The Farthest — Stories of Joy and Wonder | An Interview with Director Emer Reynolds

Emer Reynolds is an Emmy nominated, multi-award winning documentary director and editor. She is warm and funny, uses words like ‘anthropomorphising’ in general conversation, and is very gracious when answering your foolhardy questions on how long it actually takes to make a movie. Reynolds took time out of her morning to tell me about her new film The Farthest, which follows the journey of Voyager 1 and 2 as humanity’s proxies for exploration through the vast expanse of space.

Hi Emer, thanks so much for speaking with me today! I hope you’re having a good one?

I am, I’m in New York City at the moment. I attended a private screening for The Farthest last night. It’s been submitted for Academy Award consideration for best documentary, so we’re doing the screenings and going through the process.

That is absolutely fantastic, congratulations!

It’s pretty amazing. We’re on the long list with 170 other films submitted but it’s really great just to be here.

I won’t keep you long so, you sound like you’re fierce busy. Right off the bat, you studied Physics and Maths at Trinity College Dublin before moving into the world of editing and directing. Was it always your intention to eventually focus your work on space exploration?

I don’t know if I had a master plan but science and space are two of my great loves. There was always a low level drive that if I got to make documentary focusing on one subject it would be on a topic where I am most comfortable, most passionate. The last documentary I directed was Here Was Cuba. That was historically based, which was a bit out of my comfort zone. I’ve loved space ever since I was a little girl so I suppose it was inevitable.

You focus on some very different subjects in your documentaries. For example, the three time Emmy nominated On a River in Ireland was the most awarded wildlife film in the word, whereas your award winning documentary, Here Was Cuba, focused on the real life end-of-the-world thriller that was the Cuban Missile crisis. In The Farthest, the camera is on the Voyager spacecraft. Do you feel that there is any thematic link between the subjects of your film projects? What draws you to a topic?

I collaborate very frequently with the director John Murray, with whom I worked as an editor on On a River in Ireland. We did another film called Broken Tail together about conservation. Looking at the topics of my work both as an editor and a director, I can understand how it might be difficult for an outsider to see the line linking the projects, but my focus is always on the primal questions – why are we here, and how do we behave while we are here? If there are any ideas linking my work, it’s always a question of what it really means to be human.

On A River In Ireland - HeadStuff.org
On a River in Ireland (2013). Source

A documentary on space was inevitable, so what made the flight of the Voyager specifically an attractive topic for you?

I’ve always been in awe and obsessed with space. The Voyager traveled through the solar system all throughout my childhood, and I thought it seemed like a lonely, romantic one-way journey. I remember seeing the beautiful images it sent back for the first time and being astonished what we had achieved as a human race. And by what the Voyager achieved by itself! It’s the first space craft to have explored the outer solar system, and the first human-made object to enter into stellar space. The spacecraft itself is knocking it out of the park in terms of its achievement, and it has the golden record attached to it which is an amazing story of all that makes us human. At one of the screenings, a member of the audience summed up something lovely about the documentary. They said that the first half of the film centres on the desire to know, to find out, and the second half is about our desire to be known. The Voyager is the vehicle for that.

It sounds like you’re really fond of the plucky little spacecraft!

[Laughter] Yes! I’ve been fond of it since childhood. I was actually admonished by a scientist for anthropomorphising it too much!

What I find most interesting about your documentaries is the strong sense of location. You choose subject matter that could be documented from a distance, but you take the extra step to ground it with real places and people. In The Farthest you went on a whistle-stop tour of American cities — 14 cities in 12 days. Was location always an important factor in the documentary?

The locations in the film ended up being narrowed down to mostly California where the spacecraft was built and designed. In the end, the location became secondary to characters themselves. We went on the tour trying to find great storytellers and characters to let the audience under the curtain. We wanted to let the audience in on the private story of what it feels like to be a human on the edge this incredible development and discovery. It’s a huge scientific achievement, and we wanted people to tell it in an honest, emotional way. I think we achieved that. It’s amazing to watch the people who worked on the Voyager, most in their seventies and eighties, tell their stories like enthusiastic children, with pride and awe. I think that’s what makes the film unique, we revel in scientific curiosity in all its glory. One of the great joys of making the film was meeting these amazing characters and being invited into their private lives to hear their stories and to discover a well of emotion. There was never any cold science, only stories of wonder full of joy and love

The Farthest was filmed in just six weeks. Was that a self-imposed time frame?

