From Liftoff to Landing: The Story Behind Austin Film Festival’s New Space Thriller
Written By: Rebecca Canfield
In November 2017, Dallas natives and award-winning movie directors David and Mark Dodson debuted their new space-themed feature film, The Landing, at the Austin Film Festival (AFF). A psychological thriller set in the documentary style, The Landing has been getting a lot of buzz for appearing to be so real that even though directors have repeatedly said that it is fiction, many moviegoers refuse to believe that Apollo 18 never actually happened. The story, audiences say, has a bit of everything. It has murder, intrigue, and (of course) space exploration. However, The Landing’s documentary-style film adds another gripping element, because it also explores the nature of truth and of what we choose to believe. In the era of fake news, The Landing’s underlying message warns about the danger of believing things simply because they are presented as facts. It also explores the nature of what we accept as real. Its timely message has been called both interesting and enlightening by moviegoers and critics alike.
“We live in a very specific and unfortunate age where we’re dealing with fake news, alternative facts, and things that are doing great damage to the bedrock of our country. We put out a film that essentially traffics in that idea. It is something that’s not real, but that is easy to believe is real… What we’ve found out is that memory is so easily reshaped. We have had people come up to us in festivals and say, ‘I remember this!’” said David Dodson. “We are hoping that the film makes you think about that.”
Filming The Landing
One thing that has made The Landing a hit is that the movie has a little bit of something for everyone. Perhaps this is why The Landing was chosen as a staff pick by AFF staffers and was later chosen as an AFF buzz film. The film received an additional AFF encore screening and was chosen as the first film of AFF’s 2018 Audience Award Series. The Landing also won Best Director at the Boston Sci-Film Festival, Best Thriller at the Burbank International Film Festival, and received the 2017 Hiscox Audience Award for Dark Matters Feature.
“The depth and breadth of interviews coupled with recreations of staggering detail … creates a viewing unlike any other,” said AFF’s Rob Gonzales. “Prepare to be unprepared, as the great unknowns of space, a little Cold War paranoia, and a good old-fashioned
mystery come crashing down from orbit!”
The Landing directors, brothers David and Mark Dodson, have credited their young fascination with the space program and their great love of space travel as the inspiration for the film. The brothers, who have been working on The Landing for over 25 years now, actually began working on the film in 1992. Originally, The Landing was designed to be a short film. However, the duo had always intended to revisit the film in the future, assuming that all of the actors were still available. Fortunately, 25 years later, the Dodson brothers found that not only were all of the actors above ground, but they were equally excited about the opportunity to turn the short film into a full-length feature. It was a risk that was not only effective, but that gave the movie a Boyhood type feel and authenticity that audiences appreciate.
Local Austinite Relives a Dream
However, the film is not the only thing that has Texans talking. In addition to the story of the movie’s creation, there lies another rather intriguing detail. One real-life Texas pararescuer turned chemistry professor reprised his original acting role as one of the movie’s astronauts, Al Borden, 25 years after The Landing’s original debut. The true-to-life plot twist though is that actor and Austin native Jeff McVey has had plenty of real-life experience with space exploration; he was actually a part of the Elite Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service under Military Airlift Command in 1975 as a part of NASA’s Apolo-Soyuz mission. However, even before then, young Jeff often hobnobbed with famous astronauts due to the prominence of his parents.
His mother Dollie married Edward Cole (former president of General Motors) after her divorce from Jeff ’s father, William McVey. Through his mother, Jeff got to know many celebrities who hung out with the GM mogul such as Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, and Andy Griffith. Jeff ’s father, William McVey, had a prominent career of his own. He was a fighter pilot, flight instructor, and later the Commanding Officer of the legendary USS Intrepid in the U.S. Navy. When Jeff ’s parents were still married, they often spent time with real-life astronauts John Glenn and Al Worden. Ironically, the name of Jeff ’s character in The Landing, Al Borden, was a shout out to the astronaut he knew as a youngster. Another enthralling fact is that Jeff ’s family also knew John Glenn back when he was still a Marine aviator. Additionally, Jeff ’s father also knew famous baseball legends Joe DiMaggio and Pete Rose, giving Jeff quite the unusual and fascinating childhood.
Little did Jeff know that after finishing up his years in the Army as a para-rescuer he would get a chance to do what he had been hankering to do all along. After several years in college studying business, and later chemistry, Jeff finally decided to go for it, and gave a seemingly less practical major, acting, a real try. He re-enrolled in University of Texas’s Theater Department and took on some roles including a role as Happy in Death of a Salesman, a role as Sky Masterson in Guys & Dolls, and another role in a Shakespearean play. His successful reviews helped Jeff land a small role in the 1983 movie Play Dead. Following the movie, Jeff finally bit the bullet, sold his house, moved to Los Angeles, and hired an agent.
Immediately, Jeff landed a role on the first season of the 1980s TV show Star Search with Ed McMahon. He was ecstatic when he easily won his first competition. However, when he returned for his second competition, they brought in famous television actress Joan Van Ark to work alongside him, and Jeff got so nervous, he lost the competition. However, he was still able to find opportunities in L.A. getting bit parts in movies. Still, Jeff found that his star was slowly fading, and as his confidence dwindled, he began to get less and less work.
“The response to me just being me was great…and then after a while, everything was a push because I was trying so hard and it was excruciating for me, and difficult for them, and I finally stopped getting call-backs.”
Jeff began taking on several different jobs. He returned to skydiving and became a licensed skydiving instructor. It was actually skydiving that led him to meet fellow Landing actor Don Hannah, brother of famed actress Daryl Hannah, who was also a skydiver. The pair became friends, and after Hannah found out that McVey was a fellow actor with a long history with the space program, he introduced McVey to the Dodsons, who immediately cast him in the film.
“Because I knew astronauts and because I had worked with the Apollo program as a swimmer, he introduced me to David and Mark Dodson, who I have since become fast friends with,” McVey said. “They are extraordinary, bright, creative, and relentlessly in pursuit of work with meaning. They are just painfully honest about everything they do. They want the rawness and the authenticity in everything. Thousands and thousands of hours of work went into this by these people who have just dumped their heart and soul into this film.”
Rounds One and Two
When The Landing was originally produced in 1992, the Dodsons were not sure how far the short film would go. So after spending a fabulous time filming, Jeff went back to a life of skydiving where he did fascinating things such as skydiving into the Rose Bowl and becoming a part of a group of skydiving Elvises whose theatrical entrances shook up various local events. The Dodsons moved onto other movie projects and put The Landing on the back shelf for over two decades. However, acting, the thing Jeff loves the most, was always calling out to him from the back of his mind, and The Landing was calling to the Dodsons.
So 25 years later, when Jeff got the call asking him to reprise his role as Al Borden, he jumped at the chance to relive his dream and reconnect with his friends once again. Little did any of them know the success The Landing would produce. Still one of Texas State University’s favorite chemistry professors, Jeff spends most of his time these days in the classroom. Yet he is always ready to take on a new acting role whenever the opportunity arises and said that getting the chance to act again has been a dream come true. What Jeff has learned about life and Hollywood from this whole experience is that just because you have landed, does not mean you cannot take off again for a second trip and that it is never too late to live out your dream.