In the summer of 1996, I was developing a script for The Hulk with my writer friend, Jonathan Hensleigh, when Chuck Gordon sent me Lewis Colick’s draft of Rocket Boys. Chuck had optioned the story of a group of West Virginia teens from a coal mining town that had appeared in a recent edition of Air and Space Magazine. The editor of the magazine had called Homer Hickam when one of the feature articles had dropped out. Homer had worked for NASA and had contributed science-related articles in the past. The magazine needed enough story for about four pages, and the editor told Homer that any subject matter was fine as long as the story would be relevant to the magazine’s content. Homer wrote about his experiences growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia in the 1950’s, seeing Sputnik fly over, building rockets, winning the science fair and receiving a scholarship that meant escape from a future in the coal mines. Chuck bought the rights to the story and gave the article to Lewis Colick who, after a lengthy Q&A session with Homer, turned the four page article into one of the most moving, life-affirming, emotional, and essentially American screenplays that has ever been written.
I rarely read a script in one sitting but this one I couldn’t put down. I finished it at 1:00 am and seriously considered calling Chuck in the middle of the night to tell him I was doing the movie and not to send it to anyone else. I waited until eight the next morning. I immediately dropped all involvement with The Hulk and lobbied Casey Silver to let me direct the picture. Fortunately, the script was also a favorite of Casey’s and within a few months I was scouting locations in Appalachia with line producer Larry Franco and production designer Barry Robison.
Casting the lead, the young Homer Hickam, was an arduous process. Casting director Nancy Foy had put close to a thousand young actors on tape. We were only a few weeks from start of photography and we didn’t have a single candidate. At the end of a long day in our offices in Studio City a kid came in, Jake somebody…Gyllenhaal? I’d never heard of him. He’d played Billy Crystal’s son in City Slickers when he was twelve. We rolled the tape and Jake did the scene and that was it. One take. Perfect. He’s the guy. We added Chris Cooper, Laura Dern, Natalie Canerday and the guys playing the rocket boys and we had a great cast.
A crucial aspect of the picture was capturing the feel of the environment. I wanted the seasons to play a part in the film’s color palette. The weather helped out in that respect as well. During our fifty-two day shoot we had every possible kind of weather known to man, including a tornado that mercifully came through while we weren’t shooting. When I watch the film, I still feel the chill in the air and smell of the woods after rain. Fred Murphy’s beautiful cinematography captured every nuance of the environment.
There was definitely a form of serendipitous magic watching over the production. OCTOBER SKY is a perfect anagram of ROCKET BOYS, and October Sky was a candidate for the title before this was realized. Joey Digaetano, the special effects supervisor who was responsible for launching all the rockets was a dead ringer for Werner von Braun and plays him, complete with German accent, during the medal ceremony near the end. O. Winston Link, who documented the twilight years of the Norfolk and Western Railway in his beautiful photography book The Last Steam Railroad in America played the engineer of the Mikado 4501 as it passed the boys on the abandoned siding. Barry Robison had used Winston’s photographs as inspiration for period set decoration. Somehow we found out that Winston was 92 years old and living in a convalescent home in New York. When we offered him the part he said, “I’ll do anything to ride in a steam locomotive one more time.”
There was one scene that wasn’t in the script. The pre-dawn morning that Homer first goes into the mine and sees Sputnik fly overhead as the elevator descends deep into the earth. I wanted one moment that summed up Homer’s life in an instant… His greatest hope and his greatest fear colliding and pulling him in two directions at once. One of Lewis’s inspired additions is making the mine the only true villain in the story. It gives life and it takes it away.
I’m very happy with the way October Sky turned out. Robert Dalva did a wonderful job editing, and Mark Isham provided a heart-wrenching score. The film is a throwback in a way. It’s not at all slick and glossy and is maybe a little old-fashioned, not the kind of film you see much of these days, but there is something agonizingly real in the confused and awkward relationship between father and son that everyone, male or female, can relate to. Countless sons and fathers have told me how they watched the film together or alone and couldn’t stop wiping away the tears when John Hickam finally shows up to see a rocket launch and gives his approval. Maybe it simply represents the approval that adolescents have been hoping for.
The film didn’t make enough at the box office to warrant a sequel and maybe that’s a good thing. It’s a story that would only be made thinner by trying to tell what happened next and make it as fulfilling.