Mission began life as a documentary idea I’d been bashing about for a few years. Inspired by Andrew Smith’s Moondust, a compelling account of the Apollo missions of the 60s and 70s, I became fascinated by the exemplary individuals who auditioned for the space programme but never made it to final selection.
The list is a veritable who’s who from the worlds of science and military, and I wanted to honour them and their efforts by making a feature length documentary that would cover - amongst all the super-cool NASA training stuff - their melancholy at having not made it through.
There was - among many others living or dead - Admiral Thomas B. Hayward, a former test pilot who ascended to the rank of Chief of Naval Operations for the United States Navy before his retirement in 1982. William G. Tifft, an Emeritus Professor/Astronomer who was influential in the development of the first redshift surveys (no, me neither). And Bill Birky, another Emeritus Professor whose work in the fields of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology led to a number of published works with subjects such as The inheritance of genes in mitochondria and chloroplasts and Stochastic partitioning of chloroplasts at cell division in the alga Olisthodiscus, and compensating control of chloroplast replication.
The ‘right stuff’ indeed. Or rather the ‘wrong stuff’, which would become the documentary’s title.
I worked on the project off and on for a couple of years, but despite a number of passionate pleas to funding bodies and production companies, I didn’t manage to position myself in a way that would allow me to pursue the project beyond the research phase. As such, The Wrong Stuff was shelved.
But I couldn’t detach myself from the doco’s central idea. The Failed Astronaut became a character in my mind and began haunting me, urging me to put his story on screen. You see, I empathised with his predicament for reasons too many, numerous and self aggrandising to go into.
Not getting through to final selection must have been earth shattering. As disappointments go, it is the ultimate bummer given that space has been the temporary domain of a relative few.
And yet, disappointment is a universal feeling that affects us all at some point in our lives regardless of perceived scale from one defeat to another. Impasses are not the exclusive domain of Failed Astronaut. That said, he was a character ripe for some kind of dramatic discourse and I had to find a way of making it happen.
So, I wrote The Leap, a feature length screenplay that tells the story of mankind's first disastrous mission to Alpha Centauri, jumping back and forth through time to tell you about the crew and how they ended up on a journey to our nearest star. You can read the first few pages here.
I spent a year writing The Leap, knowing full well that the chances of it being made were slim. I was still a relatively young director and didn’t - still don’t - have the fiscal reputation that would sufficiently comfort the money men to entrust me with a mid-seven figure budget.
However, I had written a nifty script about a failed astronaut that had both heart and a sense of wonder - excelsior! I felt I could now place Failed Astronaut in a space capsule and blast him away to infinity and beyond.
But Failed Astronaut was having none of it.
I had to get him on film and my best chance at doing that was by writing a short I knew could be achieved on a relatively low budget at a quality threshold that was on par with my previous short, The Search.
Mission’s original title was Man on Mars. The story was generally the same - as humanity bears witness to the first manned mission to Mars, a failed astronaut faces up to the prospect of being left behind - but the ending was more Walt Disney than Rod Serling.
Applying his trademark wit and wild-eyed criticism to the script, my frequent collaborator Gregor Barclay tore the ending several assholes of varying size, but suggested that he’d give it a pass in an attempt to ground the narrative a bit more.
The eventual result was more grounded and intensely sad. But boy was it better.
So, armed with a great script and bags of enthusiasm, I began approaching the production team that would help bring Mission to life.
Like The Search before it, this would be another ‘Virgin Mastercard With A Ludicrous Limit’ funded effort so we didn’t have the big bucks to spend. We needed creative souls that embraced the limitations with a view to making something extraordinary and one by one they came on board to begin a cold, 4-day shoot in the wilds of West Glasgow in the winter of 2012.
Mark Buchanan | London, 8.10.13