It’s a question in this day and age, why are you choosing to tell a great man of history’s story? To me, it’s because this isn’t your standard great man of history, this is an ordinary guy who’s great because of what he sacrificed.
In this current American age, if anyone, much less a covey of Hollywood filmmakers, dares to reexamine a sacred American hero, you can be sure the Internet will ignite with outrage—Russian bots to real, live Americans turning indignation into clicks. The critically exalted new film First Man seems to do just this with Neil Armstrong. But to say the film and its exhaustively researched script from Academy Award-winner Josh Singer (Spotlight), “reexamines” Armstrong would be inaccurate, as, somewhat astonishingly, no movie has ever been made about the first human to walk on the surface of the moon. Films like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff might rush to mind, but they weren’t about Armstrong. Indeed, no authorized biography had ever been allowed by the iconic astronaut until James R. Hansen’s definitive 2005 tome, upon which this film is based.
How is that so?
Partially, it seems, due to the enormous modesty of Neil Armstrong. A trained engineer and pilot, he was, by all accounts, capable of great humor but fundamentally a tightly reserved man. Even Singer admits that when Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) first approached him with the idea for the film, he feared Armstrong might not be “a very colorful character” around which to base a movie. Then he read Hansen’s book. Hansen, a professor of history at Auburn University who’s studied and written award-winning books about the space program for decades, finally got Armstrong to open up, when, after years of rebuffing attempts at a biography, he simply said, “it was time.”
The result avers the old adage that still waters run deep. Beneath Armstrong’s sea of tranquility was a depth and pain that Singer and Chazelle use to amplify his heroic accomplishments and, for the first time on screen, to simply tell his story. Bots be damned, the result is both spectacularly grand and heartrendingly intimate. The story focuses on Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), starting with the loss of their two-year-old daughter Karen—a painful and seemingly propulsive event just before Armstrong decided to sign up for the space program. Singer is an obsessive researcher known for his thorough, intensive work on both Spotlight and The Post. Here he included dozens of former astronauts, space program experts, and Armstrong’s own family in every detail of the script’s drafting all the way through the film’s final edits. For critics who’ve questioned moments of seeming creative license in the film, (as well as space and scripting nerds), he’s written a fully annotated screenplay with Hansen going through every scene explicating its provenance.
Singer spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about his revelatory journey into the life of Armstrong and how he and Chazelle wanted to depict not just his almost totally unknown internal life, but the visceral, jarring reality—down to the last rattling screw—of what the endeavor to land a man on the moon actually looked, felt, and smelled like.
Did you know at the onset that you wanted to tell this story in a way that it had not been told, despite it being such a legendary, iconic part of American history?
Initially, when Damien reached out to me, Whiplash had just been at Sundance…I was mostly struck by the fact that Damien was a great artist and I would do anything to work with him. He was the one who initially had the first pitch, which was that [Neil Armstrong’s] story has been sugarcoated in the past. This struck me as super terrifying, yet when I look at the other movies that have been made about this—about NASA and Apollo—it felt like it’s not quite as visceral as it probably was to these guys. I thought that was really interesting. Having seen Whiplash I was like, “Well, if he can do that with drums imagine what he can do in space.” So I was hooked on that idea, but I had a fair amount of trepidation because I didn’t know much about Neil Armstrong other than that he was an icon. My instinct was that he was somewhat bland, that was my concern…then I started reading James Hansen’s fantastic biography and what really knocked me out was how much tragedy and loss and sacrifice there was in Neil's life, particularly in those seven years leading up to Apollo 11. The more I dove into that, the more I was just knocked out by both the cost, which I think I had never really even remotely comprehended—and the grace with which he bore all of that. I was shocked at how little I knew. I didn’t know anything about his work flying the X-15 and the fact that the end of his stint at the Flight Research Center was marred by a couple of mishaps that were possibly connected to the death of his two year-old daughter, which again, I knew nothing about. I didn’t know about Gemini 8 and that Neil and David almost died, and that that mission had to be aborted. I certainly didn't know how close he was with Ed White. To be honest I didn’t know who Ed White was, although I probably would have known something about Apollo 1 and the fire, but not nearly as much as I know now.
