A sojourn to inner and outer space…
I’ve been friends with Karen Janszen for some years now, starting with a project for Metromedia – a docudrama series called Survive! She was a story editor and I was writing the pilot episode. Over time, after that series was cashiered and when other projects flailed, I managed to extract most of myself from show biz. But Karen fully grabbed hold of it and has forged a solid career with her screenplays and teleplays. She lives and works in Hollywood, has written several movies, and teaches screenwriting at the American Film Institute.
She’s also the daughter of a physicist/inventor and has had a lifelong fascination with space exploration. She wrote an episode for the TV series From the Earth to the Moon (1998) about the Apollo program, with Tom Hanks as co-writer and Executive Producer. And she and I worked together most recently – me as a story consultant and advisor – on her sci-fi drama series about a spooky, nay, terrifying alien presence in a small US town. (I gave the series its name: High Strangeness, originally coined by ufologist J. Allen Hynek.) That project is still alive, albeit in a Canadian setting… She, in turn, helped me enormously on my screenplay Missing You, which is currently making a few rounds with production companies as a semifinalist in the Scriptapalooza screenplay competition.
A couple of years ago – maybe three, actually – she joined forces with writer/producer Ben Young Mason to develop and write a dramatic TV series, with documentary elements, called MARS, for National Geographic TV. MARS just now wrapped its second season and seems destined for more. She was a natural to help with the genesis of that series, which has won accolades from everywhere, as well as the highest ratings in 2016 of any TV series on British television.
Mars by the numbers…
- Mars right now (early January, 2019) is some 100 million miles from Earth. Its distance varies hugely over time – from about 35 million miles (very rare) to about 240 million miles.
- It is brightly visible to us on the East Coast in the evening sky, looking to the south and west in the constellation Aquarius, till about 7 PM EST (according to theskylive.com).
- Gravity: 38% of Earth’s. Atmospheric pressure: .6% of Earth. The “air” is about 96% carbon dioxide, with trace amounts of nitrogen, argon, and oxygen.
- Temperatures range from a high of about 95 degrees (in the shade!) to over a hundred below zero – depending on where you are and what season it is. Toasty. Nippy.
- Right now, it takes about nine minutes for Martian light (and any microwave transmission) to reach the Earth.
MARS, the NatGeoTV series
The series mixes science fiction drama with documentary footage and interviews, in the present day and some 20 – 25 years from now, when astronauts have established a growing community on the planet. Interviews with NASA scientists, astronomers, and with Elon Musk of SpaceX anchor the dramatic concept very close to what’s possible right now.
My wife and I watched all of Season 1, and just recently bought Season 2 via iTunes for Apple TV (cheap! About $2.50 per episode). The show is stunning to look at, gorgeous Martian landscapes (shot in Morocco) and elaborate hi-tech interiors of the growing settlements (these were all shot on sound stages in Budapest, which has terrific support systems for film and television). Major league production values, and we’re totally hooked!
Jihae Kim (front and center above), better known only as Jihae, plays the lead – the mission commander on Mars – as well as her twin sister back on Earth. From what we’ve seen so far, especially in Season 2, she deserves an Emmy for her performances. She speaks volumes just with her face, without saying a word.
But this is less about the series (get it! watch it!) than the people who made it happen. One old friend, one new friend.
The mountaineer: Ben Young Mason
Karen introduced us by email last winter: Ben was in Camden for several days visiting friends and was free to hook up for lunch. I suggested the Park Street Grille in Rockland, my usual hangout, and so we met and had lunch. I emphasize the word because people in showbiz when they do lunch there’s an additional agenda – it’s a working lunch, a meet-and-greet-lunch, whatever – but Ben and I just chatted about whatever came to mind. I wasn’t selling anything (I’m retired!), and neither was he.
Ben, from his Facebook pages. Outdoors, in his element.
He’d climbed Mount Battie that morning. Hiking boots through two feet of snow – in places it was up to his waist. Up to the top and then back down. I never would have tried this in the snow, but Battie was a leisurely garden stroll compared to plans he’d made years before to join an expedition scaling the western flank of Mount Everest. Altogether, Ben has ascended to some pretty lofty places all over the planet. Unlike me, he loves elevation – the higher and harder the better. Moi? My knees go cold at the top of a step ladder.
