Damien Chazelle had just completed “Whiplash,” the 2014 film that would put him on the map, when a project called “First Man” crossed his desk. He wasn’t that interested in astronaut Neil Armstrong, per se, or even NASA history, but after taking a look at James R. Hansen’s biography of the first man to set foot on the moon, and digging into a few documentaries to see if there was a story he wanted to tell on the screen, everything got reframed for him.
“I don’t know what clicked but at some point I was just like, ‘Wow, how have I taken it for granted that in order to have the success story we grow up with of people walking on the moon, people had to turn fantasy into reality and completely put their lives on the line in order to do that,’” the 33-year-old Oscar-winning director says at the Telluride Film Festival, two days removed from the North American bow of his latest. “How do you get from 1961 to 1969, from barely getting into orbit to walking on the moon? It’s 32 times the size of the earth, from the earth to the moon. It’s an insane magnitude. You look at it on a plot and it’s mythological. Suddenly it was like Orpheus going into Hades. You’re going where humans are not supposed to go, and everything about the natural world is telling you that this is not where humanity is supposed to go. And they did it.”
He was immediately gripped by the possibility of crafting a truly immersive, even scary movie about this landmark event that we somehow take for granted today.
“It’s so gilded in triumphalism in the modern perspective, almost as though it was such a shining moment in history that for a few years, it was easy,” Chazelle says. “I wanted to do away with all of that and make it seem as hard and scary as it was.”
After hammering out a 72-page treatment, Chazelle confesses he wanted to leave the “heavy lifting” to another writer. In early 2014, he and the producers brought in Josh Singer, who was coming off of Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate” and Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” which was launching into production. Chazelle went off to shoot “La La Land” and Singer got to work on cracking a story.
“The first piece was really nailing down where you’re going to start, because Neil has a whole career before he gets to NASA,” Singer says. “Neil’s first love was planes. He was a taciturn guy but he would talk a blue streak about the X-15, and there were some pretty wild X-15 flights like the one we depict that happened right as his daughter Karen was struggling [with a malignant tumor] and kind of going downhill. So that felt like an interesting place to start.”
In sketching out a skeleton for the script, Singer next zeroed in on the Gemini 8 mission as a midpoint, during which Armstrong and fellow astronaut David Scott completed a successful docking test in orbit before things went haywire and the mission nearly killed them both. Then of course the Apollo 11 moon landing would be the finale. Throughout, a theme of loss began to surface.
“I was just so blown away by the fact that the second group of astronauts, two of them die and they happen to be Neil’s closest friends,” Singer says. “Elliot [See] and Ed [White], they both die within the calendar year. And in the middle of that, Neil goes up only two weeks after Elliot’s death and he almost dies. That is a crazy year. So that is the center. Ed is the end of the second act and Elliot is sort of the lead-up to the midpoint. It all sort of fell into place.”
Armstrong’s arc ended up being rather atypical. He starts at this heartbreaking moment with the loss of his daughter, then finds some joy going back to work with the NASA community in Houston, only to have it all stolen from him again by tragedy and loss and, in that Gemini 8 went off the rails, failure.
In November of 2015, as Chazelle was in post-production on “La La Land,” Singer finally had a 150-page first draft. Whittling it into shape was a joy, he says, because he was collaborating with a writer-director “who is such a true North.” Dozens and dozens of drafts later, they finally had their story on the page. It would follow this American hero, an emotionally clenched individual who lives for his work but buries the compounding pain of his life, and who would one day — at least based on conjecture from Hansen, backed up by Armstrong’s sister — pay tear-jerking tribute to Karen on the surface of the moon.
From there Chazelle went to work with his Oscar-winning “La La Land” cinematographer Linus Sandgren to find the visual identity of the film. They talked early on about shooting the whole thing with 16mm film, because the movie was meant feel like you’re emotionally close to the characters. It would be a very different aesthetic from the more innervated one employed on Chazelle’s previous two endeavors (“Whiplash” was shot by Sharone Meir), one inspired by documentary filmmaking and notes of cinéma vérité.
“Doing tests, we realized 16mm doesn’t really hold up in big, wide shots,” Sandgren says. “So going to NASA and the big shots in that environment, it felt like we wanted to stay in the gritty, raw realm, but 16mm isn’t sharp enough for that.”
The ultimate solution ended up being a combination of formats. So the beginning of the film, depicting one of Armstrong’s harrowing X-15 flights, and everything that would be shot inside spacecrafts, was done on 16mm. They settled on that format as the visual language of intimacy and being close to the characters. Moving into the world of NASA, they opted for 35mm.
“We have this sort of world where they lead this pretend good life in the suburbs,” Sandgren says. “We decided to do that with 35mm pull process, which makes it softer, while his environment in NASA is push process and grainier, just like the 16mm. That helped the texture of Nathan [Crowley]’s production design, which is so raw and beautiful.”
Then came the film’s awe-inspiring moon-landing, which called for something special. Chazelle and Sandgren went with IMAX 70mm photography, filming the moon at a granite quarry in Atlanta lit with, Chazelle says, the largest film light ever built.
“It’s a surreal world, the moon, like the planet of the dead,” Sandgren says. “With the silence first and then the music, everything changes. It gets so unfamiliar from what we’ve been seeing. So we went to the ultimate opposite in IMAX 70mm … Cinematography, to me, you start over every time. You never try to apply your own look onto a film. That’s what’s so great about Damien. Some directors will make the same types of movies, but Damien looks at the story and how to tell it best. You always have to go to the script. There should always be a reason why you do what you do.”
Throughout production, Chazelle’s composer, Justin Hurwitz, was conjuring themes and motifs for the film. He first started plugging away in March of 2017 as pre-production began in earnest. There were a few words right off the bat that Chazelle had in mind to help inform what Hurwitz was searching for at the piano: grief, loneliness, but also beauty, and that contrast was what would need to be baked into the music.
