I’ve spoken to Josh Singer for almost every single one of his films over the past few years, and the great thing about listening to him talk is hearing the deep research he does for each of his projects. Whether it’s Spotlight, The Post and now First Man, Singer dives deep. For First Man, it was no different. Author Jim Hansen, who wrote First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, helped Singer weave his way through NASA physics experts, Mission Control details, and flight transcripts. He read endless archived journals to craft his narrative.
As Singer tells me, Armstrong himself was a very closed-up individual. He had suffered loss after loss and the darkness of that loss would form the core of the story for First Man.
The genesis for the film began after Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash screened at a festival and Chazelle mentioned the idea to Singer. He penned the script over many months, while working on Spotlight and The Post. It’s a story that goes so much deeper that a quest to plant a flag on the moon. It’s a human story of how a man’s emotions, through grief and loss, gave him the resilience to complete a mission that was virtually inconceivable. It’s a story of human suffering that Ryan Gosling embodies so perfectly, conveying the stoic pain along the way. Then, at last back on Earth, expressing quiet joy once the mission is completed. The arc from uncertainty, to resolve, to stunning achievement.
Singer and I sat down for over an hour on Election Night to dig into First Man and the way he sought to craft the story of Neil Armstrong’s epic journey.
Seeing it in IMAX was just the most immersive experience I’ve had. The way Damien shot that, he had us right there, in Armstrong’s shoes, in that capsule.
As long as you’re in the right seat. If you’re in the wrong seat, it can be a little bit challenging. That was the thing and what was amazing about writing for Damien was knowing that what you put on the page, he’s going to do it justice beyond and take it to a whole other level.
The script itself was a true collaboration with him. The process was incredibly challenging because the material was so challenging, but I don’t know anyone who’s doing these kinds of things except maybe Cuarón or Iñárritu, but it’s a handful of guys who are really doing cutting-edge and groundbreaking work in cinema. You feel lucky to be a part of that.
I went in and saw this concept, but it was not what I expected to be in the sense of man goes to the moon. Instead, it’s this beautiful profound story of Neil and the grieving behind the man. The loss he’s suffered.
From the beginning, we knew it would be very different than the way this kind of material had been treated previously which was one of the reasons we wanted to do it. We wanted this very narrow focus. We were very struck by how he had to endure loss after loss. It’s a tale of this loss and a tale of the cost of having to push down those losses in order to go on. There’s a quote by Samuel Beckett about the strength for us to move on with our wounds. He’s really writing about a friend who’s lost his father and he’s saying it’s impossible. How do we move on? How do we do it? In some ways, we actually had that quote in the movie, but it didn’t last.
The character arc is that he starts in a dark place. He needs to get out. He joins Gemini, Apollo, and gets to this better place with these people around him. There’s Ed and Elliot. With Janet, they have another child. First, he loses Elliot and then he almost dies in Gemini. He gets absolved of having done wrong, as Neil was. There’s a brief moment of it’s going to be alright, but then Ed dies. The idea was it starts in a dark place, it gets a little lighter, and then it goes full dark. It goes to a place where he’s even more closed off than he was at the beginning, as he goes into the end because that’s the only way he can complete the mission, get to the moon and face his loss.
That was such a moment, the way that was shot, when he finally let’s go.
It’s not that anybody hasn’t talked about these losses in the past, it’s just getting at the human side of that. We spent a ton of time with Rick, Mark, and Janet Armstrong really trying to understand what made him tick.
The technical stuff is amazing, once you understand it. It’s just that it took me four years to even scratch the surface. The human conclusions that Jim drew from talking to Neil and hours and hours of interviews with his sister and the people around him were just stunning. It’s not a light movie, it’s a dark movie. It really is a meditation on loss. Not only is it groundbreaking cinema, I think it has something to say.
We all know the story of Neil going to the moon, right? But, I think what really struck was this story is one we’ve not had before.
