Q&A: Former Oscar-nominated Director Christian Frei Travels With the Space Tourists

04/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Having seen Christian Frei's War Photographer nearly a decade ago, I wasn't sure what to expect from his new documentary about the post-Soviet effort to finance Russia's Space Program.
War Photographer had earned an Oscar nomination, and now the Swiss documentarian returned to Sundance for the US premiere of Space Tourists, which vied in the World Documentary Competition.
As its title suggests, the film trains its lens on lay visitors to outer space, a funding source for the Russians to keep their shuttle flying while NASA plans to discontinue the American program.

Frei follows Iranian-American multimillionaire Anousheh Ansari as she undergoes ersatz cosmonaut training en route to becoming the world's first female space tourist. She herself is armed with a camera, and her footage on board the International Space Station is some of the most intimate, breathtaking imagery we will ever see from outer space.

As Ansari launches into orbit, Kazakh villagers gather the precious scrap metal from the jettisoned rockets, while a Romanian space enthusiast works on his own low-tech model to launch. The 98-minute chronicle suggests that while the pomp and pageantry of the space program may have died out with the 20th century, the human mysteries have only deepened.
Frei is mostly known for his two films, War Photographer (2001) and The Giant Buddhas (2005). Both deal with themes of war and intolerance, even if only elliptically.

Now in his early 50s, Frei studied visual media at the University of Fribourg. His first documentary, Die Stellvertreterin (The Representative) out in 1981 but since 1984 he has worked as an independent filmmaker. He also regularly collaborates with the Swiss National German-speaking television.

Though I wasn't expecting Frei to win the directing award at Sundance this year, I spoke with him about his latest and most unusual effort. Happily, I was wrong, and this exclusive interview is all the more timely.

Q: When you look back at the things you've done, do you see a consistent thread?

CF: This is a hard question for me. When I choose subjects &mdash and people sometimes do not believe me, but this is a very unconscious thing &mdash I'm just at certain moments convinced this is my next film.

I have never dropped out of any film project. It was always like, "I want to do that."

Q: What was the thread linking Castro-themed Ricardo, Miriam y Fidel to War Photographer to the Buddhism film?

CF: I never go like, "I want to go in this direction, probably something about war." No, it's always the other way around.

Being in Cuba I met this wonderful daughter of a Cuban revolutionary telling me an incredible story. First, she told me that she wants to leave with her family for Miami, but then she told me about her father being some important key of the success, so I knew this was a film.

And with War Photographer I was sitting in a plane, it was just pure coincidence. I was buying a Stern magazine, 12 pages of Afghanistan, black and white, done by James Nachtwey. It knocked me out. I really felt, wow this is incredible, this guy is really focusing on new aspects of war. Then I read the article, and after reading it I was convinced this is my next film.

And then I ended up learning about the Buddha from that. Probably one thing for sure, I don't think I would ever do a film about [this famous breakfast, musli?] I think if I were to do a film about [that thing] everybody would cry afterwards.

With Space Tourists, this is for sure, I wanted to do something a little bit lighter. Not totally not a comedy but at least I think it's something with which you can laugh a little bit. There are funny sides in it.

Q: It's ironic that you're dealing with this futuristic technology in places that look like they're right out of Soviet realist movies or something that stepped out of the 50s. The buildings reminded me of the photographic team that does images of industrialist sites, Bernd and Hilla Becher. You have people with $20 million and they're trusting post-Soviet technology.

CF: It's a paradox, which is of course interesting.

Q: That made the movie fascinating. And how you blocked out the movie; you have these distinct sections and elements. How did you evolve that?

CF: The biggest problem was because I think the structure is not that complicated. For me, it's simple; you have this main arc, the beauty of this journey. And I feel it's a beauty; you have this beautiful dream and I wanted of course to also show the absurdity, but it's a beautiful journey.
Then you have the ground stories, and I needed kind of a guide there. I worked with Jonas Bendiksen because he was living in this region for seven years. He was discovering this crazy story of the space junk collectors, so he was an obvious guide for the ground story.