It was once you dove in to James Hansen’s book that you as a screenwriter...
Yeah. Then I was like, “Oh wow, there is a huge untold story.” You think you know the story of Neil Armstrong, but you don't really know at all. It's not a happy story, and it’s not an easy story. But to me, it only made me marvel all the more at what he and the rest of NASA did.
That is a very important idea, that picture of Neil Armstrong you paint gripped by an almost depressive grief at the loss of his child at the inception of this endeavor. This film is so far from a Michael Bay-style, flag-waving version of events. You felt instinctively that that would make the story more powerful?
Yeah. One of the things that Damien and I were really attracted by was puncturing this idea that it was easy and it was superhuman. Neil was used to very high g-forces, for example. We could’ve showed him on the wheel, but we couldn’t have shown him mortal on the wheel. He was in some ways more used to high g-forces than anybody in the program because he had been testing them with NASA. One of the reasons we chose the multi-access trainers is because that’s something he wasn’t used to…and you can see him vomiting just like everybody else. It was important to us to show that this was an ordinary guy at the end of the day, an ordinary guy who happened to be very, very smart. His real strength was his engineering brain. He was willing to push himself to limits for the greater good, for the good of the mission, and because he was fascinated with the science. What we found that really powerful was, in today’s day and age we don’t find a lot of leaders who lead by example. They lead with words, which is fine. But there is something to be said for leading by example, for bearing up under strain and stress and sacrifice and pushing ahead. The idea [that] you are going to have to sacrifice to achieve great things, it’s not going to be easy. It’s not so much about what the country can do for you, it’s about what you can do for the country, which to me feels out of step with where we are today.
So you felt by puncturing the mythology, you made the grandeur of what he accomplished greater?
Yeah. A lot of people talk about the moment on the moon, and that’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong. That’s a beautiful moment, and it’s beautifully shot, and if you see it on IMAX, it’s incredible. But the whole movie is beautiful and beautifully shot. One of the reasons people have such a reaction to the last 20 minutes is actually because of all the minutes before that, because of how challenging it is. To me, the beauty of the achievement is even greater for what these guys sacrificed, in big ways with loss of life and in smaller ways in terms of their family life.
How much did the current state of our country seep into what you were doing here?
It’s funny. There have been a couple articles on that. I don’t think it really did. My approach as a writer is pretty research intensive. I went to law school—it’s what I like to do. To the extent I had an inclination to begin with, Tommy [McCarthy] pushed even further when we did Spotlight, where with all the research we had done he kept making us do more and more and more, which was really the only way we got to some of the really incredible chestnuts in that movie.
Here we were dealing with an icon…so we wanted to be hyper-accurate and hyper-real. I actually even wrote a book, The Annotated Screenplay, which has Jim Hansen and I going back and forth, talking about every scene in the movie, talking about what’s real, giving more historical context and where we fictionalize…That’s how focused I was. To me it’s less about looking at where we are and trying to write a response to it and more about just writing what actually happened. That’s actually quite powerful…One of the things I love about history is that it often makes its own commentary. I suppose the only commentary we’re really making is choosing to tell this story now. And by the way, it’s a question in this day and age, why are you choosing to tell a great man of history’s story? To me, it’s because this isn’t your standard great man of history, this is an ordinary guy who’s great because of what he sacrificed. And it’s not just about the ordinary guy, it’s about the ordinary woman beside him. She’s not just a housewife, she’s NASA’s wife, which means she has to keep that house together in the midst incredible stress. Eugene Cernan’s wife said, “You think it’s hard to go to the moon, try staying home.” Right? So that portion of Janet [Armstrong] was every bit as important to us as the portion of Neil. All of that to me provides commentary.
Did you have any concern about backlash or criticism just telling the story as you actually found it?
