Race to Space : Production Notes


Directed by Sean McNamara, RACE TO SPACE is a heartwarming, nostalgic story about a young boy's adventures with a chimpanzee training to become America's first astronaut, during an age of wonder in the nation's history. Written by Steve Wilson and Eric Gardner, the film is based on the true story of America's entry into the space race in the early 60's with a Redstone rocket piloted by a chimpanzee.
RACE TO SPACE follows the friendship between 11-year-old Billy and Mac, a chimp astronaut. Billy has just moved to a small town outside of Cape Canaveral, where his father, a German scientist, works for the space program. A misfit at school, Billy finds his first real friend in Mac and takes his first steps toward building a lifelong dream in the dawn of a golden era in America's history.
RACE TO SPACE began principle photography on January 25th, 2000, with producer McNamara directing. The film was shot on location at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Edwards Air Force Base in California. RACE TO SPACE stars James Woods ("Any Given Sunday") and Alex D. Linz ("Home Alone 3," "One Fine Day"). Annabeth Gish ("Double Jeopardy," "Nixon") and William Atherton ("Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," "The Pelican Brief," "Die Hard") also star.
Director McNamara has helmed such projects as 20th Century Fox's "Casper Meets Wendy" and Nickelodeon's popular "The Secret World of Alex Mack," which he also wrote and produced. With BME partner Brookwell, McNamara has directed "Wild Grizzly" and "Treehouse Hostage. " Prior to joining BME, Brookwell produced "Permanent Midnight" after serving as Production Executive at New World Television, where he was responsible for the supervision of such titles as "The Wonder Years" and "Get A Life. "

Lions Gate Films International presents a BME production. Shot by Christian Sebaldt, RACE TO SPACE was edited by Greg Hobson, with Raymond McIntyre, Jr. serving as Visual Effects Supervisor. Dawn Ferry designed the production, and Kristin M. Burke designed the costumes. Casting was done by Joey Paul. Executive produced by Peter Lambert and Al Lapin, Jr. of The Century Group and independent producer Neil White, "Race to Space" was produced by Glen Greene along with BME's Sean McNamara and David Brookwell with Elsa Lind as an associate producer.

It is the dawn of a golden age in the country's history, the early 60's. A time when young and old alike share a sense of wonder, enthralled with the fantastic prospect of space travel finally becoming a reality.
The Americans have just entered the space race, following the Soviet Union's earlier successes with NASA's launch of the Explorer. The nation awaits their next move, fascination sharpened by the patriotism of a country in the throes of the cold war.
Leading the American team's efforts, German-born scientist Wilhelm Von Huber has just moved to Florida to work at Cape Canaveral. Completely dedicated to his work, Von Huber and his team of scientists work tirelessly to perfect the rocket which will carry the first human passengers outside of the earth's atmosphere. It is an exciting time to be alive.

But to Wilhelm's son, eleven-year-old Billy, it's just another new school where he's the kid who doesn't fit in. To make matters worse, the school bully immediately latches onto Billy, mocking his German descent and picking fights with him.
Billy's life at home is similarly lonely. The loss of Billy's mother has made his family life seem empty. He remembers her through their shared passion for baseball, wearing the hat she wore to games and going through his baseball card collection. He plays with his ham radio kit, searching for signs of life, a friendly voice in the distance.
Billy's father is kind but stoic - and distracted from his son's loneliness. What began as a lifelong dream has become an escape for Wilhelm; he spends most of his time at work perfecting the historic rocket. Wilhelm has the added pressure of having his efforts - his loyalty to his new country - thrown into question by one of the bureaucrats, a Congressional Liason named Ralph Stanton.

But Billy can't seem to stay out of trouble. In an effort to keep an eye on Billy, Wilhelm begins bringing him to his office after school. There Billy befriends Alan Shephard, the famous astronaut. Shepard takes an immediate liking to Billy, and Wilhelm watches helplessly as the friendship between the two reminds him of the kind of relationship he longs to have with his son.

