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

Senior Entertainment Writer
09.13.18

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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.

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