Then the tricky thing was to get this Romanian guy to fit into the film because that's kind of a new element. But it's like a third act. Sometimes you can add something, it's just a little bit tricky.

Q: We have the history of their secrecy, but how does that fit into today's modern world when they're trying to sell the tourism to finance their flights? That's a key issue with your film, the irony of it all.

CF: The space race was about propaganda. It was a very expensive tool. It was about exploration too, I mean the oldest aspects are true too, but for me it was interesting to discover that side.

I am a child of the Switzerland that is not neutral in this sense. We are totally between East and West. When I was 10, the Americans went to the moon and I was glued to the TV. One of the reasons why I wanted to make this project is, What about the other side of the space race? What about Sputnik?

This whole shock in the Cold War, then the first woman in space; all the successes on the Communist and the Soviet side...what's left? Because, of course, the instinct of a documentary filmmaker is to find the economy behind phenomenons.

If I were to do a film on the rollercoaster, I would not just film the passengers and the adrenaline; I would film the system. The workers, the problems, the struggle, the competition.

So I tried to do the same here, but it's obviously, believe me, not easy. Space is so much linked to military and secrecy. I mean [the city of] Baikonur is full of all these rocket launch pads to destroy the world. So obviously you cannot just go there and film around. Years ago you couldn't even dream of going there with a camera. It didn't exist, it wasn't on the map.

So I was very proud to have access, but it was not easy. Also because it's so expensive, I think that's why also NASA controls the message. That's why all the space and rocket fuels look for me a little bit the same: very techno-oriented, rocket-oriented, success-oriented. Which is all true. It's a challenge. It's very dangerous. But look at the film; it's a very simple economy.

The banality of, for example, this third seat in the Soyuz &mdash it's not in the film because it's a little bit too complicated to explain, but the third seat was always a wild card.

Q: Had it always been there?

CF: Oh yeah, and they used it, for example, to take the Cuban guy up there. I wouldn't say these were space tourists, but you know what I mean. So to discover that finally, after decades of announcements of, "Just wait a few years and you can lift off with you family and the dog and the children, and instead of going to the beach you step into this wonderful, comfortable..."

You know, all these announcements, and now it's a reality and it's such a banality. It's just an economic failure. It's a fascinating history, but it's a history of futuristic inventions not at all. It's interesting, of course, and it's a documentary subject all of a sudden, but it was not easy. At the beginning I thought I would never get there.

Q: How the fuck did you find half the places?

CF: I'm so persistent.

Q: You have that one scene with this decaying rocket, and there's this old, ancient decaying building. It's an apartment building &mdash how did you find it?

CF: It's there, but nobody wants you to film it. For example, when I arrived in Baikonur, I arrived three weeks before liftoff. They were waiting for us at the airport and almost shouting, "What the hell are you doing? The media are supposed to get in three days before liftoff, what are you just doing here?"

Because we had all the necessary papers they couldn't send us back, and they were like, okay we are just here and it's okay. And then I discovered ways to film, for example, all these houses and all these leftovers of the former successes, like the Buran program where 40,000 people were forced to leave.

Q: Because they wanted the security, right?

CF: Well no, Buran stopped because it was just too expensive. Gorbachev just said at a certain moment, "This is too much." That's how the Cold War was finally won; it was just getting too much for them.

The Buran was really too much, so they were sending 10,000 home and these houses are now empty. At a certain moment when the Soviet Union collapsed, two cosmonauts in the Mir, with their little ukulele instruments, were afraid that there would never be another shuttle picking them up. It's really true; it's not in my film because it's another story, but it's really dramatic.

Q: This whole Soviet side is not the picture we all have of the space race. You're sort of showing the failure of a government-run program on one level.

CF: I don't know if it's a failure. There's so much success in it; it's still operating for Western companies in terms of bringing up satellites.

Q: What kind of computers did they have though?

CF: That they do have. The Soviets don't change anything if it's working, so that's why the Soyuz itself is still around. The whole computer system they use in the Soyuz is DOS, but it works.

Q: You've got rich people coming to the Soviet Union to fly in spaceships that are basically run on DOS or whatever, and they're willing to spend $20 million to go out in space because the Americans won't let them. They're privatizing their military to make money. So you have these curious ironies; it's almost like a science-fiction story, only it's really happening.

