Wednesday, January 02, 2019

R.I.P. Al Reinert -- Co-scripter of Apollo 13, director of For All Mankind and An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story

Very sad to pass on some bad news: Al Reinert, the former Houston Chronicle crime beat reporter and Texas Monthly feature writer who earned Academy Award nominations for directing the Apollo space mission documentary For All Mankind (1989) and co-scripting Ron Howard’s fact-based drama Apollo 13 (1995), passed away at age 71 on the morning of New Year’s Eve at his home in Wimberly, Texas. 

At the time of his death, he was preparing another interstellar feature: Above It All, a documentary about the International Space Station. But he also made an impressive impact back here on earth, with his remarkable 2013 documentary An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story.

Back in 1990, I interviewed Reinert about For All Mankind, which earned the top jury and audience documentary awards at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival — and which Reinert was inspired to construct, without any formal training as a filmmaker, after serendipitously discovering vast quantities of NASA archival footage.

I figured, hey, we could make this movie real cheap and simple,” he told me nearly 30 years ago. “I mean, the government’s spent all this money to shoot the film, so there’ll be nothing to it. It’s like, we thought we had discovered a goldmine.”

Of course, it wasn’t nearly as simple as that. And the finished product proved to be something far more substantial than a found-footage collage. Indeed, even viewers who watched every televised detail of the epochal Apollo space program of the 1960s and ‘70s found themselves amazed and engrossed by the out-of-this-world spectacle that Reinert artfully assembled.

For the benefit of those who tuned in late: For All Mankind offers a single, composite narrative culled from NASA archival footage of nine 1968-72 lunar missions. Audiences accustomed to thinking of astronauts as white-bread bland were (and still are) delighted by the unexpected hilarity: Frat-house horseplay in the spacecraft, exhilarating joyrides on the lunar surface. (One astronaut bursts into song: “While strolling on the moon one dayyyyy…”) But the movie is more than fun and games: Reinert balanced the hijinks with images that, despite their familiarity, had (and still have) an undiminished ability to astonish. And those images were underscored with haunting music by Brian Eno, and enthralling interviews with Apollo astronauts.

Reinert, a self-described fortysomething “ex-hippie” at the time of our 1990 conversation, admitted that he “never was much of a space buff” before stumbling across the NASA film-clip treasure trove more than a decade earlier. At that time, he was researching a Texas Monthly article about the 10th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“But I didn't cover space, I wasn't particularly interested in space,” he said. “In fact, the reason I did my first space story when I did was because nothing was going on in space. I went to NASA after Apollo, and before the space shuttle, when NASA was sort of in limbo. And that’s what intrigued me about NASA at the time: Like, hey, what are all these people doing down there?”

His timing was impeccable.

“I met my first astronauts when they weren’t busy, and they had time to talk. It was years after they’d gone to the moon, and they weren't being hounded by interviewers like they were when they first came back, when they really had nothing to say. And when everybody — including me — was completely convinced that they were boring.

“When I hit ‘em, eight years later, not only had all this percolated a lot, and they had a lot of things to say — when I hit ‘em, nobody had asked them anything about this in years. So I dragged my tape recorder down there, and I’d just sit around for hours with these guys. Nobody would interrupt us, and they had nothing better to do.”

Reinert accumulated over 80 hours of taped interviews, in which the Apollo astronauts spoke of their in-flight impressions, their on-the-moon memories, and their post-mission dreams. Among his favorite anecdotes: ''Ken Mattingly [of the Apollo 12 mission] went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey eight times in the six months before he blasted off, just to get himself psyched up.”

On a hunch, Reinert visited the NASA film and video archive, to view footage of an incident described by one of the astronauts. The underworked archivists were more than willing to find the footage Reinert requested.

"I looked at it, and I said, ‘Hey, that's great!’ And they said, ‘Yeah? Well, we got a lot more, you know.’”

Lots and lots more, as it turned out. The footage was freely available to anyone -- TV news directors, documentary filmmakers, anyone -- willing to pay the fee for 16mm or videotape copies. But hardly anybody had taken the time to view as much of it, over extended periods, as Reinert did.

“NASA really has very little to say about it, Reinert said. “Anybody can walk in there and order footage. I mean, people can use it in porno movies. In fact, they have used it in porno movies.

 “The trick is, knowing what you want. You can’t just walk in and say, oh, I want to order 2,000 hours’ worth of film. Because that will cost you hundreds of millions of dollars. The trick is knowing what you want out of those 2,000 hours.”

Reinert made his first visit to the NASA archives “two or three years before the shuttle really got going,” and made repeated visits during the next few years, “driving down there whenever I had nothing else to do.”

“And I found myself thinking, ‘Why has this never been seen on the big screen? Why haven’t I seen this movie?’ And I just stupidly thought — well, it was the Judy Garland syndrome of, ‘Hey, let's put on a show.’ Only with me, it was, ‘Hey, I can make this! I'm a writer — so how hard can this be?’”

Actually, the hardest part — harder than blowing up the scratchy 16mm copies to clean 35mm prints, harder even than coaxing money from investors — was creating the illusion of a continuous narrative.

“Because, essentially, it was random film,” Reinert said. “It was never designed to be cut together. I mean, like, in the movie, we’ll cut from Apollo 13 straight to Apollo 14 to Apollo 16, all in one scene.