It’s a lot of the reason why I did this. I was worried. There’s a whole community of space aficionados who really worship these guys. We talk about this moment in the film where Chuck Yeager says, “Kid’s a good engineer, but he’s distracted.” Then he says, “Third mishap this month. F Where is that from? It turns out that Yeager actually said that Neil was actually a good engineer, but he wasn’t too good of an airplane driver. Moreover, there had been three incidents that month that somehow led Bikle to soft-ground Neil. Neil said that wasn’t the case, but there were others around Bikle who said that might have been the case. In fact, Bikle who was the supervisor didn’t recommend Neil for the astronaut program.
Later there’s a scene that isn’t in the movie, where Joe says, “Bickle canceled the trip.” That’s true. Neil was scheduled to fly the new Handley Page HP.115 Delta-Wing in May 1962, but Paul Bikle the FRC head canceled the trip. This was actually a conversation that Jim and I had. Jim said, “Bikle cited Neil’s workload, but in truth, he was concerned about Neil’s flying mishaps in the aftermath of Karen’s death and didn’t want Neil flying the RAF experimental jet. In fact, a number of Neil’s colleagues thought that Bikle temporary grounded him in April 1962.”
This is stuff that is heresy to some of these aficionados, but we wanted to be clear that this was where we got this.
There were all sort of things like that where space geeks knew we’d done our homework.
There are moments like the bracelet where we take the license on. But it’s based on Jim’s research. Jim made that conjecture in his book and that’s why we had that. We talked and Jim says, “This scene is bound to be controversial. On the one hand, Neil never said he’d taken anything of Karen’s to the Moon. On the other hand, there is no definitive record of what he took with him to the lunar surface.” In fact, Jim had asked Neil for the manifest for his personal property kit. Neil said he had lost it. It’s since been recovered and is in Purdue but it’s under seal. Jim then asked, “When I asked Neil’s younger sister June if she thought he took anything of Karen’s to the moon, June answered with tears in her eyes, “Oh, I dearly hope so.” Jim says, “The same goes for me.” That to me gave me license and why I thought that was appropriate to do.
We just wanted to be very clear about how we did our homework, but that we did do our homework. We also wanted to be clear about where we took license and why. We felt an enormous responsibility because it’s Neil Armstrong. We were going to be provocative to know stuff about Neil. I worked with Robert Pearlman who was a huge help and is a huge space aficionado. He’s friends with Buzz. He sees the movie and when he saw the scene where Neil cries, he said, “I realized I was going to have to rethink everything I knew about Neil Armstrong.” That to me is a huge thing to say for a guy who spent his life studying this. I think that was in some ways what we wanted to do in terms of how we think about the space program.
You spent four years researching the technical side, but when did it begin? This is way before we spoke about Spotlight and The Post.
When the Spotlight stuff was going on, Damien took great joy in telling people that he found me before Spotlight.
Whiplash had just screened at Sundance. Damien had been chased to do a movie about Neil Armstrong so he had started thinking about how he might do it. He had seen the script for the Fifth Estate and liked how I handled Julian Assange. I was not in the right place and The Fifth Estate had come out in the Fall of 2013. My first festival experience – and I’ve been fortunate to have a few good ones since – was at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013. That film opened and got crushed. It did not get nice reviews.
That same weekend, we had a major star attached to Spotlight who dropped out. The weekend of Toronto, we had that happen too. So, it was this dark weekend.
The Spring of 2014, my agent calls me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a movie for Damien. I didn’t know who he was. I knew who Neil was, but I didn’t know if it was a good movie. My wife and I watched Whiplash on Wednesday morning. It was under lock and key and the moment I watched the movie, I was knocked out. I hadn’t seen a filmmaker of our generation who I didn’t know of, do something this massive. I watched it and thought, whatever it is, I want to do this with him. That was my attitude going into the meeting and he pitched me the basic idea of getting away from the sugar coating that’s been done.
He wanted to strip all of that away and show how challenging and how crazy it was and also show how much sacrifice these guys went through.
I started reading the book, within the next two to four weeks we started beating out a thumbnail. I fell in love with the X-15. I’d never known this plane existed and thought it was the coolest thing that existed. It was the fastest and highest flying thing we’d ever built. To see how things were weightless. The fact it lands without any engine power and is near gliding. That just blew my mind, that and the fact that Neil was just one of 12 men who had flown this thing, and the fact that he was a part of NASA before he was a part of Gemini/Apollo. I didn’t know anything about the Gemini 8 mission.
