Prior to my Jurassic Park viewing experience, I was treated to the trailer for THE MARTIAN, the upcoming Ridley Scott-Matt Damon movie about an astronaut being stranded on the surface of Mars after the rest of his team is evacuated back to Earth. It seems like a Mars Mission is in the news regularly now, and is becoming inevitable. A few days ago, NASA announced an October workshop to decide possible landing sites for a manned Mars mission sometime in the 2020s-2030s. The European Space Agency (ESA) announced today two separate missions as part of their ExoMars program, the first set to launch in January 2016. While not a manned mission, the ESA is hoping to find signs of past life on the planet, which can only make human arrival more of a possibility. And then the Dutch non-profit Mars One mission, which aims to send 40 volunteers on a one-way trip to the planet, which recently narrowed their candidate field to 100 finalists (all this despite an MIT study that says the program in unrealistic).

Which is a roundabout way to get to the idea that even though a manned mission to Mars is in the public consciousness, its now only a possibility in the world of art and not science. In 2012, conceptual artist Tom Sachs recast the 55,000 square foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall in New York City as an immersive space odyssey with an installation of dynamic and meticulously crafted sculptures for a ‘four-week mission to Mars.’ As described on the artist’s website, “SPACE PROGRAM: MARS is a demonstration of all that is necessary for survival, scientific exploration, and colonization in extraterrestrial environs: from food delivery systems and entertainment to agriculture and human waste disposal. Sachs and his studio team of thirteen will man the installation, regularly demonstrating the myriad procedures, rituals, and tasks of their mission. The team will also “lift off” to Mars several times throughout their residency at the Armory, with real-time demonstrations playing out various narratives from take-off to landing, including planetary excursions, their first walk on the surface of Mars, collecting scientific samples, and photographing the surrounding landscape.”

Director Van Neistat captured the installation in the film A SPACE PROGRAM, which is more of an art piece itself, and not a documentary about the artwork. The film, which premiered at SXSW last March, takes the audience through the mission stage by stage, as well as giving us a window into the creation of all the art that went into the installation, and Sachs’ working methods. I had a chance to sit down with Neistat, who has been with Sachs for years, behind the camera for many of Sachs’ films ( As much as I was bowled over by the film, I wasn’t able to get this piece up in the wake of SXSW and I’ve been looking for an excuse to ever since.

BEARS: So, really cool film. Very different from almost everything playing here. Can you talk a bit about how you got started with the project, met Tom, and started working with him?

NEISTAT: I met Tom on the street. I had my bicycle, this was in 2000. I had built this rig for my Sony TR-V 8 video camera on the handlebars of my bicycle to make a movie where I rode my bike, during rush hour, through the Holland Tunnel. I had met Tom through a friend, but I came onto the street and he was looking at this rig that I had built, sort of examining it. Because it was in this kind of, this bricolage, I don’t want to say style, because it’s not a style, but, bricolage…

BEARS: Construction?

NEISTAT: Yeah, like, well we’ll get back to that. And so, I was working at Super Science, a classroom magazine that you get when you’re in school. And I had to decide whether I wanted to keep going with that or find another job. So I went and worked for Tom, my friend got me a job with him. And I brought a video camera to work, and started making little movies about this project we were building called “Nutsies.”  I made 30 films, Tom watched them and said “This is great, keep making them.” You know, I was a fabricator, I helped make some of the sculptures, and Tom said, “Oh, keep making them.” And then we collaborated for a decade making these movies. “Space Program”  came out of these studio manuals. One was called, “Ten Bullets” and it was about studio behavior. And one of them was called “Color,” and it was about the studio color code. Like, you know, Chinese red number blahblahblah for red. He was building this Mars Space Program and we got Nike gave us some money to make three or four movies, and one of them was called “Space Camp.” It was about the training for the space program and it was the prequel to the Mars movie.  I brought my camera, of course, to his live installation.  Mark Parker, who is the CEO of Nike actually said, “You guys should do a feature about this.”

BEARS: That’s cool.

NEISTAT: We just ran with it.   I had five weeks of shooting – that’s how long the show was up. And five or six demonstrations, they did one demonstration a week, and then the last week they did an eleven hour marathon demonstration.

