Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Over the next week or so, filmmakers will wrap up shooting a small-budget movie in San Antonio about an aeronautical engineer's desperate, and ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to prevent the launch of the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded shortly after takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986.
The film Angry Men tells a fictionalized story of engineer Roger Boisjoly, who tried to warn NASA officials that cold weather on the morning of takeoff likely would cause O-ring seals to fail during the Challenger launch. The space shuttle did launch, but exploded 73 seconds into flight, killing seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher and the first American civilian selected to go into space.
The film posits that had NASA heeded the pleas of outraged aerospace engineers the night before the launch, the explosion and the astronauts' deaths could have been averted.
Locals will recognize at least one actor in the film: Mayor Ron Nirenberg made a cameo appearance as a member of the Rogers Commission, which was established by President Ronald Reagan to investigate the cause of the tragedy. As the engineers had insisted, the commission found that the O-rings could not expand as designed during takeoff due to freezing temperatures at Cape Canaveral. The real-life panel included astronauts Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong, physicists, and its chairman, William P. Rogers, former secretary of state under President Richard Nixon.
Local filmmaker Nathan VonMinden said it was the courage of Boisjoly and others on a Utah aeronautical team to defy forces that compelled him to turn the dramatic eve of the flight into the feature-length film Angry Men, which he said combines elements of Twelve Angry Men and Apollo 13.
VonMinden sees the story as a parable about “facing down the system” despite indifference.
“I am inspired by those guys, like Roger Boisjoly, Allan McDonald, and Bob Ebeling, who in real life stood up for what was right,” VonMinden said during a lunch break in an abandoned office building at Brooks, where most of the film is being shot. Boisjoly, McDonald, and Ebeling joined in trying to stop the launch.
“Human life is more valuable than the sense of duty, getting it done, making money, losing face," he said. "They faced down the system."
VonMinden learned about the whistle-blowers during his time at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he earned a degree in aerospace engineering. He briefly worked as a product engineer, then left that work to make movies, mostly for churches in the Houston area and, for the last two years, in San Antonio.
In Angry Men, which he wrote and is directing, VonMinden created composite characters of the actual O-ring engineering team. There’s a cranky alarmist named Adam, who makes a stink if the office doughnuts aren’t fresh, and his nemesis, Frank, who just wants to follow orders and get the rocket launched. If there’s no proof the O-rings will fail, he insists, then they will be okay.
While none of the 13 cast members, plus a few extras, are Hollywood actors, VonMinden said their talent surpassed his expectations as they were hired as much for their work ethic as for their acting ability. Most are Texans, from San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas – including award-winning Director of Photography James Burgess – and two are from Detroit and Atlanta. Les Miles, actor and former football coach at Louisiana State University, took part in scenes of the Rogers Commission that were filmed Sunday in City Council Chambers.
When Nirenberg walked into the chambers, VonMinden scribbled out some lines for him.
"The production office offered the opportunity, and Ron took it,” Nirenberg's Communication Director Bruce Davidson told the Rivard Report via text message.
The central character's casting was a bit less casual. Full-time actor Eric Hanson of Plano said he was cast in the lead role of Adam when VonMinden told him via Facetime that others who auditioned “couldn’t get to 11 on the anger [scale].”
Though he was in the middle of making an industrial film in Dallas, Hanson went out to the parking lot to audition on Facetime with VonMinden and producer Glenn Gordon.
Gordon said Hanson nailed the scene. “I thought he was mad at us. I felt like I did something wrong.”
On Day 10 of the shoot at Brooks, the film crew was repositioning microphone booms and fluffing steam toward the ceiling to soften the florescent lights on set for the next scene, in an office break room.
The actors were easy to spot. As anachronistic as Mad Men, one actor portraying an engineer wears a short-sleeved shirt with a sweater vest. All male characters wear ties, trousers, and black leather shoes.
The crew has worked hard to replicate a 1980s office on set. Jane Phillip, assistant art director and film major at Houston Baptist University, scavenged the building –which serves as a time capsule of the '80s – for Selectric typewriters, boxy JVC television sets, Rolodexes, floppy disks, and even an old vending machine. While the former Brooks Air Force Base grounds had a wealth of era-appropriate props, Gordon had to find a spacesuit on eBay.
The building is part of a campus of one-story brick buildings in a section of the decommissioned base that feels almmost ghostly because of a lack of people, traffic, and human activity. Even the movie makers didn't know what purpose it had served.
When “All quiet on the set!” is announced, VonMinden’s 8-year-old twins know that includes them. If not, their mother and VonMinden’s wife of 14 years, Meleice, is there to keep an eye on them. The twins are two of the couple's six children ranging in age from 19 months to 12 years.
Asked if it's a bit unnerving to have her husband leave his job to make a movie, Meleice said she works from home and homeschools the children, so it’s all up to him.
“It’s a little scary," she said. “But God has blown us away every step of the way, and He will take care of it.”
Every time someone shows support for the project, like their friend Lisa Whiting of Richmond, Texas, they feel it’s a blessing.
VonMinden and Whiting met in a Bible study group before the VonMindens moved to San Antonio two years ago. Another Houston area connection, film professor Jesse Groth Olson of Houston Baptist University, sent eight of his students to help on the crew as unpaid interns during the winter holidays.
Phillip said the experience has cemented her desire to work in film art departments. “I want to work with cool people on cool projects and make their vision come to life,” she said.
Paid cast and crew seem to have signed on for more than the money as well.
“Nathan and Glenn vetted everyone before they came on board,” Hanson said. “They wanted good, hard-working people that were going to be a joy to work with, and that’s what we got. It shows in the work and in the camaraderie. You can’t fake that.”
When the movie is completed and edited in early spring, VonMinden will shop it to distributors, “a partner who gets what we’re doing.” His website outlines the film, its business plan, and on-demand distribution possibilities. The site also contains VonMinden’s earlier films, including Uganda Man, which he produced for less than $5,000 and grossed more than $200,000, largely from viewers who donated funds. The film won awards at film festivals and was named official selection in six others, including the San Antonio Film Festival. Angry Men has a $90,000 budget.
Though Angry Men is the type of film VonMinden and his friends like to watch – history mixed with adventure – he sees it as a larger story relevant to American culture.
“I don’t know if all of us will get a chance to have that moment," he said. "In my mind you get two or three where you’re confronted with a situation and you’re asked to step up and make a decision – do what’s right, or do what’s wrong. And our characters could have easily said, ‘not me,’ but they had a higher calling to stand up and do what’s right.”