Fly Me To The Moon – A Moonstruck comedy-drama

“It took two kinds of people to go to moon – it took the hardworking, everyday people who were pouring their hearts and souls into the mechanics of it, and it took the hype men like JFK to sell it, before anybody knew it was possible. And that’s the spirit of America: it takes the salesman and the individuals who pull it off, that’s who these characters represented – that yin and yang that is ingrained in who we are as a people,” says Berlanti, who directed the film from a screenplay crafted by Rose Gilroy, based upon the story by Keenan Flynn & Bill Kirstein.

In Fly Me to the Moon, the cynical salesperson is Kelly Jones, a Manhattanite marketing and advertising guru – “a creative wizard, a branding genius,” says Johansson – who also produces the project, her first through her These Pictures banner. “Kelly, who’s a pessimist, realizes people are more cynical than that. The world is a very complicated place. So, Cole’s reluctance is met by her determination to do whatever is necessary. Kelly is very much all about the ends justify the means, while for Cole, a former Air Force pilot who serves as launch director for NASA, the means matters. And therein lies the conflict.”

“To my character, Cole, NASA represents ‘achieving the impossible,’” says Channing Tatum. For Cole, Apollo 11 isn’t just any mission. It certainly isn’t just any television advertisement, a consumer product that needs to be sold. It is, perhaps, the single greatest achievement in human history.”

Sarah Schechter, Berlanti’s producing partner, says that is the element that sets Fly Me to the Moon apart from other movies in its genre. “There’s no reason for them to be together,” comments Schechter. “They see the world completely differently. It’s only because they’re forced together and they’re forced to work together that they’re able to see what’s so incredible, and what they’re each missing that the other person can bring them.”

In this way, Berlanti creates a film that is simultaneously a comedy that recalls sharp banter of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and also a drama with something to say about the importance of the truth; it is epically told on the enormous scale of the Apollo missions, and also the intimate story of two people coming together. “The tether is always the performance – to have actors who can be silly in one moment and serious the next,” he says. “Tone is the number one question I’ve got in my career. I love to blend tones, because I think we live lives of blended tones – it makes the sad stuff more sad, the serious stuff more serious, and the funny stuff funnier, because it adds an element of surprise; you don’t know what you’re going to get from moment to moment. It’s testament to the actors being able to do that – it starts with a Scarlett or a Channing or a Ray Romano or a Jim Rash or a Woody Harrelson – and creating an environment where they get to do and have the freedom to be who they are.”

And Berlanti says that if Kelly and Cole’s mission to get to the moon is reflected in their coming together under the moon… well, that’s no accident. “Next to going to the moon, love may be the most ambitious thing a person can take on,” he says, noting that both aspirations—going to the moon, or allowing oneself to become moonstruck—require a leap into the unknown. “The moon is mystical and magical,” he says. “You have to imagine for thousands of years for the human species, it was the brightest light in the evening, when all of the magical romantic things were happening. That’s so ingrained in us. What it has in common with the romance and the aspirations of the world at that time is the ambition—the giving yourself over to something great.”

For Keenan Flynn, who, with Jonathan Lia, are Johansson’s producing partners at These Pictures, setting a comedy/drama in the era of the space program is what big-screen movies are all about. “It’s such a gigantic scope and scale when you’re talking about the place where they build rockets as big as the Statue of Liberty as your main location—it’s so vast. Within that, we have an intimate story that gets so big in its scope. We had huge sets, so that the audience could feel the magnitude of what’s going on in our story—from inside the firing room where they launch rockets, to the surface of the moon itself—or, at least, a doubling of it.”

Schechter says the central premise of the film – that the government would feel compelled to create a fake broadcast to sell the moon to a cynical public – is not so far-fetched. “There had been a lot of loss, and a lot of cynicism had crept into the country,” she says. “As much as there’s the optimism that young people could change the world, the idea that we could do the unimaginable was receding in the nation’s consciousness. But for Kelly, it’s about the dream. Cynically, she’s okay with the idea that people have lost sight of the moon. She thinks, ‘Well, that’s okay. We need to remind them.’”

The central irony of the film is not lost on Berlanti: “The movie is ultimately about why the truth is important, and yet, we’re doing it by looking at a very famous conspiracy theory!” he laughs. “By working very hard to craft how that actually could have been achieved, we know that there are some people who might say we’re just giving more credence to the idea that this thing may not have been real. But the movie is ultimately about why it is important we went. In those more serious moments, you had to believe
in those things too. And if you’re doing a movie about faking one of the famous moments in human history, you have to make the real moments in human history feel very real, so that the faking has stakes.”

In the new comedy/drama Fly Me to the Moon, set on the brink of the greatest triumph of the Space Age, Scarlett Johansson’s Madison Avenue marketing virtuoso rockets slam-bang into Channing Tatum’s Apollo 11 launch director. Brought in to fix NASA’s public image, sparks fly in all directions as marketing maven Kelly Jones’s (Johansson) bold ideas clash with launch director Cole Davis’s (Tatum) already difficult mission —but she just might be the secret weapon the space agency needs if they’re going to beat the Russians to the moon. When the White House deems the mission too important to fail, Jones is directed to stage a fake moon landing as back-up and the countdown truly begins…

On Fly Me to the Moon, Johansson is a leader not only in front of the camera as Kelly, but behind, as a producer, through her company These Pictures, which she founded alongside her partner Jonathan Lia.