So, you have this incredible flying machine and we started with that. We add the three mishaps. One of which was a major mishap with this X-15 that happened right after his daughter passed away and theoretically had something to do with the fact that he’d just lost his daughter. I thought it was a good place to start because nobody knows he flew this X-15, nobody knows about his daughter, and nobody knows that he had issues as a pilot before he joined Gemini/Apollo. Gemini 8 was going to be a midpoint and you’re going to end on Apollo 11. Immediately, we had a rough structure and then we asked, how many of his buddies do we kill off? He lost Elliot and Ed, but he lost Joe Walker who Brian D’arcy James played. Elliot died in February ’66. He goes up the beginning of March in Gemini 8. The following January in 1967, Ed dies, and Joe Walker dies later.
That’s a lot for anyone to go through.
Right? So, who am I going to kill off? After Neil moved to NASA, in ’64, his house burnt down. The house next door to Ed’s. In fact, Ed jumped the fence and helped him water down the house. He stayed with Ed’s house. We shot that.
Damien and I spent a few weeks hashing out the movie. That Fall, I went off to shoot Spotlight. But the first thing I asked Damien was why wasn’t he writing this himself. He said, he wanted to do La La Land, but I think he also knew it was going to be a ton of research. He wanted someone to take the first stab at it.
While Spotlight was in post, in January 2015, I started doing research on this.
Going through First Man: The Annotated Screenplay, there were sixteen drafts?
These are drafts we turned in to either the studio or producers, but there were three or four drafts that I’d turn into Damien before each of them.
We probably did a dozen prep drafts.
I started doing a 72-page outline that I finished in July 2015. In October, I gave a draft to Damien and at that point, he’s in post on La La Land. He had shot La La Land that summer while I was working on the draft.
That October, Spotlight was also released in theaters so I was on the circuit for the first time.
Who or what were the most valuable resources to you to get your head around the technical aspects and then Neil himself?
For some of this there were incredible resources and for some of them, there weren’t. Frank Hughes was Head of Astronaut training for NASA. He was on set for almost everything. He started in 1966. He was training the Apollo 1 guys. He trained all the Apollo astronauts. He loved the machine so much, he learned the Gemini inside and out. So, he was our guy in really understanding how the Gemini and Apollo worked.
In terms of the X-15, we had our last living pilot, Joe Engle was a shuttle astronaut. He actually helped tell us how the shuttle lands because the shuttle landing is based on how the X-15 lands. They’re both wide-body landings. Joe was a tremendous pilot. I think he went up four times in the shuttle. He was incredibly useful on the X-15. We also had Al Worden. So, those were our three technical guys.
Along the way, Mike Collins was helpful and read multiple drafts of the script. There’s a photo of the guys walking to the bus to take them to the launch pad in First Man: The Annotated Screenplay. We had use of that same bus. Mike told us this story that he carried this brown paper bag, with a fish nailed to a wooden plaque that he gave to Guenter Wendt. They all gave gag gifts to Guenter. He told us that story so Lucas got a bag that he carried when we shot our version.
It was a lot of banging my head against the wall. I went up to Edwards Air Force base. I met Gene Matranga who worked with Neil as an engineer on the X-15. They have a demo X-15 in a museum. I did a flight simulation of the x-15 landing, but I got a sense of what these landings are meant to feel like.
I knew we were going to shoot that in the cockpit. I knew I’d have to write every action moment of what’s happening in every moment of that flight. I talked through in specific of that flight with Gene. I got the actual comms. from the flight. I had Neil’s pilot notes to read what happens. They’re short documents but they’re very technical so I had to read them seventeen times to understand them. Then I did my first pass which is a seven-page scene. Most scenes, you cut away, but for this, we were stuck inside.
I met Joe that April. Then a year later, I sent the scene to him and he would say that’s wrong and that’s wrong.