At the lab, Billy also meets Mac, a chimpanzee in training to fly in space. Before sending the nation's beloved astronauts - who have become heroes in the excitement surrounding the race to space - up in the rocket, NASA must test it with a chimpanzee trained to perform basic navigating functions to insure their safety. Billy befriends the scientist in charge of training the chimpanzees, a woman named Donni McGuiness.
Billy helps Donni with the chimps after school. In return, Donni helps Billy with his schoolwork. Billy watches Donni's work, testing the chimps in the selection process to determine which will be chosen for the historic flight. He comes to see that Mac is an underdog - smart, but in need of a little extra attention. Billy begins his own experiment, teaching Mac the tasks he needs to perform through the sign language of baseball. Through Billy's efforts, Mac succeeds in proving he is the right chimp for the flight.
Once selected, Mac is quarantined in preparation for the big day. Billy visits Mac who has been behaving erratically and realizes Mac is lonely. Billy sneaks a two-way radio into Mac's cage, so he can keep Mac company, if only through the sound of his voice. He returns home and gently counsels Mac, talking about the events of the day to come.

As the day of the launch approaches, Billy begins to realize the dangers involved with the mission. He learns that Mac's counterpart in the Russian's earlier experiment - a dog named Laika - did not survive the mission. He fears for Mac's safety and nearly kidnaps him to protect him from the perils of the test flight. Donni catches Billy in the act and reasons with him, assuring him that Mac will succeed.
On the eve of the flight, Billy tries to see Mac, only to find that he has been banned from the lab. Stanton found the note of explanation Billy left behind in his thwarted effort to save Mac and has removed the boy's access privileges. When Wilhelm finds out about Billy's escapade, he is furious. He grounds Billy.
That night, when Billy is talking Mac to sleep, he hears someone enter the lab through the radio kit. It is Stanton, who has come to gloat over the unsuspecting chimpanzee. Drunk, Stanton reveals that his concerns about Wilhelm's work are not based entirely on the scientist's patriotism. Stanton is in cahoots with a competing rocket manufacturer and has sabotaged the mission with a minor adjustment to a piece of equipment.

Billy sneaks out on his bike and races off to the base to rescue Mac. His father follows in pursuit. When Wilhelm catches up with him, Billy explains what he has heard about the doomed launch. Together, they return to the rocket site where Wilhelm's team joins them. Wilhelm and his men quickly check the equipment, looking for the part that has been tampered with. After a desperate search, they locate the flaw, and father and son work together to fix it.
The day of the launch arrives, and Billy is still anxious, but his father reassures him. Working together to save Mac and the mission has brought the two closer. The launch proceeds without a hitch. Mac performs exceedingly well, but the equipment malfunctions on its return to the earth's atmosphere, subjecting Mac to a dangerously high velocity for his splashdown site in the nearby ocean. Wilhelm, his crew, Donnie and Billy await breathlessly as the rocket is recovered. Miraculously, Mac emerges, rattled but otherwise intact, a national hero in the race to space. Upon Mac's safe recovery, Stanton's treachery is revealed and he is taken away for questioning.
Years later, Billy - now an Air Force Colonel - and his father attend a memorial service honoring Mac and his courageous pioneering flight. Billy and Wilhelm take a moment to remember the chimpanzee that took man to the moon, but more importantly, brought father and son together.

Writers Steve Wilson and Eric Gardner met years ago working for an advertising agency. They first became writing partners in the world of advertising, writing copy as a team for various high-profile clients, before collaborating on their first screenplay. Over coffee one day, commiserating over the plight of parents and the movies they have to endure for the sake of their children.
Says Gardner, "It's the bane of every parent's existence - sitting through a movie that the kids love and you hate. We've had to sit through endless animal movies where it's such a contrived plot that you lose interest after the first five minutes.
Continues Wilson, "
Eric said to me, 'You know, there really was an animal hero, an American hero, whose name was Ham. The first chimp in space. ' And a lightbulb went off in both of our heads. That's a movie. "

