California School of the Arts

Interview with Emmy Award-winning director Tom Jennings and Poppy Northcutt from Nat Geo’s ‘Apollo: Missions to the Moon’

Over the past couple years, there have been a string of films about our launch to the moon, from “Apollo 11” to the recent “First Man.” This National Geographic film “Apollo: Missions to the Moon,” is like no other. I had the chance to interview Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director Tom Jennings as well as Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, a former NASA engineer.

Comprised of media footage, blackbox recordings, and the synchronization of 30-track audio from Mission Control from the late 1960s, “Apollo” sets itself apart from other films. Without a present-day narrator or interviews, it is a truly immersive experience recapturing events that happened 50 years ago.

“We wanted to create a time machine so that younger viewers, even people who lived through those events and can kind of remember them,” Jennings said. “It engages the audience in a way that perhaps more traditional documentaries don’t. It plays like a motion picture, like a First Man, but everything in it is real.”

(Left to right) Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, left, Jeremy Hsiao, center, and Tom Jennings, right (Photo by Andy Hsiao)

Through different storylines, from the astronauts, to their families, to mission control, and the public, Jennings weaved together a film with several layers to fully capture the experience.

“These stories are so rich and complex that there are many story lines going on. It was a great exploration for me personally,” Jennings said. “I have a lot of passion for doing this. It’s my own journey to the moon.”

The film goes into detail on the whole process of the launch, from the Russian Sputnik to the basic concept of the Space Shuttle. This July will be the 50th anniversary of the first man on the moon, and Nat Geo is hosting a “Space Week,” showcasing different films, including “Apollo,” all about space exploration.

Neil Armstrong inside Lunar Module on Apollo 11. (NASA/National Archives and Records Administration)

“I love stories from history and I love this period of history, especially the story of the Apollo missions,” Jennings said. “You can learn so much from history to tell a story that will resonate today and make a difference. It’ll give audiences insight to something that thought they knew about, but actually don’t know much about at all.”

The story of the Apollo missions doesn’t begin with the launch, it begins with the minds behind it. Northcutt was only 23 years old when she was hired as an engineer for Mission Control.

“It’s a really remarkable thing to look back and to know that so much attention is being paid to this. I hope that what people get is the fact that we can do great things if we work together,” Northcutt said. “We have immense capabilities and we need to have big ideas for big projects.”

HOUSTON – View of Mission Control during Apollo 11 moonwalk. (NASA)

As the first female engineer for NASA’s mission control, she has now become a dedicated attorney for women’s rights. She began her career by discovering her aptitude for math and participating in a summer program in the very early days of computers.

“I hope women will look at this and understand that they can participate in technical activities. The landscape out there for women especially in the computer world these days I think is very hostile,” Northcutt said. “I think that’s one of the biggest obstacles for women. We have a lot of brainpower to bring to this and we need to bring it because we have a lot of problems to solve.”

Apollo: Missions to the Moon premiers this July, featuring never-seen-before footage and audio to recount this legendary moment of the United States’ goal to land on the moon.

“When I watched the film, the main thing that came to my mind was one word and it was audacity and how audacious we were to think that we could go to the moon,” Northcutt said. “It felt like a huge sense of pride.”

(Image courtesy of National Geographic)