I AM First Man: Damien Chazelle
First Man is Damien Chazelle’s next film after Academy award-winning La La Land (2016). It centres around Neil Armstrong and his legendary space mission, which led him to become the first man to walk on the moon.
Following the film’s emotional premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Chazelle, Neil Armstrong’s children, and the creative cast and team sat down for a Q & A conversation with Kerri Craddock and later a Press Conference with Jenelle Riley, to discuss their journey.
I AM FILM have created an edited transcript of their most insightful commentaries about the creative process of bringing Armstrong’s legacy to the screen, after more than 40 years.
First Man (2018) trailer - courtesy Universal Pictures
Mark Armstrong: You know, when they started this project, Damien and the screenwriter Josh Singer, started with the only authorised biography that our dad ever participated in called: First Man. It’s a very heavy, dense book. They spent two or three years after that going deep; getting the details in between the chapters, in between the words, in between the paragraphs.
How did this whole thing come together?
Josh Singer, Screenwriter: It really started with James Hansen’s book. It came to our attention about 10 years ago and it was available. Warner Bros. was trying to do something with it and ultimately didn’t make a deal on it. At that point, we heard the story and we always wondered why Neil Armstrong’s story had not been told.
We took it to Universal and they bought it for us. And basically, we worked on the script for about eight or about six years, until we had met Damien. Damien had just finished Whiplash. Marty (Bowen) and Isaac (Klausner) took him to lunch and pitched him a bunch of things. And the one thing that he really sparked to was the Apollo story; the Neil Armstrong story.
You captured the heart and mind of a man who didn’t like to be in the public sphere and is such an iconic figure. Can you talk a little bit about how you were able to do that from a filmmaking standpoint—from the writing, the visuals, and working with the actors?
Damien Chazelle, Director: In a way, that was the challenge that I think interested us: trying to strip back some of the mythology from both the event and the man. We tried to get to the human being underneath and the natural lead-up to this event. The more research we did, the more we realised how unlikely this event really was.
One of things that I see as a through-line in your work now is the idea of the cost of our dreams. And in this film, it obviously illustrates the cost to Neil himself, to his family, and also the cost to society of this tremendous accomplishment. Can you talk about if you see that as a theme and how you wanted to explore that here?
Damien Chazelle, Director: When Wyck (Godfrey) and Isaac (Kausner) first mentioned Neil Armstrong to me—again, not knowing too much about Neil Armstrong per se, not knowing much beyond the broad parameters of the Apollo program—I wasn’t really sure what a new perspective on that could be.
And I think this was only right after I had done Whiplash. It was sort of like looking at the moon landing as another very costly goal, and in some ways, the most famous goal in history; landing somebody on the moon and returning them safely to earth.
And just the insanity of it, in a way, when you look at that declaration being made in ’61 and by ’69—it happened. Neil references this in a line earlier in the movie: “60 years prior to that were the first aeroplanes.” So, the idea of people even flying in the sky was still relatively novel in the scheme of things.
Original Mission Video (1969) depicting the Apollo 11 astronauts
And so, historically, and creatively, I just wanted to look at how does something like that happen? I sensed that it wouldn’t happen without great cost. But I wanted to find out exactly what those costs were and try not to sugar-coat that at all.
I think that’s in some ways how a lot of that period of history has been sold to us. In the past, I think, it has been with this veneer of glossy imagery and everything was: ‘These were super heroes and it was kind of easy because they were so super heroic; everything worked and that’s why we landed on the moon.’
And I think it was actually both more relatable, more interesting, more inspiring, really, to look at it as actually very ordinary people who were putting themselves truly in harm’s way. People who were really making tough calls—a controversial program that was divisive at times—that was not this sort of easy sell, from the get-go. And one that could have very easily gone wrong.
Producers, why was Damian the right person to tell this story?
Marty Bowen, Producer: Somebody mentioned the cost of greatness, and right after Whiplash, it seemed like he would be a perfect person for it. But you’ve got to keep in mind that when you’re in one of those rooms, you’re just hoping that something that you’re working on might interest someone who you think is very talented.
For every meeting with a filmmaker like Damien, one in 20 you get lucky enough to have that connective tissue. So, we were very fortunate to be at the right place, at the right time.
Was Ryan always going to be cast in the role of Neil Armstrong?
Damien Chazelle, Director: Yeah, Ryan and I had actually…the first time we ever met was initially to talk about this movie. I think I was in the early stages of getting La La Land off the ground. But, really, I had just done Whiplash and I guess I saw this movie initially; as an opportunity almost to explore a similar theme of just the cost of a goal, and the cost of certain kinds of ambition.