BEARS: How long were the demonstrations normally?

NEISTAT:  They were agonizingly long. They would start at 6 or 7 and before that they were working all the bugs out of everything. Because even though it’s all analog, everything was very buggy because it’s all hand-made.  And they have to function for these shows, which were  2 or 3 hours long.  Lift-off, which in our movie is like 2 or 3 minutes- it would take an hour. You know, “Do we have cigarettes?” “Cigarettes, check.” Very slow and methodical.

BEARS: A real launch – but do people come and go? In some of the shots you could see the audience and sometimes it was full and sometimes it was only 20 people.

NEISTAT: The opening night was fucking packed with people. And then as it got further along people trailed off. And then the closing night, there were tons of people. We shot during the day when there were people coming in to see the armory show at the museum.

BEARS: So, how would you describe Tom’s aesthetic, or his manifesto, or his way of working? What is his version of what he’s doing?

NEISTAT: So, he uses this term, ‘bricolage.’ And it’s this like French word that kind of means do-it-yourself, I guess. The guiding philosophy is ‘repair, don’t replace.’   I just got back from Mexico –  you go to a country that’s not rich like ours, that’s not a throw-away country and they do these incredible tricks to keep things on the road and keep things working.  The most elementary form of bricolage is using a coat-hanger to put your muffler back on, right?

BEARS: Right, right.

NEISTAT:  Tom has taken that mentality, or philosophy, or culture as far as he can.   He creates things from what we would think of as garbage or throw away stuff. So he’s built a functioning refrigerator out of plywood and pipes and compressors and shit. And his code, what dictates the way it looks, and the refinements of it is that it must work. These things, they look like decorations, and I guess artwork is decoration, but all of these things function.

So he has a boom-box show across the street, and all the boom-boxes work – you can listen to music on them.  I think for him, THE SPACE PROGRAM was the ultimate challenge, because it’s so sophisticated, there’s so many people, so many things that get plugged in, and batteries to charge, and the actual Space Program is all hand-built. The NASA Space Program – everything’s hand-made and custom and bricolage.

BEARS: Right, ‘cause you’re not making anything like that in mass quantities, so…

NEISTAT: No, not even the seals on the gloves, you know? Those are three of-a-kind.

BEARS: Interesting. So, is this his largest project so far?

NEISTAT: I think it was, yeah. I think so.

BEARS: I’m a Sci-Fi guy, so I grew up playing astronaut. It seems to me like the most excessively awesome excuse to play astronaut. To get all these people involved and have roleplay.

NEISTAT: Yeah. Oh, yeah. There’s a scene in the movie where this astro-biologist named Dr. Kevin Hand is in the mobile quarantine facility and he’s examining the sample that has been sent back from Mars, and he’s looking for life, and that’s his real job at NASA. He is an astro-biologist and he works at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There’s another guy in the trailer when they’re doing the protocol between mission control, “Is this life? Is it not life?” There’s another guy named Greg Vain that’s in the trailer with us, and he’s also a big NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory guy. And so it was a really fun moment to shoot. When mission control says, “We have life confirmation,” those guys are really freaking out and really into it and screaming, because that’s their life’s ambition. You know, these are the smartest of the smart humans that we have. I think it was Wanda Sykes said that “NASA is welfare for smart people.”

BEARS: That’s hilarious. Your film  blurs the line between making a record of art and having it be art in and of itself, a film that gives the audience a similar but different experience. I mean, we’re watching this Space Program as if it’s the ‘60s and we’re watching the moon landing, as if we were there.

NEISTAT: Al Reinert did this film “For All Mankind,” and he took all the NASA audio, and all the astronauts’s  Super-16 and Super-8 footage from all the Apollo missions, right? And he edited it in such a way so it looked like one moon mission. Then, as another narrative thread, he had interviews with the actual Apollo astronauts. Because there were 20 or 24 guys who went to the moon. So it’s them talking about the experience as you see it, and that was our structure as well. We wanted to be just like that.

BEARS: Eugene Cernan was here this week [at SXSW]. He’s the last man who walked on the moon. There’s a documentary about his life called, appropriately, “The Last Man on the Moon.” I interviewed him and he’s really inspiring. These astronauts, when they’re in it, they just feel like they’re doing what they can do to help out and they’re happy and part of this movement. But then when they come home and they become ambassadors talking about science and space. For forty years he’s been going around talking about space.

NEISTAT: Could you imagine? If someone’s asks “And what do you do?” And you say “I’m an astronaut” or “I fly this space shuttle.”

BEARS: Right.

NEISTAT: I’m not a very big space guy but Tom is. You know what?  That’s not true, everybody’s a space person. I think we can not help it.

BEARS: We all grew up with the Voyager missions and the space shuttle, and…

NEISTAT: Yeah, yeah. The shuttle, remember that thing was such a triumph? Like a fucking airplane that could go… [trails off]that was so cool.

BEARS: I feel like it’s so much fun to experience it – it would be a very different experience from being there live. Because when you’re there live I just feel like maybe you’re watching it more presentationally, I feel like the film takes out some of the –

NEISTAT: Dead air?

BEARS: Yeah, the feeling of being there.   It’s a very different experience. It feels a bit like watching television or watching the actual thing happening. Changing topics, what was the reasoning for sending women to Mars?

NEISTAT: There’s all kinds of reasons.  I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but we put in the movie something like, “In Space Program our astronaut policy is women only, in honor of our heroine Anne Lee.”  Anne Lee was the founder of the Shakers, which was like the Quakers but more conservative, and they didn’t procreate.

BEARS: Right, that’s right, so they died out – surprisingly.

NEISTAT: Yeah, ‘cause they had to recruit people, and then it just kind of fell apart. But she is credited with inventing the circular saw, the big giant mill saw that was a circle, instead of the pull saw or whatever. And, the flat broom. We say that in the movie.  Also, I think a big part of it is ‘cause they’re more interesting to watch.

BEARS: I feel like this is a film that could play a lot of places – like at art museums and science museum. It has a place where the public could see it on a big screen, longer than a lot of the other films at SXSW, which are just going to be comedies and stuff like that on Netflix before the summer is out

NEISTAT: I really hope it gets to a lot of these big museums, like, I’m thinking like the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Air & Space Museum, although they’d probably want us to clean it up because we have some dirty stuff going on. I hope they would put it in their collections and like, pull it out every few years and show it. Or like, especially the art museums.

BEARS: Like the Walker in Minneapolis.

NEISTAT: Sure, yeah, yeah. And that’s where I imagine it making the most sense. But, I don’t know where it goes – I’ll just be happy if people see it.

BEARS: So, once you guys built all the stuff, where did it go?

NEISTAT:  It’s my guess that a lot of it is in museums. Some goes into special art storage where it’s climate-controlled. Maybe some museum in China will be like, “Can we have the rover? Can we have the — ?” And then they’ll exhibit it there and Tom will go and do a talk or something. But, I don’t really know exactly how that all works.

BEARS: Have you ever seen the work of Matthew Barney?

NEISTAT: Yeah, “Cremaster.”

BEARS: He builds these things before the film and that stuff travels with the film.

NEISTAT: Yeah, and he sells that stuff. Toms sells all his stuff, too.

BEARS: Well, good. You should.

NEISTAT:  He makes movies with the money.

BEARS: You were talking about Nike coming in as a sponsor of the original set-up. What about it do you think they were excited about?

NEISTAT: I think like some of the executives at Nike are big fans of Tom’s work. They have this thing called the “Design Kitchen” that is their top-secret little laboratory where they make the new Air Jordans or they’re like – some new fabric’s been invented and they’re like, “Let’s make blahblahblah out of it.”

So there was a real parallel between the two processes. Of course, Nike is the opposite of bricolage because they have virtually unlimited resources.  Some executive, it might even have been Mark Parker collected Tom’s work and said, “Hey, would you ever want to do a collaboration?” So Tom did his own kind of “Air Force Ones” called “Mars Yard shoes.” I think he was wearing them last night.

BEARS: That’s awesome.

NEISTAT: Also two jackets, and a couple of backpacks. They had a little budget to make promotional videos for them.  So we took the money and made these little movies for the Space Program and all the stuff was in it.

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.


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