The two went directly to a nearby bookstore and found a paragraph on the heroic chimpanzee, in a book on the Mercury missions. They read about how Ham beat Alan B. Shephard, the first American astronaut in space by several months, sent out of the earth's atmosphere in a Redstone rocket on January 31, 1961. Inspired, the two began the process of writing Ham's story for the big screen. Notes Wilson, "This chimp was, for a brief shining moment, in the public eye. He made the cover of Life Magazine. Ever since, he's been just a footnote. We feel he is a true American hero. "
Wilson and Gardner comment on the difficulty of writing a screenplay that would appeal to adults as well as children. Says Wilson, "The chimps are fun, and there is a lot of action for the kids, but the story is really about a father and son bonding. Where once there was a gulf, there's a strong, close relationship. "

Adds Gardner, "Our real challenge was to give kids a little bit of a background of what was going on at the time to get a context which is really important, without boring them. We do it with a little bit of Movietone News newsreel type of footage. It is important to understand that the German scientists were brought to this country after the War. We were fighting against them, and now they are our allies, working with us for us. Some people were not that comfortable with it and that's really the setting for the story -Billy and Wilhelm both experience this antagonism in their environments. "
Once the screenplay was completed, director/producer Sean McNamara became attached to direct the family film almost immediately. McNamara has built a career on his commitment to quality family entertainment, directing television shows as well as features for the entire family to enjoy together. McNamara's faith in the script was so strong that he and BME partner David Brookwell decided to produce the film.

Says McNamara, "Space flight has always been a fascination, since I was a kid. I have seen movies dealing with space flight, but they've never dealt with this particular story - how we, as man, came to go into space. Beyond that, the relationship between Billy and his father, how they mourn the loss of Billy's mother, the adventures the chimp has and how Billy comes to understand what it means to be there for Mac all of these things made the screenplay extraordinary. In addition, the script deals with issues that still resonate today: prejudice, animal rights and space travel. "

Producer Brookwell comments on the script, "It really has something for everyone - kids will love the chimps and the rockets are neat. Beyond that I'm hoping the kids will identify with Billy and the issues he's dealing with, the prejudice and his relationship with his father. Adults will appreciate it because they can remember when it happened. I thought it was a good, well-rounded script. "
In light of the space program's current renewed activity, Brookwell adds, "The timing for this movie is right. Titan rockets and Delta rockets are going up every other week and a shuttle goes up every couple of months. In fact, next year marks the fortieth anniversary of Ham's flight. "

The writers and the filmmakers all had a shared vision for the film. They wanted families to be entertained by Billy and Mac's antics in the lab and moved by the relationship between Billy and his father. In addition, they wanted to recreate the excitement and the wonder surrounding the early day of the space program, most notably, the first time man set foot on the moon, an unforgettable time for anyone who witnessed it.

Says Brookwell, "I remember watching the fuzzy black and white footage. It left a huge impression on me. I even had a set of 8" x 10" glossy photos that my mother bought me at the grocery store. "
Wilson's experience with the historic moment was a little more exhausting. Says Wilson, "I had just come back from watching 'Herbie the Love Bug,' so I was a pretty tired kid. They said it was about to happen, so I waited, but they kept going to a simulation with bad animation. It dragged on and on past my bedtime, but I'm glad my parents kept me up, because I got to actually see it. "
Gardner adds. "You never forget where you were when it happened. It was a very exciting time. It was like Christopher Columbus or Magellan - a time of exploration. Everybody was enthused. The astronauts were celebrities. We were called out of school to watch the launches. With RACE TO SPACE, we wanted to recreate that type of excitement. "

McNamara recalls, "I remember being in the living room with my family watching in amazement. I got one of the paper models of the lunar launch that were being given out by the '76 gas station down the street. I've carried that memory with me ever since; it's one of the reasons I felt so strongly about making this movie. "

