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SYFY WIRE found footage

Apollo 18 Writer and Director Talk Cult Hit Horror Flick, Scrapped Sequel Ideas

Did someone say "moon spiders"?!

By Josh Weiss
An astronaut (Jan Bos) holds a camera to his reflection in Apollo 18 (2011).

Did we really go to the Moon or was it all just an elaborate hoax orchestrated by Stanley Kubrick? More than half a century after Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took that giant leap for mankind, an ardent minority of conspiracy theorists continues to assert that no human ever stepped foot on the lunar surface in that fateful summer of 1969.

The argument is total hogwash, of course. If the Moon landing really had been faked, the Soviet Union would have wasted no time exposing the non-existent sham in a coordinated effort to humiliate its Space Race foe. And yet, the conspiracy theory persists, enjoying permanent residence in our collective imagination and inspiring the output of that preeminent juggernaut of fanciful thinking known as Hollywood.

Apollo 18 screenwriter Brian Miller and director Gonzalo López-Gallego discuss found footage horror flick

Screenwriter Brian Miller wanted to lean into the rich tradition of apocryphal NASA coverups once he sat down to pen the screenplay for Apollo 18 (now streaming on Peacock) while studying at the American Film Institute.

For More On Astronauts: 
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A Lunar "Wall of Death": How Astronauts Could Keep Fit on the Moon
How Moonwalkers Writer Hoped to Lampoon Insane Conspiracy Theories: "Truth Is Really Precious"

"Like, a lot of people I wondered, ‘Why didn't we ever go back?’" he tells SYFY WIRE over Zoom, referring to how the United States ended its manned lunar program in 1972 after Apollo 17, despite the fact that three more missions had already been planned. "It's been so many decades now and it seems like we almost went in reverse with space and technology. The things that we were doing back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with the Apollo program were incredible."

Released in September of 2011, the found footage horror flick centers around three American astronauts — John Grey (Ryan Robbins), Nathan Walker (Lloyd Owen), and Ben Anderson (Warren Christie) — as they travel to the Moon in 1974 for the classified Apollo 18 mission. While collecting seemingly harmless rock samples and setting up an early warning system meant to detect inbound Soviet missiles, Walker and Anderson learn the hard way that their own government, still embroiled in the Watergate scandal, has not been totally honest with them. Not only did the Russians manage to send a man to the Moon, but extraterrestrial life exists, and it's not friendly.

"What if you brought Paranormal Activity into space?" Miller explains of the core concept behind the feature. "What if you could somehow blend it with the real footage? [Show] the real technical things that they were doing up on these Apollo Moon missions, but blend it with horror? I've always been a big fan of Ridley Scott, the original Alien, and that factored very heavily into this."

He continues: "I had a blast doing all the research. I loved checking out all the old transcripts between the astronauts and Houston; researching the jargon, how they would speak, the communication back and forth, looking at their instrument panels."

"I wanted it to be really honest, really truthful," adds director Gonzalo López-Gallego on a separate Zoom call. "I wanted to do something that could feel and breathe like a real material. So, Jose David Montero, the director of photography, and I studied those pictures and files we got from the missions. We wanted to replicate that as much as possible. That was the approach, 'This needs to be as real as possible.’"

In addition to extensive research undertaken by the writer and director, the Vancouver-based production also relied on input from technical advisor Gerald D. Griffin, who had served as the third director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. 

Miller remembers Griffin as "a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor, [who] understood what we were going for, knew that it was completely fictional. He just had fun with it and let us take some liberties here and there, but definitely kept us to the realities of of what those guys were up against when they were on the Moon."

"He was a blessing on set and in pre-production," echoes López-Gallego. "He was an amazing human being that helped me a lot. I was always going to him with every question."

RELATED: Meet the Artemis II Astronauts, Set to Take NASA's Historic 2024 Return Trip Around the Moon

The end result, which only clocks in at an hour and 26 minutes, proved to be a little too realistic for critics and audiences who found Apollo 18 to be "a little dull or boring, which I totally get" Miller concedes. "But at the same time, I wanted something that felt like a documentary. [Something] that had that sort of real documentary feel to it, but with some fun scares in it."