Between lunch and a phone call we had later, I learned more about his work in media. MARS is Ben’s creation. It’s his baby. Back in 2014 he composed a brief pitch-piece, took it to Fox (which now owns National Geographic), and soon enough Ron Howard and Imagine Entertainment joined NatGeo TV to Executive Produce. Within about two months or so – a virtual finger snap in showbiz time – they had everything in place to start developing. Karen was brought on as co-developer and writer, and they were off and running. Karen wrote Episode 1 and Ben wrote Episode 4 for Season 1. A team of writers in the “writers’ room” did the rest.
Before all this – For All Mankind (1989)
Impressive as MARS is, Ben’s magnum opus is arguably For All Mankind, an 80-minute award-winning documentary about the Apollo missions to the moon, co-created and directed by Al Reinert*. Reinert spent three years combing through 60 million feet of film footage in a basement storage facility at Johnson Space Center – most of which had never been seen before by anyone – in addition to 18 months of copying (because the original footage was not allowed to leave the facility).
Ben at that point was working with and for NASA in media and was a natural fit for this project, which stitched together imagery and voices of nearly all Apollo astronauts from all six successful missions, in non-chronological order. Notably but predictably, Neil Armstrong declined to be interviewed. So voices jump around between Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Edgar Mitchell and the rest without identifying who’s who. A truly novel approach that enlarges the experience rather than chopping it up into bite sizes.
My wife and watched the show in awe. It’s an exceptional and compelling work, well deserving of an 1990 Oscar nomination for best documentary, and winner of Sundance’s 1989 Grand Jury Prize Documentary and Audience Award Documentary.
So, why Ben’s fascination with space?
The Southwest Connection
Ben was born and raised in and around El Paso, meandered variously into Mexico, west Texas, and southern New Mexico. Spanish was his first language; English would creep in later.
Landscapes in that part of the world mold your soul, define it, polish it. Daytime clouds and mountain ridges, 150-mile views, vast desert emptiness. Nighttime is nearly beyond words with its spray of starpoints, intimate views of astronomical headlines like planet conjunctions, blood moons, comets Hale-Bopp and Kahoutek. The night sky can swallow you, cut you loose from gravity. Everything is sky.
That’s me talking, not Ben, but we’re having some wine at lunch and I sense his kindred view. I spent a mere seven years in northern New Mexico, Ben has lived most of his life in that area (now splitting his time between homes in L.A. and Santa Fe) and it all got into him when he was young, when you have no choice but to embrace it. Yes, everything is landscape and sky.
And Mars will be bigger, redder, brighter there than nearly anywhere else in this country.
Lunch is Still Lunch
We’re trading stories, anecdotes, sidestepping showbiz and having a fine time. When we leave, we find his car right on Park Street next to the restaurant’s entrance and it’s a sports coupe with a New Mexico plate that says MARS. I smile – cars with New Mexico plates are scarce here, but with MARS on it? Ben is equal parts soul and cool, and it’s utterly natural that we hug when parting.
I write Karen later and thank her for connecting us. She’s a fan of Ben, as I have become just by yakking with him. Good man. Visionary, persistent, adventuresome.
We recently had a telephone interview to go over some of what I’d missed with my research, which I believed I was recording with my little voice recorder. It was a great chat, Ben waxed eloquent and poetic near the end, and I handed the files off to my wife for transcribing (yes, she gets paid for this). She soon reported that the files were all white noise. My heart sank.
Face palm! Apparently I hadn’t inserted the recording jack entirely into its slot. Once again, my relatively primitive level of technical skill defeated me. Huge apologies to Ben, but I was able to rescue a lot of content because much of what we talked about was memorable.
*Ben just wrote me today, Jan 3:
“…there’s a late-breaking development. Al Reinert, the soul of FOR ALL MANKIND, an amazing writer and an old friend passed away day before yesterday outside of Austin. I sent word to Ron Howard who also worked with Al and Bill Broyles, writers of APOLLO 13.”
RIP Al Reinert.