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SXSW is back, and so is Richard Linklater. Next stop: the moon, in 'Apollo 10 1/2'

Eric Webb
Austin 360

On July 20, 1969, the world gathered around screens for an almost holy communal experience. A man walked on the moon. Thanks to a camera, everyone saw heaven from their seats. 

Now, we won’t say that pulling off the first in-person South by Southwest Film Festival since 2019 is the same thing as one giant leap for mankind. But there’s a certain satisfying symmetry to “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” premiering during SXSW on March 13 at Austin’s Paramount Theatre. 

The animated film, which will be out April 1 on Netflix, is the latest from Richard Linklater, perhaps Austin’s most well-known filmmaker. The founder of Austin Film Society, he’s certainly the director who’s done the most to create a legible cinematic vision of the city in the popular imagination, first with his 1990 debut, “Slacker,” and later with films like the Oscar-nominated “Boyhood.” 

“Apollo 10 1/2" isn’t an Austin story, but it’s a distinctly Texan tale. The film is an audio-visual memory, bringing to life what it was like to grow up under the shadow of NASA’s rockets right as America brought science fiction to life.  

In "Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood," Milo Coy voices Stan, a kid growing up in the shadow of the moon landing.

Linklater’s movie focuses on a boy named Stan (voiced by Milo Coy as a kid and by Jack Black as the adult version telling the story), whose father works in the space program. Around Stan’s large suburban family swirls not only daydreams of galaxies, but the winds of the late 1960s – remembered here as a tumultuous, pop culture-saturated era that was equal parts “Bewitched” and bewildering. Meanwhile, Stan’s fantasies of a very special moon mission seem as real to the audience as they do to him. 

We caught up with Linklater to talk about space-age childhoods and cinematic returns. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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American-Statesman: For people who love movies, the past two years have been a double-edged sword, right? I caught up on so many movies from my couch, but also, I so missed going to films with my friends out in the world. How have the past two years affected your relationship to cinema? 

Richard Linklater: I would have obviously felt more debilitated in my 20s, when I was actually physically going to three movies a day. ... But I don’t know, I was in my own little bubble. It sucked, closing the theater at AFS and knowing everything was shut down. It was just weird, kind of surreal. It's rare that we have an event that unites all of us, that every single human is experiencing. That was kind of poetic amongst all the misery and tragedy.  

But I was fortunate, because I was working. We had wrapped just a few days before the lockdown on “Apollo 10 1/2.” I was working on a movie that was set 50 years before, that was (about) a positive thing in the world — landing on the moon, family. …  

I had my own little film series going with my kids, watching a film every night. ... I was watching not many new films, but mainly reacquainting myself with a lot of old films. 

I actually signed up for a Letterboxd account in 2020 to keep track of everything I was watching, because that was the routine, right? I'd wake up, I’d do work and then watch a couple movies at night. 

Yeah, I mean, what else are you going to do? For those who want to get rigorous about it, it was pretty good cinematically. You could sit down and watch a lot of films you never saw. ...  

We'll be figuring it out for a long time, what it means for our industry and all that, but film culture survived. I did a lot of Zoom events with people premiering films. Everybody adjusts. That's what our industry has always done. We've always adjusted and made it work.   

In making "Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood," Richard Linklater says he was trying to evoke a sense of time and place specific to a kind of free-range childhood that no longer exists.

You mentioned your kids. In a lot of your work, there's a real reverence for children. There's obviously "Boyhood,” and things like “School of Rock.” In “Apollo 10 1/2,” Stan's thoughts and feelings and exploits are treated not with condescension at all, but a real appreciation for what they are, and for the whimsy. Does that feel similar to how you think about childhood and growing up? 

I was trying to recreate it — I was trying to get inside the mindset of a kid. So almost, you can't help it. It's how you think about it now, but I was trying to get more into it then, you know, how it felt to be a kid then. That was the goal of that movie, to show what it was like to be a kid then, during this kind of amazing thing that was going on in the world, and just coincidentally, nearby. ... I'd liked the idea of a larger family and neighborhood, just to show a portrait of what people refer to now as a free-range childhood. That's gone from the culture.  

Speaking of recreating a time and a place, “Apollo 10 1/2" references a lot of classic TV. I was a weird kid that was only allowed to watch Nick at Nite growing up.  

You’re up on your shows. 

I watched a lot of “Dragnet” and a lot of “Bewitched,” oddly.  

“Bewitched,” hoping Serena would be on that episode. 

Elizabeth Montgomery, man. I went to Salem, Massachusetts, last year on a little trip, and they had this little statue of Elizabeth Montgomery riding a broom. It's pretty cute. 

I think I've heard that! It's so funny to conflate “Bewitched” with the Salem Witch Trials.  

They lean into the kitsch of it all. They know that if you think too hard about you know, the murders, you won't have a good time.  

