NASA missions and movie productions have more in common than you might think, according to Steve Squyres, a scientist who was the principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission.
“There are way, way more good ideas for movies than there are movies that actually get made,” Squyres tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And there are way, way more good ideas for space missions than there are missions that actually get selected to fly. With space missions there’s even more money on the line. The time that it takes to make the thing is comparable or maybe longer. And if you fail, you fail big.”
Squyres has a unique perspective on the similarities between the space exploration and entertainment businesses, because both his brother and daughter work as film editors. But that perspective is deepening lately thanks to a new role the scientist plays: Squyres is one of the key human characters in Good Night Oppy, an Amazon Studios documentary that premiered at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend.
The actual lead of the film is Opportunity, the robot that was sent to Mars for a 90-day mission in 2003, but ended up surviving for 15 years, collecting images that helped confirm the previous existence of water on the planet and sparking international interest in space exploration. Good Night Oppy, which Amazon will release theatrically Nov. 4 and on Prime Video Nov. 23, provided one of the few feel-good experiences at Telluride this year, among an intense and divisive slate of movies. Directed by Ryan White (Ask Dr. Ruth, The Case Against 8), the documentary relies on a mixture of archival footage NASA shot of the mission’s scientists and engineers on earth, imagery that Opportunity and its sister rover, Spirit, obtained from Mars and photo realistic CGI of Mars created by Industrial Light & Magic.
Good Night Oppy came together thanks to an aligning of visions between NASA and Hollywood. The federal agency doesn’t embed cameras with every mission, but NASA had identified the Mars rovers as an unusual opportunity to reach the public, Squyres says, speaking during an interview with THR at Telluride, together with White. “NASA does a lot of complicated things in space and a lot of them are really kind of hard to wrap your head around,” he says. “These are robots. They’re looking at rocks. It’s not that complicated. And so this mission gave NASA a unique opportunity to tell a story of a fundamentally scientific mission, but one that everybody can connect with.”
A year after the mission ended, producers at Film 45, Peter Berg’s company, identified Oppy as a potential documentary that could have rare, widespread, intergenerational appeal, and they partnered with Amblin, Steven Spielberg’s company. The family friendly story about awe and discovery was squarely in the wheelhouse of the filmmaker behind E.T. and Jurassic Park, and Spielberg’s name helped open doors at NASA and get the producers access to thousands of hours of archival footage from the mission. “People had been trying for years to make the Spirit and Opportunity doc, and NASA is very protective of their archive,” says White. “I’m sure it was Spielberg’s name that convinced them.”
In March of 2020, Film 45’s Brandon Carroll met with White and his producing partner, Jessica Hargrave, over dinner to discuss the project — Film 45 had produced the duo’s Netflix docuseries The Keepers and their EPIX Serena Williams documentary, and the company trusted White’s storytelling instincts. “I’d been pitched a lot of space films, but I like character based films,” White says. “But the log line’s so good, right? The robots that were supposed to live for 90 days and live for 15 years is such a hook.”
Because it relied so much on archival footage and visual effects, Good Night Oppy ended up being an ideal pandemic project. And NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA, where the mission was based and where many contemporary interviews took place, is just 10 minutes from White’s house in Atwater Village.
The ILM artists, who are responsible for hundreds of shots in the movie, consulted with NASA for accuracy, and the agency had to approve each frame of the archival footage that appears. “As a documentary filmmaker, when you cut your film and then you’re handing it over to a government agency and just waiting to see if they say, ‘Take out this stuff,’ it’s terrifying,” White says. “I was afraid that they were gonna try to have some sort of creative oversight, but the only things we were told to take out were sensitive material on computer screens.”
White enlisted Angela Bassett to narrate the footage and relied on the mission crew’s use of a morale-boosting morning wake-up song to help propel the story. White says obtaining the rights to those songs, from artists like The Beatles, ABBA and Billie Holiday, came surprisingly easy. “I kept waiting for people to say no, ILM or Angela Bassett, or this music group,” White says. “And they kept saying yes. I really think it was the story itself that sold them.”
In November of 2020, the filmmakers went out to potential distributors with a rough, 17-minute sizzle reel White describes as “janky, basically a PowerPoint presentation.” Nevertheless the timing was right for Oppy’s uplifting story. “We were taking it out at the height of COVID, but also during the election,” White says. “It was a nasty political climate. My pitch was, this is a story about the best of humanity. This is apolitical it’s heartwarming. It’s just a rare documentary that has that type of tone.” All the major distributors were interested, but Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke called White and made an appeal that this was a four-quadrant film, which deserved a theatrical rollout and broad marketing.
The beginning of that rollout started at Telluride, where word traveled among festival goers on screening lines that there was at least one movie in the lineup this year that would make you happy-cry. Amazon requested that Good Night Oppy only screen at night, so that audiences would have the chance to step out of the theater into the dark, star-filled Rocky Mountain night sky, and the studio participated in the festival’s City Lights program, which screens movies under secrecy for local middle and high school students before the festival begins.
For Squyres, who is now the chief scientist at Blue Origin, an aerospace manufacturer in Seattle founded by Amazon executive chairman Jeff Bezos, the movie is also a way of showing American taxpayers what their money buys at NASA. “I wanted to share this experience with as many of the people who paid for it and their kids as possible,” Squyres says. “It is a huge privilege to be able to have the adventure of your lifetime paid for by the taxpayers. They deserve to know everything about what they got for their billion dollars in a very accessible way.”