Interview: 'The Farthest' director Emer Reynolds
In late August of 1977, NASA sent the first of two probes into space. Originally intended to travel just to Saturn and Jupiter, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 would eventually embark on a grand tour of the planets in our solar system. Their decades-long journey would take them to almost all of the planets beyond Earth and give them the distinction of being humanity's first and (so far only) deep space emissaries.
Later this summer, almost exactly 40 years after the launch of Voyager 2, "The Farthest" will premiere on PBS after screening at several prominent film festivals, including the Tribeca Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival and AFIDOCS. Director Emer Reynolds offered more insight into her feature-length documentary while she was in Seattle for SIFF 2017.
Q: What prompted you to make a film about the Voyager program?
Reynolds: I've had a massive love of space since I was a child and was very aware of Voyager growing up in Europe during the '80s. They would have programs every-so-often about 'now Voyager is at Uranus' and a few years later, 'now it's at Neptune.' I couldn't believe the images that were coming back. There have been TV documentaries about Voyager, but it has never been given the full cinema treatment. So my producer, John Murray and I talked a lot about making a film about Voyager. It's such a romantic story of human achievement and ambition. As were we discussing maybe trying to make a film about it, that very same weekend NASA announced Voyager 1 had left the solar system and was headed out to interstellar space. It was really fortuitous, serendipitous moment where Voyager is back in the news and still achieving all this amazing stuff.
Q: How important was it for the film to strike a balance between being informative while also being able to address the profundities of Voyager.
Reynolds: I was keen to make a film that would reach a general audience but not alienate a Voyager-level audience. You want it to have enough science chops - and have some authority - but you don't want it to go over the audience's head. To find that combination was tricky but we were determined to do it. With the interviews, we were very keen to have the scientists and engineers be mindful not to talk in jargon, but to really communicate in a way a general audience could understand. And they were really on board because they really wanted to tell this fantastic adventure story - arguably humankind's greatest journey of exploration ever.
Q: The documentary features many NASA scientists who worked directly on the Voyager program back in the '70s. How hard was it to get the Voyager crew together for this film?
Reynolds: We had a big research phase to find - not only the scientists, engineers and golden record team - but also to find the great storytellers amongst all of them. We wanted people who would lay their heart open and let their humanity shine through the science. We pitched that feeling to them and said let's talk with the humanity and the honesty that this story requires and deserves.
Q: How important is it to get the general public on board with science?
Reynolds: Science is at the very heart of how we live and how we're going to keep living - especially with the population of the planet expanding. Science is going to be the very thing that keeps us here and keeps us alive. The more people know about science and engage with it as not something that is far away, dusty and not relevant; the more people plug into what we can really do and achieve; and the more people that encourage their children to be curious about the world, curious about discovery and not afraid to ask questions or not know things, the more everyone benefits. There's a darkness and an anti-intellectualism about science today - it's more important than ever.
Q: Why is it important for people today to learn about a NASA program from the '70s?
Reynolds: One of the hardest things for people to understand is before Voyager, we knew very little. People growing up now since Voyager we think all this stuff is obvious now, but when Voyager got to Jupiter, we literally didn't know that moons around other planets could be actively volcanic. We had no idea. There's still so much in our solar system that we don't understand. In the past few years, we've realized how many planets are orbiting distant stars. Before that research went into exoplanets, we couldn't even say for sure that planets did orbit other stars. Our knowledge is exponentially expanding and what that does is open our heart and our minds to the possibility that we don't know so much and we need to keep learning.
"The Farthest" screened during the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival. The documentary premieres Aug. 23 on PBS.