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The Write Stuff

Houston's Al Reinert spins a tale of his hometown for the big screen

Houston writer Al Reinert isn't entirely comfortable in commercial jetliners, but he does okay in outer space. That was first made clear to art house audiences in 1990, when he released For All Mankind, a documentary look at NASA. And now Reinert's ease with things extraterrestrial is being made clear to moviegoers everywhere courtesy Apollo 13, which Reinert wrote with William Broyles Jr. (former Texas Monthly editor and China Beach creator). With his first big project finally launched, Reinert is back in his usual haunts and more than willing to spend an afternoon at Cafe Noche talking about his experiences with the space program and Hollywood moviemaking.

Reinert's two big-screen examinations of NASA are light years apart in tone. For All Mankind, a 1990 Oscar nominee, is a solemn film that relies on awe-inspiring images of cold, glittering objects in space and dry recordings of rocket jocks using their gift of understatement to describe their off-world experiences. Astronauts, like their jet-pilot fraternity brothers, always take pains to speak tersely. Part of the reason is efficiency -- gabbing all over the radio could screw up missions -- but the most compelling reason is to maintain their steely eyed image.

One of the big problems for the Apollo 13 screenwriters, Reinert says, was figuring out how to make a thrilling movie with central characters who are trapped in a tin can and whose main mode of expression is deadpan. Launches and splashdowns have sizzle, but long, suspenseful days in a crippled capsule aren't easy to dramatize, though the real-life misadventure of the 13th Apollo mission is easily overdramatized. "If you really want to see where you can take it," Reinert says, "there's a made-for-TV movie called Houston, We Have a Problem, done in the middle '70s, that shows how dreadful that same story can be if you let the soap opera take over."

As Reinert notes, though, many studio executives like soap opera. It was Apollo 13 director Ron Howard who fought to maintain the dignity of the characters. Howard, says Reinert, "has been a space buff since back in the days when he was still Opie," spending his pocket change and sending his cereal box tops in for models of rocket ships and other spaceman toys. "Howard," Reinert says, "was actually very restrained from the very beginning. The special effects and the movie stars make it seem larger than life, but the truth of the matter is, Apollo 13 is a fairly understated movie by Hollywood standards."

It's so understated, in fact, that Reinert wasn't entirely comfortable when he finally saw a cut of his first foray into blockbuster territory. "I was worried, truth of the matter, first time I saw Apollo 13," he says. "It was underacted, undershot, the roles are played very restrained ... there's only one scene in the movie where people start really raising their voices at each other." This, he thought, might be a problem for a picture in the action movie genre, where screaming is the normal mode of conversation. Worse, he says, "there's no guns, there's no sex and there's no real confrontation."

Of course, Reinert has himself to blame (or thank) for much of that. His and Broyles' Apollo 13 script has, instead of glam and sizzle, a serious commitment to accuracy, both technical and spiritual. While the plot of the movie is historical fact, the story, Reinert explains, has the grand theme of "expanding your boundaries, what evolution is all about -- what life is all about, trying to survive in new territories." Howard and star Tom Hanks had an equal or greater commitment to telling the story right, a commitment based on starry-eyed fandom. "Working at NASA," says Reinert, "was like going to space camp for those guys."

The lengths the Apollo 13 filmmakers went to, Reinert says, sometimes verged on the creepy. Not only did they rebuild Mission Control from the original blueprints, "down to, or up to, the sprinkler heads in the ceiling -- which you never see in the movie," but also "in the movie when you see numbers on the computer screens in mission control, those are the real numbers." Reinert reports that Ron Howard dug up old data tapes from the Apollo 13 mission. The director's going that far, for a detail no one would notice, fascinates Reinert -- both because it's weird and because it shows just how much money Universal had to throw around.

Ultimately, Reinert feels, Apollo 13 is a wonderful success -- no surprise there. Also not surprising is that, as a writer, Reinert misses some of the characters who had to be treated glancingly. Marilyn Lovell, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell's wife, is a bit part, and Ken Mattingly, the astronaut who was bumped from Apollo 13 by illness and ended up spending days in an Apollo simulator trying to figure out how his trapped companions could be saved, is another tragic (from a writer's standpoint) loss. Reinert has been busy on new projects for the last six months, but he still regrets there wasn't "more of the Marilyn character [in Apollo 13]. I've known her for years and she would make a great movie character." He also regrets not getting his teeth into Mattingly's tale. "That's such a natural story," he says, "a guy who is supposed to be part of the crew gets left out and comes back at the last minute to help rescue them. That's great material. When they were trying to figure out how to make this spaceship work, Mattingly spent 60 hours non-stop in the simulator. Mattingly spent seven hours on the radio telling Jack Swigert how to fix this ship."

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