'Apollo 13' at 25: Ron Howard explains how Steven Spielberg helped him solve the space drama's daunting gravity issue

Kevin PolowySenior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo Movies

“I never got to space, but I got weightless,” Ron Howard says about the significance of Apollo 13 on his eclectic filmmaking resume that now extends 40-plus years. The film, which starred Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as stranded astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, opened 25 years ago, on June 30, 1995.

How exactly they got weightless — or simulated zero gravity for its actors in the module — was one of the trickiest propositions facing Howard and his team when beginning pre-production on the film.

“This was before digital technology, which could make a movie like Gravity and [director] Alfonso Cuarón’s approach to that possible,” Howard told Yahoo Entertainment during a 2016 Director’s Reel interview (watch above, with Apollo 13 talk starting at 4:33). “That was not in the cards for us.”

It was during Apollo 13’s gravity problem-solving phase when the former child star-turned Splash, Willow and Parenthood director ran into Steven Spielberg, because clearly Hollywood’s A-list directors run in the same circles (or at least on the same studio lots).

“He said, ‘Well, how you gonna do the weightlessness?’ I said, ‘Well, we’re testing wires and of course here’s how [Stanley] Kubrick did it’ and we discussed [2001: A Space Odyssey]. And he said, ‘Well, you know what, I don’t know if it’s possible or not, but they used to bolt the capsule down in the plane in the [Project] Gemini era and train astronauts to sort of open the hatch and get out. I’ve seen some footage of that somewhere.’”

Spielberg was referring to the KC-135, affectionately nicknamed “the Vomit Comet” by NASA’s finest, a test aircraft that the NASA Reduced Gravity Program began using in 1959.

Howard confirmed as much with Lovell, who was advising on the film, then asked NASA if they could use the reduced-gravity plane.

“NASA at first said, ‘No,’ then for a minute we were trying to get this retired Russian plane that you could charter, but no one would insure that and I was pretty relieved that they wouldn’t,” Howard explained.  

“And finally Jim Lovell intervened on our behalf and said, ‘Why don’t you give these guys one test flight? And just see if they can do it?’ And we had to go get into these training and Air Force uniforms and go do it. It was an amazing experience and they let us do it.”

NASA allowed Howard and team to use the KC-135 for six months during filming. Because the aircraft only achieved weightlessness for its actors for 25 seconds at a time, Howard, Hanks, Paxton and Bacon had to make roughly 600 dives (also known as parabolas) throughout filming. The crew took two flights per day, during which 30-40 parabolas were possible.

Apollo 13 went on to become the second highest grossing film of 1995, and earned nine Oscar nominations, winning Best Film Editing and Best Sound. (While the film was nominated for Best Picture, amazingly Howard did not make the cut for Best Director.)

“Later I bumped into Steven and he said, ‘How’d you do the weightlessness?,’” Howard said. “I explained it to him and he said, ‘I didn’t think you’d really do it!’”

Apollo 13 is available for streaming on Amazon.

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