The story of how we got to the moon is well known to the point where those first men who walked on its surface are names remembered by everyone, young and old. Yet the methods that were used weren’t the first idea. In fact, years before any of that happened some of the most brilliant minds had set their sights on Mars and their methods included nuclear bombs.
Directors Derek Lartaud and Melanie Ruiz made a wonderful short film that talked about Project Orion and how those scientists remember their time together. We were happy to talk with Melanie to ask her how she first found this story, the impact of these men and what is her next project.
Heartland Film Festival: This is one of those documentaries that has such a fascinating premise that it’s shocking that more people haven’t heard of it before. How did you first come across this?
Melanie Ruiz: I studied math for several years, and Freeman Dyson is pretty famous in math and physics circles – and science fiction, I suppose. When I started thinking about people I might profile for a documentary, I was surprised that no one had told his story before and that most people had never even heard of him. (“You mean the vacuum guy?” people still say when I ask if they’ve heard of him.) My master’s adviser, Jon Else, was an exception. He interviewed Dyson for his film, “The Day After Trinity.” When Derek (AD co-director) and I talked to him about profiling Dyson, the first thing he told us about was Project Orion. After reading George Dyson’s book about the project, I knew we had found our film. The whole thing was so bizarre and beautifully revealing of Dyson the scientist and the man.
Heartland Film Festival: Over 50 years have gone by since this experiment, yet everyone you interview were so giddy talking about it again. What was it about this work that seemed different than anything else they’ve ever worked on?
Melanie Ruiz: The time period, 1958, in which the project took place was an exciting era where people dreamed big and had all kinds of crazy ideas. Anything seemed possible. These guys really believed Orion would launch. After all, the science of Orion was, and still is, viable. Secondly, they wanted to go. Dyson and Ted Taylor, the leader or the project, thought they would be on their way to Mars by 1968. Dyson described this time as the happiest in his professional life. It brought together all of the things he was passionate about. He believes that people must get away from human civilization for creative thought and that traveling the solar system is the way to do that.
Heartland Film Festival: We learn in the film that this sort of nuclear testing has dangerous consequences for the environment. As a filmmaker, how did you want to approach the tone of popping the bubble on their “atomic dream?”
The tone was really just dictated by Dyson’s response, at the time, to the problem of nuclear testing. Derek and I came to see him as really the opposite of a mad scientist. He’s a mathematician, through and through, and when he did the math, he saw that the tests had to stop. So, for me, the end of the “atomic dream” was a perfect mixture of the tragedy that Dyson would have to let go of his dream of seeing the stars and the hope offered in his unwavering ethics.
Heartland Film Festival: What do you think is the value of men like Freeman Dyson?
Melanie Ruiz: Freeman is such a rich character. He has interesting views on so many different topics. And it’s not uncommon for him to be referred to as a heretic. One of his greatest contributions, according to some of his closest friends and colleagues, is his ability and even predisposition to be contrarian. He will often take an unpopular stance on very heated topics. And he doesn’t seem to just want attention. As his son, George Dyson, said, it’s because he just does the math. If the numbers don’t agree with the public conception of things, then neither does he. The scientific community needs people to push back, even when, as he admits is sometimes the case with him, they are wrong.
Dyson is a great, sometimes rebellious thinker but also a prolific writer, even writing for the New York Times Book Review. Not drawn to dig deep into one problem, Dyson contributes to many different types of topics, from game theory to the search for intelligent life in the universe. And he’s able to communicate some very deep ideas to general audiences. He enriches our lives because he’s able to let us in on very abstruse topics. And he builds bridges between experts’ theories, as well, just as he did for quantum electrodynamics.
Heartland Film Festival: Are you working on a new project?
Melanie Ruiz: I am working on a couple of different projects. Derek and I are working on a film exploring new advances in facial transplants, as a way to explore the meaning of self and identity and the transformative effects – or lack thereof – that life-threatening accidents have on people. This film is in the development and initial shooting stages. I am also developing a project around depression and the new treatments that are giving hope to people who suffer from this baffling and intractable dysfunction between a human and their brain. I tend to navigate both towards scientific films and profiles. But it’s always a matter of finding the right person, as we did with Dyson.
Heartland Film Festival: What are the films that have inspired you as a filmmaker?
Melanie Ruiz: That’s a tough one. So many films! Definitely, Errol Morris is one of my favorite directors. The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War are amazing. As profiles go, I’d have to say Crumb and Bill Cunningham New York are two of my favorites. Very different tones, both amazing. Most recently, The Act of Killing blew my mind. Honestly, I’m inspired by films every week. Anyone who finds a good story and tells it in a new, interesting way, inspires me. It’s hard to push filmmaking boundaries and tell a story well. It’s incredibly difficult to just do one of those things.
- Friday, October 18 at 10:45 a.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14**
- Friday, October 18 at 7:00 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14**
- Saturday, October 19 at 10 a.m. at AMC Traders Point 12**
- Sunday, October 20 at 12:45 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
- Monday, October 21 at 2:45 p.m. at AMC Traders Point 12
- Tuesday, October 22 at 7:30 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
- Friday, October 25 at 9 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
- Saturday, October 26 at 2 p.m. at AMC Traders Point 12
**Melanie is scheduled to attend the following screenings.