One Giant Leap: Damien Chazelle's 'First Man' brings intimacy to the epic story of the Moon landing

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Right from the start, Damien Chazelle knew his First Man would be mostly from the point of view of Neil Armstrong, the first man to ever walk on the Moon. He also knew this would be the story of a marriage with shifting perspectives. But he didn’t immediately jump at the idea of directing a Neil Armstrong biopic. It was only when he went deeper into James R. Hansen’s biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (from which the movie was adapted by Spotlight co-scribe Josh Singer) and looked at archival footage that he realized how he could make this outer space film his own, without repeating what’s already been done successfully in acclaimed NASA films like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. His space film would take things to a more quietly private, grittier place while keeping its focus on an introverted American hero.

A superbly orchestrated technical achievement bolstered by intimate emotional touches and a skillful representation of claustrophobia, First Man reunites the young filmmaker with many of his repeat collaborators, such as cinematographer Linus Sandgren, composer Justin Hurwitz, editor Tom Cross, costume designer Mary Zophres—and star Ryan Gosling as Armstrong. Returning to the Telluride Film Festival two years after his candy-colored musical throwback La La Land played here on the heels of opening the 2016 Venice Film Festival (the Oscar winner is joined in town by fellow Academy Award victors Sandgren, Singer and Hurwitz), Chazelle says it feels a little surreal to be back in the mountains. “It's sort of déjà vu, I think. It feels like it's just been a few weeks [since] the previous Telluride,” he tells me when we meet for a brief conversation about his latest film, a strong contender in this year’s awards races.

While it might initially look like First Man is a departure for the filmmaker after his tightly focused, music-driven films, it in fact perfectly aligns with his thematic interests. “I've always been interested in the idea of the cost of goals and the toll that certain pursuits take, whether they're artistic pursuits or [something] different—the psychology of what that kind of pursuit can do to the person, the pursuer,” Chazelle notes, adding that he started thinking about and lightly working on his latest film after he had just finished Whiplash, which also explored a certain type of obsessive pursuit. “Here, it seemed like an opportunity to take one of the most famous pursuits, goals, achievements in history, the landing on the Moon, and try to trace back not just the concrete steps in a procedural way of how we actually did it, but look at the psychology of the person who took those first steps and just what the cost on that person might have been.” He continues, “It was all about that mission to me. That person. But we would also depart from Neil's point of view to [have] Janet’s [Armstrong] point of view. It would be basically the story of this family weathering the storm, and the storm would just be 1961 to 1969. It would just be those years where we were leading up to the Moon, from Neil joining NASA to Neil returning from the lunar surface.”

Below, we dissect the making of Universal’s First Man, Chazelle’s close collaboration with the Armstrong family throughout, and why the filmmaker didn’t include a scene with the planting of the American flag on the Moon, even though the flag is there and pretty much visible everywhere throughout the film.

Film Journal International: I'm wondering how you moved forward after La La Land, the Oscars and pulled off a big-scale movie like this in such a short space of time.

Damien Chazelle: I was actually working on this back before we started shooting La La Land. It was right after Whiplash. I think at Sundance I started working on this and then started working with Josh [Singer], so it was kind of percolating under the surface as I was doing La La Land. I first started working on it myself and wrote a little treatment. Early on, I knew I didn't have it in me to write the script myself. It seemed like too much research and I needed a collaborator, especially someone who could be not just a storyteller and a screenwriter, but also almost a journalist.

I met Josh really early; I think the producers and I hired him about a month into my being involved. Right away it felt like I'd found not just a collaborator, but someone who could really run with it. And that's basically what he did the whole time while I went off to shoot La La Land pretty shortly thereafter and he spent that entire eight months crafting the first draft of the script.

FJI: That familial focus is one of the things I really loved about the script. The way you treated it through editing ensured we never lost sight of Janet at any point. When you watch a movie about a historically important man, his wife does get sidelined sometimes, unfortunately. I really appreciated that she was always a part of it, and her friendship with Pat White was fairly treated.

DC: One of the ironies is that—and I felt very unlucky that this had happened—I started working on it a few years after Neil had passed and so I never got a chance to meet him. But I did get a chance to meet Janet. In fact, she was so generous with us. She opened her doors to first Josh and me for many hours, a whole day. And then I came back with Ryan [Gosling]. Ryan really wanted to be able to sit with her and she, again, just gave Ryan and myself all the time. Then she would read drafts of the script and her sons were also just incredibly helpful throughout the whole process.

Because I couldn't meet Neil, I needed to rely on the people closest to him to get a window into him. Really, her perspective became a window not only onto herself, of course, and onto that whole community, but [also] onto him. I think it was only actually in doing that research—and Ryan was a big part of this as well—that we realized that this movie was about not just family in general, but [also] about a marriage and [whether] a marriage [could] go through the blows of a story like this.

