The West

Space...still the final frontier
Gunner Wright in William Eubank's Love. Picture: Shock

When Neil Armstrong died last weekend at the age of 82, his family issued a statement that ended with a simple request: "Honour his example of service, accomplishment and modesty and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the Moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."

They are words that will resonate with anyone old enough to remember Armstrong's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind back in July, 1969. But they are even more poignant for director William Eubank and actor Gunner Wright who, when they heard of the death of the first man on the Moon, were in Australia promoting their new sci-fi film Love, about an astronaut, Lee Miller, who becomes stranded in orbit aboard the International Space Station.

Both Eubank and his leading man agree the timing of the film, made astonishingly for just $500,000, couldn't be more ironic. However, rather than see Armstrong's passing as a way to plug Love, their own, if you like, wink to the late astronaut, both hope it will instead simply turn people's attention back to space.

"Back in the 1950s and 60s everyone was crazy about space travel and astronauts were our heroes," Eubank says over the phone from Sydney, where Love screened earlier in the week. "It's just really wild how the public's eye has drifted away from looking up at the stars and thinking about things.

"We couldn't even get the Mars Curiosity landing on TV. That is such an unbelievable shame. But maybe (Armstrong's death) will make people think about space for a second."

Similarly for Florida-born Wright, who got to live out his childhood fantasy of becoming an astronaut by starring in Eubank's film, Armstrong's death has been a humbling experience.

"I don't want to use Neil Armstrong's passing as a way to promote Love," he says. "I would rather just revel in his legacy, what he brought to all of us and kind of appreciate the man on the Moon."

Love opens during the American Civil War, when soldier Captain Lee Briggs is dispatched on a mission to investigate a mysterious object reported to Union forces. It then cuts to 175 years later when Miller is sent alone to the International Space Station to perform maintenance work.

A scene from William Eubank's sci-fi film Love. Picture: Shock
Shortly after he arrives, tumultuous events break out on Earth and Miller is stranded in orbit with no contact with the planet below. Venturing into an unpressurised module of the station to perform repairs, Miller discovers Briggs' 1864 journal and, as isolation threatens his sanity, he becomes enthralled by the soldier's search for the mystery object.

The central theme of Love is the personal- psychological effects of isolation and loneliness. The introduction of the Civil War, says Eubank, also serves as a metaphor for human conflict.

"To me war is so opposite to connection and the idea of looking upwards and outwards," Eubank says. "This movie, in a very avant-garde way, looks at what is the ultimate form of human connection. It asks if we could only leave behind one thing, one fossil, what would it be - and that's really love."

Like Wright, Eubank has long been fascinated by space travel. Raised on sci-fi television shows, the 29-year-old studied cosmology at the University of California, Los Angeles before turning his hand to directing commercials.

As is evident from watching Love, which has drawn comparisons to cult classic sci-fi films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, he was inspired by directors such as Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick, who believed a "film is - or should be - more like music than fiction . . . a progression of moods and feelings." Indeed, Eubank initially set out to make a series of music videos to accompany an album by the alternative rock band Angels & Airwaves, led by Blink-182 guitarist and vocalist Tom DeLonge. However, in his own wink to Armstrong - who famously once said: "Shoot for the Moon. If you miss you'll land among the stars." - the project soon escalated.

"We basically ended up going back to the drawing board and somehow it turned into us talking about how we could put a man in space," Eubank says.

Initially he hoped to rent the space station from the movie Apollo 13, but with his reported budget, the first-time director had to think of a more ingenious way of realising his dream. So, with a NASA handbook for reference, he started building his own space station at his parents' property in northern California, using salvaged materials such as packing quilts, MDF, pizza bags, Velcro, insulation and Christmas lights.

"I don't think I knew exactly what I was getting into or doing but a year-and-a-half later there was a big structure in my parents' back yard that was mobile and I could move it into different positions," Eubank says, making it sound like assembling an IKEA bookshelf. He laughs when I suggest he could show the big Hollywood directors a thing or two, revealing a trick he used to create the illusion of Miller watching events on Earth from a porthole (a washing machine door) 320km above his home planet.

"So we brought my TV in and put it right near his face," he says. "All of a sudden we had created Earth outside his window by freezing a picture of it on TV. It's just a big TV, man. It's a trick I am going to use over and over again."

For 39-year-old Wright, who met Eubank on the set of a television pilot and had expected only to have a non-speaking part in his initial project, the authenticity of the set served to make his new role easier.

"You would sit there and do a 360-degree turn and feel like you were really on a space station," says Wright, who admits playing an astronaut was right up there with Luke Skywalker. For someone whose uncle and a good friend worked as engineers for NASA, Wright admits he had an advantage when it came to researching the role of Miller. "For me acting isn't a science or a mystery," he says. "It's like . . . I have a five-year-old nephew and you put a cape on him and go 'You're Batman'. And he is Batman until it's time to eat. So for me, you put a space suit on me and that's it - I'm an astronaut."

Wright, however, did watch movies such as the 1983 feature The Right Stuff, Clint Eastwood's 2000 film Space Cowboys and, of course, Castaway where, like Miller, Tom Hanks' character finds himself isolated.

Eubank too admits he was able to put himself in Miller's moonboots while working alone on his set late at night.

Both men's efforts have certainly paid off, with critics around the world declaring Love to be one of the most visually stunning low-budget films in history. The highest endorsement perhaps comes from NASA itself, which has made the movie available to watch on the International Space Station.

Eubank and Wright are certainly happy to take the credit. However, they hope if Love does just one thing its emphasise the importance of space travel.

"I read one day that some civilisations are going to basically pass away having made the sensible economic decision to never explore space," says Eubank. "And it's true. Our lives are short, less than 100 years. It's easy to look down at our feet but there are a million mysteries that can only be solved by going out there."

Love is now screening at Luna Leederville.

The West Australian

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