Huge concern. There are a lot of self-appointed space historians, reporters who write books and then become “experts.” There were people asking us why we open the movie on a flight where Neil screws up. He was a great pilot, why are you opening on a flight where he screws up on the X-15? “Screw-up” is a harsh word for it. Flights have issues, it’s a mishap, and the way Neil turns it around shows what a great pilot he was. But it’s a good question, right? To me, it tells me all sorts of things I don’t know about Neil…We’re not interested in making bad stuff up. We’re interested in what’s true, and frankly, what’s true—even though it’s nuanced—is the fact that this guy who we think of as one of the best pilots of all time—and he was—had issues. His issues were tied to something emotional. That's what Jim Hansen says in his book, and we think it’s really interesting. Jim has researched this more than anyone on the planet.
This style of nuanced realism is in keeping with the current narrative zeitgeist, wouldn’t you say? People want heroes with this depth and nuance?
I don't know. That’s a good question. We’ll see how audiences respond. If I had a fear, it’s that the stuff that we’re exposing is not shocking enough for the people who love Breaking Bad and it’s far too shocking for the people who are still watching reruns of 7th Heaven…
There’s also a big hurdle here too because of how well known people think this story is. There's a huge assumption that we already know this story…
Right. So that’s what we’re hoping people take away, “Wow, this story is much more complex than we thought it was. Neil is actually much more heroic than we thought he was.” By the way, if you think Neil is heroic, how about Janet [his wife]? Oh my goodness. She is in the context of her time. She managed that house and supported Neil and ran the synchronized swimming team at the local pool. She’s not a modern woman in the sense that she doesn’t have a high-powered job, but I would say she did have a high-powered job because she was as exposed to the press as Neil was. I would say she was one of the strongest individuals I’ve ever read about or met. We tried to portray that within the confines of what was true…I was nervous about this, which is again why we wrote the book. The Annotated Screenplay was for a lot of people. I feel like screenwriters don’t talk enough about where we choose to fictionalize and where we don’t, even though it’s often talked about by the press. So I wanted this book to maybe be the beginning of a conversation among screenwriters. But beyond that, this book was for the space historians and the general historians. In some ways the movie is some of the greatest hits from Jim’s book and it makes the points Jim was trying to make even clearer because we’ve distilled them down into a two-hour movie. And those points are provocative. That’s why I had Jim work on [the film] with me, because I wanted to have the backup
Compared to Spotlight, which had so much complexity that had to be relayed through dialogue, did you feel freed up in the cinematic form here by Armstrong’s laconic nature?
No, I mean it’s different challenges. It is [the question of], how are we going to illustrate the character with less words? What are the actions he can take? There’s a moment where he learns about the Apollo 1 fire, how do we show how much pain he’s in? Other than just say, “Well, Ryan do that amazing thing where your eyes go black, which he does.” But I need something else, just in case. Well how do I show that? In the first version I did, he slammed the phone down repeatedly. I showed that to Jim Hansen, and he said, “No, Neil would never do that.” A bunch of the other astronauts I showed it too said Neil would never do that, and I was like, “Yeah, you’re right. So what can I do?” I came up with this idea of Neil holding a glass, and you see him practically not move a muscle except for [when] his eyes go dark, which I wrote in because I know Ryan’s going to give me that. And then suddenly you hear a pop and he looks down and realizes he’s broken the glass because he’s been squeezing it so hard. I gave that back to Jim and Jim’s like, “Okay, that’s on the edge, but Neil was an emotionally tightly packaged guy. That feels like it could happen.” So for me it’s all about, how do I illustrate who this guy is in this very specific way? How do I get at that guy? And also it’s picking your spots.
Final question. When, where, and how do you write generally? Do you have a ritualistic or idiosyncratic process to the actual drafting phase?
Yeah. I need a dark room and a baseball cap, and I need my headphones. I generally listen to music. For this, Neil brought New World Symphony with him to the moon. So I had been working on a Bernstein project for a while. So I listed to Leonard Bernstein’s New World Symphony probably 7,000 times as I was working on this [playing it] over and over again. It’s such a beautiful piece, and it got me into a rhythm of just drowning out the white noise. Dark room, baseball cap pulled low, music. I’m sort of in my own little world.
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