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New film finds 'The Wonderful' aboard the space station: director Q&A

"The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station" shares the lives of astronauts in space on the biggest human outpost in orbit.
"The Wonderful: Stories From the Space Station," directed by Clare Lewins, focuses on the men and women of the International Space Station. Now playing in select U.S. theaters and on digital platforms worldwide. (Image credit: Universal )

Clare Lewins did not think she was the right director for a film about the International Space Station.

Approached with the idea by producer George Chignell, who she worked with on the 2014 boxing legend documentary "I am Ali," Lewins' first reaction was that she was "not a science-based person," but then she began looking into who had lived on the space station.

"That's what made the difference, actually," she told collectSPACE.com in an interview.

That, and a book she was reading at the time. Joseph Conrad's turn of the (20th) century novel "Lord Jim" described ancient sailors voyaging off into the unknown, with an impulse in their blood to dream of the future.

Related: 'The Wonderful' tells the story of the International Space Station through many astronauts' eyes (exclusive clip)

"And he wrote, 'They were wonderful... And it must to owned they were ready for the wonderful,'" Lewins said, quoting Conrad. "And I thought, 'That's it. That's the story.' Really, that's the film."

"The Wonderful: Stories From the Space Station" focuses on the lives of a dozen international astronauts and cosmonauts who for a time called the International Space Station home. From Bill Shepherd and Sergei Krikalev, who were members of the station's first expedition crew more than 20 years ago, to Scott Kelly and Peggy Whitson, who set duration records during their time aboard the outpost, the two-hour film reveals the humanity behind all of the engineering and technology that made such a facility possible.

"From an early point, I thought, actually, I want to make it about the people, not the 450 tons of spaceship, which, by the way, is amazing, but other films have done that," said Lewins.

collectSPACE spoke with Lewins and former NASA astronaut Cady Coleman about "The Wonderful," which is now open in select U.S. theaters and available on digital platforms worldwide. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NASA astronaut Cady Coleman is seen inside the cupola on board the International Space Station in 2011.

NASA astronaut Cady Coleman is seen inside the cupola on board the International Space Station in 2011. (Image credit: NASA)

collectSPACE (cS): Cady, as one of the "wonderful," what was your reaction to the film? Was it wonderful for you?

Cady Coleman: I liked it. We [astronauts] don't get to hear each other's stories very much and to hear them and to see them told in such detail, and from these really interesting points of view, it was just fascinating to me.

I have been part of the space program for such a long time because it is something that I really believe in, even after retiring. To have someone make this exquisite film that celebrates so many different aspects of the people that do this meant the world to me.

cS: Clare, with almost 250 people to chose from (244 astronauts and cosmonauts have visited the space station since 1998), how did you select the 12 for the film?

Clare Lewins: To tell the narrative of the space station is quite hard. You know, if you were doing [a documentary about] Apollo 11, there is a clear narrative there. This [spans] over 20 years.

So I said I'm going to pick different stories that don't look like they're connected, but they actually are. What I'm trying to show with all of this is that everybody is connected. There is human connection.

cS: You worked exclusively with archival footage in terms of the scenes shot in space. Did you find you were limited to what the astronauts had caught on film?

Lewins: We were very lucky. There's so much of it actually, that you could spend a lifetime going through it all. We were really lucky with some of the people at NASA who really helped us with that. I said I wanted the best archive available, really the stuff that's been shot on a Red [Digital Cinema HD] camera. Like the Peggy Whitson scenes, it's just beautiful.

But most of the footage is exactly representative for the cameras they had [at the time]. The early footage that we were trying to get, like the footage from [Russia's federal space corporation] Roscosmos was slightly harder to get. But I love that. I love when you see [cosmonaut] Sergei [Volkov] with his dad [also a cosmonaut], it looks Soviet. It looks iconic. You can exactly see that that is nowhere else but Russia.

cS: In addition to the archival footage, you created scenes that are more artistic in nature. How did those come about?

Lewins: For me, it was important that it wasn't just interviews and archive. Like with the [scene with] young kids dreaming of being cosmonauts in Russia, we went to a 1970's boxing gym that had the right color greens. Or the boy lying in the snow, dreaming of being a cosmonaut.

Scott Kelly told me that he had this dream that he used to have, this recurring sort of daydream that he was going to be in a really small space, and I thought we would film him as young boy. He also he talks a lot about missing water when he's in space. So I thought we'd put rain down the window with a young boy dreaming.

With Cady, she talks about her father being a diver and I thought it would be brilliant to have an underwater scene where we filmed a free diver underwater and then the scene just goes straight up into the [space station's] cupola.

It all seems a bit unusual. But in my head, it all makes sense.

cS: Cady, your segment of the film focuses on your family, your husband Josh and son Jamey. How was it filming together?

Coleman: In general, Clare asked all of us separately questions that I have never been asked before. It was a very different kind of interview. And I didn't actually hear Jamey and Josh's interviews on purpose because I wanted them to be able to just be with Clare and tell their stories.

But it's been really wonderful for me to hear their stories and what it was like for them when I was getting ready to go, when I launched and what it was like to have me up there. In fact, very emotional, really, for me. I cried the first time I watched the movie.

Just thinking about it, it was really hard to leave them. And at the same time, it was what we had decided as a family; this is what Jamey's mom does, this is what Josh's wife does, but that doesn't mean that hearing the little bitty details — you know, I'm going to tear up just even thinking about it. When Jamey says that "my mom was really gone," I mean, that's a big deal.

"The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station" shares the lives of astronauts in space on the biggest human outpost in orbit.

"The Wonderful: Stories From the Space Station," directed by Clare Lewins, focuses on the men and women of the International Space Station. Now playing in select U.S. theaters and on digital platforms worldwide. (Image credit: Universal )

cS: Clare, going back to what Joseph Conrad wrote, now that you have made the film, has your view of the of "the wonderful," the astronauts, changed?

Lewins: I have more respect for them, because — of course, everyone is human with all their foibles and things — but I think they all take space exploration and their jobs extremely seriously.

They know they've got a whole team of people at NASA and Roscosmos and their family members who are helping them get up there. And they are aware it's a privileged position, but they take it very seriously. I mean, people like Cady, super bright in science, technology, engineering, you know, everything. But that's not what my film was about, really. My film was more about, I don't know, just the sort of inspiration of humanity and connections.

So to answer your question more succinctly, I do think they're wonderful.

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Robert Z. Pearlman

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama.