Among the Stars with Director Ben Turner

Among the Stars immerses viewers with NASA astronaut Captain Chris Cassidy as he embarks on one last mission, featuring intimate footage, personal video diaries and livestream video for a behind-the-scenes look at the engineers, flight controllers and specialists who work together to make these missions possible. The six-part series, which landed as an original on Disney+ last month, comes from Fulwell 73 Productions and was directed and executive produced by one of the company’s founding partners, Ben Turner, who talks to TV Real Weekly about the genesis of the project, his passion for all things space and his own mission to inspire through filmmaking.

“I’ve always been a bit obsessed with space and wanted to make a show about it,” says Turner, who explains that James Corden, a fellow partner at Fulwell 73, played a pivotal role in connecting him to Cassidy, who was interested in documenting what might be his last mission. “I had just finished making Sunderland ‘Til I Die, a sports-access series in the mold of All or Nothing. That method of storytelling is old-school obs-doc filmmaking, but it’s packaged in a more modern way. There’s a match every week, and you get to see everyone survive or fail in quite binary terms and the drama comes to a head. But if you could find ways of charting the drama, there’s no reason that other teams couldn’t provide such an interesting story. In my mind, the gold standard would be NASA, because those are teams of people under enormous pressure trying to do amazing things. And if a soccer game, an American football game can be that interesting, then surely stepping into space to do a mission has got to be interesting.”

When Turner looked at the landscape of space documentaries, he found that they largely fell into two buckets: those heavy on the science and those that retell stories of past missions. Though he enjoys these projects himself, Turner believed that he could bring something new to the genre. “Nobody was doing it like a sports documentary—we’re going to embed with this team, we’re going to get to know the people involved, we’re going to get to see the stakes through their eyes and we’re going to be with them as they overcome the obstacles and pull off something amazing,” he says. “If you can package [the footage] in the way that we did—so you know the people involved, you know the stakes, you know that they’ve stressed over this particular thing that’s going to be a pinch point—then it really comes to life. This show stands out among lots of space docs because we’ve just approached it in a slightly different way.”

What Turner couldn’t have expected when starting to work on Among the Stars was that it would prove a larger challenge to film on the ground than up in space. “The thing I was most worried about in the run-up to the show was how I was going to film the stuff in space, because no matter how much I begged them, they wouldn’t send me,” says Turner, while laughing. “I was worried about how we were going to capture it with Chris on the Space Station. But I couldn’t have foreseen that we were going to have a global pandemic, and NASA was going to be shut down. Because it’s a government agency, there’s no wiggle room. There’s no way of getting in there if it’s not mission-essential—as much as I argued that I was mission-critical, apparently I wasn’t. That became challenging to film anything on the ground once [Chris] was up there. The space side was quite easy.”

Crucial to the success of filming both on the ground and up in space was the teamwork of the crew behind the docuseries, and it’s the teamwork of those who make space missions possible that Turner hopes sends an important message to viewers. “One of the keys to happiness in life is to find out what shape or part of the machine you are and find a machine that you really want to work in, that gets the best out of you,” says Turner. “A lot of my job as a director and producer is to bring a team together who work well, who feel like we’re on the way to Mordor to throw a ring into the fires. We don’t need motivating because we’re all loving what we’re doing and that’s the only way of working. That was reflected in the teams we saw with NASA. There are astronauts, but there are mission accountants, project managers, engineers, scientists. There are people of all shapes and sizes and skill sets who work together to make that happen.”

Turner adds, “Astronauts say they’re just the tip of the iceberg, the hands of the machine. I hoped to show that whole machine working. I hope the kids watching it think, ‘I could do that part of it, I could be a part of this because I’m really good at numbers.’ Everyone is important.”

Another message that Turner hopes viewers come away with, particularly in light of Covid-19 and ongoing political strife around the world, is how much good can come from finding solutions through constructive disagreements and collaboration. At NASA, “there’s international collaboration; it’s not just NASA, it’s people from CERN and MIT and lots of international groups coming together, not always agreeing,” says Turner. “There is plenty of disagreement when you’re trying to do something that’s as difficult as they’re doing. Everyone’s got their opinions. But to show an international collaboration of people overcoming differences and obstacles in a constructive way, I hope is inspirational in itself and meaningful in that context of what we’ve all been through.”

With Among the Stars, Turner had also hoped to document a significant moment at NASA and in space travel. As it happened, the docuseries chronicles “a moment where we’re going from astronauts and people who worked on the Space Shuttle and built the International Space Station to the time where everybody is going to space,” explains Turner, noting the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission and Blue Origin. “There’s a whole new energy coming to this, with private companies and civilian astronauts. We got to document the transition in a way from one era to another…. It’s a kind of changing of the guards from the NASA that we all fell in love with from watching the Space Shuttle to something even more exciting in the future. It was amazing to be in a position to document that transition.”

Turner also felt fortunate to be working on the project with Disney, which offered full support to make Among the Stars everything it could be. In pursuit of Disney’s high bar, “they would support us with anything we needed, which was amazing because a lot of TV is struggling against budgets and timelines, but they were very generous and open-hearted,” says Turner. “I loved working with them. I’m very open to learning how to sprinkle the Disney magic on my work. Creatively, they were fantastic.”

Putting together a project for a streamer like Disney+ came with the added benefits of having more freedom with episode lengths and longtail potential in terms of being found by curious viewers over time. “When you’re doing it on a network, you have a slot and that slot has its own baggage,” explains Turner. “If you’re in the U.K. on the BBC at 9 o’clock on a Thursday night, that’s a certain audience and that shapes how your show has got to be. And that’s the same in America. When you make it for a streamer, it will find its audience when it’s good enough.”

When factual content like Among the Stars finds its audience it can play a significant role in broadening viewers’ understanding of the world and it can inspire, according to Turner. “I have always been attracted to stories that I find inspirational,” he says. “In terms of my work, it’s really important to show things to people that are inspirational. You watch the news, it’s quite scary at the moment. We need to face our problems honestly and understand them. But we also need to feel inspired and have the notion that people are amazing and do amazing things together.”