Yeah, as if (Samantha on “Bewitched”) was persecuted for being a witch. We all loved her. I’ll always have a soft spot for Elizabeth Montgomery. 

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In “Apollo 10 1/2,” I really vibed with all those references and little pastiches here and there. What was your process in thinking about what you wanted to reference? And also, not everyone, I'm sure, that worked on the movie grew up with those things.  

Oh, hell no. 

Were there many reference-point gaps you needed to bridge? 

I'm constantly the old guy in the room having to explain to people — well, that's not entirely true. ... But put it like this: Animators in Amsterdam don't have a reference to little league baseball. They don't know these TV shows. And the film is nothing but being overwhelmed with specificity of the moment, the culture. We could have a lot of fun with that. ... I had a big section on Houston wrestling and Saturday morning cartoons. It was just too much TV. The movie has enough TV. (laughs)  

A lot of people sitting around watching TV, but that's what Apollo 11 was, was this super elaborate, amazingly produced TV show for four days. It was incredible, watching it again, doing the research on Apollo, Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid. I mean, it’s really pretty profound. ...

Cronkite himself ... he sees the connection between Apollo and TV peaking at the same moment, available for each other. A media moment. 

Writer and director Richard Linklater appears on the red carpet for his movie "Boyhood" during South by Southwest 2014.

As a kid, I was in second grade when we walked on the moon — the summer between second and third. You miss so much, you know. So the film also has this parallel, because of the older storyteller. He can kind of point out ironies.  

Do you think that we as Texans talk enough about this NASA/space race/moon landing era? I'm a native Austinite, and I have to say, I feel like no one ever really talks about the fact that we went to space because of Texas. 

To me, it seemed maybe more of a Houston crowd thing. Austin, you're starting to get kind of far away from ground zero there of NASA.

There's a lot to be proud of, all the people who worked on it. I've met so many people who either worked there themselves or had something to do with it. I've met everyone from guys who walked on the moon to people who had minor jobs there. And there's a sense of pride that they get to carry the rest of their lives, and they do. … Jack Black’s mom worked in the space program.  

Jack Black, who lends his voice to "Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood," has collaborated with Richard Linklater in the past, including on "School of Rock" and "Bernie." Black is seen here on the red carpet for "Bernie" at South by Southwest 2012.

Oh, cool. 

Yeah, hardcore scientist. She was kind of big-time in it. 

That's awesome, didn’t know that. 

He said he did not get her brain. His sister did. (laughs

He got his own talents! 

Yeah, he got his own talent, more on his dad’s side. 

There's a part in the movie where you highlight this dissonance between a world that at the time seems to be going to hell, with the war and assassinations and riots, but that also is still full of such possibility. I was struck by — I mean, it sounds a lot like now, in some ways. Do you feel like that era echoes the times we are in, in some ways? 

I think it's interesting in the movie, because it was very pronounced, and I remember it very distinctly. And that was one thing I was trying to distill in making the movie, like, “Yeah, what was that? That was such a contrast.”  

And yet, you think, oh, that's perpetual. That's just the species. ... Things are going to hell. (It’s) why we can do so much better. We haven't solved all these problems. There's always an existential threat. There's just a lot to be mindful of. And so that's the part of our species going, “Hey, man, we better get it together. We're underachieving here. We can do so much better.” 

Then there's also the other part of your psyche, which is, “God, there's so much to be excited about. Look what we're achieving. Look what the possibilities are, because of fill-in-the-blank technology.” 

Much like the communal viewing of "Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood," the film will have its world premiere as South by Southwest Film Festival makes its in-person return to the theaters after two years online.

The Apollo mission culminated in a communal viewing experience. It kind of makes this the perfect movie for SXSW’s big return, perhaps.  

Timing is everything. I just feel fortunate that my movie is done, and it's premiering at South-by.  

We were all on set when they canceled South-by in 2020. We were a couple days from finishing shooting ... and we saw that all happening. We were close to it. It’s great for this project to have gone from that to premiering at the comeback. 

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In your director’s statement, you characterize the film as a “memoir of ephemera,” which is a good turn of phrase. Tell me a little bit about that. I'm always interested in the ways that we reappraise "lowbrow” culture, or things like Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, for me, that's the kind of stuff that I feel like taught me how to be a person, right? 

What does form you as a person? The culture, the people around you, how you're responding to things. In itself, it's all sort of disposable and not that important. But then on the other hand, it is building you. Every bit is important.  

And I look at it like that, too. If I'm still remembering all these years later, clearly, it meant something. 

At SXSW Film Festival

Richard Linklater's new feature film, "Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood," makes its world premiere at 8 p.m. on March 13 at the Paramount Theatre. It will screen again at noon on March 19 at AFS Cinema.

SXSW screenings are open to festival badge-holders and people with official film festival wristbands, though some single tickets are sold through the venues' websites and onsite 15 minutes before the screenings start.

For full coverage of SXSW 2022, follow along at austin360.com and on social media, @austin360.