Conversations with Tom Jennings: Making The Real Right Stuff.

The final episode of the Disney/NatGeo series, The Right Stuff, airs Friday November 20. Right after, a documentary The Real Right Stuff will air, providing a real life look at the story using actual footage of the astronauts and their families. Its filled with compelling footage that transports viewers back in time.

Tom Jennings, the documentary’s producer, set aside time to discuss The Real Right Stuff with SCINQ Arts.

The story behind The Right Stuff has been told by Tom Wolfe and made into a movie a long time ago and retold recently. Why is it important that there be a documentary version of that story to accompany the series?

We had done a National Geographic show called Apollo: Mission to the Moon, which was kind of the same format that we used for The Real Right Stuff. We had no narrator or interviews and just used the archival footage to drive the story. It worked very well. During the process of making it, people gathered material for the Apollo film and worked with NASA for various different projects. We needed some perspective so they had sent over a lot of early Mercury material.

I was shocked by how much of it I didn’t recognize at all. When National Geographic was talking about doing an eight episode version of The Right Stuff, I went to National Geographic and said, You know there is such gorgeous material that’s really just been laying dormant. I think it’d be a good idea to have a nonfiction piece and make it a tangent piece to the video series. 

The last episode of the a fictional series airs on November 20 and that’s the day that our film launches. People who are fans of the story will see the real people and hear the real voices of the astronauts.

Just like any form of storytelling, you have lots of options when you’re making documentary. How did you decide on structure and format? What were your concerns when deciding on structure?

I always joke with people regarding this format. The audience is waiting for the narrator but the narrator never shows up. I find it to be more engaging, or more compelling, when someone is not telling you the story. We’re seeing images and sounds and it’s like a time machine. When it works, it works really well and there’s this magic that happens. 

There is a ton of thought that goes into how to tell the story. A format we lean on heavily is a storytelling motif called the hero’s journey, made famous by American philosopher named Joseph Campbell. Several years ago, he studied the great stories of all time and how the hero ventures out into the world and slays the dragon, overcoming all this adversity and eventually returns home a conquering hero. We applied that to the film because we wanted to follow characters.

The astronauts became a character. We see them starting out as test pilots, and then they’re given this amazing opportunity that is filled with danger. They have to learn what they need to do and then go out and slay the dragon, which is what they did. They return as conquering heroes. So the astronauts as a group became a single character.

How did you get your hands on some like the Tom Wolfe footage and the interview with Renee Carpenter footage?

For the Wolfe footage, we went through the New York Public Library. We had to work with his estate. We also found old radio interviews. There were interviews with Studs Turkle in Chicago. Obviously, the Tom Brokaw thing near the top of the film is fantastic. We leave no stone unturned. We don’t just rely on Walter Cronkite. There’s usually so much great stuff that we have to get out the long knoves at some point and start cutting. It leads to very spirited discussions.

Did you have to cut things that you wish made it into the final product?

There’s one really great example. There was a scene early on where the astronauts talked about the training they did. Survival training. There was a lot of really great, grainy footage, not

just from the desert. You saw them in swimming pools with their spacesuits on. I really like the training scenes. I could have made two hours about how they trained.

What would you like your audience to take away from this?

I’d like to take away what it was like to be alive when the Mercury missions happened. I’d like them to feel like they were in a time machine… a really good one that transports them back and gives them an understanding of that  Age of Heroes, which is what it was during the height of the Cold War. Those men risked their lives in order to do something for the greater good.

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