Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan without a rope. The underwater rescue of 12 Thai boys from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave. Three elite mountaineers summiting Mount Meru — just shortly after one had survived a devastating avalanche.
Academy Award-winning documentary directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (a subject of their first doc, “Meru”) are familiar with telling high-stakes stories of incredible human feats. For their latest doc, “Return to Space,” the nail-biter at the crux of the film is the 2020 launch of Crew Dragon Demo-2, the first round-trip manned SpaceX mission.
“Everyone [featured in ‘Return to Space’] had seen ‘Free Solo’ and found something to connect with because of Alex’s passion, obsession, his precision. Also, this idea of fear,” she says. “Everyone was interested in an elevated telling of a story about space that looks at the human connection. Because all our work is about connection. Is this a story of Demo-2, or is this really about how we look at our own humanity?”
Vasarhelyi and Chin, who became friendly with SpaceX founder Elon Musk through their other projects, had been talking with Netflix about making the documentary for several years and began ramping up production in 2019.
“The intention was, let’s acknowledge that we are in the concrete beginning of a new relationship between humanity and space,” says Vasarhelyi. “It’s complicated, and it could go in many different ways. Some of which are scary.”
The documentary features the engineers and two astronauts — Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — crewing the Dragon spacecraft, and Musk. But while Musk looms large in the documentary, the focus shifts away in the second half of the film. Vasarhelyi describes balancing Musk’s outsized personality with the rest of the film’s narrative.
“Elon is fascinating. I mean, he is the real deal,” she says. “Space is his best look, if that makes any sense. He’s so personally invested in and passionate about it,” she adds. “He’s a very controversial character though, and he does have limitations, and that’s why it was really important for us to inoculate our film against that showing him in a full, warts and all [portrayal].”
The film had special access to the talent involved with the program, thanks in part to a young NASA administrator who understood the value of granting access to a skilled documentary crew.
“Astronauts work for NASA; it’s normally a very controlled environment. But there was something about the humanity of it and the historic significance that allowed more access than is normally given,” she says. “NASA worked closely with us. We were able to give them a shot list of images we wanted from space — and they shot them for us.”
But despite all of its views from space and inside the spacecraft, the film is grounded by the human aspect, which offers a look at the astronauts interacting with their families ahead of the launch. Notably, Hurley brought his young son’s stuffed dinosaur along with him into space as a way to connect with him back on Earth.
“All our films are very intimate, and we always approach it the same way,” says Vasarhelyi. “The needs of the film cannot trump the needs of the participants. And you always approach with respect. I remember being very nervous about asking Doug and Bob about the Challenger [disaster]. It’s so much part of their story. That’s why they were chosen to helm this mission, because they bring institutional knowledge of the real human costs and risks involved in space travel.”
Mid-interview, Vasarhelyi’s son comes into frame to show her the lizard he found outside in the garden. Vasarhelyi and Chin (and family) are currently in the Dominican Republic, where they’re shooting their first narrative film, “Nyad,” about the marathon swimmer Diana Nyad.
“That’s why there’s a lizard in my son’s hand,” says Vasarhelyi. “It’s been amazing, and it’s so different working in fiction as opposed to nonfiction, even though the questions are similar and the themes are similar, and the character exploration is similar. But it’s so different because I don’t have to wait two years for Alex [Honnold] to say ‘I love you’ to [his girlfriend] Sanni. Instead, you’ve got Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, who are like, you want to feel this? OK! They’re amazing.”