I was on set for The Post and I’d go backstage and talk to Joe Engle and talk through the entire flight again. I’d go through the technical specifications, talking about height and flipping over. I’d rewrite it, send it to Joe again, and he’d send me another set of notes.
Joe would come to set, he’d sit in our cockpit and push the buttons so our camera guys know what to shoot and I could adjust the script accordingly and he’d train Ryan on it.
We do that process on all of the shuttles. It’s different levels of challenge for each one.
For Gemini Eight and Apollo, we had comms. If you go to the Gemini Eight sequence and see that. I’m pulling from the comms. But with that, because it was before Apollo, not everything is right. Dave Scott would point out what he said, and what Neil said.
When I get to Mission Control, we didn’t have any of the comms, so I had to call Gerry Griffin who was in Mission Control during Gemini Eight. So, every time you see Mission Control during that, it’s dialogue that Gerry talked me through.
Because Damien wanted to shoot documentary style, I need to have additional dialogue for every one of these guys. I had to write over forty pages of additional dialogue for Mission Control just so that when Damien is moving around with the camera you’ve got dialogue.
Once you get into Apollo, it’s the most documented. There were journals and transcripts. There’s also firstmenonthemoon.com. On that site, it shows you the last fifteen minutes of the landing. It shows you what Neil saw, but you hear the comms from Neil and Buzz, you also hear the flight directory.
With my first version of Neil landing, I made all things up, but Dave Scott lost his mind. I went back and used just comms. I literally tried to make it work that way.
For Damien and I, accuracy was important We thought if we want people to buy into this very different man, we have to do the work on the technical side as well as the human side.
For the most part, I’ve had people tell me this is one of the most accurate space movies that’s been made.
When you’re doing the family stuff, how did you balance that in with accuracy?
We wanted everything to have a kernel of truth. The argument with Janet and Neil where she tells him to talk to the kids. He’s had to put himself in a place and repress his feelings. Facing those kids is the last thing he wants to do. He’s far more comfortable in the cockpit with tons of thrust under his rear end than talking to the kids.
What did it take to make America great? It took hard work and sacrifice and loss. It took pain. That’s what made America great.
So, what’s that based on. Janet lost her father when she was 15. She knows Neil is about to go on a mission and he might not come back and on the last mission, he almost died. You have to believe she’s feeling it. Janet told Jim that she had a conversation with Neil telling him he had to talk to the boys.
Janet in our conversation with Jim said she didn’t know what came of it.
Mark and Rick, when I sat with them, remembered it clearly. They said they found it weird because they sat in the dining room and they never sat there. “Dad sat us down.”
Rick asks, “Do you think you’re coming back?” and Neil says, “We have real confidence in the mission. There are some risks, but we have every intention of coming back.” That line in the film is a line I got verbatim from Rick. To Rick’s memory, he said, “If dad didn’t say that, it’s what dad would have said.”
We know Rick asked the question, but this line is real. It says a ton about who this guy is and that’s the speech he’s using to talk to his son and that he might not come back tells us that he doesn’t want to confront it. It tells you about how emotionally packaged he was.
You see his torment. You see how uptight he actually is. It’s a short moment but it speaks volumes.
It’s similar to the bracelet scene. I never would have written that had Jim not put it in his book. Jim had that conjecture. If it’s in his book with this guy who spent more time with him, then that’s fair game. Here too, we know something like this happened. We know this line is pretty much what happened, but I know I have the room to work around and get to the heart of what happened.
We sent them the scene and the scene with Janet. Mark did a whole rewrite and I took ideas from that.
There’s one story to share. I sent the confirmed script before I sat down with them and I got some notes from Rick. He has one note between Janet and Neil where she says, “I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have said fuck.”
We had them all come in watch the movie. Any time there was an issue, we’d talk about it, write it down and we had over ten pages of notes. There were a bunch of notes that we gave to Paul for VFX. We had editorial notes that we gave to Tom and Damien. We definitely based accuracy on that.
So, going back to that. We see get to that scene and I looked at Mark and he says, “How can we argue with that?” That to me is Claire. Her performance in that scene is so good. I had the good fortune of showing the movie in Cincinnati to friends and family just before the film opened. It was all these close friends of Mark and Rick. They knew Mark and Janet and it was just incredibly gratifying.
