Oscar Winners Damien Chazelle And Josh Singer Tell Us How They Brought ‘First Man’ To The Big Screen

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After watching the gauntlet of questions about phony controversies Damien Chazelle has had to answer so far on his First Man press tour, I offered a quick solution based on something the hair metal band Warrant had done. At an early 2000s concert, instead of playing songs like Heaven and I Saw Red, they just did them all in a quick medley to get them out of the way. That seems like it could work here, too: a quick medley about the “missing” American Flag (after now seeing First Man I counted about 1000 American Flags in this movie, including the one on the moon) and Ryan Gosling being Canadian and so on and so on. “It’s not a bad idea,” says Chazelle.

First Man is, obviously, the story of Neil Armstrong. His story has been covered before in movies like The Right Stuff and the HBO series From Earth to the Moon, but there’s never just been a film concentrating on what Armstrong went through, including a focus on the personal tragedy of losing his young daughter. The other astronauts are here too — Cory Stoll plays a very blunt and a socially awkward version of Buzz Aldren here, one where there are multiple scenes of other characters having to say stuff like, “Buzz, why would you say that?” — but the focus is on Neil Armstrong and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy).

I met the now Oscar-winning director, along with Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer, and Oscar-winning cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, at a café along a busy street in Toronto during the Toronto International Film Festival. First Man is an astounding piece of work and, ahead, the three explain how it all came together. But first I had to remind Chazelle that when I interviewed him here two years ago for La La Land, Josh Singer was walking out of Chazelle’s hotel room with a letter from astronaut Michael Collins. With a big grin Singer said back then, “He and I are cookin’ something up!” Well, yes, they certainly were and here we are now.

When I interviewed Damien for La La Land, Josh was walking out of Damien’s hotel room with this letter from Michael Collins. “Look what I’ve got,” he said. It was in this protective case. I asked why he had that and Josh said, “Me and him are cooking something up.”

Josh Singer: [Laughs] I did not say, “cooking something up!”

Yes, you did. And, “keep it on the down low.”

Damien Chazelle: That’s hilarious. That is so funny.

Josh Singer: I was just trying to trail on his coattails, I was just hanging on.

How has there never been a movie just about Neil Armstrong before? There’s The Right Stuff, but this is more all-encompassing.

Damien Chazelle: Well, there’s this perception, I think in a way, that maybe because he is so iconic and mythic, that Neil Armstrong is sort of bland. He was the clean-cut, wholesome American hero who went and did the thing. And it seemed to go fine, no issues, and he came back and that was it. I think the “no issues” part is what really was the myth. As soon as we started researching, we found it was so far from the truth. And looking at, looking at just the shit that he went through on the way to going to the moon. And of course him – and, by extension, his family and the entire NASA program – just how steeped in loss and failure this whole endeavor was up until the moment of him actually walking on the moon. I think that was sort of the eye-opening thing. I think in some ways it’s been intentionally kind of obfuscated. There’s sort of that kind of aura of NASA history at that time that’s so coded in myth a little bit. And so it just seems like a ripe opportunity to maybe try to chip away at that and bring the icon back down to Earth.

Josh Singer: It’s also interesting because Mike Collins would always say he wasn’t in your face. He was never out there. But if you came to him he would open up. And Collins said to me and Ryan Gosling, “Neil had a shit-eating grin,” which was there, you just had to get there, right? And one of the things I think Ryan does so well is, while it’s such a contained performance, I count eight, nine, ten shit-eating grins in the movie. And Neil had a very wry, very dry sense of humor.

Like the scene where Buzz Aldrin says he wants to take his wife’s jewelry to the moon so she can brag and Neil says, “I’d rather take more fuel.”

Josh Singer: Right, exactly. It’s so Neil. And that’s a real Neil line. And I tried to echo that. And I made it clear I thought it was cold, where it’s very dry, but it’s actually of an intellect and a humor that is subtle and really pretty terrific.

First Man also serves as a pretty good second man movie, too. He has some, let’s say, blunt lines in this movie.

Josh Singer: He saw the movie.

What did he think?

Damien Chazelle: You know, we tried to have everyone basically who we could to be as involved in the movie as possible to get the real info from them.

Did he like being the person everyone looks at and says, “Buzz, why would you say that?”

Damien Chazelle: Well, I think to some degree, again, that was Buzz. At least insomuch as we’ve been able to glean. And he was on set when we were shooting the Cape Canaveral stuff and he was talking with Josh for a long time in prep. Same with Mike Collins. But one thing I think Cory Stoll does really beautifully in that role is that nothing that Buzz says in the movie is actually wrong. One thing I think that’s great about that character is that here you’ve got a culture of people who make it a habit to not say what they’re feeling – to not say the kind of uncomfortable truths. It’s almost a culture of deflection, where death is around the corner but we don’t talk about it. And loss is around the corner but we don’t talk about it and we compartmentalize. And Buzz is one of the rare people that actually speaks.

At the time, did Neil and Buzz like each other? They are almost an unwitting comedy duo in this movie.

