For the ‘First Man’ team, their mis­sion was to get it right


LOS AN­GE­LES Mak­ing a movie about Neil Arm­strong may not nec­es­sar­ily be on par with, say, suc­cess­fully land­ing on the moon but the pres­sure in­volved isn't a gi­ant leap from that ei­ther.

There are as­tro­nauts who were there, for one, in Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, in ad­di­tion to all the peo­ple who were on the ground at NASA ready to jump on any in­ac­cu­ra­cies.

There’s the near-mythic weight that that achieve­ment of be­ing the first man to walk on the moon holds. For film fans, there’s the “2001: A Space Odyssey” fac­tor. And then there’s the fact that Arm­strong, who died in 2012 at age 82, while a stick­ler for facts, didn’t like to talk much about him­self — even to his own fam­ily.

But it was a chal­lenge direc­tor Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) and screen­writer Josh Singer (“Spot­light”) were will­ing to take on. Chazelle en­vi­sioned a doc­u­men­tary-style ap­proach to telling Arm­strong’s story in “First Man,” now play­ing na­tion­wide, with Ryan Gosling in the lead role. He wanted to strip away the glossy ro­man­ti­cism from early space travel and make it about the real men, with real fam­i­lies, and the very real dan­ger of this dream to go to the moon.

“If ‘2001’ is the grand movie-movie treat­ment of space and the great­est pos­si­ble ver­sion of that, you’re never go­ing to beat that,” Chazelle said. “(We thought), could we do the doc­u­men­tary ver­sion of that? Could we do the gritty, cam­era on the shoul­der, 16 mm, cin­ema verite ver­sion of space and make it feel like D.A. Pen­nebaker had crawled into the cap­sule with the as­tro­nauts?”

To achieve this goal, pro­duc­tion de­signer Nathan Crow­ley (“Dunkirk”) and his team built full-scale repli­cas of cap­sules from Gemini and Apollo mis­sions, the X-15 air­craft and the mul­ti­axis trainer — prac­ti­cal sets so Chazelle could put his star, cam­era and the au­di­ence right in the claus­tro­pho­bic ac­tion and shake them all a lit­tle while space im­agery played out­side the win­dows on LED screens.

“Con­trary to what you might think it was fun,” Gosling said with a chuckle.

Be­yond the phys­i­cal chal­lenges of the role, Gosling had to also em­body the man, with­out much to work with.

“Even though it was hard to learn per­sonal things about him, I re­spected it ev­ery step of the way. He was the most fa­mous per­son on the planet and some­how man­aged to keep the fo­cus on the mis­sions them­selves, on the hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple who helped make it pos­si­ble,” Gosling said.

“I don’t think it was just to be eva­sive, I feel as though he had this in­cred­i­ble abil­ity to see ev­ery­thing within its larger con­text. He could see one gi­ant leap in a small step.”

They weren’t fly­ing blind, ei­ther. They had James Hansen’s of­fi­cial bi­og­ra­phy, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Arm­strong” to work from, but there was a lot of sift­ing that needed to be done to find the story.

“The good news with Jim is the book got ev­ery­thing right. The bad news is it’s a lit­tle en­cy­clo­pe­dic,” Singer laughed. “It’s not the eas­i­est read.”

So Singer set out try­ing to dis­till and dra­ma­tize (but still ac­cu­rately de­pict) a seven-year pe­riod, start­ing with the death of Neil and Janet Arm­strong’s 2year-old daugh­ter Karen, and end­ing with the moon land­ing. Singer re­al­ized that tragedy sur­rounded Arm­strong. He’d lose a num­ber of friends and col­leagues in a short pe­riod of time, from plane crashes to the Apollo 1 fire, and have a few near-death ex­pe­ri­ences him­self, in­clud­ing the less-re­mem­bered Gemini 8 mis­sion.

“We’re try­ing to punc­ture a nar­ra­tive that’s been around NASA for a long time that said this was easy or this was su­per­hero busi­ness,” Singer said. “No, this was an or­di­nary Amer­i­can guy and his or­di­nary Amer­i­can wife try­ing to make it through this in­cred­i­ble chal­leng­ing mo­ment.”

A key fac­tor was get­ting the sup­port of Arm­strong’s sons, Rick Arm­strong and Mark Arm­strong, who were al­ways avail­able to Singer and Gosling and any­one else who had any ques­tions, about them, their mom (who is played by Bri­tish ac­tress Claire Foy) and their dad.

“One of the big­gest chal­lenges of the film was know­ing they were go­ing to see it in the end and they weren’t go­ing to see a film about his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, they would see their par­ents and them­selves,” Gosling said. “It was also an in­valu­able as­set to have them there. I can’t re­ally imag­ine do­ing it with­out them.”

Rick and Mark Arm­strong were re­lieved that the film­mak­ers cared about ac­cu­racy (tech­ni­cal and emo­tional), and helped pro­vide cru­cial de­tails for one of the film’s most heart­break­ing scenes, when Neil Arm­strong tells his young sons that there is a chance that he might not sur­vive. But they’re most ex­cited about au­di­ences get­ting to see some­thing else — their dad’s hu­mour.

“He was a pretty funny guy and I was re­ally glad that that came through,” said Rick Arm­strong. “He had a very dry wit.” As Gemini and Apollo trainer Frank Hughes de­scribed it to Singer, “if you weren’t pay­ing at­ten­tion, you’d miss it.”

One of the fun­nier scenes wasn’t even ini­tially in the film. It was Gosling who stum­bled on the fact that Arm­strong was a fan of mu­si­cals and even wrote one in col­lege. He asked Singer why that el­e­ment wasn’t in the script. Af­ter 10 min­utes of writ­ing, it was.

“I felt like it helped add colour to a per­son who was very, very lay­ered and com­pli­cated and fas­ci­nat­ing and was too hum­ble to share that,” Gosling said.

There was also an army of as­tro­nauts ready to fact-check along the way. In Singer’s first draft, he made up “all sorts” of stuff in the lu­nar land­ing.

“(As­tro­naut) Dave Scott got re­ally an­gry,” Singer re­called. “As Rick Arm­strong likes to say, ‘You mess with canon­i­cal his­tory at your peril.’”

So, he went back to the draw­ing board and the 1,000-some pages of tran­script and took an­other pass. For Singer, Chazelle, Gosling and the hun­dreds of peo­ple in­volved in the pro­duc­tion, ac­cu­racy was their first mis­sion.


This im­age re­leased by Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures shows Claire Foy and Olivia Hamil­ton in a scene from "First Man."

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