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Legendary actor Richard Dreyfuss and director Shelagh McLeod discuss Astronaut, humanity and space travel

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In Astronaut, a lonely widower lies about his age to enter a lottery for the chance to win a seat on the first commercial flight to space, and fulfil his life-long dream before it’s too late.

We catch up with writer-director Shelagh McLeod and legendary star Richard Dreyfuss at Edinburgh International Film Festival to talk all things Astronaut, from space travel to old age.

Could you please talk a little about the inspiration behind the story?

Shelagh: The reason this came to happen is that my mum died in a nursing home. I loved my mum and I visited her every day, and there was an old guy in a wheelchair, sitting in the nursing home garden, and he would never come in. The nurses literally would drag him in as night fell. He was always staring up at the sky, and one day I went and sat next to him and asked him, “What is it that you’re looking for?” and he just said, “Another go”.

And that was really the trigger; I just thought, the nursing home is the final stage for most people – at least it was for my mum, who died four months later – but for all these people there, what had their dreams been? I lost my dad when he was 60 and he’d always wanted to go to space, and he had instilled (within me) this love of what’s out there and the wonder of the universe. I just thought, maybe this guy wanted to go to space, and why couldn’t he? No matter what age he is, what condition he’s in, it’s not fair. You get to a certain age and you’re marginalised, you’re forgotten about, and I think everyone should have a voice regardless of age. So that was the trigger for the story… and I’ve always wanted to go to space too. Even with my claustrophobia and my panic attacks! I’d go with a psychiatrist though.

Image courtesy of EIFF 2019

And who doesn’t? I feel like it’s such a universal dream.

Richard: Well actually, Steven Spielberg was quoted as saying recently that, had he been married with children at the time he wrote Close Encounters, he never would have created the ending he created - and with all due respect to Steven: bullshit. There is no other ending to the movie, and what he did through that film was to fulfil those fantasies and those wishes that we all have, whether we like it or not. And we know we are at a certain moment in history’s story… this extraordinary moment of ‘do we, or don’t we?’

And we already passed one of the most remarkable moments in man’s history, which was that we, for the first time, chickened out… When the Apollo programme tanked, it was a shock to the collective unconscious. I watched and waited for humanity to come to its senses, and they did, but it took 50 years for them to seriously revisit space travel.

We’re turning to privatised space travel now though, as opposed to state sponsored.

Richard: The very first attempt to write a fictionalisation of space travel, in the story it was all private capital… there was a very famous short story called ‘—We Also Walk Dogs’. Robert Heinlein, he wrote this short story, and it was about a company that started out as a dog-walking company, and over the years became the company that was championing space exploration… and it was the name of a corporation which had become iconic and had become the stand-in for all the wealthy innovators and creators – and when they said that they were going to go into space, they meant it. And it didn’t matter if they weren’t on the first flight, they were making it possible.

And in 1969 when we actually landed on the moon, I had reservation number 86… I got on the phone, I thought, faster than anybody. Albert Brooks, the comic, he has reservation number 11.

Image courtesy of EIFF 2019

Shelagh: And we’re back on track now, which is exciting. I’ve read every astronaut book and read every Robert Heinlein book as a kid. And we’re back at such an exciting time now, Branson’s doing sub-orbital flights and he’s nearly there. Elon Musk is a genius and he’s going to go up with SpaceX, which now has reusable rockets that can land themselves on a platform in the sea. And it just needs that final push. They just announced that they’ll be taking commercial passengers up, as recently as last week, and I thought, “Great!” and I said to my husband, “It’s £25,000, that’s not the end of the world.” And then, that unfortunately is just the stay on the ISS. It’s the getting up there that’s going to cost hundreds of thousands – because it’s all owned by other people… so I had to rethink it a bit.

Richard: But there’s going to be some Musk-type guy who’s going to figure out the shortcut and make it possible for you to spend the 25 to get up there.

Will you be on it as well?

Richard: Well the story was – and I don’t know if it was true – that Spielberg was meant to be the second civilian to go up. And I believe that, knowing Steven and knowing the programme, I figured it was true… I can’t say that I would go, because I don’t know if I’ll get the chance. It’s only because humanity does go through these periods of neurosis, and we’re in a big one right now. And to be the person who says “Yes”, that’s a big statement. To be the person who says “I can’t say no to this” … Everyone knows it’s going to take one guy to say, “Fuck it, let’s do it”. I believe that’s going to happen in our lifetime.

Image courtesy of EIFF 2019

I hope so, because you keep hearing about these big projects and they’ll come up against massive obstacles and delays, only to be put off indefinitely.

Shelagh: Don’t you think though, that the world is really split? Half of my family, half of my friends… one of my greatest friends goes, “What’s the point?”. Since we’ve crawled out of the slime, we have endeavoured, we’ve struggled, to keep achieving greater things as human beings. What do they mean, ‘what’s the point’? And I have these big debates with family and friends. Half the world doesn’t really seem interested.

Richard: Nor does it matter, because when we went through this 500 years ago, it did not matter that most of Europe didn’t give a shit. [Speaking on the colonisation of the American continent] … and then it (space travel) will take on this nobility that has not been seen or heard from in quite a while. And when mankind reconnects with its own nobility, Katy bar the door, because earthlings, people who are born on this planet, will be shocked at how fast the lines to go will fill… because they don’t care whether they live or die, they care that they’re part of an ongoing struggle to articulate why we’re here, who God is, who we are… the notion that we ignored what it meant to put our children on a boat across the Atlantic, that in and of itself took a courage and a sacrifice that meant everything.

Watch the trailer for Astronaut now.

 

Lead image courtesy of EIFF 2019




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