BY STEPHEN FARBER
“Can a Movie Help Make a President?” That was the line emblazoned on the cover of Newsweek on October 3, 1983, shortly before The Right Stuff was released. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth and an Ohio senator contemplating a run for the presidency, was just one of the characters in Philip Kaufman’s ensemble movie, drawn from Tom Wolfe’s book about the early days of the American space program. The press was anticipating big grosses, and with Glenn running for the highest office in the land, it was natural to wonder if the movie could shape American history.
“I didn’t like that approach to the marketing,” Kaufman says, and it could be that the studio’s attempts to link the movie with the presidential race turned off audiences who feared they would be seeing a political campaign poster.
Kaufman’s movie retains the mixture of satire and wonderment that characterized Wolfe’s celebration of test pilots such as Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier in 1947, and the astronauts who followed in his footsteps. Kaufman was nominated for a DGA Award and the film was nominated for eight Oscars.
One of the film’s highlights is the climactic sequence that chronicles Glenn’s flight around the earth. Glenn was originally scheduled for seven orbits in 1962, but the flight had to be cut short when a technical malfunction threatened his mission and his life. Here Kaufman recalls creating that memorable sequence and the collaborators who helped him achieve its lyrical sweep..
At the time there really hadn’t been many films that combined archival footage with staged scenes. We had been accumulating NASA footage for years in order to demonstrate to the Ladd Company that we could do a lot of the film with existing footage instead of expensive special effects. We collected about 300,000 feet of stock footage. The rocket launch was all shot by NASA. For the blastoff, I wanted all these sound geniuses in Northern California to convey the impact of the launch. We mixed it really big to get these great rumblings. At our premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Henry Kissinger was sitting up front. I went up to the booth and told the projectionist, ‘I want to see his jowls shake.’
We created an exact life-size mock-up of the space capsule. The colored lights on Glenn’s cheeks are coming from the panel lights above his head; they look like teardrops coming out of his eyes. I have to give a lot of the credit for that to Caleb
Deschanel, who is a brilliant cinematographer. This shot seems to be sideways because we wanted to give the impression of the capsule tipping. We had it rocking on gimbals that were set up in our studio at Hamilton Air Force Base, an abandoned base in Marin County. We also projected images of clouds on the screen above his head.
These transitions from night to day were created by [experimental filmmaker] Jordan Belson in his one-room studio on Telegraph Hill. He was a master of color and light, and was exploring cosmic mysteries in his short films. No one quite knew how he did it, but he made this look like existing footage. The music was also crucial to this sequence. Bill Conti wrote a great score, but he didn’t quite catch the sense of wonder I wanted for this sequence of Glenn orbiting the earth as the sun rises. On the temp track I used a piece of music that Henry Mancini had written for [my film] The White Dawn 10 years earlier. It actually started with an Eskimo woman sitting in an igloo humming this ancient Inuit song. So I used it again during this
sequence from The Right Stuff.
Caleb and the construction crew set up these strong lights that would circle around Ed Harris’ face to convey the sun rising over the capsule. Ed was pretty much an unknown actor at the time we cast him. He and all the other actors spent endless nights at the Tosca bar in San Francisco discussing their characters. They lived these roles, and Ed inhabited John Glenn. In this shot and others, he needed to convey the sense of wonder that Glenn was feeling. The astronauts said nothing shot at the time could equal what they saw, and that is what I wanted to suggest.
We built Mission Control in the Mission District in San Francisco. I think we used an abandoned disco, and we shot three-quarters of the movie in the San Francisco area. Except for the location shooting in the high desert near Edwards Air Force Base, we shot almost everything around San Francisco. Geoffrey Kirkland and his team built this set. The big board here was very close to the board that the scientists used to track the capsule, and the actual control room was bigger than our set, but we tried to replicate as much as possible from what we saw in existing footage. The actors were wearing costumes that matched what people were wearing in the footage from the period.
This is when they first realize there is a problem with the flight. We had this red button flashing, which was the color of the sign in Mission Control. There was a loose heat shield, and the automatic steering system jammed. The film opens with the words, ‘There was a demon that lived in the sky. They said whoever challenged him would die.’ And the first images are of test pilots crashing their planes and being killed. I wanted to link this sequence to that threat of death, which was a part of the enterprise from the beginning.
