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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Space Cowboys” – 20th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Yeah? Well I’ve got MediCare, go ahead and shoot your best shot!”. A 20th anniversary celebration of star, producer and director Clint Eastwood’s “Space Cowboys”. Eastwood directs one of his most charming, funniest and thrilling movies. “Space Cowboys” is at least three different movies: a high-tech “Apollo 13” like visual effects thriller, a charming comedy and a character driven drama. Call it “The Right Stuff” meets “Grumpy Old Men” meets “Armageddon”. Filmed with full cooperation from NASA and filmed on location at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center. In the films third act, when the movie gets down to business, the visual effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic provide stunning vistas from Earth’s orbit and provide Eastwood with his first real hand at visual effects. The veteran actors had gone through extensive training just as the real astronauts would, with a few exceptions. Eastwood assembles three of the best legendary actors to star alongside, although they weren’t necessarily the first choices considered. Sutherland gets the win for being a scene-stealer, but they’re all clearly having a blast. That’s where the real pleasure of “Space Cowboys” comes from in watching these four terrific actors having the time of their lives on screen. We have an intelligent and funny picture featuring people who have real acting experience. It’s a pure moviegoing pleasure that demonstrated Eastwood’s comfort with any genre he chooses.

There are a few directors that I’ve stated in the past that you just don’t bet against. One of those directors is Clint Eastwood who always brings the best quality to his movies and never fails to give us a great movie. Eastwood is easily one of our greatest filmmakers and sure even his great films has some slip-ups, most notably that plastic baby in “American Sniper” which just takes me out of that movie every time. But over the span of 65 years in the business, Eastwood has earned that seat on that golden pedestal in Hollywood. 

He has directed every genre of movie from action to drama to comedy to even biopics of American figures to one of the worlds biggest pop groups. In 2000 Eastwood directed one of his most charming, funniest and thrilling movies. “Space Cowboys” is at least three different movies: a high-tech visual effects thriller, a charming comedy and a character driven drama. Call it “The Right Stuff” meets “Grumpy Old Men” meets “Armageddon”. 

For Eastwood “Space Cowboys” would also be a step out of the box, as he would have to delve into a filmmaking technique his films never usually require: visual effects. Eastwood isn’t that type of filmmaker to use visual effects but “Space Cowboys” ended up with about three hundred special effects shots, when they initially thought at the start they’d need and could get away with only about forty shots. 

“Space Cowboys” which was Eastwood’s 22nd film as a director and his 65th appearance as an actor. It would be the start of a late career winning streak for Eastwood. As his next film after “Space Cowboys” would be the highly underrated “Blood Work”, followed by his double Oscar winning films “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River”. Eastwood followed that up by his two part war epic “Flags Of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima”. Then came his critically acclaimed “Gran Torino”, which he followed that up with one movie a year for the next three years. 

Principal photography on “Space Cowboys” began in mid July of 1999 and continued through mid October. Shot on locations in the general Los Angeles area, such as: Saugus, Agua Dulce, Canyon Country, March Air Force Base and Victorville. It provided the background for most of the early years of the story, followed by the sequences filmed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The third act of the film (the time they spend in space), were entirely done by computer graphics and the actors’ faces were added in digitally. These sequences were shot on soundstages at the Warner Bros lot in Burbank, California. They were used to house the sets constructed to replicate the space shuttle interior, the Russian Ikon satellite, and a variety of aircraft (from a B-l Bomber to an early experimental jet) and in-flight simulators.

Coordinated by Academy-Award winning production designer Henry Bumstead (“The Sting,” “To Kill A Mockingbird”), these sets also included the first accurate representation of Houston’s new Mission Control Center, complete with large-screen high-definition communications imaging, exactly as used during actual flights. The Mission Control set was built using blueprints of the real Mission Control, provided by NASA.

While the scenes filmed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, included training sequences in which the entire team Daedalus was put through virtually the same training phases used to prepare actual astronauts for space travel. Such as: the shuttle simulator, the shuttle simulator control booth, the virtual reality room and the neutral buoyancy lab.

To further enhance the credibility of the film, the main cast traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in order to shoot the Vehicle Assembly Building, launch pad and landing facility for all NASA flights. Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner were all treated like real astronauts as they said goodbye to friends and family in the real astronaut blockhouse, were dressed for flight in the suit-up room used by NASA astronauts and waited for their transfer to the shuttle launch in the actual astronaut ready room.

“I wanted to make the film as believable as possible,” Eastwood explains. “In order to do that we needed NASA’s help to get as close as we could to the circumstances surrounding a launch. It’s a complicated process and it requires careful planning and teamwork on all levels. Bringing a film crew in to simulate the whole thing was probably an even bigger headache for NASA, but the agency really came through for us. I couldn’t be more pleased with the results”.

