The Dish

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By Mike Ward and Cynthia Fuchs

It’s the mental screensaver at the moment

Our conversation with Rob Sitch—director of The Dish, and before that 1997’s The Castle, an Australian comedy of manners about a blue-collar family facing a house foreclosure—goes fine until I mention, offhand, that my dad worked in mission control during the days of the space race. Once that happens, suddenly I’m not the one asking the questions anymore. “Really? What desk was he on?” Sitch wants to know. “Did he love the time?” “Would they go off and train and simulate every day?”

Rob Sitch seems the type who might turn questions around on his interviewer fairly regularly. Slim and appearing younger than his 39 years, Sitch speaks at a slow, measured pace that belies his firm opinions on the issues that matter to him. For a director, he is remarkably unconcerned about the appearance of things, and more infatuated with the things in themselves.

Mike Ward:

What first struck you about the moon landing?

Rob Sitch:

We were literally sitting around talking about movie ideas—it’s funny what you throw out. We still do it to this day, talk about tv and movies and ideas—and one of my friends said, “have you heard about Australia’s involvement in the Apollo 11mission?” And you don’t need to know much about Australia to know how incredibly ridiculous—we don’t even have a space program. So it sounded like an urban legend. We started a treasure hunt. We found a book on radio astronomy, and amidst various chapters on radio astronomy was the Parkes radio telescope and the Apollo 11 mission. Until the film came out, I would say almost no Australians knew the story, either. Because the moon landing was so big and all-consuming, [the Parkes aspect] was a tiny detail. When we went back to the newspapers at the time it was reported—I’ve got one newspaper that has a little photo of the Parkes dish and a little story, but the headline is “Man on Moon.” This book had a list of all these things that happened and went wrong, the cascade of events, including the wind and the loss of the signal from Goldstone [California]. It would have been one of the weirdest disasters in the world had there been no footage of it.

Cynthia Fuchs:

I imagine that though you only have one NASA representative at Parkes in the film, there were actually more?

RS:

They only sent one leader, though they had a fair representation. They still have representatives in Australia now. We got photos of the time and there’s probably double what we had in the film. It’s funny how organized NASA was, they built satellite ships that they parked in the Pacific and Indian oceans with uplink/downlink facilities basically for voice and telemetry. They were paranoid that they would lose contact with [the Apollo spacecraft].

MW:

And they sent the wrong coordinates to Parkes?

RS:

That happens so often now. The Hubble telescope—you know, making a tiny mistake.

MW:

They had a Mars probe that had an English/metric measurement snafu.

RS:

It’s so understandable. When Neil Armstrong went to land, from Earth, everything looked like a flat piece of land but when they got up close those tiny specks were boulders the size of houses. He couldn’t land so he took manual control and almost ran out of fuel. Someone did a study and said that man-controlled spaceships malfunction one-tenth the time—we were all going to be clever and be robotic, but in fact putting humans in spaceships tends to make them ten times more reliable.

CF:

With this array of stories with so many details, how did you decide on a unified tone?

RS:

We always wanted to make a comedy. I still find it incongruous that these radio astronomers in the middle of nowhere who had every intention of living in radio astronomy obscurity for the rest of their lives, because of the nature of their facility found themselves thrust into this. I think we amalgamated the characters but some shone through. One was the guy who was the head of the dish at the time. His personality was magnetic in this interesting way. He didn’t have a formal secondary education but he had a Ph.D., he was a member of the Royal Society, happily lived in this small country town most of his life. He was sort-of British stern but incredibly warm; that set one of the tones. And the other was comedy. It just made us laugh. Most installations have fences around them but this doesn’t. They would have no defense against terrorist attack there.

MW:

There’s not a lot of sense of the turmoil that was going on around that time.

RS:

It’s interesting that you raise it because I’ve got a definite view on it. There are certain cliches about the ‘60s, and when you’re writing a film you have to be really specific. Because people go, “Well, there was Woodstock,” but Woodstock was three months after, it hadn’t happened yet. When we were writing, one of the guys I was writing with goes, “Well, what about Vietnam?” I said, “You know what? It’s like raising family feuds at Christmastime, it’s the one time you put it on hold.” In our research, we found that it was the one event that pushed everything off the front pages. It was a very tumultuous time in the Western world, but for three days, there was a sense of unity running through the world. We’re all a bit protective about what came out of the ‘60s, from civil rights to feminism. When any film comes out about the ‘60s, one of the things that constantly gets put to people is, “Why don’t you represent these good things that came out of it?” And I didn’t feel that at all when I wrote this. I didn’t feel like anybody had to represent the ‘60s, which to me is a cliche. I spent time in a small country town and the family I was staying with had a son in Vietnam and they proudly showed us slides. War in many ways in Australia at that time was still a rite of passage for young men.

MW:

Which gets to Keith, who’s constantly drilling.

RS:

Right, he’s a comic construction. But he’s comic based on truth, because there was a cadet eagerness at the time. People would go, “You’ll get your chance to go to war.” Like it was something that everyone could look forward to over a period of time.

CF:

Often ‘60s movies—I’m thinking Oliver Stone—have a central dramatic event, but the “history” is shorthanded, in the background on tv. So you see Robert Kennedy’s assassination or the moon landing as a context for the central event. What’s interesting here is this film takes the tv event as its focus.