“Like the bathroom scene — that came from an astronaut’s description of going to the bathroom in space. I thought, ‘That's funny!’ But, OK, then the task was to go find pictures of it. In the film, the scene consists of three pictures, one of which is printed backwards — and it’s cut in the middle to the picture of the guys putting on their gasmasks.”

It’s a funny image, Reinert says, “but it's really a test of the emergency oxygen system.”

I had another welcome opportunity for an extended chat with Reinert in 2013, this time at the SXSW Film Festival, where An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story — his stirring documentary about the wrongful conviction and ultimate exoneration of a Texas man accused of brutally killing his wife in 1986 — was voted the audience award in the Documentary Spotlight division.

Again, for latecomers: Morton, then gainfully employed as an Austin grocery store inventory manager, was convicted (mostly on the basis of circumstantial evidence) of beating his wife Christine to death in their home — allegedly in front of their 3-year old son.

Mind you, the youngster told an investigator that his father was not home at the time of the slaying —  and that someone else, described by the child as “a monster,” really killed his mom. But this evidently meant little to then-Williamson County district attorney Ken Anderson. The prosecutor never gave a transcript of the child’s interview to Bill Allison, Morton’s defense lawyer. Nor did he turn over other evidence that might have persuaded the jury not to render a guilty verdict during Morton’s 1987 trial.

Thanks to the efforts of Houston attorney John Raley and members of the New York-based Innocence Project, Morton finally was freed from prison in 2011 after DNA testing exonerated him —and, not incidentally, implicated Bastrop, Texas dishwasher Mark Alan Norwood, who was convicted of Christine Morton’s murder in March 2013. Norwood received his guilty sentence just a few days after An Unreal Dream had its SXSW premiere — which was attended by Reinert and Morton.

Some highlights of my conversation with Reinert nine months after SXSW, and one month before An Unreal Dream premiered on CNN:

At what point did the Michael Morton case pop up on your radar as a potential subject for a documentary?

Pretty much around the time Michael got released from prison. I had a couple of friends who had told me about this story. And while I was living in Los Angeles at the time, I was able to watch him on the Internet. I’d already known a little bit about the case – but, really, it didn’t seem all that different to me. I mean, he’s not the only person who’s been wrongly convicted and then exonerated with DNA. It’s just that I had a friend who knew John Raley, and told me this was an especially interesting case, and I should be paying attention to it. 

So I saw Michael on the day he was released from prison. And I saw him on camera talking for the very first time – he was interviewed on TV that day, and we even have a little bit of that in the film. And right away, I thought this is not your average guy. This is an interesting guy. He’s got a certain charisma to him. And I kind of wanted to know more. So about a month later, I flew to Houston to meet John Raley, and had lunch with him, and started to learn more about this story. And the story kept getting more interesting the more I learned about it. 

The remarkable thing about Michael Morton – this comes through in your film, and when you meet him in person – is that he seems so remarkably composed and equanimous for someone who spent more than two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He comes across as someone who is so – well, there’s no other word for it – forgiving. 

He does. And it is remarkable. I know I couldn’t do it. Even if I could say the words, I couldn’t pull it off like he does. He’s very genuine about it. I think he came to terms with it while he was still in prison. And I know he gives a lot of credit to his Christian faith. I mean, he doesn’t talk a lot about Christ or Jesus that much. So it’s almost like a Zen kind of a thing. But I think he really did become a different person while behind bars. 

What about you? Did you find yourself getting angry while you were researching this case? 

Oh, sure. All of us who worked on the film were angry. Because a lot of this was still going on during the production. You had Ken Anderson basically blaming the system instead of himself. And the more we learned about it, the more everybody but Michael got angry. 

Largely because of the injustice he endured, the Texas legislature passed in May 2013 the Michael Morton Act, which requires prosecutors to give defense attorneys any evidence relevant to their clients’ cases. 

Yeah, I know – it’s been one astonishment after another with this case. To think that a Tea Party legislature could unanimously pass a reform bill that’s one of the strongest in the country – it’s just amazing. I don’t know how to account for it, other than the fact that a lot of these Tea Party types listened to Michael and believed his story. And it moved them. I know he lobbied for it pretty hard. It wasn’t like he was off in the sidelines while this bill that was named for him was floating around the capital. 

When did you film the interviews for An Unreal Dream

Most of the main interviews we did over Memorial Day weekend [in 2012]. That was our first weekend of shooting, really. And here’s the thing: We went in search of an old-fashioned kind of courtroom, because we wanted to put Michael in a courtroom that had that kind of To Kill a Mockingbird feel to it. And we scouted about a dozen courtrooms in Texas looking for one that looked right. And it turned out that the best-looking one of all was the one in Georgetown — where the original trial had actually happened. 

We did not go there first. But we were fortunate, in that that courthouse is now a museum, as opposed to a working courthouse. Which meant the courtroom was available to rent. But you could only do that when the museum wasn’t open. And on Memorial Day weekend, they were closed for three days. So we were able to take over the courthouse, and shoot in there. That’s where we filmed Michael and John Raley and [defense lawyer] Bill Allison and the two jurors. Probably the heart of the movie was filmed that very first weekend. 

Right there where it all happened.

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