This sequence with the aborigines was not in Tom Wolfe’s book. It was something I thought about in the five years I was mulling over the project. We knew that Gordon Cooper was in Australia monitoring the flight and communicating with Glenn, and I thought about adding a mischievous element of humor. I was thinking that people have been in touch with the mysteries of outer space since the beginning of time. So we brought over aborigines and imported a kangaroo to Edwards Air Force Base. The high desert of California has rocks that are very much like what you would see in the outback. The aborigines brought their didgeridoos and loved to party at the end of the day’s shooting.
These fires were created on location at Edwards. We hired guys whose job it was to build fires. Remember, this was all pre-digital. I think they put sparklers in the fire to add this glow. Every department has its mysteries. The job of the director is to point out to all his collaborators the places where mysteries must appear. You demand that they thrill you, and sometimes they bring more than you dreamed of. This leads directly to the next shot—the ‘fireflies’ that John Glenn said he saw outside his capsule. Could it have been the sparks ascendant from an old medicine man in Australia? That was my contribution to the mystery that the entire film honors. I wanted to place a feat of modern engineering against an ancient sense of awe, wonder, and mystery.
Belson created the fireflies, and the image behind Glenn’s head was a rear-screen projection of the shots he had created. He did his work before we shot this sequence, so we could use his images on the screen. The fragments that Glenn saw floating around remain unexplained to this day. The dialogue here is taken from the events that he described. We storyboarded this sequence in advance, and of course it changed in the editing. I think there were about 3,000 cuts in the movie, and there were a lot just in this sequence. We had five editors, and each of them worked on different sequences. And the effects were done in the same building, so we could be working on everything at the same time.
This is where the capsule is hurtling back toward Earth. In a way we had to find simple solutions for this sequence. My whole approach to the special effects was to simplify. There’s a scene early in the movie when Sam Shepard as Yeager is going up in the X-1, and Levon Helm breaks off a piece of a broom handle to help him close the door. I applied that philosophy to the special effects; I wanted the feeling of things jerry-rigged. Nevertheless, we had about 100 special effects people working for USFX, which was a subsidiary of Colossal Pictures. The re-entry of the capsule had to be created with matte paintings, computer motion control, and re-photographed plates. There was no existing footage.
Guys were outside rocking and shaking the capsule, and meanwhile some of the footage we shot was on the screen above Glenn’s head. He’s shrieking as the capsule is being shaken, and he’s also humming ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ which is what the people in Mission Control are hearing. We set that motif up in an earlier scene where all the astronauts are undergoing training, and Glenn is humming the Marine Corps anthem while he’s in the bathroom to provide a sperm specimen. Humming is what he did under stress.
To get this effect, we shot in the dead of night. We had models on wires, and tried models of all different sizes. We set them on fire against a black background, and scorched and exploded dozens of models to get this effect of the flaming bottom of the capsule as it tears toward Earth. They were coming right at the camera that we had set up. I had the idea of the cut that I wanted, partly because we had shot the victory parade eight months earlier. But I had also written this cut into the script.
We had shown the capsule landing in earlier sequences of Alan Shepard’s flight and Gus Grissom’s flight. Here I thought it would be dramatic to cut directly from the flaming capsule to the streamers in front of the flag during the parade. Just when you think Glenn is burned to a crisp and goes out in a blaze of glory, we cut to Old Glory! Not to be too corny, it makes you think of ‘The ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming.’ If Glenn’s story is told the wrong way, it could come across as shameless patriotism. I wanted to celebrate patriotism but also show America with all its foibles. Tom Wolfe wrote about the American circus. But in the midst of all the hucksterism, there was this thread of something called ‘the right stuff.’
The confetti at the parade connects to the fireflies that Glenn saw in the sky. He did battle with the heavens and won. We shot the parade in San Francisco on a Sunday, and closed off a street in the heart of the financial district. Some people were outraged that I didn’t film in New York. They said, ‘Kaufman thinks he can do New York in San Francisco.’ But I intercut footage of the real parade with the scene we shot in San Francisco, and I think it looks pretty damn good. Of course now you would do it differently, we had to do it all with editing. Now with technical advances, you can actually put the actors right into the archival footage. It’s a different kind of magic.