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Listen: Damien Chazelle on ‘First Man’ and ‘Surreal’ Oscars EnvelopeGate

PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.

Filmmaker Damien Chazelle had quite the act to follow after “La La Land,” the 2016 musical that tied the record for Oscar nominations and marked him as the youngest person to ever win the Academy Award for directing. He’s answered with “First Man,” the story of Neil Armstrong’s journey from personal tragedy to the absolute heights of human accomplishment. But as familiar a moment as that is, in the American and indeed the global psyche, Chazelle’s mission was to peel back unseen layers of the tale.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

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“It seemed like, for such a famous event, [it was] an event that could use some demystifying, maybe de-romanticizing,” Chazelle says. “It felt like there was a lot left to unpack in that event and certainly what led up to it. It coincides nicely with Neil’s life. He joined up with NASA right around the time this sort of ‘moonshot’ became a national goal right at the top of the decade. It was trying to see through his eyes and the program’s eyes as a whole, how you go from those first beginnings of space exploration to traveling 32 times the size of earth all the way to the moon and back, basically in the span of eight or nine years.”

Unlike “La La Land,” which was somewhat predesigned and easier to edit with the extensive use of single takes, “First Man” was largely discovered on set and in the editing room. It felt on the whole closer to “Whiplash” for Chazelle, in terms of post-production, and like his 2014 sophomore feature — which was finished in a mad dash leading up to the Sundance Film Festival that year — things came right down to the wire on finishing “First Man” in time for its Venice bow. Ultimately Chazelle says his latest work easily amounted to the biggest technical challenge of his career so far.

“Once you try to set parameters around something — in this case, everything should feel like a Super 16 documentary and we’re expanding from there — it kind of puts more of a burden on visual effects and sound design,” he says. “In a different kind of movie I think you can get away with stuff being more obviously synthetic. There’s a lot more allowance for things to look computer generated or sound heightened or whatever. But here we knew we weren’t going to have that sort of facility, that stuff that was fake would look and sound fake. So that dictated a lot of what the workflow was going to be, that we were going to try as much of the visual effects in-camera [as possible] … and try to bake everything into a look that hopefully would harmonize, so that at the end of the day, whether it’s a miniature or a piece of computer-generated imagery or a totally sort of in-camera, practical [effect] — it would hopefully all speak the same language.”

Outside of an extensive recent Telluride discussion, the last time I sat down with Chazelle was the morning after the 89th annual Academy Awards, which ended with that instantly infamous envelope snafu and “La La Land” erroneously being announced as the best picture winner. Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” was soon revealed as the real winner in one of the craziest television moments in history. Asked about it now, Chazelle can only take it for the bittersweet moment that it was.

“It all feels a little bit like something out of a movie, which I guess is appropriate,” he says. “But there was something kind of fun about it. Hollywood, the Oscars, all that stuff has the potential to be absurd enough on its own, so it felt like that whole episode was maybe a way of underlining that. I saw Barry in Toronto actually when we were just there. It’s a surreal memory, but a fun one.”

For more, including thoughts on Chazelle’s move into the streamer space with Apple and Netflix projects, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

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Damien Chazelle photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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