CF: Exactly.

Q: Philip K. Dick would have written this science-fiction story if it hadn't been the reality.

CF: But sometimes reality is more absurd or more like outer space than outer space, it's true.

Q: Were you a science-fiction fan?

CF: A little bit, but not too much.

Q: Did you notice this whole idea of the beauty in the industrial decay, like with the photos?

CF: Through the topic I hoped to get access to this world, which is a hidden world; it is a forgotten world almost. There are some films but there aren't too many. This thing is as big as Switzerland, well Switzerland is small, but I mean it's big for a launch pad. You drive for hours sometimes to get to the next launch pad, and there are 17 of these launch pads.

Q: It was in the Soviet Union, now it's a whole other country, really.

CF: It is paid by the Russians; it's an exclave. They pay several billions a year to keep it, and the Kazakh want the military out. So it's complicated for the Russians, it's full of history.

Q: It must have been fascinating to get into the mentality.

CF: It is of course the key in every documentary film; everything you film is not only local, it's very concrete and it's dependent on what you anticipate. So you have to know the culture, not only the language. So you must translate much more than the language to get access to a culture, to a system.

One of the advantages with the subsidy system we have in Europe is I can just be more patient...After being allowed to research it and being out there with these guys &mdash and without the camera and looking up in the sky waiting for rockets to fall from the sky &mdash they suddenly told us like three weeks before we wanted to shoot that yes, we can do that, but they will stage the whole work of these guys for us with their military people and secret service members.

One aspect that is not that much in the film because of this problem is that, of course, the rocket and the boosters...are monitored by the Russian Federal Space Agency. Because if there's something only a little bit wrong with the trajectory, they want to know what problem it was.

And they take out one secret part, which they don't want the Chinese to know about. So I was kind of depending on these guys, and they're telling me, "This is the way you shoot it, we stage it. We want it to look how it should be." And then I told them, "But it's not how it was," and they were like, "Yeah, we know. But we want it to be presented how it should be."

This is the Russian way of dealing with the media; you cannot argue and say, "It's not reality," because they'll say, "Yes, of course it's not reality. But it should be that way." And then you're lost. This problem was huge, so I told them no, I don't take this off. And I tricked them; I said I needed six months. This is really nice; this is a cultural thing that you can do things which four years ago were huge, and the CIA needed several hundred people.

So with Google Earth, we discovered that exactly during this time they changed the mapping of this step because before it was very challenging because there is nothing. But for some reason they changed it and with really nice resolution. So we printed out the whole region, which was finally a map of size. My assistant needed his parents' huge living room for it; it was like 10 meters by 10 meters.

Then you could see this little sign of tracks, because there are no roads, there's nothing, it's flat. The drop-zone is around 40 to 10 kilometers, it's not that big. So we came from the south. Because the drop-zone during a launch itself is also in Russian territory, it gets Russian territory for these two days, so we stayed like four kilometers out of this zone.

Q: So you avoided the Russian zone.

CF: Exactly. They saw us.

Q: They couldn't stop you.

CF: Somehow we cooperated. I cannot tell you exactly how because there's money involved.

Q: You should have been making a movie about how you made this movie.

CF: Yeah, it's interesting. That's just how I work; I don't give up, never.

Q: You made the transition from this past to this present and future. You were able to resist the temptation to show a lot more about what Virgin is doing; you have just a little reference. But to see it through the eyes of this Russian way of approaching...

CF: I'm glad you say that because I didn't want to include too much U.S. and Virgin Galactic. First, the access there wouldn't have been easy either, and somehow I just felt this is not a film. So I just included this crazy Romanian guy; he's part of this race.

Q: And the woman is...

CF: She is very much involved in the whole thing because she was the first sponsor with her family, with the $10 million for this prize. What could I have filmed during this time? They were announcing for three years now the space tour. They had this fatal accident before, so as you can see, everything you do with technology is always a risk. It's not really interesting for me; I think it wouldn't really fit.

Q: Aren't you surprised there aren't more accidents?

