Ryan White’s ‘Good Night Oppy’ recreates a brave adventure in space

As a young boy in Dunwoody, Ryan White desperately wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. Though that dream never panned out, what happened instead is just as good: he is now a prolific documentary filmmaker. One of his goals has been to find a space story that suited his brand of filmmaking — and with his new project, “Good Night Oppy,” he’s done just that.

Credit: Austin Hargrave

Credit: Austin Hargrave

In 2003, NASA sent two rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, to Mars for 90-day missions. Against the odds, Opportunity ended up surviving for 15 years, and a bond forged between the robot and workers back home. “Good Night Oppy” tells the story — so well that it won the Critics Choice Award for Best Documentary and is being mentioned as a potential Oscar nominee in that category this season. The film debuts on Prime Video Nov. 23 and also had a theatrical run.

White and longtime producer Jessica Hargrave were first approached by FILM 45, Peter Berg’s studio (itself part of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners) in March of 2020. FILM 45 had gotten access to 1,000 archival hours from NASA and wanted to make a documentary about Opportunity. Yet, the project didn’t seem to be a fit for White, since he’s not a historic-documentary filmmaker and didn’t think looking back at this robot’s life would suit him. Knowing about the archival footage, though, he began to wonder if he and his team could make the audience feel like they were there from the very beginning.

“Can we tell a crazy adventure story?” White asked himself. “It was a way of me conning my way into reliving my childhood dream vicariously through these people.”

Although he admits he follows space journeys more than the average person, in his adult life, White has been keeping up with it less and less. He was already in college when the two rovers took off. “I do remember, in 2019, a tweet went viral when Opportunity sent her final message — ‘my battery is getting low and it’s getting dark.’ That was a global gut punch. Everyone was responding to this idea of a rover alone on another planet. I was moved by that, as millions of others were,” White says.

The idea of taking the audience to Mars in a way that had never been done appealed to him, creating a photo-real place from all the photographs available. A team at Industrial Light & Magic said they could build Mars from the ground up based on the footage that the rovers took. This is the first time White has made a film with visual effects, and, as he’s learned, those effects can take time. “I am very run and gun in my (work), but this is a film we had to plan out very early. I had to write a screenplay because they needed time to complete these shots,” he says. In all, White worked on the project for two and a half years.

Angela Bassett narrates the documentary. White knew she was the right person for the job, and the experience working with her is one he’ll always savor. “I was telling her that when I was in Dunwoody at 13, I went to see ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’ three or four times at my Peachtree Corners theater. She did something to the 13-year-old gay boy in me then — just made me feel she was the only person that matters in the world. She was the voice in my head from the beginning. I thought for sure she’d say no and was shocked when she said yes. She had watched a cut of the film and had loved it and felt this journey deeply. Once we put her voice in the film, it changed everything. This will be one of the pinnacles of my career.”

White didn’t know a lot of NASA scientists and engineers in his day-to-day life and assumed they would be dry, academic and unemotional, not the best storytellers. “I was totally wrong,” he says. “The biggest challenge turned out to be this embarrassment of riches — how do we choose the human beings to be in the film?”

Credit: Austin Hargrave

Credit: Austin Hargrave

The most surprising element in “Good Night Oppy” is the aforementioned bond that develops between the NASA team and Opportunity. “Opportunity was supposed to last for 90 days, but as she outdoes the odds and lives longer and longer, that bond grows stronger. Spirit did that too. I hope audiences bond, too, with the rovers. I saw a lot of tears after screenings, which we were not expecting. It’s why that tweet went viral — this idea that this little robot is in trouble on another planet doing the brave exploration that we cannot do ourselves. She is our eyes and ears for the first time, seeing this uncharted territory. She is doing this brave work and we can’t help but anecdotally relate that to our own lives.”

White has directed acclaimed documentaries such as “The Case Against 8,” “Ask Dr. Ruth” and “Assassins,” as well as the TV documentary miniseries “Visible: Out On Television.” He and Hargrave attended Chamblee High School together and made their first film in seventh grade in a house in Decatur. Several more followed throughout middle and high school.

White eventually moved from this area to attend Duke University, where he studied at the College of Documentary Studies. “It wasn’t until I went to Duke that I realized documentary filmmaking was a thing. It wasn’t a viable thing when I was graduating — you thought you were taking a vow of poverty because it was the filmmaking where films had no budget and you made no money. The world has changed a lot over the last 20 years.”


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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