I’ve always been in awe and obsessed with space. The Voyager traveled through the solar system all throughout my childhood, and I thought it seemed like a lonely, romantic one-way journey.

The six weeks was the duration of the filming in America. The interviews were mostly shot in California and New Mexico. It was then shot in Dublin for a further two weeks in studio – getting the close ups on the abstract imagery, the close ups of golden record, all the images for the abstract visual palate. And then we did one further day in Budapest! We filmed the oldest telescope in the world in an observatory there. Of course, then the archival footage had to be worked into the film, and the CGI. The CGI was built and designed single-handedly by Ian Kenny in his studio in Monkstown. It turned out to be a global film in the end.

The Farthest features a lush visual palate of futuristic chromes, blues and oranges. How did you chose the visual themes for the documentary?

The jumping point for the colour palate of the film was drawn from a particular photo that Voyager took of Jupiter. The swirl of the Great Red Spot, the white twisting clouds. It was a touchstone of what we were looking for. The designer and cinematographer developed the look of the film from that. We wanted film to be modern, because the story would have to co-exist with archives, but we also wanted an epic modern look to befit the futuristic notion of space travel. All of that works with the film captured onscreen. Kate McCullough, our cinematographer, is a genius. Wherever she points a camera the visuals are always stunning.

One of the fun things about the documentary is the fantastic array of 70’s music that underscores the film. How did you choose popular songs to signify the decade?

In my mind I wanted all the music to be before 1977, because Voyager wouldn’t have — there I go, I’m anthropomorphising him again! But in my mind Voyager had never updated its record collection, so all the songs in its mind are pre-1977. So we tried to draw from music from that period, but also use the music to push the story forward and invoke whatever emotion we wanted to push forward. We were very fortunate to get licensing for all the songs featured in in the film. There’s only one song outside the basic rule book regarding song choice – the final song. It’s called ‘The Race’ by Archer Prewitt. It does sound like it’s from the era, it sounds a bit Bowie actually, but it has these beautiful lyrics: We won the race / We’ve claimed our place forever / Cold and lost in space. I allowed it into the film even though it didn’t follow my self-imposed rules. I heard it on a CD driving from Belfast to Dublin ten years ago, and I thought ‘if I ever get to make my Voyager movie I need to include this’. It speaks to the vision of the movie as a whole.

Ten years ago!

Yes! This move has been a long time in the making. When Voyager came into interstellar space, it was back in the news and making history again, so we were able to frame it as a modern story. It’s had a long genesis.

Here Was Cuba is striking in that you treated archived footage as drama footage and edited it as though we were watching the drama unfolding in real time, creating a frightening sense of urgency. As an acclaimed director and editor, do you feel one role feeds into the other?

In documentary, editing is probably the key contributor in terms of storytelling and shape. There’s no script in a documentary, so you’re creating the shape of the story in the cutting room with all the amazing material gathered. If it goes well, the result can be so surprising and exciting. In my work I don’t like narration so the interviews drive the script, which makes editing key. When directing Here Was Cuba I did make use of my editing experience, but for The Farthest I had Tony Cranstoun as an my editor. I wanted him to challenge me and my thoughts and instincts. I wanted to be tested in the jungle of the cutting room. I think it worked out very well.

Having won Best Irish Documentary and the Audience Award at the Dublin International Film Festival, The Farthest is now featured at the Dublin Feminist Film Festival 2017. As a woman behind the camera, is it important for you that your work is showcased from a feminist perspective?

I am thrilled and honoured that The Farthest is being shown at the Dublin Feminist Film Festival, it’s incredibly exciting. There was a huge number of women working on this film — our wonderful producer Clare Stronge, our line producer Zlata Filipovicour, our cinematographer Kate McCullough and our archive researcher Aoife Carey to name a few. Aside from that, The Farthest hopefully showcases women in science — there are a number of women scientists in the story. It’s so important to show that women achieve epically, and can tell epic stories of such monumental achievement. It’s humbling and a great honour to think that this film could inspire other young women to make films and to picture themselves in a filmmaking role.

The Farthest will have a special screening in Dublin on Friday 17th November at 4.00pm in The New Theatre, Temple Bar as part of the Dublin Feminist Film Festival https://www.dublinfeministfilmfestival.com/              

On Sunday 3rd December the film will be screened in Regent Street Cinema, London at 7pm as part of the Irish London Film Festival http://www.irishfilmfestivallondon.com/

After the film there will be a special Q&A with director Emer Reynolds hosted by Dara O’Briain.


Featured Image Credit: Barry Cronin/thetimes.co.uk

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