The original idea for the film began with These Pictures’ Head of Film Keenan Flynn: what if everything that millions of people heard on July 20, 1969 was the true audio of people walking on the moon—but the images they saw had been faked, Hollywood-style? Johansson liked the idea enough to develop it, with Flynn and writer Bill Kirstein working on the story before turning it over to screenwriter Rose Gilroy.

At the time, Johansson was strictly intending to produce the film and was not developing it as “a Scarlett Johansson vehicle”—but all that changed when Gilroy turned in her draft. “I never intended on playing Kelly,” she says, “but when the script came in, it was so great. It was such a wonderful read and the dialogue was so strong. And as a woman producer, working with a woman writer, who had created a strong woman character – well, it felt right.” She had to play the role.

To direct, Johansson chose, pursued, and ultimately convinced Berlanti to take the helm. One of television’s most prolific writer-producers, Berlanti rarely chooses to direct, especially feature films, even though his 2018 film Love, Simon received rave reviews and became an audience favorite. In reaching out, they recognized that Berlanti is incredibly busy and that his most recent feature film came six years earlier – would he be available, and even if he were, would any feature film be something he’d want to do?

“Greg very rarely raises his hand for a project,” says Lia, “but he understood this script from the first moment he read it and felt strongly that he knew how to tell this story. And he was right. He had a great vision for this film that elevated all the work that we did, from the page to the set design to working with the actors. And he’s as big of a space nerd as we are.”

That turned out to be the key piece: Berlanti was charmed by the idea of an Apollo 11 movie. “I was a real space nut as a kid,” he says. “When we had a son eight years ago, the first thing we bought for his room was a life-size shot of Neil Armstrong’s suit.” But Berlanti was also excited by the ideas in the film.

“Greg has always approached all the work he does—whether as a director or writer or producer—from a point of view of humanity, humor, and heart,” says Schechter. “He’s really good at blending tones emotionally, whether it’s in his film Love, Simon, or any of his TV projects. Greg’s approach was to keep all of the things that were wonderful about the script—its originality, all of the great scenes—and have them blend together for audiences to enjoy.”

One might think that it would have been difficult to secure NASA’s cooperation with a film that depicts a shadowy figure from the United States government ordering the filming of a faked moon landing. Plenty of people believe conspiracy theory to be true, regardless of the overwhelming evidence that human beings really did go to the moon.

Would the space agency want to support a film that might seem to back that idea, even in lighthearted jest? “So many people told us we were wasting our time even pursuing permission to shoot at the Kennedy Space Center with our fake moon landing movie,” says Lia. “But NASA, to their credit, looked at our script and our story objectively, and they saw what we saw in it: an opportunity to celebrate this massive achievement at this massive scale – the 400,000 people who worked on this program.”

The stories of those 400,000 people provide the grounded base for the movie’s flights of fancy. To be clear: no, there was no top-secret plan to broadcast a fake moon landing instead of the real thing. But the way that Fly Me to the Moon depicts the dedication of the characters to the work and the dream of the moon… that’s all real.

“I think NASA knew we wanted to celebrate what was achieved as much as anything else,” says Berlanti. :NASA wanted to be self-aware that these narratives have cropped up, and also appreciated all that we were going to celebrate.”

In all of the ways that the collaboration with NASA enriched the film, perhaps one of the greatest for a space nut like Berlanti is the access he received to never-before-seen footage from the Apollo years.

“There’s a huge amount of footage that is in the film that has been in national registry and hasn’t been in any of the other films,” he says. “We got a lot of these images early, from prep, and they really informed how are we were going to shoot this film.”

NASA’s support also opened the door to several technical advisors who brought us to the moon more than half a century ago. “It’s been so key for us to have the authenticity of the people that were really there,” says Flynn. “They have stories that we could never have imagined ourselves. For us to be able to infuse some of that truth into our movie is what makes this movie emotionally real—what these characters are feeling and experiencing is the way that a lot of these things really happened.”

Gerry Griffin served as a flight director in mission control during the Apollo manned missions; out of the six moon landings, he ran the team that made three of those landings. For Griffin, the idea of exploring space taps very deeply into the human experience. “Exploration is in our DNA,” he says. “What can we do, what can we find, where can we go, what can we do better… those ideas are built into us. Space has a particularly interesting reason, I believe, because it always has been a mystery to us.”

Frank Hughes ultimately became head of training of all of NASA, but when he joined the agency in 1966, he was a simulator instructor, working with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins (as well as the other Gemini and Apollo astronauts); on Fly Me to the Moon, he worked with actors Nick Dillenburg, Colin Woodell, and Christian Zuber—who play Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, respectively—to help them get it right. Hughes says that if it seems as if to get to the moon, NASA was making it up as they went along… well, that’s partially true. But only partially. “What we were doing in that day, nobody had done. Everything we were doing was being done the first time,” Hughes says. “It was the like the Wild West, but even in the Wild West, they kinda knew what to do—how to get on a horse and go somewhere. For us, we had to figure out how to handle the horse that we had created, and we were gonna take it as far as we could go in space.”