Since the film required scenes of weightlessness, the cast was put through a battery of simulation rigs. “We’ve done it, I suppose, in every way that it can be done,” Tommy Lee Jones muses. Clint Eastwood went on to say “We’ve hung people from ceilings; we’ve had people stand around holding on to walls as if that were necessary to keep yourself from floating off; and then we have ballpoint pens and clipboards floating by suspended on filament lines; we’ve been on little stools that have caster wheels on them that move around. 

Eastwood continues: “It really presents no challenge to an actor; all you have to do is stand there and take these various rides, but it’s a group effort for the whole company. The other thing we’ve done is simply move the camera around a great deal. And sometimes using all those things in combination, one with the other, creates the illusion of weightlessness successfully maybe seventy percent of the time”.

Eastwood adds: “I think we’ve been pretty good with it. We’ve used every trick possible, from where the actors are floating themselves and looking loose, or sitting on a special kind of bench that moves this way or a table gliding, or gliding across the floor”. Eastwood points out that in previous space-set films, the cast and production crew would all fly up in a giant cargo plane to achieve weightlessness for a few seconds at a stretch. “They used to call it the ‘Vomit Comet,’ which is an old G-3 that they would take up and get into a weightless situation”.

Clint Eastwood opted against using the “Vomit Comet”, which was used to film the weightlessness in Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13”. NASA had offered it to Eastwood, but he turned down the offer for fear that the older actors would become too sick to film. Instead to create the illusion of “weightlessness”, the actors would cling onto objects as if they were grounding themselves.

Prop company Global Effects had designed ten space suits for the movie, using the same woven Teflon as real suits worn by astronauts. They’ve also created space suits for Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” (1998), and “Deep Impact” (1998). Clint Eastwood was actually just going to initially star in and produce “Space Cowboys” and not direct it. After a few potential directors thought filming space travel would be too difficult, Eastwood decided to do it himself.

Eastwood assembled three of the best veteran actors to star alongside. While all four were playing within the same age demographic as each other. In actuality, only Eastwood and Garner were close in age, while Sutherland was younger in age. Especially Tommy Lee Jones, who was the youngest at age 53 who would have been too young to have been an astronaut pilot in 1958, as mentioned in the films opening.

Before the four acting legends were casted, other actors who are legendary in their own right were considered. Originally, Sean Connery was supposed to play Jerry O’Neill (Sutherland’s character) and Jack Nicholson was supposed to play “Tank” Sullivan (Garner’s character). While Burt Reynolds was considered for a role. Although unnamed, it is widely believed to be Tank Sullivan (Jones’ character) and Warren Beatty was considered for the role of Frank Corvin (Eastwood’s character). James Garner probably said it best for everyone involved that “If Clint Eastwood calls you to do a picture, you jump at it. There is no hesitation”.

Although filming got hard for James Garner who dislocated his shoulder and Donald Sutherland who cracked a knee. Clint Eastwood who is known to be a director who doesn’t rehearse and just shoots and is known to film on budget and on schedule. “Space Cowboys” was no exception as Eastwood would film the actors who were improvising a scene, then would use that footage in the final cut. Eastwood said in an interview “Donald would say, ‘Are we rehearsing now; what are we doing?’ and I’d say, ‘No that’s it’”. He was a notoriously quick director on “Space Cowboys” and would film as many as thirty-five to forty set-ups in a single day.

In early screenings, real astronauts who saw the movie were impressed by how realistic the space sequences looked. “Space Cowboys” opened at the Venice Film Festival in 2000 and once released theatrically it grossed over $90 million in its United States and a further $38 million internationally, bringing it to a worldwide total of $128 million on a $65 million budget. 

“Space Cowboys” first half is thoroughly charming, as the feisty old-timers train, squabble and butt heads with rule-bound whippersnappers young enough to be their grandkids. But the thriller subplot which starts with the implication that a NASA flight director may have leaked military technology to the Cold War-era Soviet Union. 

This plot kicks the third act into high gear when they board the Ikon satellite and discover that the situation isn’t exactly as advertised to be. It’s where the films earlier tone in the first two acts turns from comedy, drama into a space thriller to rustle up some suspense in a startlingly suspenseful last half-hour. The actions and plot twists in outer space is unexpected and the surprise waiting out there is genuine. “Space Cowboys” has an abundance of charm and screen presence from the four veteran actors. 

There is a reason Eastwood, Garner, Sutherland and Jones have remained stars for so long, and the movie gives them all characteristic scenes. Although it’s easy to say that Donald Sutherland gives a movie-stealing turn in a great comedic turn. That’s where the real pleasure of “Space Cowboys” comes from in watching these four terrific actors having the time of their lives on screen. 

Eastwood highlights the personal relationships of the four men in a way that is gentle, funny and authentic. The actors know where the laughs and thrills are and respect them. We have an intelligent and funny picture featuring people who have real acting experience. It’s a pure moviegoing pleasure. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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