How I Faked the Apollo Moon Landing
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s not only conspiracy theorists who can be fooled.
By Max Canard
In this exclusive OZY confession, 81-year-old former Hollywood cameraman Max Canard comes clean about his role in what could be the greatest hoax ever carried out: the Apollo moon landing.
I first walked on the moon in the summer of 1965 — four full years ahead of Neil Armstrong. Of course, neither I nor the Apollo boys really set foot on the moon, but I suppose many of you suspected as much already.
I’m not proud of it. Of the deception, that is. As they say, one small lie for man, one giant fraud perpetrated on mankind.
Impossible? Well, you saw Argo, right? You saw the lengths to which the CIA was willing to go in order to rescue a handful of U.S. diplomats. Shooting a fake movie was all we were really doing, too. Except that we weren’t doing it just to save six American lives in Tehran. We wanted to save all 200 million.
Call it a massive fraud; call it a government-run conspiracy — whatever. The Apollo moon landings, in this humble 81-year-old’s opinion, were a public relations coup that accomplished nothing less than winning the Cold War. Period. Not bad for some celluloid and a soundstage — purchased, I might add, at about one-millionth of NASA’s overall Apollo budget.
And speaking of soundstages, no moon landing was ever filmed in a Hollywood studio. That much is true. They were filmed in North London.
How do I know? I was the one holding the camera.
Meeting Stanley Kubrick
As a boy, I enjoyed looking up at the night sky from our Pennsylvania farm as much as the next guy. But the stars I really had my eye on were the ones out in Hollywood. And so as soon as I had my high school degree in hand, I headed out West to pursue my film-star dreams.
After a few years of waiting tables and playing an extra in crowd scenes, it had become abundantly clear that I had a face that belonged behind the camera. And so that’s where I went next, in 1961. About the time that President Kennedy was saying that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, I moved back East, to New York; got married and started working as a cameraman, filming commercials for cereals, mouthwashes and toilet bowl cleaners for Madison Avenue ad agencies. It was every bit as crazy a world as you see in Mad Men, but creatively it was as inspiring as, well, a toilet bowl.
But seeing Dr. Strangelove at the Victoria Theater in the winter of 1964 changed my life. And so when I heard that its director, the already legendary Stanley Kubrick, was looking for a crew for his next big movie, I presumptuously sent in my application. When I was invited to come to Kubrick’s own apartment on the Lower East Side, I couldn’t believe my luck.
Why would Kubrick risk his reputation to orchestrate the biggest fraud in history?
When I arrived, I was shown into the filmmaker’s study. Kubrick arrived promptly, carrying a thick pile of diagrams and charts. He was disheveled, pulsating with energy. He looked like a mad scientist who had been interrupted in the middle of an epiphany. Over tea, he explained to me how there had never been a truly realistic movie about space travel, and how in the film that would become 2001: A Space Odyssey, each scene would be absolutely authentic and on par with the latest that science had to offer.
I would journey to Kubrick’s apartment several times that summer, and take a barrage of personality tests that I would naively attribute to the director’s famous perfectionist zeal. A steady stream of prominent scientists, technicians and science fiction writers also passed through Kubrick’s door.
And then word finally came: I was hired. I would need to sign a contract, kiss my wife and two small children goodbye and move to London for six months of filming, beginning in the summer of 1965. I was ready for the mission, even if the next frontier would prove to be beyond my wildest imaginings.
A Real-Life Space Odyssey
London during the 1960s was nothing like Austin Powers. But on the now defunct MGM Studios lot in Borehamwood, sometimes referred to as the “British Hollywood,” there were plenty of men of mystery. This was my first time on a major film set, so I wrote off the men in suits loitering around every corner in much the same way I came to ignore the men in uniform who were filming The Dirty Dozen’s chateau scene on the studio’s back lot.
Manning the camera for Kubrick, one of the few directors at the time who knew anything about the equipment he relied on, was a lesson in humility. I came to realize that part of the reason a young and inexperienced cameraman like myself was chosen was my willingness to cede control of my own instrument to the maestro himself. “If you can describe it,” Kubrick liked to say to Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction legend who helped write the film, “I can film it.” I suppose he said much the same thing to NASA too.
From the start, Stanley — excuse me if I lapse into the familiar — was dedicated to making every aspect of 2001 as real as possible. No detail was too small to consider. We had boatbuilders, sculptors, artists and even metalworkers on set. We had 103 model-makers, for Chrissake. Truckloads of data and technical drawings and equipment would arrive routinely.
Stanley insisted that the space hardware used in the film was scientifically accurate, an almost up-to-the-minute realism acquired from constant conversations with the NASA officials on the set. When senior NASA Apollo administrator George Mueller and chief astronaut Deke Slayton visited, the two men seemed stunned by the rigor of Stanley’s alternate universe. I heard one of them refer to the studio as “NASA East.” Flattery, or a joke, I assumed.
In the end, NASA and/or Stanley’s relentless vision pushed the project further into 1966, and then 1967. My initial six-month term turned into a year, and then three years. I ended up moving my family to London. It was hard work, but those of us on the crew were having the time of our lives. The civil rights movement, Vietnam — the rest of the world just seemed to pass us by. We were focused on the future.
Finally, 2001 wrapped in late 1967. I felt so relieved, and made immediate plans to move my family back to New York and patch up my fraying marriage. One evening, late, the phone rang. It was Stanley. I wasn’t going anywhere.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fraud
At first, Stanley couched our return to the set in Borehamwood as necessary to complete a new “present day” sequence to be inserted into the 2001 plot. Naturally it was a cover story, much like the one used in the film itself, and Stanley would later confide in me our true purpose — after I had signed a confidentiality agreement, of course.