To get the project off the ground, the filmmakers enlisted the aid of Peter Lambert and Al Lapin Jr. of The Century Group as executive producers, as well as Neil White, with whom they had produced "P. U. N. K. S. " and "Wild Grizzly. " Next on board were independent film producer Glen Greene along with BME's Elsa Lind, as an associate producer.
Once financing was in place, casting for the film took priority. The strength of the script drew award-winning phenomenon James Woods to the project immediately.
Says Woods, "The love between the boy and the chimp awakens in the father the need he has to relate to his son. But he has the obstacles of trying to gain respect as the father of rocket science of America, but also trying to gain acceptance as an American once he has naturalized and trying to get his son back while dealing with his own pain at the loss of his wife. How do you win your son back when you're preoccupied with one of the most important technological achievements in the history of man?"

Woods has a specific recollection of the era in which the film is set. Then a student at M. I. T. , Woods was pursuing a degree in engineering. Says Woods, "When I was at MIT we hadn't put a man on the moon yet and that was our great ambition. There was a tremendous amount of work being done in aeronautical engineering, physics, astrophysics and pure math that was necessary for the creation of a rocket science program and a space program. NASA was the dream of everybody, to become involved in that kind of adventure. Now when I revisit it with this story, it reminds me of that time when we had dreams that were really extraordinary but concrete and really meant something. "
The filmmakers could not have been happier to have such a talent involved with the project. Says McNamara, "James brings a Teutonic kind of strictness that European fathers were like in the 60's. He portrays a very strict German father. He brings passion and intensity to his part - he is impassioned about playing a scientist and he brings this energy as an actor and channels it into Wilhelm. "

The filmmakers were equally delighted when the material drew Annabeth Gish to the project. Says Gish of her interest in the script, "The complexity of the character of Donni and the historical element to the screenplay really made RACE TO SPACE compelling for me. I was especially drawn to the challenge of imagining what circumstances were like for Donni - an aggressive, ambitious, intelligent female in the 60's who really had no predecessor. " Gish adds, "For me, the chance to work with the chimpanzees was definitely a plus, as well. "
The filmmakers had actor William Atherton in mind when they were casting the role of Stanton, the treacherous Congressional Liason who attempts to sabotage the Redstone mission. Ever since watching "Die Hard," McNamara and Brookwell wanted to have the opportunity to work with Atherton.
Says Brookwell, "'Die Hard' was pivotal in my desire to make big films. Sean and I watched it when we were at Universal, making television shows. William Atherton played such a despicable character in that movie, so unscrupulous and hateful. For some reason, he just stuck in my head all these years. We hate to typecast people, but when I read the script, I knew it had to be him. "

Finally, the pivotal role of Billy Von Huber was cast. Through their work on children's shows over the years for television, McNamara and Brookwell were well-acquainted with the wealth of young talent. The filmmakers found eleven-year-old Alex Linz through casting director Joey Paul, fresh off of casting a chimpanzee project of a different sort: TNT's "The Chimp Channel. " The star of such films as "Home Alone 3" and "Bruno," Alex was surprisingly experienced for an actor of such a tender age.
Says Brookwell, "There are so many good kids in Los Angeles, it was tough to narrow down the choices. But when Alex came in, he was beyond everybody else. When we put him in a room with James Woods, they just clicked. It was perfect, totally believable. " McNamara adds, "Alex is sensational! Within a micro-second he just becomes Billy. He brings a truth and reality to the part. "

Another important aspect of the casting process was finding the right Mac by selecting the best animal specialist available. The filmmakers found chimpanzee actor Tyler through animal behavior specialist Steve Martin and his company Working Wildlife. Martin's accident-free record of thirty-three years put the filmmakers at ease. They were, obviously, in good hands.

At the same time that they were casting the project, the filmmakers were researching locations and designing the look for the film. An early champion of the script, the real Alan Shephard helped the filmmakers gain clearance to shoot on actual military bases. As a result, the filmmakers had the great fortune and the very real challenge of planning a shoot on an active military base - Edwards Air Force Base in California. In addition, they were granted permission to use a museum exhibit at the Visitors Center in Cape Canaveral recreating the Mercury mission control room where the original flight was monitored.