And so, I met with Ryan, talked about it, and the conversation segued to Gene Kelly pretty quickly—and we did La La Land together. But, right from the get-go, I knew that I wanted to work with him on this.
Ryan, what did you know about Neil Armstrong? How did reading the script change your perceptions of him?
Ryan Gosling (as Neil Armstrong): Well, as soon as I learned what the moon was; I learned that a man called Neil Armstrong walked on it. So, he was always synonymous with the moon. But, like the moon, I knew very little about him.
And when I met with Damien and he told me that he wanted to uncover the man behind the myth, and once I started to learn about Neil and his wife Janet; I realised this incredible life was deserving of the tribute that Damien wanted to pay to it, and it was an incredible opportunity. But, it was an enormous responsibility.
Damien Chazelle, Director: In some ways, I’ve always been interested in people who have a hard time communicating their emotions and maybe in the ‘normal way’. You know, with a musical, you can resort to song and dance to communicate those emotions in a way that words can’t.
With Neil, there was such poetry, I think, for me, just looking at his life in the story of someone who, in many cases, seemed to sublimate his emotions into his work and into this passion that he had ever since he was a little boy—a passion for aviation.
So, just this idea of someone who is continually drawn up there; couldn’t even communicate why necessarily, but just needed to find answers up there, became the real through-line for us. And then, how that makes it difficult for someone who has his eyes so locked up at the sky…How difficult it is to lock his eyes down on earth and actually engage and communicate on earth.
Quite often, the female characters are on the sidelines looking worried. Janet is such a powerful character. Claire, what was it like to play her?
Claire Foy (as Janet Armstrong): I think the thing is that Janet and Pat and all the women who were left at home, were extraordinary. Those stories are there, those women were always there. But nobody was interested.
The story was with the men who were going to the moon and that’s what I think the film was amazing at doing; the humanity of the men who were going was also not important to anybody. Nobody ever wanted to know that they had lives and that they had arguments with their wives, and their kids, and all those things.
It takes a filmmaker to shine a light on that and say: that’s the real story. That’s the story we want to know.
Mark and Rick: what is it like to see your parents and yourselves portrayed like this?
Mark Armstrong: Well, I’ve seen the movie four or five times now. I saw it again last night and I’m still crying. And my wife has a tissue and she very quietly hands it to me, and I try to make sure nobody is even noticing. But that’s the impact of these performances at a personal level. And so that really speaks to how authentic, again, the movie is and the performances are.
There’s a line from the film for those of you that don’t know. Dad’s asked, “How did you feel to be chosen for the, you know, to command the first mission to the moon?” He said, “I was pleased.” And it shows his gift for understatement. But, it also is what actually happened.
And I just want to say that it’s one of many moments that is portrayed in the film, that is exactly what happened and the way it happened. And I think that speaks to the authenticity of the film and I just really want to congratulate these folks for the great work that they did.
Rick Armstrong: I don’t know how many people approached him. I think he said “No” to everybody until Jim Hanson. I think Jim came with an approach that’s more technical in nature. I don’t think he envisioned a movie or anything, but he did consent to that. He did some 50-60 hours of footage with Jim and then he pretty much let him write whatever he took away from those interviews. I think there was another 10 or 15 years before a movie came out. I think he’d be pleased with the result.
Tom, one of the most incredible sequences is the one in Mission Control. There’s so much going on at one time, so many conversations. Can you talk about how you tackled that sequence and the collaboration?
Tom Cross, Editor: That was pretty daunting to do. Damien always said that he wanted this movie to be kind of visceral; to be very different from what we had done before on Whiplash and La La Land; where the cuts are kind of very clean and very fast. He really wanted to make you feel like you were putting a documentary cameraman inside a spacecraft.
The whole Gemini sequence with Mission Control—that was definitely the most difficult section because it covered a launch, which was from the astronaut’s point of view. It covered this docking procedure, then these other locations. A lot was in Josh Singer’s script–it was very precise–but, we did have to really play around with it and find the right rhythms.
It was truly a team effort because we were cutting things; my assistants, my crew were organising 16mm, 35mm, vista vision, IMAX. Each take, I had 24-tracks of audio because they miked every person in the Mission Control room. So, it was a lot, to say the least.
First man (2018) trailer 2 - courtesy Universal Pictures
You touched on the idea that some of it feels like a documentary. I think that also relates to just the authenticity of the production design. Nathan, could you speak to what inspirations you had to ensure that very authentic feeling?
