Interview: Simon Ennis

That big old ball in the night sky has proved endlessly fascinating for as long as humans have been able to crane their necks up towards it. Some thought it was made of cheese, others embarked on a race to get there, and a few dorky types even created fan (or science) fiction about it.

However, that obsession goes a little farther than usual for the subjects of Simon Ennis’ first documentary Lunarcy!. His hilarious and poignant film focuses in on a few particular moon fanatics like Chris Carson, a man who tours the country trying to find supporters to make him the first person to leave the planet to live on the moon or Dennis Hope, an out-there entrepreneur who has made millions selling off moon real estate to everyone from basement dwellers to ex-presidents (yes, even George Dubya). It’s a wonderfully funny and warm doc very much of the Errol Morris school by a Canadian filmmaker who had previously only dabbled in shorts and the deeply underrated dark comedy You Might As Well Live.

We got a chance to chat with Ennis about his documentary debut shortly before the film’s Canadian release, dabbling in everything from his love of the non-fiction to the intricacies of claiming space real estate, and the jerkiness of moon landing conspiracy theorists.

Dork Shelf: Had documentaries like Errol Morris Gates of Heaven or American Movie influenced your fiction comedy at all?

Simon Ennis: Sure. I don’t know if it’s necessarily conscious, but then again I don’t know if I’d separate my documentary work from my fiction work or in what influences me. Errol Morris is one of my favorite filmmakers and Vernon, Florida is definitely one of my favorite movies period. So that probably has some influence on me. But usually I don’t really separate them. Lunarcy! was the first documentary that I ever made and I felt just like I did when making You Might As Well Live or any of the shorts I’ve done. I didn’t have a script, but that was basically the only difference.

DS: Had you ever considered making a documentary before now?

SE: Not really. I always loved documentaries. They are some of my favorite films, but I just never had an idea that grabbed me. Well, that’s not exactly true. But I never thought I’d go down the path of making documentaries. Right before You Might As Well Live got greenlit, I was editing a documentary. I was working on a movie that Ron Mann was making called Know Your Mushrooms. I actually had to leave halfway through to make my movie, but we had a great time working together. He said, “You should try making a documentary yourself sometime. If you come up with an idea that you really dig or you think would make a really good movie tell me about it and I’ll see if I can help you get some financing.”

So a few years after that, it just so happened that one week I read a few articles about the moon. One was about Dennis Hope, who is the fella in my movie who owns the moon. And then one was a more science based article on a thing called Helium 3, which is a particle that can be found in moon dust that a lot of scientists believe can be mined and turned into a completely green burning fuel. So those were two articles, one more scientific and one more eccentric that really piqued my interest. I originally got the idea that I would make a sort of omnibus film about all the different ways that humanity had looked at the moon. Some would be funny, some would be scientific, some would be about folklore and religion. All different kinds of stories. So that was the jumping off point and then I brought that to my producer and Ron. We got it going, got a little funding, and started working on the film.

DS: Since the film is so based on your interview subjects, when did that focus on personal obsession with the moon begin? Did that start with Dennis Hope?

SE: Yeah, absolutely. He was definitely one of the first people I knew I wanted to interview. Most of the people I found through articles on the internet. Peter Kokh who writes the Moon Miners’ Manifesto I found online. Then Alan Bean of course, the astronaut. I knew I wanted to interview at least one Apollo astronaut who had actually been to the moon, but I didn’t want to focus too much on that because there have been some other amazing documentaries like For All Mankind that have already told that story. But Alan’s paintings kind of drew me in. Everyone else I just read about or found their writing, except for Chris Carson who is the sort of main guy. He was the one person who I ran into on my shoot. I met him and he just sort of took over the film on his own.

DS: He’s incredible. How did you find him?

SE: Ok, well it was actually my very first shoot. We had just gotten our first financing and we didn’t even know if we had enough money to make a movie. I flew to Phoenix, Arizona where they were having something called the Space Access Conference, which is basically a convention of people who work in the commercial space industry as well as people from NASA, all that kind of stuff. No science fiction stuff. It’s a very serious conference for people who are actually in the space industry. So I went there to interview certain people, do some networking, and figure out who the best people were to talk to. I was there for a couple of days and it was a total bust and a washout. Just one speaker after another getting up on the stage talking about the most boring stuff, it could have been a plumbers convention. And on top of that the hotel was just horribly lit. I talked to a few people, but there was no decent background, there was nothing that was at all photogenic. And on top of that it was about 100 degrees, so you couldn’t go outside and inside the air conditioning was so loud that you couldn’t even record decent sound anywhere.

