On Space, Love, and Carl Sagan's Cosmic Mix Tape

The Voyagers, an experimental documentary by Penny Lane, tells the story of the NASA project to launch two spacecraft carrying golden records holding a wealth of human culture into space in 1977. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 pioneered research of the far reaches of our solar system and continue to hurtle further into outer space today. In the process of putting together these time capsules of human experience, Carl Sagan and the project's creative director, Annie Druyan, fell in love. Their story resonated with Lane, who created this very personal take on it for her own wedding, as a meditation on the nature of love in an uncertain universe. She describes her inspiration for the film and the process of making it in an interview below. 

The Atlantic: What inspired you to do this film?

Penny Lane: I heard the love story of Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan on WNYC's Radiolab a few years ago, and was very moved by it. I tried to imagine making a short film based on it, because it seemed so cinematic, but I couldn't make it go anywhere. It needed some kind of conflict or other dimension and I couldn't find it. Also, it seemed lame and potentially maudlin to make a “love story” movie.

Then in 2009, my (now) husband Brian and I had the idea of making films for each other to show at our upcoming wedding. On some level, the whole idea of the "wedding films" may have been an excuse to finally make the Sagan-Druyan love story into a movie without having to be too embarrassed about it. I figured even if it were a crap movie, it would be a great wedding present.

The Golden Record, courtesy of NASA. 

How did you go about gathering and shaping the archival material you used in the piece?

In a very disorganized and intuitive manner! I bought a bunch of old VHS tapes on eBay, read a bunch of books and articles and started writing. I started with Ann and Carl's love story and worked outwards in a kind of associational spiral searching for metaphorical connections. The difficult thing is always to find the center of the spiral: the narrative anchor that is strong enough to hang all the wandering and meandering and pondering on to. For me, that anchor became not Ann and Carl, but the NASA Voyagers themselves: the Voyagers embody both a certain kind of irrational hope (they carry the Golden Record!) and about cold hard reason (their main purpose is to collect data about our solar system).  

It was very difficult to make this film. I would go into my studio to edit, and almost invariably end up weepy and fragile and freaked out. I hoped that meant it was good, but I really had no way of knowing. All I knew was that it was very, very close to my heart, and that making it really forced me to think and feel about things most people (I think) try to ignore during the la-la land of being engaged. I mean, to sit and think really hard about the risks associated with this kind of commitment. Or trying to explain why exactly you love someone. And then to wander off into reliving the Challenger explosion? Or to confront the terrifying idea that all of Earth is just a tiny speck in the universe? Seriously: I’m pretty sure this is not the way most women spend their engagement. Also, I was pretty terrified that it was actually a really, really bad movie: too personal, too sappy, too gushy. I figured I would never show it to anyone else ever again after the wedding.

In the end, as it played on the big screen at our wedding, I secretly knew it was great, no matter what anyone else thought. It came from a place within me that nothing else I’ve ever made can come close to. And I was really proud of myself – even if everyone in the world thought it was dopey! 

I hope the film says something about a mature, intelligent vision of love and commitment, that allows for hope while acknowledging risk. It’s kind of a dare to the cynic in all of us. And also an ode to Carl Sagan, who along with Jim Henson basically makes up the complete list of my childhood heroes.

 

An excerpt from a 1990 NASA documentary Voyagers: Grand Tour outlines the mission. The film can be viewed in its entirety at the Internet Archive

If you could launch your own time capsule into space, what would you put in it?

All five seasons of Friday Night Lights. And a Rubik's cube (just to confuse the aliens).

What's next for you?

So many things! Brian and I are working on two feature-length documentary films together. The first is in post-production and is called Our Nixon. It is a retelling of the Nixon administration created from the never-before-seen Super 8 home movies of Nixon’s closest White House aides. The second is in development and is called The Rules of Evidence. This will be an essay film exploring the history and theory of motion picture evidence in courtrooms. I am also in post on an animated documentary called NUTS!, which tells the crazy true story of Dr. John R. Brinkley, one of the greatest charlatans of all time. 

For more work by Penny Lane, visit http://www.p-lane.com.

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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