Damien Chazelle: There was definitely a friction, but you know, obviously they got the job done. They are definitely the phrase “amiable strangers.” The phrase that referred to not just Neil and Buzz, but that whole threesome: Neil, Buzz, and Mike. Of course, the irony is that you’ve got three guys who were more intimate than guys ever get in many ways in the sense that they were in this tiny Volkswagen-sized capsule hurling off around the moon for eight days, plus or minus the time that Neil and Buzz were on the moon. But they were never kind of those sort of – you know, you think of The Right Stuff – they were never those types. It wasn’t these sort of arms locked together, “We’re gonna do it,” the way that some of the other astronauts at the time where. Neil, Buzz, and Mike, if they all had one thing in common, they were a little more brainy and a little more cerebral than that.

Josh Singer: There’s a piece that we cut out. We shot it, but we cut it out literally in the last minute in post, which was, Buzz was next up, but Deke Slayton said, “No one would fault you if you take Jim Lovell.” And Neil said, “Let me think about it for 24 hours.” Everybody loved Lovell. But Neil decided, one, Lovell was set for his command, and two, Buzz was very talented at what he did. And again, we depict him, and I think this is accurate, as a truth teller and as sometimes not the kind of truth teller you want around all the time.

I want to talk about the scene when Neil and Buzz first open the hatch on the moon. Also, I do like that this movie is spoiler-proof…

Damien Chazelle: We do joke though that we should have one print somewhere in one theater that no one knows about – this one theater somewhere where they just crash land on the moon and die, and it says RIP and the credits roll up.

“And then we never went to space again.”

Damien Chazelle: Yeah, “we never went to space again.” People are coming out going, “Did you see that movie? They fucking die on the moon!” “No, I saw it, no, they land and everything, what are you talking about?”

That print would become this urban legend.

Linus Sandgren: We could also have, like in one print you have to have a much more subtle thing, if a spaceship or something is traveling, “Did you see that spaceship?!”

Josh Singer: [Laughs] A UFO! Right!

Damien Chazelle: “What was that?!”

But that first look at the surface of the moon, with no sound, in IMAX, is stunning.

Linus Sandgren: It sort of developed a little bit from the initial idea of being very intimate with the characters and sort of realistic with the whole story. And where the camera could be very vulnerable watching the actors in the moment and capturing it as naturalistic as possible.

Damien Chazelle: The 16 millimeter came first in terms of format. We sort of located the real main look of the movie in that, and then it sort of became a matter of how do we differentiate the moon?

Linus Sandgren: And somehow we felt that the super 16 would be the most human sort of format where when you’re close up with actors, and it feels much more real and authentic, especially for that time in the ’60s. And inside the craft, it’s very intimate and real shooting in super 16. So in order to get the moon being as surreal and sort of far away from humanity as possible, the best step was to go as wide as we can and as massive as we can. The ultimate contrast basically.

You like doing those quick cuts of mundane things in quick succession, like in La La Land when coffee is poured.

Damien Chazelle: I do it everywhere I guess. Yeah, I can’t help myself.

I just assumed you wouldn’t be able to do that here, but you did with hooking up hoses to the spacesuit.

Damien Chazelle: In a way, it’s less conscious than that. I mean, I think especially this movie, the move was shot kind of like a documentary. We just wanted to be as close as possible. We felt like we hadn’t seen the really up close and personal beads of sweat, grease on the knobs, the hoses being plugged in. Anything that was a reminder to us of the sort of handmade quality of this, that each square peg had to fit into each square hole. And of course one of those things go wrong, and you know, it can mean death, so.

Apollo 1 is depicted in this film, where three astronauts die. That had to be tough.

Josh Singer: There was just so much loss around these guys. And what was really important to us I think was, just from a storytelling point of view, like getting to know Ed White [played by Jason Clarke]. Ed White was just an incredible guy. You talk to anybody about Ed White, and he was this incredibly charming and incredibly handsome and he was one of the few really athletic guys. He was jogging every day, he was like a true American hero, right? And this was a guy who was gonna run for Congress…

Damien Chazelle: He was thought of as the next John Glenn.

Josh Singer: And people loved him. Everyone in the group loved him, right? And nobody remembers him. People remember Gus Grissom maybe a little better because he was the commander of Apollo 1, or because he was in Mercury, and famous for the unsinkable Molly Brown, which he named Gemini. So he’s someone who’s remembered, but not so much Ed. But Ed was very close with Neil. They were next door neighbors. Neil had a house fire and Ed would jump the fence to come hose down the fire. We’re trying to pay tribute to some of those unsung forgotten heroes. And Apollo 1…

Damien Chazelle: It was hard because it was our first time shooting in a space capsule. That was sort of pacing things out. It was the first sequence we shot that was space capsule set. The suits are so cumbersome; the capsules are so tiny. We wanted to shoot with real full suits and real visors and everything, but that means you have to have oxygen and you have to have cooling systems and you have to have tubes. All that stuff has to work, you have to be able to get audio. We had to be able to enclose the capsule and the camera inside the capsule.

Josh Singer: Jason actually told me, and I don’t think he’d mind me repeating this, Jason actually told me that he had a little bit of a moment. That he had to step out and was having trouble, and then covered up and got back into the capsule. Brutal.

‘First Man’ opens in theaters on October 12th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.