FIRST MAN

Ryan Gosling re­unites with La La Land di­rec­tor Damien Chazelle to tackle the harsh re­al­i­ties of space travel — and likely pick up a haul of awards along the way — in Neil Arm­strong biopic First Man

Empire (Australasia) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JAMES JEN­NINGS

Em­pire’s ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with Ryan “Ry-ry” Gosling and di­rec­tor Damien “Cha-cha” Chazelle to talk about the fol­low-up to their smash hit mu­si­cal, Grease 2. Did you know this is a live-ac­tion Buzz Lightyear film? True story!

As Ryan Gosling tells it, his pre­vi­ous fea­ture film col­lab­o­ra­tion with di­rec­tor Damien Chazelle, La La Land, was the re­sult of “a bit of a bait-and-switch.” What the pair had ini­tially met up to dis­cuss work­ing on back in 2014 af­ter the re­lease of Chazelle’s cel­e­brated drum­mer drama Whiplash was a biopic about Amer­i­can as­tro­naut Neil Arm­strong, the first per­son, for those who’ve been liv­ing in a nu­clear bunker for the last five decades, to walk on the Moon in 1969. “There was no script, just a book [First Man: The Life Of Neil A. Arm­strong by James R. Hansen],” says Gosling. “And we met to talk about it as it was some­thing he was con­sid­er­ing do­ing, but he had to do this mu­si­cal thing first.” That “mu­si­cal thing”, of course, went on to scoop half-a-dozen Os­cars at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017. (Although in­fa­mously it missed out on Best Pic­ture, which af­ter an an­nounce­ment mishap went to — un­canny lu­nar ref­er­ence alert! — Moon­light in­stead.)

With Os­car buzz build­ing to a rocket-booster roar, we got Gosling to de­liver the skinny on the lat­est Gos-’zelle team-up…

How did Damien pitch the idea of a Neil Arm­strong biopic to you?

The ini­tial thing he was most com­pelled by was, in ret­ro­spect, just how hard these space mis­sions were. To imag­ine how ex­treme and dan­ger­ous they were and how could we cre­ate for the au­di­ence a kind of re­ally vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence and put them in the pilot’s seat where they feel the stakes and the claus­tro­pho­bia and the im­pos­si­bil­ity of it all.

It’s safe to say most peo­ple on the planet have heard of Neil Arm­strong. Was there much left for you to dis­cover about him?

I started read­ing James Hansen’s book and I re­alised I knew noth­ing about Neil Arm­strong and I thought that was so strange be­cause I re­ally thought I knew who Neil Arm­strong was. But he had such a com­pelling and com­pli­cated and fas­ci­nat­ing life and I re­ally knew noth­ing about it. And I re­alised that Neil had done such a good job, and his wife Janet, of keep­ing their per­sonal life out of the spot­light at the time and keep­ing the fo­cus on the mis­sions. I re­alised there was an in­cred­i­ble story there that hadn’t re­ally been told.

Neil Arm­strong risked his life reg­u­larly as a test air­craft pilot. Do you feel like you came to un­der­stand why he was com­fort­able tak­ing such ex­treme risks? He seemed fear­less. Yeah, and it’s not just Neil, I think it’s a lot of these as­tro­nauts. I tried in my in­ter­views with them to find out what that was, and of course, they’re very hum­ble and don’t want to re­ally dis­cuss what they think might make them dif­fer­ent or spe­cial. But I do think there is some kind of ex­treme, al­most su­per­hu­man abil­ity to fo­cus and an amount of pa­tience. They’re able to in­tensely fo­cus on one thing to such an ex­treme that they can ex­clude ev­ery­thing else, in­clud­ing fear or any doubts. That’s an in­cred­i­ble abil­ity to have.

A lot of these guys were test pi­lots and it’s a spe­cial kind of per­son that wants to test an air­craft that’s never been flown. And part of your job is to push it to its break­ing point so you un­der­stand where its flaws are.

Is there ex­tra pres­sure in­volved play­ing such an iconic, world fa­mous per­son?

Sure, any time you’re play­ing a real per­son you need to be very care­ful when you make the de­ci­sion to do that be­cause there’s a lot at stake. And you’re also sort of wed­ded to the truth in a way be­cause you don’t have the free­dom to just cre­ate what you think might be most in­ter­est­ing for the au­di­ence in that mo­ment. You’re teth­ered to a cer­tain de­gree to the re­search you’ve done and to what you feel like you’ve learned.

With Neil be­ing such a pri­vate per­son though, there must’ve been a lot you had to cre­ate from scratch.