RS:

I try to think of a parallel in the world to that event. It wasn’t possible prior to that time. The Olympics brought tv to Australia. That was the only reason we got tv, because we had to broadcast the Olympics to the world. We share history years later in most cases, we rarely shared it in real time. We do it every day now, but at the time it was amazing the way [the moon shot] stopped the world. I guess you have to come from another country to realize how much effect it had. Our government passed legislation to allow every school kid to see it. School stopped. It consumed the world.

CF:

The boy in the film is partly based on your own memories?

RS:

Yeah, he partly represents everybody growing up then. It was amazing the effect it had at that time. Prior to that time kids grew up with lots of influences. But to grow up during the space program, it kind of put wanting to be a fireman on hold.

MW:

And there was a sense of optimism.

RS:

My parents grew up during the Depression, and the effect still echoes in me in some ways, I’m sure. But when we got air conditioning in our house, my father thought it was a sin in a way. Because it was such a luxury that some bad luck would befall people because it was indulging yourself. They grew up in a time when money was for survival. I think they looked at great luxury and said, “This has got to be bringing bad karma in some way.” Then they went through the Second World War. We were too young to really know what was going on in the ‘60s.

MW:

How important did you think it was to be historically accurate in this movie?

RS:

We didn’t at all. We started off thinking we were going to write a pure comedy based on the 100% fact that all the pictures came out of Australia. And we would use the real backdrop and the real people for our influence. But along the way, facts just kept sinking in because the facts were more interesting than what we were thinking up. We went, “Okay, the mayor of the town, he would have gotten the dish there,” and we just started writing that. Then we found out that it was true. Plus, his name was Moon—we couldn’t even use his real name because it’s too stupid. So, in some ways we had to throw bizarre facts out because people wouldn’t believe it. People still say to me, “Well, did the wind really happen?” And you have to say, “Yes, it happened.” “Was that the timing or did you do it for drama?” “No, that is minute-by-minute what happened.” I think people are so used to going to see films now that there’s a filter over “based on a true story” anyway, so they should quit worrying about it. If you change the core of something—like in this case, you say, well, the pictures kind-of came from Parkes but really they came from everywhere—it changes the whole premise of it for me. Even Apollo 13 wasn’t a documentary. Audiences are savvy enough to know. Films are fantastic at stimulating interest: 99% of people didn’t know the story but then people, after The Dish, wanted to find out more about Parkes and what else happened.

CF:

So you’re still reading books about NASA?

RS:

I’ve got this theory that because it’s so recent, people have documented it but they haven’t interpreted it. The poets haven’t got at it yet, for my money. It’s got its little foibles and flaws—something goes wrong at NASA now and everybody goes, “Oh, NASA, it’s a mistake.” I think, “That’s what happens at the limits of endeavor. Mistakes and hidden mishaps.” That’s what I love about it.

CF:

I heard recently that NASA was thinking of making an improved Space Shuttle, but then decided not to, because it’s too expensive. And that moment that you’re talking about, when everything seemed possible, has turned into other, more cynical expectations of NASA.

RS:

The funny thing is, I think those things have to sit side by side. One of the more interesting episodes in history is the role Harry Truman played in the Second World War. You had this war effort when the American war machine turned to both theaters of war, with this incredible corruption that Harry Truman cleaned up. He said, “You can’t do this under cover of fighting a war.”

MW:

It seems like there’s a shift that’s even a little bit more basic than that. These days I think people might question why we even went to the moon.

RS:

There was a lot of questioning at the time, too. I think Muhammad Ali once said, “A chef who cooks a cake has done more for the joy of man [than the space program].” And that’s just wrong. That is just sweet-smelling crap. Because that’s not true. The whole moon mission is a metaphor that’s been used—it’s in ads that are running now. I just don’t believe that crap about the shit about the cake! Human beings do need inspiration. I mean, what’s the purpose of climbing Everest? I have no idea. But I’m fascinated by it, and people have been fascinated by it for the last hundred years. I think all of us have this weird feeling of, “Why are we here?” So when something adventurous and courageous happens, everybody goes, “Oh, that touches that little spot where I’ve got a bit of vacuum.”

MW:

At the same time there was a PR aspect to the space race.

RS:

It was competition and it was driven by the American people. They had a satellite orbiting them that was Russian. It’s hard to recreate the effect that had on the psyche. Someone said, “So, do you think we should go to Mars?” But I don’t think that’s the lesson from [the moon landing]. Imagine that kind of vision and effort at some of the real problems in the world, [like] AIDS on the African subcontinent. It’s amazing what could be done.

CF:

You took the film to festivals first?

RS:

It went to Toronto. We were only weeks away from releasing it in Australia. Toronto has become such a big festival and the audience awards there have become so influential that when Crouching Tiger won, Billy Elliot was third and we were second, people were thinking, “What’s that film in the middle?!” So that’s when it came to people’s attention.

CF:

Audience awards tend to go to films that are heartwarming or inspirational in some way.

RS:

Movies, for me, have to show some kind of truth as you believe it to be. So they’re always reaffirming something, don’t you think, even reaffirming your own cynicism. My background is satire. So I find that cynicism is satire without substance. Cynicism per se is one of the most grueling human commodities.

CF:

And there’s so much of it.

RS:

It’s the mental screensaver at the moment.

MW:

It’s fairly safe.

RS:

That’s the cliche of it, but it’s really the opposite. It’s easy to sound smart saying what you hate. But you sound dumb saying that you like something. I find it much more revealing. Just for fun I ask people, “What do you like”? They say, “Oh, I hated that film.” And you ask, “Well what film did you like?” And the thought is, if I tell you that, it’s me. Suddenly I’m involved.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/sitch-rob/