“Damien told me a couple of years before we even got to the piano that this score had to sound completely different than anything we’ve ever done,” Hurwitz, a two-time Oscar winner for “La La Land,” says. “So I knew as soon as there was a basic theme composed, I had to basically start learning new things and ways to make it sound different.”
Chazelle suggested a theremin early on, so Hurwitz picked one up and started learning how to play it. He got some vintage synthesizers, like a 1968-model Moog, and began learning by way of YouTube how modular synthesis works.
“It’s this old style of synth where you have to patch it with all these cables,” Hurwitz says. “Then I started playing around with other production stuff, things that we would use to process the orchestra and make it sound different. We knew we were going to record a big orchestra for it because we needed it to be big and emotional, but we didn’t want it to sound like a traditional orchestra.”
Hurwitz had never really produced music in the past, so he had even more to learn in order to develop the music in a unique way. He put all of the strings through a couple of processes that gave it a kind of “shakiness” that he thought felt organic to the way Chazelle and Sandgren were shooting the film.
“Neil is so outwardly steady, but there had to be nerves there and I thought that maybe spoke to how he was feeling,” Hurwitz says. “And also, emotionally, he’s fragile, more fragile than he lets on.”
Hurwitz became something of a mad scientist on the project. For example, he recorded all the strings — violas, violins, cellos — separately and ran them through a rotor cabinet that housed a spinning speaker. He then re-recorded the playback as they moved the cabinet around the room, placing it where the actual players had been.
“That gave it this weird, other-worldly kind of flutter to it,” he says. “Then I put it through a tremolo to give it the second layer of flutter, and then violins, basses, cellos were all given different rates of flutter. So there were all these flutters that were in conflict with each other.”
The result is something, indeed, completely different from his previous collaborations with Chazelle, and an element of the film that accounts for a considerable amount of the story’s emotional impact.
From there, incredible work from the sound and visual effects teams brought the film home. And just as it launched (so to speak) at the Venice Film Festival last week, an innocent press conference question sparked a mind-boggling controversy.
You can’t watch “First Man” and come away with anything but intense American pride for a gargantuan, world-uniting accomplishment. And even though the American flag is seen quite clearly on the moon in the final scenes of the film, the fact that there wasn’t a dramatization of the actual planting of the flag has stirred unrest from drama-mongering commentators and opportunistic politicians who haven’t even seen the movie.
When asked if there’s anything left to be said on this front, Singer whips out his phone and quotes from Meghan McCain’s eulogy to her father, John McCain, delivered over the weekend.
“We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness,” Singer says, quoting McCain. “The real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.”
Putting his phone away, Singer says the quote could as easily apply to Armstrong.
“We all felt like this was a deeply patriotic movie about a patriot who gave and gave and gave for his country,” Singer says. “I think that’s clear throughout the movie. When people see the movie I think they’ll see that. And this movie is certainly not partisan in the slightest. One of the remarkable things about the moon mission is there were three presidents from both sides of the aisle. Kennedy started it. Johnson continued it. And Nixon was there for the moon landing. We were really focused on what you don’t know about this guy, because what you don’t know about Neil is what makes him even more impressively heroic, this suffering and loss and his grace in the face of that and his persistence in the face of that and his relentless pursuit. To me that makes him an even greater hero than the icon we know.”
Singer also reminds that there are only so many hours in a movie and so there are things that will be left out, like the phone call to Nixon, for instance, or the plaque that reads “For All Mankind.” Certain elements, like the Gemini 8 mission (which was only eight hours, compared to Apollo 11’s eight days) needed to be spelled out beat-for-beat, Chazelle says. But by the time the story gets to the moon, they were dealing in the most familiar aspects of the tale. So the challenge was how to make the familiar unfamiliar. How do you dig into the story underneath the story everyone knows?
“That, to me, was Neil alone on the moon and what that subjective experience would be,” Chazelle says. “That’s why we spent as much time as we do alone with him on the crater, or walking to the crater, or the first instance of him stepping off the ladder. We don’t spend a lot of time with him and Buzz. The flag-planting was not Neil alone. It was Buzz and Neil planting it, Buzz being photographed next to it. Every image we’ve seen of someone next to that flag is Buzz. But we’re not doing the Buzz Aldrin story, or the Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong story. We’re doing Neil Armstrong subjective, emotional, thinking about his past on the moon in a sort of surreal, emotional way. That was our priority.”
It’s an interesting controversy, too, given how sharply American support for the program declined throughout the 1960s. Things changed pretty dramatically in the country during that period, and by the time Armstrong and Aldrin parked the Apollo Lunar Module at the Sea of Tranquility, less than 50% of the country thought it was even worth it given the many ills plaguing us right here at home. This discord is captured in a montage sequence set to a Leon Bridges rendition of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On the Moon.”
In the years since the Apollo heyday, and later, the Space Shuttle program (shuttered seven years ago), space travel has begun to creep into the realm of private enterprise. Singer says the team took a trip to Johnson Space Center in Houston and found it “a little sad” to see that time had passed what had once been a thriving metropolis by, even though there are of course still diligent and driven people working to keep us pushing toward the cosmos. It’s just that we’re not exploring in the same way we were, “or at least it seems to not have the same thrust, if you will,” Singer says. But it’s important for myriad reasons to continue that pursuit with verve.
“One thing that Ed White spoke to is that sometimes symbols are important,” Chazelle says. “You can argue about the moon itself as this almost arbitrary goal, but what it did do was it galvanized, in a symbolic way, the importance of science in people’s minds. So you had a whole generation, especially kids — that was what science could let you do. It gave this importance to the world of ideas.”