In preparing for the production, the filmmakers assembled a team of longtime collaborators. Cinematographer Christian Sebaldt had shot numerous projects with McNamara, including "The Secret World of Alex Mack," "Casper Meets Wendy," "Casper - A Spirited Beginning" and "P. U. N. K. S. " Likewise, editor Greg Hobson had cut McNamara's "By Default," "P. U. N. K. S. ," "Treehouse Hostage" and "Wild Grizzly. "
Explains Brookwell, "Filmmaking is a truly collaborative effort. We believe in working with people that we like and that we get along with. It makes for a better collaboration and ultimately, a better film - when everyone's having fun making a movie, it comes across on the screen. People focus, they work hard, because they want to be proud of it. They can say, 'It's my film. '"
To add to the realism of the period, the filmmakers enlisted costume designer Kristin M. Burke, who had just completed work on their "Trial of Old Drum" and Dawn Ferry, the production designer who had designed "P. U. N. K. S. " In choosing Burke and Ferry, they knew they would have the design elements necessary to capture the look and feel of the era.
In addition to preparing the physical elements of the look for the film, the filmmakers enlisted Raymond McIntyre, Jr. to supervise the visual effects for the scenes which were too dangerous or too complex to shoot with the actors. A veteran of both optical and digital effects with Pixel Magic, McIntyre had worked with McNamara on "Casper Meets Wendy" and "Casper - A Spirited Beginning. "

RACE TO SPACE was shot on location at Edwards Air Forces Base in California and at Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral in Florida over a period of twenty-five days.
The shoot went smoothly, considering the added complications of working with chimps. McNamara comments "The benefit of working with chimps is they are cute and fun all day. The only disadvantage is the amount of time it takes to shoot the scenes. "
On working with chimpanzees, Gish says, "Before coming on this project, I was a bit nave about working with chimps. I'd known that they have tremendous strength and can be aggressive, but I didn't really know the edge that comes with them. Their mood can turn at a moment's notice. It doesn't feel dangerous, but you have to be very conscious of them as animals. You can't forget that they're not just furry loveable pets. As an actor it requires a different kind of attention - not only do you have to remember your words and your emotionality, but you also have to be aware that the chimps could be potentially dangerous. They're fascinating. "

Working on an active military base required a bit of flexibility from the production, as well. Occasionally, shots were pushed back due to military exercises or aircraft takeoffs. If anything, perhaps the most difficult part was getting security clearance for the crew which includes D. P. Christian Sebaldt, a German national. Other than that, the production proceeded without a hitch. Says McNamara, "The military have been absolutely terrific and very supportive. "
The actors enjoyed the access to a world not many civilians get to see. Says Woods, "Working with the military at Edwards Air Force Base has been extraordinary. They're very filmmaker friendly. They don't do a lot because we're here, but one day during a big scene, they were having a bomb-loading contest to see which team could load their planes the fastest! We're surrounded by hundreds of thousands of tons of jet fule and the most advanced weaponry in the world, not only the explosive devices but the planes themselves. The other day, we got to watch F-22 takeoff, the singlemost advanced piece of weaponry in the history of mankind. "

Shooting on the military base was not without its rigors, however. Woods comments, "The biggest danger is to drop any bits of material around here. Everyone has to have their shoes checked, the areas swept, tires checked. One little stone could get sucked into a jet engine and bring down an aircraft and the pilots in it. "
Says Gish of the shoot, "It has been an honor to work with Sean. He is so energetic and positive, it lifts everyone's spirits. He cultivates his crews - he uses a lot of the same people on different productions and they are all very familiar with and fond of each other. It's been an amazing experience. "
Writer Wilson, who actually appears in the film as astronaut Gordon Cooper, chuckles, "Not only did we get to see our screenplay made into a film, I can actually tell my friends that I was in a picture with James Woods. What more could a guy want?" Seriously, Wilson concludes, "Eric and I are indebted to Sean, whose insight and expertise has brought this story to life. "

Author : Lions Gate Films