If he could do the whole thing over again, Miller would broaden the scope a little. "I would have gotten out onto the surface a little bit more," he admits. "I would have let the audience breathe a little bit more. Maybe cut back to something on Earth. I'm not sure. It was obviously supposed to be contained and give that sense of paranoia between these two guys."

López-Gallego credits the tepid response from the public to the fact that the studio, Dimension Films, tried to sell the movie as "the next Paranormal Activity," which may have been the wrong move.

"I was always saying, ‘Come on, this can't be Paranormal Activity.Paranormal Activity is a great movie, but it's about a couple in their bed. This is about two guys back in the ‘70s in a lunar module. There's no way we can pretend this is the same thing. It's a completely different thing. So I think part of the hate was probably related with that — that we were trying to somehow cheat the audience or something like that."

Apollo 18 screenwriter Brian Miller shares scrapped sequel ideas

An astronaut stands on the moon in Apollo 18 (2011).

In spite of that negative reception, however, the low-budget release still made over five times its budget with $26 million worldwide. Even so, Miller's grand vision for an entire trilogy was never realized. Too bad because those two sequels sound pretty awesome.

"Who knows?" the writer muses. "Maybe one day we'll get it going again. I think there's still a lot of interest in the Moon and it's still this mysterious place that's so close to us. We see it all the time in the night sky and so few people have been there in the history of humankind. I think there's something that will always kind of lure us there."

RELATED: Edward Snowden searched CIA database for aliens...turns out, they (probably) don't exist

The plan was to break from the found footage format with the aptly-titled Apollo 19 in favor of a more traditional narrative structure (think 10 Cloverfield Lane). Its story would have focused on a second crew dispatched to the Moon to find out what happened to the Apollo 18 astronauts. "My idea there was that it would be a little bit bigger, a little more broader in scope. Kind of like Alien versus Aliens. James Cameron came in and obviously knocked it out the park with the big action version once Ridley had done the small, contained version. That's what I thought would be great: a big action movie on the Moon. Nobody's really done that yet."

The trilogy capper — Apollo 20 — would then bring the space spider action back home to Earth. "I've thought of writing it as a novel or short story, because I love doing that kind of stuff, too," Miller concludes. "It's such a great world and I'd love to get back into it."

Apollo 18 director Gonzalo López-Gallego wants to recut the original film

A broken space helmet appears on the moon in Apollo 18 (2011).

While López-Gallego never discussed trilogy plans with Miller, the director harbors his own ambition to perform a total recut the original movie with the healthy amount of footage left by the wayside the first time around. "Some of the stuff that got cut out were those dramatic elements, more contemplative [and] maybe less commercial," he says. "I'm not a huge fan of doing things for the audience. Normally, my opinion is I must like what I’m doing and then if they like it, I’m lucky."

He began playing around with the idea of a redo when Apollo 18's tenth anniversary rolled around two years ago. There's just one problem: He doesn't know who owns the rights following the downfall of Dimension founders, Harvey and Bob Weinstein. "I always felt like maybe there's a chance of doing it with a different approach," he says, adding that he'd be willing to do the recut for free if the current owner of the IP would be willing to fork over the raw files. But what would that director's cut look like?

"There was something interesting about the characters," he finishes. "I wanted to portray the isolation and the loneliness that they feel when they're there. When they get into trouble and they understand that there's no way back, everything goes really fast. Suddenly, it tries to be an action piece and I think it needed to be something more; trying to understand their situation, that they're going to be trapped there. That Ben is going to be trapped there and he's not going to see his wife and son anymore. It's like a dream come true, because you get to the Moon and then you get to see the Earth from the Moon. But the dream becomes the worst nightmare. I wanted to play more with that strong and dramatic element."

Apollo 18 is now streaming on Peacock.