SAN ANTONIO — Space travel is woven tightly into the fabric of Texas history. It’s embedded deeper still in the memories of those who grew up here the ‘60s, their newfound excitement for the future cross-stitched with afternoons at Astroworld, bike rides through suburban streets and humid summers on Gulf Coast.
At least that’s how filmmaker Richard Linklater remembers growing up near Houston, as suggested in his new movie, “Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood.” Having premiered to a packed South by Southwest audience earlier this month, the animated memory piece might be the director’s easiest-breeziest work since his breakout hit “Dazed and Confused.”
Like that movie, “Apollo 10 ½” isn’t guided by a discernible narrative arc or timeline. Instead, it glides along on the power of specific details—in this case, the details of a Houston childhood when the future was bright and the potential for fantastical accomplishment was great.
“From the very beginning, we just wanted to know everything about that era, everything about Houston at that time,” said Mike Blizzard, a fellow Texan and producer on “Apollo 10 ½.” “What was playing on television, what was at the movies, so that the audience would also be absorbed in that time.”
Blizzard’s artistic relationship with his home state runs deep; he previously directed the 2018 movie “Also Starring Austin,” charting the evolution of the Texas capital through the lens of cinema. “Apollo 10 ½” does something similar, transporting the audience to an era when all eyes were on Houston, and on what a group of ambitious scientists were accomplishing there.
That being said, “Apollo 10 ½” is less “First Man” than Linklater’s own “Boyhood.” That was the intention.
“Usually if you have a space movie, it's focused on the astronauts and their travails,” Blizzard said. “It's not really focused on the people around them and what people were experiencing at that time. Houston is one of the most diverse cities on the planet… yet you don't see it portrayed in movies. You don't really see the lived experience of that person growing up in that city, and this time, in particular, when Houston was in transition.”
The movie’s primary tool in capturing that experience: a colorful and crisply animated aesthetic.
“It’s an absolute leap forward in both technique and technology,” said Tommy Pallotta, another of the film’s producers. “But, more importantly, in the approach to hybrid, it’s really a 2-D-animated film. Rotoscoping is a very small part of it. There’s much more traditional 2-D animation in it.”
Pallotta last collaborated with Linklater on the director’s 2006 rotoscoped sci-fi drama “A Scanner Darkly,” and recently re-embraced the style – which involves animating over every captured bit of footage, frame by frame – with his San Antonio-set Amazon show “Undone.”
He joined “Apollo 10 ½” later in the production than Blizzard, but says that allowed him to bring a fresh perspective.
“When he called me up and was like, 'Hey, what do you think about doing it in the style that you're doing right now?' I was like, 'Absolutely. Why did it take you so long to ask me?'”
In addition to providing Pallotta with another opportunity to collaborate with Linklater – “I love making movies with Rick more than anything else in the world,” he says – “Apollo 10 ½” provided an escape from pandemic uncertainty. In crafting the thrillingly soundtracked, sweetly crafted world of young Stan (voiced by Texas actor Milo Coy) as he lived it in 1969, the team behind the movie was able, at least partially, to put 2020 realities aside.
“I felt so blessed because I was making something that was nostalgic and optimistic and brightly colored and sundrenched, and that's where I lived for two years while everybody else was sort of living in darkness,” Pallotta said. “And then, coming out of it into the way the world is now, I just wanted to go right back into it.”
Pallotta and Blizzard say they hope “Apollo 10 ½” provides the same transporting experience for viewers when the movie hits Netflix on Friday, not only to a period before the ubiquity of screens, but also to the past chapter of a Texas city where the future was already in full swing.
One of the seemingly dozens of moments in Houston history recreated for “Apollo 10 ½” is the 1962 groundbreaking of the Astrodome, which was done with Colt .45s instead of shovels. It’s one of the movie’s most amusing vignettes; for Blizzard, it's also one of the most meaningful.
“Those guns shooting into the earth sort of metaphorically shot Houston into the future,” he said. “It was really known as the city of the future. You had heart transplants, you had NASA, you have the Astrodome, the eighth wonder of the world. It was an exciting place to grow up.”
“Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood” opens on Netflix Friday.