- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2001

Australian film director Rob Sitch, whose new movie gives a lift to his countrymen's forgotten role in the Apollo 11 mission, says lunar landings always were his dish.

"Maybe Americans have forgotten the reach of the achievement, but my first formed memories of how the world worked came from watching America try to get to the moon," he says during an interview in Washington to promote his new film.

Mr. Sitch was 7 years old at the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969. "All the memories are really good and vivid," he says. "I remember that everyone around me seemed to know the flight plan of Apollo 11 as the mission began. Taxi drivers were worried about the third-stage firing. Of course, everything seems normal when you're a kid, but I loved all of it."

"The Dish," Mr. Sitch's second feature film, opens Friday under the auspices of Warner Bros. It explores the role of Australian astronomers and technicians stationed at the giant radio telescope near the country town of Parkes in New South Wales during the Apollo mission.

Parkes was to be the "backup" receiver for NASA's prime site in Goldstone in California's Mojave Desert. But a series of unexpected changes in the flight schedule resulted in Parkes transmitting the first television images of Neil Armstrong and Col. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin alighting on the surface of the moon.

Mr. Sitch created the movie with his three partners in a production company called Working Dog, derived from friendships and performing collaborations at Melbourne University in the mid-1980s. The Working Dog humorists, who had engineered several popular shows on Australian television and radio, had intended "The Dish" to be their first feature film.

Instead, Mr. Sitch's first directing effort turned out to be the delightful domestic comedy "The Castle," first shown to Americans at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Unfortunately, Miramax took 18 months to get "The Castle" into limited theatrical release after acquiring distribution rights at Sundance.

Mr. Sich explains that potential backers had remained lukewarm when Working Dog first proposed "The Dish." "It went up the flagpole and no one saluted," he says. "So we we pulled it down. In sort of a fit of pique but not really … we said, '… let's just make a movie.' We had finished a TV series and still had everyone together. We had been working on the script for 'The Castle' over a period of time. We polished it up and shot it in 11 days. We thought we'd get a limited release, but it took off.

"At that time people in Australia were a bit starved for a comedy. They were shocked that someone did one about a guy down the street … not some crocodile-hunting hero or a bunch of transvestites on a bus in the outback.

"Instead of larger than life, 'The Castle' was merely life. But in our heads, 'The Dish' was still our first film."

Partner Tom Gleisner gets credit for alerting Working Dog to the subject matter for "The Dish." "No one in Australia knew the story [of the locals' Apollo role] apart from the people involved," Mr. Sitch says. "The Parkes episode isn't taught in schools. It's not referred to. One day while we were brainstorming ideas, Tom said, 'What about Australia's involvement in the Apollo 11 mission?'

"It sounded far-fetched, more like an urban legend. We knew Australia didn't have a space program, but we had to admit that if true, it could make a great film. We insisted on disputing him for a while. Why would America have needed Australia? It was kind of like those nature films where you see the hippopotamus crossing the swamp and there's a little bird perched on his rump, hitching a ride. But Tom persisted and said it had something to do with the radio telescope. From that point, it was like treasure hunting."

They discovered that a book on radio astronomy had devoted an entire chapter to the installation at Parkes. "We thought it would just be simple facts, but there were all these serendipitous and kind of semi-farcical episodes, too," he says. "The signal had been lost, the wind kicked up at the worst possible time. It just cascaded. Eventually, we ended up with all this stuff — to the point of being silly. For example, I wanted to get hold of original tapes and transcripts from NASA. Specifically, I wanted the transmissions covering the moon landing, which run six hours. Instead of defining it as Eagle, the lunar module, I just said Apollo 11, so I got seven days worth of transcripts. It's surprisingly readable. The volume seemed less daunting when I figured out that they were sleeping during quite a few stretches."

The filming of "The Dish" was started in late May 1999 "so it was the same time as the events of 30 years earlier," Mr. Sitch notes. "Although it looks summery on film, that's Australian winter."

The movie's fictionalized plot revolves around a quartet of anxious but resourceful technicians. Patrick Warburton plays the NASA supervisor at Parkes, and Sam Neill, Kevin Harrington and Tom Long portray the Australian staff. "In one group photo there were as many as 10 people on hand," Mr. Sitch says. "We thought about trying to work in that many characters, but it tended to clutter up the control room. We were always ending up with people who were just looking at a monitor or something. We realized we had to limit our plot to a leadership group. We used one particular photo from the period as our guide, and that became a turning point, finding the key guys. We decided not to use real names, because it was always going to be a comedy. We thought we'd sprinkle the facts into our comedy, but a lot of the facts turned out to be more interesting and effective than things we made up."

Working Dog has four principal partners: Mr. Sitch, Santo Cilauro, Mr. Gleisner and Jane Kennedy. They write scripts in collaboration and then divide production tasks. Mr. Sitch, who has a medical degree from Melbourne University and spent a few years in hospital residency before choosing show business as a career, believes the directing role selected him "because I ike to plan stuff."

"We still do a lot of it together. From building models and storyboarding to the actual shooting. In Australia you have such a limited time to shoot. You plan to a ridiculous degree, because you can't afford to waste time or money or takes. Here's an example: Sam Neill is our principal cast member, but we had him for only 20 days. He found a block of time for us between 'Bicentennial Man' and 'Jurassic Park 3.'"

The embryonic Working Dog team had caught a major break while improvising stage shows in college, Mr. Sitch says. "We were young, about 20 and 21, too young to be afraid. We were doing a lot of shows that ranged from awful to OK. A fellow from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation saw an OK one. He wanted to showcase a group of fresh young humorists, so he got us into a national TV series called 'The D-Generation,' luckily partnered with a British show called 'The Young Ones,' already a big hit. In Australia at that time people watched television in one-hour blocks. We got the slot right after 'Young Ones,' which was like getting the slot right after 'Friends' would be now."

The group seemed to burn itself out on any particular pretext after two or three seasons. Fortunately, the members didn't run out of fresh pretexts. "We did a morning radio show that did really well for us," Mr. Sitch says. "On the back of that we did a thing that was a lot like 'Saturday Night Live.' The big difference was that we actually did it live. We had started to write, produce and direct. The new idea that became a big turning point for us was a show that was carried on some public television stations in the U.S. It was a satire of news-gathering organizations, called 'Frontline' in Australia. 'Breaking News' became the title over here. By then we had learned structure and were sustaining longer and longer formats. A lot of people were urging us to branch into movies, but we were sort of careful."

To underline his permanent interest in space exploration, Mr. Sitch reaches for a copy of the recently published memoirs of former NASA mission director Christopher Kraft.

He says school was in session for Australians during the Apollo 11 mission, which occurred during the Australian winter. "The government legislated that all schoolchildren should be able to see it." He doubts the legislation was necessary.

"It may be the first timepiece in history that people around the world could share in the same moment," he says. "There was always a certain time lag about other euphoric moments. Victory in Europe. Victory in the Pacific. I still haven't gotten tired of it.

"I also remember Apollo 8, 9 and 10. The Parkes installation also provided some crucial help during the Apollo 13 crisis." (The Apollo 13 mission was aborted after the service module oxygen tank ruptured. The crew survived.)

Mr. Sitch believes that the current lapse in manned space exploration of the moon may be contributing to dubious forms of overcompensation — some originating in Australia, notably so-called extreme sports and the reality game shows. "Thirty years ago America turned to Australia to help televise the first walk on the moon. What's our proudest moment 30 years later? American turns to us for 'Survivor.' We've run out of places to endanger ourselves in the search for adventure and discovery. Now we try to kill ourselves in the search for nothing."

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