Nathan Crowley, Production Designer: Well, I think that on my first visit to Houston, I didn’t realise the complexity of what we had to go through. We had this mammoth task to go from X-15, to Gemini, to Apollo, to the moon-landing, and Mission Control.
So, to recreate that and then stylistically choose to do it in a realistic way with as much age as we could: Myself, Linus, and Damian wanted to do it in-camera. That meant we had to have this real working interior spacecraft mixed with exterior full-size 80% spacecraft for camera mounts, then miniatures for the mid-ground, and then CG for the background.
Linus, I’m told you operate your own cameras, why?
Linus Sandgren, Cinematographer: Well, it depends. In a film like this where it’s a lot about emotions and intimacy; I find that I love operating. If I can, I really love to do it for being there as it happens.
Damian really wanted this very documentary style of filmmaking, which is something that we really haven’t seen before in space movies; where usually everything is sort of very artificial. He really wanted the feeling that we’re really there: just a little hand-held camera and a zoom, very intimate with him on the journey.
To the point, we wanted it to be surreal, we really made everything as much as possible in-camera. Nathan built everything. And we didn’t use any green screen.
So, we actually created a huge screen that is 80 feet in diameter (with)in a 180 half-circle, so that both the actors and the crew could experience the space trip as a flight simulator, basically, as we shot.
You talked about how you used 35mm, 16mm, and IMAX. Can you tell us how you used and when you used which and why?
Linus Sandgren, Cinematographer: 16 mm felt for us like the most intimate and emotionally-connected format. So, all the stuff inside the spacecraft are 16 mm. Also, grain itself helps for the period. And then, in their homes, we had to film them in 35 (mm). As we come to the moon, it opens up into IMAX.
Justin, this is this your third collaboration with Damien. Music has always played a bit role. Can you talk about the importance of it here?
Justin Hurwitz, Composer: Yeah, this is our first that’s not a musical or a music-driven movie. So, we knew we had to approach it differently in some ways, obviously. But we just started as soon as he started prepping the movie, which is great for me because I really like to have that time.
The absence of sound on the moon landing: Ai-ling and Millie, can you speak to the sound design in this film?
Ai-ling Lee, Sound Designer: So, basically once they (Neil and Buzz) land, we kind of built up the sound while inside the lunar module. For them trying to open the door, because of the pressure difference; once it opens up, the sound just escalates and builds into this overwhelming sudden loudness. Then, it suddenly cuts off into silence. Pure silence. A lot of it…just to surprise and overwhelm the audience, to take in the image of the moon.
Also, Damien wanted to sell the idea of deep space having this chilling effect, but calm. I think the contrast into the silence helps a lot.
Mildred Iatrou, Sound Editor: My main job was dealing with the production dialogue and the ADR; all the spoken words. And when they are on the moon they are saying lines that we’re all very familiar with. We wanted to reference the originals, but have the actors actually performing those lines.
Someone who had just seen the film said, “Oh so you used the original recordings on the moon,” and I said, “No, we didn’t.” I was so happy to hear that because the actors—when they were performing the lines, referenced and listened to the original lines—and then we took them, tweaked them a little more, and manipulated them to make it sound like the actual lines.
Mary, can you talk about what you used to create authentic costumes for both sides of the film?
Mary Zophres, Costume Designer: I was struck by, when I read the script, the story of this man, the sacrifices he made, and his family. So, it was really important to Damien and to all of us to create a very realistic feel. But to also tell the story of who these people were; character-driven costumes without overshadowing the story of the film.
We were given family photo albums and a lot to reference. We hit every vintage vendor and clothing store all over the world. It was a lovely conspiracy through the costume people all over the world that came together and sent us boxes of unused garments.
The other side was trying to replicate the space suits as realistic a way as we possibly could, without costing 100,000 dollars a suit, which is what they really cost. In the end, I felt it was really happening before my eyes and that makes me very happy.
It was a task and it was herculean, and it was a group effort. But I’m pleased; it seems like we told a really fantastic story.
About the filmmaker
Writer, Director, Producer
Damien Chazelle is an American director and screenwriter. His directorial debut was the musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), his breakthrough came when he wrote and directed his second feature film, Whiplash (2014), which was based on his award-winning 2013 short film of the same name. The film received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle.
In 2016 his film La La Land received critical and commercial acclaim, winning all 7 of its Golden Globe nominations, including Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. It also received a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations, winning six including Best Director for Chazelle who became the youngest person in history to win a Oscar for Best Director at the age of 32.