We begin with the marriage dealing with the worst thing a marriage can ever deal with, the loss of a child. Then, as though that weren't enough, there's one blow after another following that. There's never been a husband and a wife in history who were as physically separated as Neil and Janet were at that moment in time, and I find that very fascinating. That's why we ultimately wanted to end the movie with them very close yet not close in that last moment.

A lot of it came out of talking to Janet, who was just such a fascinating person [with] such concrete memories. She was so sharp, told us everything we could [have asked for], remembered everything. And then when Claire Foy got involved, she was finding things of Janet. I remember she initially read for the role, not with anything in the script but from an interview of Janet's that wasn't in the script that she had found. I loved her reading so much, I not only wanted to cast her, I told Josh to put the interview in the script. It's the scene at the end when she comes out of the house and gets kind of corralled by reporters. Claire then herself talked a lot with the family. We were powwowing about how we make both sides of this equation feel equally weighted, especially since we knew that [during] certain missions we weren't going to leave the cockpit. The movie had to hinge between the home and the Moon. And it could never be one over the other. We were constantly sort of pinging back and forth about whether it was overall structure or just pieces of dialogue and improv. Then finally what I wound up doing once we felt the script was in the right place and we were ready to shoot, I brought Ryan and Claire early to do two weeks of improvised rehearsals that we then shot with the kids. Basically, playing house.

FJI: That extra time must have been a really nice luxury to have.

DC: It was great. We weren't technically budgeted for two extra weeks of shooting, but we shot every single one of these rehearsals and many of them are in the film, because we put the actors in costume, and we were in the house [that] had been built. I think that was really great for Ryan and Claire, who hadn't worked together before—they kind of became a family. And we shot mostly chronologically—we started with the loss of Karen and then the move to Houston and moved on. So by the time we got to that very heavy stuff right at the beginning of the movie, they actually had already spent two weeks being a family together and being on camera.

FJI: Is that something that you usually want to do, shooting chronologically to get the actors into the rhythm of the story?

DC: Whenever you can, it's great—it's just hard to. I've never been able to shoot 100 percent chronologically. I've always tried to shoot as chronologically as I can. This movie was the most chronological I've ever done.

FJI: I can see why [First Man] would maybe benefit from that, the organic evolution of all the emotions…

DC: Yeah, and there's even certain physical things where the movie spans about nine years. We wanted to do subtle but still physical things to appearance, whether it was Ryan's hair or Janet's hair. [Ryan] gets sort of heavier-set as the movie goes on and most of that's just through body language; but it was very helpful to be able to. Claire, as well, her whole kind of comportment [and wardrobe] sort of changes a little bit. We wanted to just find subtle but still kind of visible ways to try to change with these people.

FJI: As much as I love movies such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, I’m glad this movie wasn’t repetition of a certain kind of space movie. Did you set out to distance yourself stylistically from some of those big movies that everybody knows and do something different?

DC: Yeah, I think it was part of my way into the movie at the outset. Honestly, it might've been part of the reason why, when I first was [asked] by the producers, "Are you interested in Neil Armstrong?" that I didn't jump at it. Neil Armstrong and landing on the Moon per se hasn't been in a feature film, but the space program, NASA, that whole era in American history has been and very successfully so. So what do I have to add? Why make a movie about that?

Something happened when I started actually reading a little bit of Jim Hansen's biography and looking at archival footage, and it's just things that I'd known but I had forgotten. For example, that all the archival footage, because it's shot by astronauts in these capsules, was on 16mm. Suddenly I'm looking at space photography and it dawned on me that, “Wow, Hollywood has taught us that space is clean and crisp and sleek and high-tech and even if it's scary, it's grand.”

What would that be like to just take a 16mm camera on your shoulder up into outer space? And then I started thinking about the technology back then, because it's a technology before the high-end digital photography we have today. That means it's also technology before the sort of spacecrafts [and computers] that we can even imagine today. Everything is rivets and knobs and they're doing calculations with pencils so that, I think, is what became my way in: Let's make it feel like a product of its time. Let's make it feel not like we're telling the story after the fact, but like we're a documentary crew sneaking into the house with Janet and Neil. Then Neil himself is smuggling a camera into the capsule and just sort of shooting out the windows, try to give it that feeling.

FJI: Personally, I have never felt moreinside of a spacecraft before this movie. I'm very claustrophobic.

DC: Me too!

FJI: You mentioned something interesting with this crisp, clean idea of space and the space program that’s been visually drilled into us. That Houston Mission Control Center, for instance, just feels a lot more open and bright in Apollo 13, and then here in First Man it is a lot more airless and grittier. I did take note of that.