CF: They didn't begin yet.

Q: I mean overall, in the history of the Russian space program, and even the American space program.

CF: It's a risk of 1% fatality. 1% is big; normally with a sport that's much less.

Q: Did you try on one of the spacesuits yourself?

CF: Yeah. They are heavy. And another curiosity was that I wanted Anousheh to bring the spacesuit to Sundance, so I asked her very politely and said I would cover all the costs because this is a heavy thing. The cost to produce it is $100,000, I know that, and you cannot use it for any other guy. Every spacesuit obviously is exact.

She said, "My spacesuit is in Moscow," and I asked, "Why?" "Well, because they asked me to pay another million for it." It's true; I swear to God. It's a rip-off, they are really over the edge. But that's a little bit off the record, that she's angry.

Q: She never feels guilty for spending so much money of this indulgent dream?

CF: No. She's writing now her autobiography, and Homer Hickam [author of Rocket Boys] is the co-author. It will be released March 2, and you can read her story.

It's a very honest story, and she helps people. When I am asked, when I would have the 35 [thousand dollars], which is now the prize, I would do other things. If I would have a billion like Anousheh has, well it's not a question.

Q: Have you ever heard this term, "future-primitive"? There's a sort of future-primitive quality, a sort of futuristic-retro to this film.

CF: I wanted this paradox in the poster because I wanted people to be aware of the curiosity that this is something different than the usual rockets.

Q: I thought the music was an interesting choice because it was both contemporary and yet sort of travelistic. Is that Florian from Kraftwerk?

CF: Another choice was this Russian composer, Edward Artemiev. He is a pioneer of electronic music, and he was the composer of the famous films by Tarkosvky: Solaris, and Stalker. Somehow there was an influence because I thought, I don't want Baikonur just to be presented like a deserted area that's nothing but wind and some camels.

I think there was so much going on here, every week there was a rocket, so I wanted to feel this. I choose my music in the very early stage of the filmmaking; I underline the pictures with music.

Q: So it's not an afterthought. I thought the music was well integrated into the film. I wasn't sure what I took away from the film. if I felt more sympathetic or more determined. I believe strongly in the space program, and in the commercialization of space; it's important that we go into space for the evolution of culture. But when you watch this movie you wonder whether it isn't a little absurd too. I had mixed feelings about its ultimate conclusion; there's this beauty of it and a sort of charm, but there's also this weird naïveté.

CF: I think this naïveté, this is my statement because I feel yes, what I want to say is that you cannot keep this any longer as that simple. We know now.

How come it was announced for decades, and even [Stanley] Kubrick in his 2001 in the press kit... was stating that what he's showing is the future, and it will be totally exactly like that in 2001. Like this comfortable spaceship, he was sure that this will be a reality.

Q: He was right, but it's just not quite the right date.

CF: Come on, I mean look at the tubes now in the ISS.

Q: You don't think that by 2050 that will become the reality? Like space travel turns more commonplace?

CF: I think I lost this naïveté.

Q: Because you see the difficulties.

CF: It's 40 years now. More. It was announced in the '60s and you had this climax of this fantasy.

Q: I think their problem was they were living in a fantasy. This movie is more about the reality.

CF: Yeah, exactly, but that's why I think, for example, yes, you can do space tourism in a few years for sure. It will always be expensive to get somebody into orbit.

Why, because you need this huge speed of 27,000 miles an hour, and you have to speed this down and you cannot do that with small computers, you need heavy things, and it heats you up so much. This remains something that will be...

Q: We need to go with the Star Trek vision; develop the transporters, take the technology up into space, build up there, and use the transporters. You're also from a country that has the largest particle accelerator.

CF: I'm aware of that; I love it.

Q: The Swiss are sort of this old, conservative, classic European, and yet there's this other side to it.

CF: Switzerland has nothing; we don't have anything in the ground. We have only our brains. We have a very high level of education, for example, and a broader one than you have in the U.S.

Q: How about yourself; do you want to go into space?

CF: If I was very rich, yes, but not if I would only have the 35. The film dreams will be bigger than the space dreams.