Then after two days of me just being there and thinking that I was wasting the little budget that we had, the elevator doors opened and Chris Carson walked out wearing his vest that said “Luna City Or Bust.” So I thought, “Well, I’ve got to talk to this guy.” I introduced myself and asked if he could tell me what his vest was about. He told me, “I’m Chris Carson and I want to be the first person to leave earth and never come back. I want to live on the moon permanently.” So I said to him, “I want to make a documentary about the moon, so I’d like to talk to you about that on camera.” And he said, “Yes, you’d better.” (laughs).

We found the one and only place in that entire hotel that had any visual interest, which was the hotel bar. So I put him on a stool in front of the hotel stage which was literally the one five foot square in this entire hotel that looked ok and was far enough away from the air conditioning to record sound. I talked to him for an hour and it was great, so I talked to him a bit again the next day. We sort of became friends and I kept in touch with him and flew around to meet him all over the US. I spent the better part of a year just hanging out with him as he tried to get the Luna Project off the ground.

DS: Are you still in touch with him now and is he still at it?

SE: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was talking to him yesterday actually. He’s recently been elected to the board of the NNS (The National Space Society) which is one of the larger space advocacy groups in North America. So I think he’s trying to get his Trojan Horse inside a larger group to push the Luna Project forward inside a larger machine. He’ll be at it until he succeeds.

DS: How did Dennis Hope ever manage to claim ownership of the moon?

SE: Well what he did was look up the 1967 United Nations treaty on outer space and found out that there was this loophole that said no nation could claim land outside of the earth, but said nothing about individuals claiming ownership. So he filed a claim with the UN that basically stated he would claim ownership to the moon and surrounding planets in the solar system and if they had any legal problem with it, they should contact him within 90 days. It’s been 30 years and they still haven’t contacted him, so he takes that as a sign that he owns the property.

DS: It’s an amazing racket he’s created.

SE: Yeah, whether you believe that his claim is for real or not, I’ve never heard anyone else have a better idea than that one.

DS: Did you make any effort to find subjects in NASA or did you want to concentrate more on these fringe figures (with the exception of Alan Bean, of course)?

SE: Not really. We sort of did. We filmed at space center Huston a little bit with the retired NASA investigator, the moon rock detective guy. There were a lot of other people who I interviewed for the film who didn’t make the final cut. I just went with the best stories and as the film progressed it really changed a lot from my initial idea, which was more a look at how we see the moon through science and history into more of a look at people’s passions and their creativity and their obsessions. So when I figured that out, I leaned more towards the characters who I found the most inspiring. People with quixotic journeys and lofty goals. So I think that’s what led me more in that direction. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that everyone is a fringe character. Certainly Al Bean who actually went to space and Jaymie Matthews the professor at UBC, he’s a little wacky but he actually runs Canada’s space telescope and he’s won the order of Canada. He’s a pretty well respected astrophysicist internationally. So I tried to make it a good cross section, but really it was people who were committed to an idea and an ideal that interested me and got me excited.

DS: Definitely and I didn’t mean it as an insult to call them fringe figures—

SE: Oh no, no, no. Certainly someone who says they own the moon…(laughs). That’s the reaction you’d have and that was something that I wanted to convey in the film, how self-aware these people. With both Chris and Dennis especially, I wanted to make sure that I included a section where they talk about how people perceive them. It’s not one of those movies where you just find weird people and watch them say funny things. These people are very self-aware and they use that to their advantage. Like Chris, one of the best ways to get people talking is to make big pronouncements like saying, “ if we all work together, we can go to the moon within 2 years.” A lot of people will say, “well that’s crazy.” But he’s a very convincing guy and I’ve seen him bring people over to his side from that point many times.

DS: I wanted to talk to you a little about the humor in the film because it is very funny without ever being snide of mocking towards the subject. Was that tone difficult to find while editing?

SE: It wasn’t very hard at all because I genuinely liked everyone who I was interviewing, especially Chris who I became friends with. I would have felt really bad if we were actually making fun of him and anybody else. So it was something that I was conscious of while editing and along the way I would show the movie to small groups of 15 or 20 and one of the first questions we would always ask is if they thought we were making fun of anyone.  For the most part everyone said “no” and we would always be careful to pay attention to that and not cross the line. Because they are very funny, likable guys, but we didn’t want to ever have fun at their expense, you know?

DS: Did you ever consider including some moon landing skeptics in the film?

SE: I definitely considered it. I talked to Bart Sibrel, he’s the guy who Buzz Aldren punched in the face and shows up at astronauts’ houses to try and get them to swear on a bible about going to the moon. I was really considering it, but his story just wasn’t as interesting to me. The Apollo conspiracy thing is really just bullshit and you can discount anything they bring up in about five seconds if you have any scientific or historic background. I just didn’t find that very interesting and I loved the other subjects so much that I just didn’t want any bad guys in the movie .I wanted it to be more about hope and inspiration and dreaming. He just wouldn’t have fit. Also, he wanted to charge us about $3000. We weren’t paying subjects and we definitely weren’t going to make an exception for a guy who is a bit of a jerk.

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