DC: Yeah. I have to give most of the credit to people like Nathan Crowley, the production designer, Kathy Lucas, the art director, and Mary Zophres, [who did] the costumes. And Linus Sandgren, who shot it. We were all on the same page, but I just felt so lucky to have people who are so brilliant in their respective departments and who were able to somehow tell a story with each of those things. I felt every set that Nathan and Kathy designed told a story. It was always lived in, it always felt textured, and everything was a little dirty. Also, sometimes you have to go further with the dirtiness because the camera cleans [things] up; it won't pick up every nuance of dirt that you see with your eyes. You have to actually sometimes make things even dirtier than you think you would. But then down to little details like what would the people in Mission Control be eating and the Chinese food containers, and we wanted donuts here and a Dr. Pepper over there. Of course, cigarettes everywhere! I mean, these people were smoking and drinking coffee like addicts.

Everyone had sort of dirty fingernails and mussed shirts and that was the stuff that I think we all like. Mary was constantly talking about stains on people's shirts and creases in collars. It's a lot of just white buttoned-down shirts and then, of course, the astronaut suits and they're gleaming white, and so how do make that feel authentic but still lived in? She never went pure white; always went slightly off-white. It was always these shades that she built in because she knew in terms of how the camera would show it that would just give it more texture. It was really a lot of them getting into the granular details, and then I was lucky enough to be able to benefit from that.

FJI: And going back to Linus’ cinematography, the recurring extreme close-ups in FirstMan can be more or less out of necessity when you're in the cockpit, but that choice expands beyond that, too. You really stayed close to everyone's faces.

DC: Yeah, it was something Linus and I talked about early on of just wanting to be there, like trying to have the camera feel like it's a fly on the wall. [We were] trying to capture the smallest little moments, nuances. Especially because this is a movie about a culture of people—and both Janet and Neil and everyone around them fall into this—who don't overtly emote in the way that maybe we're used to in modern times. Janet and Neil, especially, were really adept at buckling stuff in and hiding stuff under their shirts. I think that's part of how they coped with things like their daughter's loss and with just the demands of the space program. But you know you're going to have introverted people, and especially Neil is the most introverted American hero there is, really. So you want to be truthful to [those types of characters]. It becomes: What's happening in their eyes? They're not going to be giving big speeches about how they feel; they're going to be probably lying about how they feel or skirting it, or hiding it under the rug. And so you want the camera to do the digging. So it always felt like Linus and I were excavating, trying to kind of carve out the little. Ryan and Claire themselves knew just how much to give and how much to hide. It was a dance that you kind of figure out as you go.

FJI: And it’s perhaps the toughest kind of acting, really, when you don't have a lot of words but you need to emote silently.

DC: It's a kind of acting that often gets [underestimated]; it's even harder than it looks.

FJI: Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy make it look easy, though.

DC: Exactly. I think the other thing, just beyond a certain introversion of the characters—sometimes in certain movies about history you get the feeling that every character in it knows they're making history. That's a huge pet peeve of mine.

FJI: Ah, yes! “Look, we are doing important things.”

DC: Like, “We are changing the world!” You really don't know [it then.] And what I found fascinating, when I met Janet, when I met the kids, when I met other former astronauts and their kids, it's like they would talk about it just the way that the kids of a schoolteacher, or a bus driver, or a factory worker, or a politician or a filmmaker would talk about their parents doing work. It was just their parents going to work. It was not, "Oh yeah, my dad and my mom were off changing the world." [Instead, it was like] "I lived a middle-class existence and we kind of operated as a little family and then sometimes Dad would go off, I guess, into space, but I didn't really think of that.” I would always be asking his kids, "What was it like? Your dad was ON THE MOON!" I was struck by the extent to which it wasn't that big a deal to them because it's all they knew. They were growing up as kids and you want to be truthful to that everywhere. And I found it not just in the kids but in the astronauts and in their partners and in the families where they had to make it routine. I think it's the only way you cope with a job that's that dangerous, or demands that are that great. You have to make it day-to-day.

FJI: On that note, I'm so glad that Neil Armstrong’s kids are speaking up right now against this utterly silly flag controversy, or non-controversy, that’s going on. I mean, did you ever faintly anticipate anyone would react in this way? The idea of it is just so there and then you can see American flags everywhere.

DC: That's why I honestly didn't [anticipate it]. There are so many things that we didn't have time to focus on in the movie, especially with the Moon landing. We were like, "Let's focus on what Neil did alone on the Moon." He did not plant the flag alone on the Moon, that was he and Buzz together—it was mainly Buzz. We made sure to show the flag on the Moon, but it literally never occurred to me that anyone would ever remark on the fact that we don't show it actually being planted there.

FJI: Hopefully, it will blow over.

DC: We can always hope.