What Drives You


I am now unlikely to become an astronaut. However, I can confirm that getting to hang out with an astronaut is one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had and, well, that’ll do me. The sheer thrill of listening to someone who has left our atmosphere and returned was an intense trip by itself and, after two days with Leland Melvin, I felt like I was coming back down to the home planet following a flight of my own.

We met when I was commissioned by Leo Burnett, New York, to make two films as part of a series for Avis car rental. The theme of the series was ‘What Drives You’. Some of the team at Leo Burnett had seen my short films on Ralph Steadman and their brief to me was to try and shoot these in the same way, just let the character emerge by itself, create the conditions for them to show us how they became who they became.

This film, along with the one on the former head of digital at The Onion and author of ‘How To Be Black’, Baratunde Thurston, was shot in one day in August 2014. We made Baratunde’s film in the morning and Leland’s in the afternoon. A strict New York 10 hour day but we had a full crew of 20 people to make it swing like clockwork as we hit five different locations through the day.

By pure serendipity it transpired that Leland and I were staying in the same Brooklyn hotel the night before the shoot. It was only because I had spent all day reading up on him and watching any footage of him I could find that I instantly recognised him sitting alone at the bar with a burger. So it followed, I got to spend the evening having a few drinks with a real life astronaut. Everything that you hear him say in my film came from things he told me that night at the bar.  The power of advance research and knowledge can’t ever be understated. When it was time to do the interview part of the day at Westchester Airport in White Plains, NY, I already had the landscape of the film mapped out in my head. It was just a case of putting the questions in front of him so that he could lead me across, through and over that landscape. It was also during our bar conversation that he told me about a great friend of his called Michael Kagan, a Brooklyn based artist who paints a lot of beautiful space exploration related imagery. Some of his work is in the Smithsonian and Leland suggested that Michael’s studio could be a good place to shoot some of the film. Michael was more than happy to host us and the crew and he let us choose what to put on the walls for the scene where we filmed Leland donning his NASA flight suit. The current NASA logo that we see on the suit is known as ‘The Meatball’ by those who wear it.

There was also one piece of information Leland gave me during our talk that I couldn’t use in the film. Apparently, in the opening scene of the movie ‘Gravity’ there is a mistake that, to an astronaut, is as glaring as the sun. As the shuttle comes past the camera at 18,000mph it’s going in the opposite direction to the Earth. This is completely impossible. Anybody attempting to leave the Earth’s atmosphere would need to use the pull of the planet’s turn to get them out there in the first place. To try and exit the planet against the turn of the Earth would be a defiantly futile way to do it. For real, the things you learn in this job.  I’d be great on a pub quiz team.