“The film follows the humble, dedicated few behind NASA’s longest running mission. They are the Voyager flight team engineers – who, from a drab, low-level, rented office space next to a McDonald’s, pilot the most distant mandmade objects through the unchartered frontier of interstellar space. Fighting outmoded, 1970s techonology and an ever shrinking window of time, these aging engineers endeavor to give themselves entirely for the pursuit of humankind’s greatest exploration.” — Filmmaker Billy Miossi on IT’S QUIETER IN THE TWILIGHT which screens at SxSW 2022.
Welcome to SxSW! Is this your first SxSW experience? Are you attending in person or doing the virtual fest?
This will be my first SXSW experience. I will be attending in person.
So how did it all come together?
In 2017, right around Voyager’s 40th anniversary, I read an article in the New York Times about the tiny team of engineers that made Voyager’s last 30 plus years possible. I was inspired by their patient and unwavering dedication to the pursuit of discovery. They shouldered our only interstellar explorers.
I thought their unsung story would make for a great documentary. By the end of 2018, I developed a treatment and presented it to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This is where I learned all the hoops and levels of approval you have to go through with a giant government agency. I couldn’t just take my proposal straight to the Voyager flight team engineers. But thankfully JPL gave us the go-ahead and a majority of the flight team was gracious enough to agree to participate. However, the flight team engineers were quite weary of any camera attention. It’s certainly wasn’t anything they were used to. They worked in the shadows essentially. So I spent some time getting to know them; building a relationship of trust and making sure they understood my intentions.
We started filming in June of 2019. JPL was fairly restrictive when it came to filming on JPL property. We couldn’t just imbed with the flight team for months or even weeks at a time. So filming was spread out of over about 18 months. During this period, there were a lot of discoveries and surprises that took the story in new and unexpected directions and the kind of things you hope for when embarking on a project like this.
SXSW was our goal from the outset. This film bridges the worlds of art, science and technology; many of the tenets that SXSW has heralded with their iconic showcase each year. We are honored to share this story here.
While working on a project, what’s your creative process?
It is all about learning, understanding and research. So in this case, I read everything I could about Voyager that I could get my hands on. I also watched every documentary I could find about Voyager, including Emer Reynolds’ beautifully done “The Farthest,” Penny Lane’s “The Voyagers,” Santiago Menghini’s “Voyagers” and even all the old NASA produced Voyager documentaries, such as “And Then There was Voyager.” Building a foundation of knowledge is key to moving a story forward.
The other key is collaboration with my creative partners, in particular my cinematographer and my editor, being open to their insights and ideas to craft the best story possible.
What was your biggest challenge with creating this feature, and what was the moment where you realized “Yes, this is IT!”?
From the start, I wanted this film to be about the people behind the Voyager mission, a character driven story. But I knew telling the stories of six different people in one, cohesive narrative would be my biggest challenge. Each has their own story to tell, and how do I weave them all together to tell this larger story about the noble pursuit of discovery for the sake of all of humankind? But the moment I realized, “This is IT,” was after my first round of calls with them; those first introductory calls where they were telling me a little bit about their backgrounds. Each had embarked on their own incredible journeys to find themselves at the leading edge of discovery; most escaping disenfranchised communities from all different corners of the world to eventually come together as a unified, diverse team, leading the greatest space mission in history.
I am a tech person, so I would love to know about the visual design of the movie from the cameras to the formats used and how it was made from a technical standpoint!
The film was shot on Canon C-300 Mark IIs. One of the things the drew me to the story was the Voyager flight team’s office space. It’s not some grand, sci-fi, mission control room that you might imagine for a mission of this magnitude. In fact, it’s not even on JPL’s main campus. It’s about a mile away on a non descript street, in a nondescript, single story building. Inside, it could easily be mistaken for an insurance agency. There’s a wood-paneled conference room, cluttered gray cubicles, bright fluorescent lights. The only indication that this space is home to some sort of space mission is a small, blue sign hanging from the ceiling that reads “Mission Control”.
I wanted this “ordinariness,” this bland office space to be a key visual element of the film. I wanted to play up the contrast between what the engineers are undertaking like interstellar flight, the greatest exploratory mission in human history, and where/how they’re doing it, in an office more reminiscent of Dunder Mifflin and with 1970s era technology. I wanted this film to be an unpolished look at the day to day life of NASA’s longest running mission. So it was shot more verite with no big light set ups and instead I wanted the subjects of the film to be enveloped in their run of the mill office environment.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW?
I’m most looking forward to sharing the incredible, unsung story of the Voyager flight team with the public and enjoying that experience with an in-person audience.
Where is this title going next? More festivals or a theatrical or streaming release?
The film will be going to more festivals!
What is the one thing that you would say to someone who is wishing to get into making movies, especially now as the world is changing at such a fast pace?
The world is changing at such a fast pace, but I would say that is to the benefit of those hoping to break into movies. Quality equipment, namely cameras, are cheaper and more readily available than ever before; outlets looking for content are infinitely vast. So I would tell someone who is wishing to get into making movies to jump in feet first, take matters into your own hands, buy some affordable gear and start creating content.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
This is a tough one. I’ve never attended a film festival before , but if I had to choose my favorite movie of all time, I have to go with Paul Thomas Anderson’s PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. It’s this immaculately shot, touching and peculiar love story. Jon Brion’s score is mesmerizing and often wonderfully off kilter. And Adam Sandler puts on a truly impressive performance and one that I never tire of watching.
This film and many others like it will be showing at South By Southwest taking place March 11-20. For more information point your browser to www.sxsw.com!