You are forced to imag­ine scenes that aren’t doc­u­mented. Es­pe­cially in the case of Neil, where we’re re­cre­at­ing scenes from his home life, when ob­vi­ously there is no writ­ten record of what was said. But we did have a huge amount of help from his fam­ily. His sons were very in­volved. His late ex-wife Janet was very help­ful. They read many in­car­na­tions of the script, gave a lot of notes, told a lot of ad­di­tional sto­ries that would help. If I was in a scene and I wanted to know how Neil might re­act, I would email his son. His sis­ter June let me in the room Neil was born in at the farm they grew up on in Wa­pakoneta, Ohio. I had a lot of help and a lot of peo­ple in­vested in us get­ting this right. So, a lot of pres­sure, but it was an ex­cit­ing chal­lenge.

Speak­ing of pres­sure, af­ter read­ing an early ver­sion of the script Neil’s son Eric is quoted as say­ing “You mess with canon­i­cal his­tory at your own peril.” [Laughs] That sounds like him.

I imag­ine that means we shouldn’t ex­pect you and Damien to chuck in, say, a cheeky Michael Jack­son-style moon­walk on the Moon as a nod to your pre­vi­ous work to­gether on a mu­si­cal... [Laughs] No, we didn’t do that. Even though there was op­por­tu­nity to [do some­thing], be­cause Neil loved mu­si­cals and he was a mu­si­cian, as was his wife Janet. So, there were op­por­tu­ni­ties to do it, but we didn’t.

So there’s a bit of a mu­si­cal thread con­nect­ing La La Land and First Man, even though it’s not fully ex­plored...

We kept it as a sub­text. Though I did dis­cover that he loved the theremin, which is an in­stru­ment I’m a fan of too. We found this record that he used to like, iron­i­cally called Mu­sic Out Of The Moon [see panel on page 53]. It was a record he was a fan of even be­fore he was an as­tro­naut and it’s all theremin. So, Justin, our com­poser, went and learned how to play the theremin as part of our score.

That is very cool. The song and dance rou­tines in La La Land would’ve been a big chal­lenge for you. What was the big­gest chal­lenge for you on First Man? There were a lot of them. As­tro­nauts, es­pe­cially Neil, have to be­come ex­perts on such a stag­ger­ing spec­trum of things. Ob­vi­ously you can’t do that as an ac­tor, but you can try to find a way to rep­re­sent that qual­ity and all the tech­ni­cal as­pects of these mis­sions. It was all pretty chal­leng­ing but again, we had so much help. Any­time we were shoot­ing mis­sion scenes, some­one that was ei­ther on that mis­sion or had flown a mis­sion like it was there with us help­ing walk us through ev­ery tech­ni­cal as­pect of it that might be help­ful for psy­cho­log­i­cal or emo­tional per­spec­tives. A lot of times they had a mi­cro­phone and they were just talk­ing into my ear while I was shoot­ing a scene.

That’s handy. Did you do any spe­cial train­ing with NASA?

Yeah, NASA re­ally opened their doors. I spent a lot of time with Joe En­gle — he’s the last liv­ing pilot of the X-15 [a hy­per­sonic rocket-pow­ered ex­per­i­men­tal air­craft used by NASA and the US Air Force]. We would sit in a mock cock­pit and go through the scenes and talk about ev­ery­thing on a tech­ni­cal level. Joe would be there to try to ex­plain to me very pa­tiently what ev­ery­thing meant, and where your hands would be, or what but­ton you’re push­ing and this par­tic­u­lar thing hap­pens, or what that feels like. It was re­ally im­mer­sive, and I’m bor­ing my­self as I talk about it. Pe­ri­ods of it were ex­cit­ing, I prom­ise!

I be­lieve you! Hon­est. Ob­vi­ously the Moon land­ing is an iconic mo­ment in world his­tory. Has this whole process of film­ing First Man al­tered your per­spec­tive on it?

Yeah, and one thing that was com­mon when talk­ing to as­tro­nauts was they all talked about the per­spec­tive that space ex­plo­ration gives you. Neil’s son gave me an in­ter­view that Neil did at home that was never re­leased where he’s talk­ing about the per­spec­tive that space travel gives you. A lot of as­tro­nauts say, “The mis­sion was to ex­plore the moon, but we ended up dis­cov­er­ing the Earth.” Some­thing about see­ing the Earth ob­jec­tively in the vast­ness of space, it gives you a per­spec­tive that’s hard to get in any other way.

It would make most things look quite triv­ial by com­par­i­son, I imag­ine.

But at the same time, they also talk about how, you know, one as­tro­naut was say­ing to me that he had come back from a space sta­tion a few months ear­lier. But then two days af­ter you get back to Earth, you’re back to honk­ing at peo­ple in traf­fic. It’s a hard per­spec­tive to hold onto. Hope­fully the film in some small way com­mu­ni­cates a bit of that to the au­di­ence.

As­tro­naut Neil Arm­strong (Ryan Gosling) looks to the stars.

Clock­wise from main: As­tro­naut Neil Arm­strong (Ryan Gosling) suits up for ac­tion; Gosling and Emma Stone in the Damien Chazelle di­rected La La Land; Arm­strong and wife Janet (Claire Foy).

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