Our Through The Lens series returns just in time for the holidays. Once again we talk to the filmmakers — the editors, the writers, the cast, and collaborators in every branch — to break down a key scene in the movie.
For the first installment, Tom Cross, the film editor of First Man, discusses the art of cutting the crucial Gemini 8 mission.
Chazelle’s First Man is about more than Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon; it’s a story of a man’s greatest successes and most terrible tragedies. It’s a searing portrayal of a Armstrong’s determination and a searing look at his grief.
The flight sequences are immersive and incredible to watch. From the jolts of the camera to the rattling sounds inside the capsule as Armstrong and crew take off, Chazelle captures all the intensity and precarious risk. Tom Cross — who collaborated with Chazelle on Whiplash, La La Land, and now First Man — speaks his language, understands the way to pack in the drama, especially during the test phases.
The Gemini 8 mission scene is one that Cross discusses below:
“The Gemini 8 section was really fun to work on. It was really scary to have to do. I pick that as the section that is notable to me. It was a cornerstone of Josh Singer’s script. It came right in the middle of the movie. Damien and I knew that this mission was one that was lesser known to the public that the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“With that, it would be more special because we could be showing the audience something new and something they didn’t know that much about. There was the possibility of something that could be very emotional and thrilling because, in this mission, Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott almost die. It’s not something I knew anything about before I worked on First Man.
“It was very important in the Neil Armstrong arc in the story. In terms of editing. It comprised of a lot of emotional tones and a lot of different types of editing. A lot of it is very subjective. It starts off with these elevator doors opening. Neil Armstrong walks out of the elevator and approaches the Gemini capsule. Damien shot it in this wonderful way where he shot a lot of subjective point of view shots where the camera moves towards the capsule and climbs into the capsule.
“As an editor, that was fun to work on because I got to play with point of view. I tried to create this immersive experience where the audience hopefully feels like they’re getting strapped into the capsule.
“I got to build suspense when they’re being buckled in when the countdown starts happening. Then it becomes this visceral subjective experience where the camera is shaking so much that you don’t know how they’re going to survive it. That was a lot of fun to work with because Damien always wanted to create this very subjective and immersive experience but from the inside of the capsule. He didn’t want the camera to go outside of the capsule during the Gemini 8 launch. We had a lot of opportunities to play around with what Neil was seeing, the sounds during the launch. I had to make room for that. I had to make room for these creeks and groans of the spacecraft as they’re preparing to launch. I had to anchor those sounds by the reactions of the actors. It was a lot of fun to do.
“With the launch, we move into a completely different emotional tone. We move into the two ships docking. That’s a scene that was really fun. Instead of it being scary, it was about the wonder. That’s where we got to play with the shots of the two crafts almost doing a dance together. We set that to Justin Hurwitz’s beautiful waltz. It’s almost a nod to Stanley Kubrick. What’s fun is to pivot emotionally and we can see the joy of the work on the faces of Ryan and Chris. They’re having fun trying to dock the two crafts.
“Something goes wrong and the Gemini craft starts spinning out of control and that’s where we editorially had to pull out all the stops. That’s where we go into this section which is very visceral and fragmented. It’s very messy in some ways stylistically. That was a section that Damien wanted to be really immersive. That’s where we were inspired by movies like Saving Private Ryan and United 93 to create a visual experience where the audience felt like they were in this craft where they were out of control.
“All of those capsule scenes were very challenging to work on because they each had a different emotional tone. They played with suspense, the sense of wonder, but they also played with danger. It was important that we get all of that right. All of the Gemini sections were intercut with scenes from mission control and scenes with Janet Armstrong with the boys listening at home. Those scenes had their own challenges too and we had to find the right balance and when to cut and edit.
“The mission control scenes, he shot so much material. He would set up the actors as if it were a long stage play. Every actor had scripted dialogue even when they were off camera. Damien and Linus covered it like he was covering a documentary event. Every take I had was different and he also made sure to give me 24 tracks of audio because they put a microphone on every actor in the mission control set. There was a lot of material to work with. It was shot in a cinéma vérité style which was fun for me to work with for me. I come from a documentary background and that background came into play in those scenes, but also when I was working on the scenes with Janet and the boys.
“A lot of those scenes with Janet and the boys were culled from rehearsal footage that Damien shot. Damien shot two weeks of rehearsals with Ryan, Claire, and the kids. He did that to get all the actors comfortable with each other. All of that was unscripted and improvised. We knew we’d use some of that footage but we just didn’t know how. We knew we would have to find that in the editing room and Damien and I worked to cull some of the most authentic moments and we put together the family time.
“A lot of the time we had scripted family time footage that was replaced by the rehearsal footage because we thought the rehearsal footage was more unique and more authentic.
“That whole section was really something that had a lot riding on it. As Damien and I approached that editing together, we found it very daunting, but we knew we had to get it because if that section didn’t work, then the movie wasn’t going to work.”