Bike rides, kickball, Jiffy Pop, Jell-O and other well-remembered details crowd into Richard Linklater’s “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood,” a loving ode to his own childhood that has grew up outside of Houston in the late 1960s.
NASA and the lunar mission are right next door, as are other scientific marvels (Astroturf!). But the wonder that permeates “Apollo 10 ½” is felt just as strongly in the streets of the neighborhood where the kids roam with scratched knees. “A Free-Range Childhood” was Linklater’s original subtitle.
Time flows in Linklater’s films. His passage punctuated “Boyhood” and punctuated the “Before” trilogy. He dove into the 70s (“Dazed and Confused”) and 80s (“Everybody Wants Some!”), and made movies long enough to see his films become indelibly associated with the 90s.
“It’s never too late to look back to another era and say, Wow, how did we get here?” Linklater recently said via Zoom from his home outside Austin, Texas. “It’s our relationship, isn’t it? It’s our present selves and our past selves, and the past worlds we lived in.”
“Apollo 10 ½,” which debuts Friday on Netflix, marks Linklater’s third animated film, following “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly.” And while the 61-year-old writer-director’s films have always moved with their own philosophical beat, “Apollo 10 ½” in particular exudes a vivid nostalgia for a bygone era – from childhood to the halcyon days of the space age of possibility and, as its narrator (Jack Black) describes it, “the height of the age of pranks”.
“I wanted to go back to that time and say what it was like then,” Linklater explains. “We fall into hero myths and tall tales. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when was the last time the world focused and united around human achievement?”
Linklater talked about his films and his nostalgia. Notes have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: When you did “Dazed and Confused” in 1993, the 70s weren’t that far away. Now they are 50 years ago. How long have you been feeling?
Link later: When I was doing “Dazed”, it was honestly further. Yeah, it’s long, but it doesn’t seem that long to me. I remembered all that very well. If I have an innate gift for the world, it’s probably a very demanding memory for people, details and conversations.
Q: What made you want to write this film? Doing “Boyhood” sparked something?
Link later: I just realized by systematically going through where “Boyhood” took me: “Wait, that was a pretty interesting time to have been alive, to be a kid.” I think that era is only getting bigger with time. At the time, you took it for granted. “Oh yeah, this will last forever.” You extrapolate success and that puts us on Mars by the end of the century. When that hasn’t happened, that makes that time even greater. The idea came to me for the film as follows: What an interesting time to be a kid. The wonder of this meets the wonder of being a child.
Q: Paul Thomas Anderson’s ’70s “Licorice Pizza” was motivated in part by capturing a time when a sense of mystery was more pervasive. It seems those pre-internet decades are looking more and more appealing.
Link later: There is a little nostalgia gene in all of us. I don’t even think nostalgia is the right word. It is a kind of cultural curiosity. How was it to be alive then? Children are fascinated by ancient history. Then you get a bit older and your immediate story becomes really relevant once your own interests grow. I don’t trust anyone who isn’t interested in history. It’s easy to be nostalgic for a time when you didn’t know much, and that’s what this definitely ties in with. Before really knowing how the world works. In “Apollo 10 ½”, I intentionally chose both. He’s a grown-up narrator who points out the ironies and abuses more from an adult-critical point of view, in a good-natured way. I couldn’t have approached it any other way. It would be doing the complexity of the times a disservice to get too much into your head and not have a greater critique. I have discovered many things over the years. It amazed me to find that there was a backlash on the resources spent (for Apollo 11) – a legitimate conversation for a company that has always had.
Q: You see this in the Questlove documentary, “Summer of Soul,” about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival.
Link later: We share some pictures! I had some of these clips maybe eight years ago. I was like, “Oh, there was a soul festival that day, that’s fascinating.” Before seeing “Summer of Soul”, I said to myself: “Perfect!” I had seen these clips years before during our 10 year search. I am so amazed to see Cronkite and Sevareid and the contrary analysts they would have. There’s Gloria Steinem just a little (expletive) about it all. I have a great clip of Kurt Vonnegut making fun of all that. But that was part of the dialogue.
Q: Being skeptical of the lunar mission in retrospect doesn’t sound so good.
Link later: No, a bit like being a Nader voter. You have to look at which side of the story you are on. You can’t bring your political ax to every thing.
Q: Do you personally struggle with nostalgia or embrace it?
Link later: I was able to do period pieces, which I think are, by definition, nostalgic, even if it’s a time you didn’t live in. You mentioned “Licorice Pizza”. Paul was, what, 2 or 3 years old when it happens? Where does this fit into nostalgia? It’s a time he probably doesn’t remember, but knows it’s culturally interesting, so he chooses this year carefully. I chose 1937 (“Me and Orson Welles”). It’s nostalgic, but what for? We are before the war, there is a lot of misery on the horizon. But the art is always in the air. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword. I think you can look at the past as long as you do it honestly, without rose-colored glasses. It’s always dangerous to say, “It was a better time for everyone,” which of course has never been true. As much as I love the Apollo program, it breaks your heart to watch it and say, “That was also part of a very exclusive culture.” Where are the female astronauts? Where is someone of color? They worked behind the scenes. Coming back at any time is cumbersome.
Q: Yet your film is above all a celebration of a more carefree way of life that now seems obsolete.
Link later: My father tells the story: “We just let you go out in the morning. If a parent needed a child, you’d just stick your head out the door and say, “Hey, Tommy, come home.” The world has closed in on everyone. Everyone was scared. You know, the media scare tactics worked. “There was a child abduction today in St. Louis.” So that’s it, no more unsupervised child’s play. You could be exposed if you are a parent who let their child run away a block away. There’s something good about this outdoor game that I think could come back if the neighborhoods got together and said, ‘Hey, we’re all going to do this and it’s going to be cool and nothing bad is going to happen. ” Go on. What are the chances?