Q: Sell sponsorships on your suit.

CF: The Romanian guy, it's obvious he won't get to the moon with this. That's why I'm fascinated by this because it's also fantasy.

Q: When you made this film, did you feel that now that you've done it; you're going to continue to stay on top of it, or you want to look completely away from it?

CF: No, because I'm so slow. One of the big advantages is of course everything is inside me, it doesn't just go away. When there's news about Cuba I have a feeling for it beyond journalistic approach because I can smell it. I was for months living there and I know about this revolution, so when it will be over I will be very much concerned. Exactly the same with Afghanistan and now with the space thing. I love this, that I am able to research so excessively.

Q: You get really passionate about it. Would you like to see that they would finally open this up so people can see these old locations?

CF: Actually, there is some tourism.

Q: I never had any idea. How about meeting the old cosmonauts?

CF: They live in Star City, for example, and Star City is not in Kazakhstan like some in the U.S. were writing. Star City is close to Moscow, Russia. That's the training center. There are hundreds of these guys living there still.

Q: So you had the chance to talk and meet with all of them?

CF: Some of them, yeah. Like the first woman in space.

Q: And the first private woman in space. It's interesting how we don't always give the Russians credit, but in that area they really had some innovations that the Americans couldn't deal with.

CF: It's just the bloody moon landing they didn't get, from their point of view. They were feeling even superior in the first stage of the space race.

Q: What do you feel about space travel? What do you think is going to happen?

CF: I think we will see a commercialization of space because they are discovering on the moon, I don't know exactly...

Q: Oh they're talking about both organic substances and they're also talking about deposits in pure form.

CF: So I think this is just the first stage of the commercialization of space.

Q: So then would you go up when you could get it for $20 grand?

CF: I'm not that sure if this will include what Anousheh is doing and will be affordable, because now I know so much about the needs and physics of it. It's also a paradox of history; look at the successes in space exploration of the last five years. Most of them were unmanned. It's the robots fascinating us on Mars with all these beautiful pictures and all this exploration. More and more, manned space exploration was more and more criticized.

Q: So what's next for you? You get so intensively involved in a subject, how do you wrench yourself out of it to go on to the next thing?

CF: Now that I have three important festivals behind me, I have to do more, but mostly because I want to see other people's work. I'm already working on my next subject which, unfortunately for you, I cannot tell you. But I'm in the midst of it because this for me is now, in terms of filmmaking, it's past. I'm working on a short version, I will work on a DVD version, etcetera, but this is not the core of it.

Q: Because you're already a successful documentary filmmaker, and have this Oscar nomination behind you, it probably takes less of a process of making a film, so maybe you're able to at least get down to the filmmaking.

CF: Space Tourist wasn't easy at all. The Russians are not very much impressed. What I do is I don't often tell them I'm a filmmaker, and I'm allowed to do that. I tell them I'm a journalist from Swiss TV because that makes access much easier. Film is like you have somebody from the ministry and then you're lost. My reputation helps me to raise the money a little bit but it's still a struggle.

Q: Did you get to take back any space junk with you?

CF: I have some. I was a bit afraid at customs because I knew how much secrecy there is about.

Q: Because this is a bit lighter to you think it will get the same kind of attention that you've gotten in the past?

CF: War Photographer got the most attention. The Giant Buddhas got a lot too because it was in the festival circuit, and here in the U.S. my films are on the documentary channels and HBO and then on Netflix which is also important. I'm not expecting American families to go watch these films in the movie theaters, so I would be happy for a small theatrical release in New York and then DVD and TV. My issues are universal. It's also interesting to see the reactions are as different as you think.

Q: Did the Oscar nomination make anything easier for you? Did it make a difference?

CF: It helps of course because it's such a label. And it's still a label and remains a label, and the interesting thing is people are more aware of the documentary branch, which perhaps 15 years ago no one cared. I feel that really in documentary filmmaking there's so much energy. We do have the feeling that we have a broader range of expression than in fiction.

We have mainstream documentaries now, which I like. Not all these films should look the same. It's just important that the audience knows there's another way of presenting reality other than through the normal journalistic narration.