both at the same time. I was shocked by how great the storytelling was among those at NASA. But her arc was so beautiful, that’s why we wanted her story in the film as someone so young when these rovers were landing—she was a junior in high school—these rovers were supposed to be dead while she was still a junior in high school. And 13 years later, she’s the deputy scientist on Opportunity’s mission. 

What’s interesting is that older engineers and scientists mentioned to me that they were heartbroken when Opportunity died but they were okay with it because she had outlasted the odds, so everything after that 90 days was icing on the cake in that first year. But that younger generation, who never thought they’d get to work on her and then inherited her in her final years, took it the hardest, because they felt like it was their duty to keep her alive. Like they had failed her in some way because she finally died. Abby and another young woman named Becca, who wasn’t in the room but she’s the one who saw the news story about Opportunity and Spirit, and that made her want to work on that project. The other things about the young people in the film is that some of them say they weren’t even that good at math and science as kids, but they got addicted to being a part of that world in some way and got good at it. So I hope some people watching will take that away too.

I want to ask you about the wakeup songs that began each day, because those also act as some nice chapter heads. The music licensing budget on this film must have been brutal. Were there any songs you wanted to include that you couldn’t get permission to use or couldn’t afford?

I’m proud to say, there’s not one song we wanted that we didn’t get. There were songs that I wanted desperately to include because I loved the song that ended up getting cut because of budget or it didn’t play as important in the story. There are a couple songs that I don’t even like that much, but they played such an important story role, that we needed that song, so you have to sacrifice David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” in my film. That was gut wrenching not to include, and we did have a scene where we know that was a wakeup song, but they weren’t filming that day, so that song ended up on the cutting-room floor. But it is in our trailer; Amazon used an instrumental version of it, which is great. As you know, I made a Beatles film in the past (Good Ol’ Freda); I know how hard the music is to license, and I remember our music supervisor saying to us, “Hey, guys. You know what the second-hardest band is to license? ABBA. So we’re aiming pretty high here, so manage your expectations.” It all goes back to this logline of the film—working with Amblin and ILM, Mark A. Mangini is our sound designer, he won an Oscar, Angela Bassett—all of these people that I was sure would never want to work on my little documentary, and they all said yes. Record labels were a continuation of that pattern, and our music supervisor would say to them “Hear me out. We’re not using your song as soundtrack. Your song was played on another planet to wake up a little rover, or your song was played when a team was grieving the loss of a rover or trying to reboot her.” And I think it was different or special enough that the record labels were willing to take it to the band and say, “Maybe this is a doc worth doing,” and everyone said yes.

That’s amazing. Ryan, best of luck with this. Thank you and hopefully we’ll talk again down the line.

I hope so. Take care.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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