Sir Richard Branson Talks Tribeca Documentary, Space Travel: "I Don't Enjoy Facing Death"

Decades ago, his hot air balloon rides captivated the world, and when he relives it now, Branson is struck by one of the real characters in the doc — his own mother.
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There's a moment in the Daniel Gordon-helmed documentary Don't Look Down — a deep dive into Sir Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand's attempts to cross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in a hot air balloon — when the billionaire behind the Virgin empire recounts his emotions before boarding the craft in July 1987.

"I remember thinking, 'This just feels like a flight that is about to go to space,'" Branson says of that night. Flying has been a passion of the 65-year-old for much of his life, but when he speaks of space, it's impossible not to think about how that fascination with the sky put him inside a hot air balloon 30 years ago and could put him into orbit in, well, any day now (he hopes).

Branson got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the documentary, his daredevil nature and if he'll be on the first Virgin Galactic space flight. (The easy answer: "Of course.")

But first, manners. 

He may be known for his business acumen, but Branson displayed genuine warmth, apologizing for a delay of a mere two minutes for this scheduled interview. "Sorry we had difficulties getting connected, it's very nice to talk to you," he said, before all of the following.

How did this documentary come together?

I had seen some documentary feature films like Senna, and watching that particular film one night I suddenly thought, 'F— it, we've got tons of wonderful footage from my ballooning adventures ... maybe somebody could make something of it. It'd be nice to show the grandchildren and so on to see one day.' So they put the film together and I'm very happy with the way they've done it. They were pretty full-on adventures — I'm lucky to have survived them. They've created a good 90 minutes of something people will enjoy, even the younger generation who may not remember the event.

How did you come to work with Gordon, a man how has spent considerable time documenting soccer players and other athletes?

The film company found him. They had seen a wonderful film he had made of the football disaster in Sheffield where a lot of people got trampled to death. It was done brilliantly. The film company that made the film decided to use him.

Why premiere in Tribeca? Did you have input on where the world premiere would be?

Tribeca is one of the two most prestigious premiere events in the American diary. When they accepted the film we were delighted. New York is not a bad place to premiere a film. America played quite a big role in all of our adventures in the past, so I'm looking forward to coming there.

What helps to tell the story here is the unearthed footage of the voyage and old interviews that you had done. What was most surprising to you about watching this again?

The footage was mostly on the voyages. Maybe I should have a cameraman credit. (Laughs.) The striking thing is that we got back in the balloon again. We faced death on every occasion and shouldn't have survived. A kind star up above us brought us home. They managed to capture just how gripping the events on both of the trips were. They manage to capture the early start of Virgin and how through this, evokes a pretty formidable global brand. Strangely, without these adventures, it's possible that Virgin wouldn't exist. … Also, one of the stars of the film is my mom. She's a real character and very supportive. She came across very well in the film.

Yeah, she is a real character in the film …

I'm very lucky.

One of the many fascinating things about the documentary is hearing you reveal what was going through your mind when you thought you were about to die. What was that like to relive those moments? Does it feel like it was just yesterday?

I remember it vividly, and obviously this film pulls it back. When you are facing death, you've got two choices: Curl up and die or do everything you can to avoid death. Being a bit of an entrepreneur, I'm fortunate to have got the kind of mentality to fight tooth and nail to avoid it. And nature was on our side. We were very, very, very fortunate.

Have you had any other experiences like that in your life?

(Laughs.) Too many to mention. … I can never say no. I just say yes to so many things that have gotten me into so much trouble over the years. I've been on boats that have sunk on more than one occasion. All sorts of fun things from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Life's been richer and more rewarding for it.

One of the descriptions that is most commonly used to describe you as a person is "daredevil entrepreneur." Is that a title you like?

I think it's a fair summary. (Laughs.) I think that in order to put the Virgin brand on the map, I've used myself.

Have you become more or less fearless as you've gotten older?

I've always been actually fearful. I love doing these things and I love saying yes, but I don't enjoy facing death. We're still going to continue doing some pretty extraordinary things, but we'll do everything we can to come back and tell that tale or make the next film. Obviously, the next big adventure that we've got is we're hoping to go to space on a spaceship in the not-too-distant future. We're just starting to test the new spaceship, and that's something as a family we're looking forward to.

I was just reading that Virgin Galactic is moving forward with test flights. Will you be on one of those first flights when it all comes together?

Of course. I will be going up on the very first official flight.

You said that you would be "astounded" if a space flight didn't happen in the next two years. Is that still on schedule?


Will you be chronicling that journey for perhaps another documentary like Don't Look Down?

It's quite possible. We're certainly chronicling the whole [story] since Virgin Galactic began. All those tough moments we've had to get through to get here. One day I wouldn't be at all surprised to see [another documentary].

Since you mentioned Virgin, I wanted to ask you one business question about the airline. What can you say about the deal awaiting shareholder approval of Alaska Airlines' purchase of Virgin America?

My own point of view of the process is that I respect the brand and I respect the staff. I'm going to Seattle to see them in a week or so to have a chat. My own personal preference is that it would've stayed independent. But because I'm British and not American, I had to take a minority of shares in the company. I didn't have a right to veto it. They paid a fair price. We'll now try to work with them to make sure that they keep what is special about it.