How did trust and a handful of confidentiality agreements manage to keep a lid on the greatest secret of the 20th century? A mathematician at Oxford recently went through the trouble of figuring out that, given the some 411,000 people who worked at NASA, a moon hoax would last only about three years before it would be leaked or uncovered. A century-long fraud, however, would require fewer than 125 collaborators.
The real clues are far subtler …
Well, I can’t speak to how many folks were involved on NASA’s end (which, I was told, did send a number of unmanned crafts to the moon), but our own group of collaborators in London was a true skeleton crew, composed only of Stanley, myself, eight other technicians and, of course, the two actors. A true dirty dozen. All the raw materials and filming techniques we needed had been created during 2001’ s production orgy. We just followed the script and rolled the tape. It was truly magic — and we had the right stuff.
Why would one of the world’s preeminent filmmakers risk his reputation to orchestrate the biggest fraud in history? And why would I join him?
Whatever they said in the papers, the Russians were beating us, plain and simple. They had more warheads, more soldiers and a more sophisticated space program. By 1967, NASA was nowhere near living up to JFK’s goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And then there was the rather nontrivial matter of the Van Allen radiation belts — the rings of charged particles held high above the Earth by its magnetic field. NASA had covertly tried sending a German shepherd through one of those belts. The poor dog was scrambled into kibbles and bits.
And so we improvised, returning to the basics and what Americans really do best: public relations and major motion pictures. I doubt the whole moon hoax was meant to last forever. When the Cold War ended, I felt, like the others, that the truth would finally be revealed — one more dodgy but understandable tactic deployed to win a great war. But of course, by the time the Berlin Wall fell, Apollo 11 was so central to America’s image and its collective self-esteem that debunking it would have been like saying Abraham Lincoln owned slaves or Babe Ruth used steroids.
By Christmas 1968, we had once again finished filming a space masterpiece in London. Now we could only wait to see how our film would play before an international audience that would number more than half a billion.
The Proof of the Pudding Is in the Cheating
On July 20, 1969, while millions of Americans watched what they thought was live television, I was drinking alone at a corner table at a bar on 57th Street. I knew how this particular movie was going to end, even if I had no idea where my own life was headed after Judy moved out and took the kids. Still, I couldn’t help but feel some measure of pride when I heard a cheer go up from the crowd gathered around the television as Neil Armstrong read from the script I knew by heart.
Can I prove it? As they say in this business, roll the tape.
First, let me dispense with some of the bogus evidence that gets paraded around by many so-called “conspiracy theorists.” Believe me, Stanley Kubrick was not about to have the authenticity of one of his films called into question because a landing module forgot to leave an imprint, or the stars were left out of the background. Such details were intentional and accurate: A 17-ton landing module would rest on rock and kick up dust, which would settle down, leaving no impressions. And no stars would be bright enough to be captured on film given the shining sun on a lunar morning.
No, the real clues are far subtler, and they reflect not mistakes but the very real limitations of the technology we were working with. Obviously, we could not shoot in a limited-gravity chamber, so we did the best we could to disguise this: The astronauts made a show of twisting the American flag they planted as a way of explaining why a flag might be moving when there is no air or wind on the moon. Similarly, we slowed the film speed and used some hidden cables to try to make the slow-motion moonwalking as realistic as possible.
The true evidence of the moon landing’s terrestrial origins is in the filmmaking craft itself: The same cinematic techniques that we deployed to create the desert backgrounds in 2001, we used again for Apollo. Today, Hollywood uses green screens and CGI for special effects, but all we had in the 1960s was “front screen projection,” a technique that allows scenes to be projected behind the actors onto a Scotchlite screen so it appears as if they are moving around inside the backdrop provided by the projection. It’s clever, but it’s not rocket science.
One of the telltale signs of front screen projection is that there is inevitably a break line between the back of the set you are filming on and the screen itself. If you examine the Apollo photographs closely, you will see a slight difference in the granularity of the landscape on either side of this break line between set and screen. I won’t go into the details further here. As they say nowadays, you can Google it. It’s all there.
Taking the Credit
A big hoax is an amazing drug. It’s like the elation you feel from being in on a secret, multiplied by a factor of a thousand. But eventually you come down.
The film business, on the other hand, is all about the credits. You know, the only Oscar that Stanley ever received was for the special effects on 2001. That’s it. Still, he never cracked, never revealed his authorship of the most significant film he ever made (despite the fake confessions you may have seen on the Internet). He didn’t need to; he had all the adulation he needed already from his fans.
For the vast majority of us behind the camera, though, all we have are the “Technical Achievement Awards” — you know, those awards they give at another ceremony before the Oscars. What a joke. For a while, I thought about my own little inside joke, about having a gravestone that read “Over 1 Billion Fooled,” the way McDonald’s brags about all its customers. But I decided that what I want most of all before I die is the credit.
The moon landings took everything from me. They alienated me from my family, and they drove me to drink, which tanked my career. My life turned into AKS — how we cameramen refer to the “all kinds of shit” we have to carry around with us on every gig.
Well, I’m tired of carrying this secret around, and playing the cosmic fool. Screw the confidentiality agreements. Screw NASA. Screw our national self-esteem. I’m no fool.
Epilogue: Max Canard is no longer with us. In fact, he never was. And while the debate over the authenticity of the moon landings will no doubt continue, the current account is indisputably fake, written by Sean Braswell. Happy April Fools’ Day!
- Max Canard, OZY AuthorContact Max Canard