Director Damien Chazelle talks us through his mission to bring La La Land follow-up First Man to the big screen
I WAS FIRST approached by producers of the project back in 2014 right after I had just come back from Sundance where I premiered Whiplash. At the time I wasn’t really interested in doing a biopic. They gave me this book by James Hansen called First Man and
I sat with it for a little bit and I started becoming fascinated specifically with the mission to the Moon.
Now we’re coming up to 50 years from the event and the questions it brings up is, “What’s the cost and the worth of a goal like that? What toll does it take?”
It’s one of these things that I think you either take for granted or you try to grapple with it and it becomes unfathomable because it’s just too big for us to really wrap our heads around.
I wanted to peel back all that mythology and see the messy reality underneath. The more reading I did the messier that reality appeared to be, and so the more interested I became.
I came back to the producers and said I didn’t want to do a cradle-to-grave biopic, that what I wanted to do was basically a mission movie, a movie about the steps that people took to actually step foot on the Moon told from the perspective of the person who made that first step. So lots from Neil’s perspective. Very confined to his perspective, to what he was seeing and feeling both physically and emotionally. And it would just cover those seven years from his first joining NASA to his landing on the Moon.
Universal was into it. I met the screenwriter, Josh Singer, who I had heard a lot of good things about. He had been working on a script called Spotlight that hadn’t been made yet. We got to work researching.
For someone who, at a certain point in history, was the most famous individual on the face of the planet, Neil was so unknown. He’s this sort of blank slate for people. To become that first person on the Moon he also served as a kind of canvas, I think, for not just the nation but the world’s dreams and hopes to be projected on to. For anyone who’s been canonised or turned into marble in that way, it can be really interesting to chisel away at that, undo all of that, and try to locate what was underneath. And there’s a very ordinary human being underneath. There’s someone who was struggling day to day, dealing with a lot of grief and failure and loss and trauma.
I think that spoke to the larger idea that we really wanted to get across, which was that this was fucking hard. It came at a very high cost not just financially, but cost in terms of lives, in terms of emotions, families, years. That became something that was really important to us in the telling of this, to try to communicate just how difficult it was.
Ryan and I always talked about wanting to make it feel like a documentary, like you were there with the crew in the ’60s. In the Armstrong household, in the capsule with the astronauts. That it wouldn’t feel like a movie per se, but that it would feel like this very intimate, up-close and personal experience.
I’m pretty happy with the film. I’m in the last few weeks of post-production where you’re really not going to have the chance to get the thirty thousand foot view and get that perspective. So you just have to kind of go on instinct and on faith a little bit for those last few weeks as you grind through to the finish. So I probably won’t get that perspective until probably well after the movie premieres. But with as much information or context as I feel like I can have at this point, I’m pretty excited about it.