From space travel to that Twitter debacle and a cybertruck that could “serve briefly” as a boat, there’s no denying that Elon Musk has a knack for occupying the headlines. From humble beginnings, he’s had a meteoric rise in status to one of the richest people in the world (it bounces between him and Jeff Bezos), and now a new documentary TV series is taking a closer look at what happened along the way from the perspective of those close to Musk.
The Elon Musk Show, which airs its first episode tonight in the UK on BBC Two, was directed by Marian Mohamed, an award-winning documentary director who has previously worked across House of Maxwell and won a BAFTA Craft award in 2021 for her debut documentary Defending Digga D. We caught up with Mohamed to find out more about the series, and what it’s like trying to learn about someone so famous but who has largely turned away from press interaction.
How did you come to direct The Elon Musk Show?
I had just finished directing an episode on the BBC series House of Maxwell, and I heard that the BBC had commissioned 72 Films to make a three-part series about Elon Musk. I was immediately fascinated. My ears pricked up, he’s someone I see in the headlines all the time. He seemed to be everywhere. I wanted to hear more about it, so although I wasn’t involved in the ideation, I got involved in the pre-production. I love making documentaries about things I know little about – doing a deep dive. And to take a deep dive into Musk’s world with the 72 Films team, who are known for The Trump Show and Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story, felt like it’d be an interesting process.
What were some of the most interesting revelations from your research?
I didn’t realise how many things he has going on at once, and maybe more importantly, how fast-moving they all are. He’s putting chips in people’s brains, building tunnels underground, and he’s got SpaceX, which was only founded in 2002. It’s amazing how quickly his companies have moved, becoming so domineering. This was a revelation to me.
It was interesting to learn about the resistance to SpaceX in the early days, and Obama’s space policy. In the series Neil Armstrong appears in archive, he wasn’t so sure about SpaceX in the early days.
There’s a personal side too. We filmed insiders and relatives, and with that came so much revelatory information. I didn’t realise the challenges Elon faced in his childhood, at school and at home. It’s not something he really speaks about publicly.
How did you access the archival clips that will feature in the show, and what are they of?
We looked everywhere! Chasing old documentary rushes, and trawling the internet for footage, our archive producer Tracey Li contacting directors all across the world. As Musk started to get more famous, he began to exist a lot less in documentaries. It’s funny because in his younger days he was followed around by camera crews, and when you see that footage it’s golden. Nowadays, he barely does TV interviews. He has a strained relationship with the press so it’s hard to find new footage of him.
Some of the footage came from Maye Musk, his mother. Maye kindly sent us some personal pictures of the family. Some came from [ex-wife] Talulah [Riley] too.
We also went back to the rocket engineers who were with him in the very early days of SpaceX. They took so many pictures, and amazingly, they let us raid their google drive. I had to go through around 200 pictures!
To see how he has evolved from a really geeky, awkward engineer to one of the most influential, most-watched CEOs, it’s really interesting to see that change in his personality in the archive footage. He says it himself at one point – it’s a learned behaviour. It didn’t seem to come naturally to Elon.
What do you hope people will take away from The Elon Musk Show?
The aim of the series is to tell the story of how Elon Musk came to be the richest man in the world, told by those who know him the best. I think it’s an entertaining story of a CEO’s rise, and I think he’s a fascinating character. We go from Silicon Valley to South Africa, to the International Space Station. It’s a journey and it’s a very fast-paced series where we’re jumping between SpaceX, Tesla, and all of Elon’s other missions.
Elon’s ascent only really started in the mid-'90s, and in that timeframe, there’s been so many ups and downs and he is now the richest man in the world. I want the viewer to feel like, whoa, whiplash, that was quick.
We have rocket engineers, some of whom have never spoken before, telling us about what it’s like to start a rocket company from scratch and prepare their first missions to the ISS. I hope we’ve told that in an engaging way.
I was a bit nervous trying to understand some of the very technical rocket information they were talking about. Especially in the edit, trying to explain why the rockets are failing, etc. My editor Ben Brown had some great ideas on how to still retain their lingo and the science, whilst still presenting it in bitesize chunks so that a non-rocket engineer viewer can appreciate the moment when a rocket does successfully go into orbit.
What do you enjoy most about documentary filmmaking?
I love that you can turn up with a camera, go into people’s homes, workplaces and lives, and they’re ready to sit down with you and let you in. They will tell you things they haven’t told anyone before. They will tell their story. That’s the thing I love most – someone letting you into their world. I love interviews. I love having a chat.
With actuality-led documentaries, I love that you’re in the moment, learning about a moment along with the people you’re filming with. I think it’s much more exciting than drama.
How did you get into it?
I did a scheme with Shine TV 10 years ago, it was for people from underprivileged backgrounds. It was an apprenticeship scheme. I became a researcher, assistant producer then producer, and I directed my first film two years ago for BBC Three: Defending Digga D. I think the Shine TV scheme is still running but it's aimed at graduates now, and I wouldn’t have gotten into TV without it. I was part of the first cohort.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to get into documentary filmmaking?
Check out the Shine TV scheme, but there are more schemes around now than ever! I found that scheme on the Internet.
Watch stuff. If there’s something you watch on the BBC or Netflix, and you’re like, oh my god I want to make a film like that, don’t be shy. Look at the credits, look at who produced it, and contact them. That’s what I did. Sometimes they don’t respond to you, but that’s fine. Watch a lot of films, find out what you like and what you don’t, and then try to contact those people.
If you are from an underprivileged, working-class or diverse background, sometimes you already know the films that are made by people from a similar background to you. Contact those people on Twitter.
Try to make a short film, have fun! There are many fun student films and competitions – enter. Sometimes the most interesting stories are in your backyard. Find those stories even if you don’t yet have the resources to make those into films. Your ideas are your currency.
The Elon Musk Show will air on BBC Two in the UK at 9 pm on October 12, and will be available on iPlayer after.