Arts & Culture

How Neil Armstrong's Life Became Ryan Gosling's New Movie First Man

Screenwriter Josh Singer on how he and Damien Chazelle brought the astronaut's story to the big screen.
IMAGE COURTESY UNIVERSAL PICTURES AND DREAMWORKS
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When screenwriter Josh Singer, who took home an Academy Award for his work on Spotlight and was nominated for a Golden Globe for writing The Post, began working on First Man (out October 12), he realized that what he thought he knew about the legendary astronaut Neil Armstrong was only just the beginning.

“There was this incredible story I knew nothing about,” Singer says, and he went about learning about Armstrong’s life outside his uniform—using James Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong as a jumping-off point—before writing the film. In its completed state, First Man, which is directed by La La Land’s Damien Chazelle and stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, shows Armstrong both at work and at home, and looks at him as a complete, complicated character and not just the icon he’s become. Here, Singer talks to T&C about how the film came to be.

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The life of Neil Armstrong feels like something we might all already know about, even if what we know is from school history lessons. What got you interested in writing this story?

I got a call saying Damien Chazelle wanted to do a movie about Neil Armstrong, and was I interested. But I didn’t know; I honestly didn’t know Damien’s work, and I didn’t know much about Neil other than what we all know. Damien’s movie Whiplash had just been at Sundance, and my wife and I watched it and were totally knocked out. In an instant, we saw that he was perhaps the greatest filmmaker of his generation.

In an instant, we saw that he was perhaps the greatest filmmaker of his generation.

So, I said any project he was on, I wanted to be involved in. Then, I got together with Damien and listened to him pitch me what he had been thinking about. He said, “I want to do something visceral that gets across the danger and insanity of these missions people were doing in a way that they’ve never been seen before.” My first question, knowing he was a writer, was why he wasn’t doing it himself.

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First Man screenwriter Josh Singer and the film’s Washington, D.C. premiere.

And why wasn’t he?

He said there was a movie musical he wanted to direct [which would go on to be La La Land] and there just wasn’t time to do the research he knew it would take to get it right. He knew I liked research-based projects, and thought maybe I was the guy to do this. My only hesitation was Neil, because I knew Damien’s work and loved his vision, but in terms of Neil, all I knew was the icon and I had to find out what about him was interesting.

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How did you do that?

I read Jim Hansen’s book, which is wonderful and encyclopedic. It’s amazing, because there are all of these very famous biographers who wanted to do Neil’s biography, but he was reticent. He was like, who’s going to want to read that? But also, he was holding out because technical things were so important to him. So, Jim chased after him for two years and eventually got him to say yes, I think in large part because Jim was a guy who had spent 20 years researching and writing about NASA. 

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First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong

Simon Schuster
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$22.66

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But you needed more than just technical information to make the film compelling.

That’s one of the things that makes the biography so great, because it’s all there, but it also makes the biography challenging. It took me a while to penetrate, but when I did I saw there was this incredible story I knew nothing about, which was the story of a man and his wife who suffered tragedy after tragedy and had persevered. It made clear a human side of the equation which we hadn’t seen before, which felt like a perfect pairing to what Damien was talking about in terms of the visceral, dangerous side of these missions.

The fact that Neil lost a daughter and had to immediately throw himself back in work, much to the chagrin of his wife, or the fact that in a 12-month period, Neil lost three of his closest friends to flight and space accidents… I was struck over and over again by the tragedy and loss and that Neil and Janet still got to where they did.

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When you’re trying to take that kind of life and put it into a two-hour movie, what do you choose to include? You can’t do it all.

It’s challenging. For me, the first big insight was to start with Neil in an F-15, an incredible plane that goes into suborbital space, which we see at the top of the movie. Most people don’t know that he flew that plane, which is the fastest and highest-flying aircraft we ever built. And we knew it would be a gripping sequence if we could do it correctly, because Neil made a mistake on that flight. There were questions about his performance and whether it was suffering because of his life at home.


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Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy in First Man.

So, it was an interesting place to start thinking about a guy who we think of as one of the greatest pilots of all time. It showed how hard it was to keep his home life and his work life separate, and that was the first revelation. Then there were some clear standouts, things that were exciting or terrifying or people might not know, and we thought we wanted to end on or close to the moon. It is interesting to see what his life becomes after, but capturing what that moment was from his point of view was what struck us as really interesting. 

Was there any additional pressure for you in taking on the life of someone so well known?

It’s nerve-wracking when you’re taking on an icon, and showing him as a human being. I’ve had historians coming up to me and say, “when I saw him cry at his daughter’s funeral, I had to rethink Neil Armstrong.” To me, that’s nuts, because of course you’ll cry in a situation like that. There’s a deification that’s happened, and it really changes our view just to see him as a normal American and to see what his family went through. But, if we were going to do this, we had to get it right, and any pressure was about doing just that.

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This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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