You take an icon and make them human like that, that’s extraordinary work. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
Damien and Claire really get how these wives suffer.
That torment of him maybe never coming back is really captured there.
It’s as important as getting Neil right. Gene Cernan’s wife said, “You think it’s hard going to the moon, try staying home.” Which is true because these women, not only were they so worried. It’s the whole family. It’s moms and dads, in-laws, and you’re carrying the weight of all of that. Gemini was meant to be a couple of days, but wound up being hours.
I just think two-thirds of the Apollo astronauts wound up getting divorced. It’s not like these guys were cowboys and liked to play around. There was stress on those families. The unnatural became natural.
You said how you knew how you were going to end the film. But you have the moon landing. Do you want to talk about that story?
We always wanted to do what Neil’s personal experience was. It’s the whole lens of the movie, that point of view. We wanted to stick closely to that. It’s the one unscripted part of the mission.
It was a true collaboration. We talked about his descent into this dark place in order to recover this thing that he’s lost and he can’t. We had always talked about Neil running as far as he could go to try to run away from this grief and ultimately confronting it.
In very early drafts of scripts, I had used sound instead of flashbacks. Then we decided we weren’t going to use that. Once we got into post, we decided these flashes might be helpful to put you in that meditative state, particularly on the moon. We decided to use them in other places as well.
We always wanted that moment to be what it was. There was a lovely editorial in a paper that said, “Of course, it’s not there. The flag’s already in the movie, and of course, it’s not there on the moon landing because that’s not what the movie’s about. We encourage our readers to see the movie.”
Wow! Given the craziness that’s going on about that.
Damien always hooked on this. Neil pauses and there are a million things going through his mind, the obvious of all, the desolate, the beauty. He knows about the sacrifice and the enormity of what’s he’s done, it’s almost overwhelming. To me, it was about how weird it must have been for these guys.
Even if you don’t see it in IMAX, you see this scene and it’s the first time we used Steadicam in the movie. These wide shots, these mid-range shots and the aspect ratio changes. Damien also makes it silent. He’s using every tool he’s got to make it feel how he did. He’s doing these incredible shots where you see the boot from Neil’s point of view.
So, he’s doing everything to get you there. So, when you see Neil, you see how he feels. There’s something so extraordinary about everything he does as a director and then we throw in those flashbacks.
That’s just improv stuff too. He rehearsed for two weeks with Ryan and Claire to try to get them to bond as a family and that’s what we used. That helps prep you for when we get to the bracelet. Then we go quiet again for the falling and it becomes this very personal and very spiritual moment for Neil, that represents for another silent moment when he comes back to Janet.
The movie is a bolero. The point of it feels the work. Feel the work. A critic wrote that “It’s incredibly hard and challenging and it’s amazing.” That’s what we were going for. The movie is not easy just like the journey is not easy. But when you get there it’s a release.
For me, I feel that people are grabbing for Halloween, Venom and The Avengers and the next Marvel movie. To me, this movie is about what really made America great. This is what made America great, not what’s being sold to you. There’s a long tradition of nationalists selling pretty pictures of what it used to be.
What we think it was was not what it was and that’s the point of this movie. This movie is about what it really was. What did it take to make America great? It took hard work and sacrifice and loss. It took pain. That’s what made America great. If we’re going to do it again, we’re going to have to do it again. We’re going to have to sacrifice again.
There’s a documentary on NASA by Rory Kennedy that I love. It’s for the Discovery Channel and she wants it to speak to people who don’t believe in climate change. One of the things people don’t realize that what NASA has done. They’ve looked at the Earth and what’s changing about the Earth. The most substantive proof of climate change comes from the work that NASA has done. Those are the guys who say we have this huge problem. It’s what Neil was talking about, it’s going out to the beyond, having perspective and looking back. If we do not take what we’ve learned from NASA seriously and sacrifice the way these guys sacrificed, then we will not make America Great again.
That’s why I feel this movie is so important.