'First Man' Screenwriter Josh Singer On Writing Neil Armstrong And Researching For A Biopic [Interview]

First Man isn't an average biopic. Damien Chazellle's drama is not a collection of CliffsNotes or an aggrandizing portrait of its subject, the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, who's played with steel and vulnerability by Ryan Gosling. For a story as sprawling as the race to the moon, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer crafted a thrillingly stripped down, point of view-driven, and as Singer says, repetitive and frustrating story more about loss than victory.

The emphasis on character and mood, not just major events and facts we all know, is a breath of fresh air in the time of the year where we generally sit through mind-numbing and by-the-numbers bio films. Those movies tend to be very easily digestible and risk-adverse stories, but First Man, on the other hand, is uncompromising in its vision and willing to challenge its audience. The journey for Neil Armstrong wasn't easy, so why would the movie be? It's another unshakable experience from Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer, who won an Academy Award for co-writing Spotlight.

Singer recently told us about his collaboration with the La La Land director, his tireless research and depicting the moon landing, and the haunting final image of First Man.

First Man is one of those movies that shows you how horrifying space can be, but I thought it was interesting how that same feeling of unease and tension was almost always with Neil Armstrong at home, too. 

Yeah, Damien, I think, really was pushing that. I think one of the things that we don't quite get, and didn't quite get, is how tough it was for these families. You know, Damien presents that in the film, but the way he shoots and focuses in closeups, there was a sense of claustrophobia at home in the same way there was in the cockpit. You know, on the one hand, the good part of it was they all were a big family. Everyone was working for NASA [in Neil and Janet's neighborhood], which was what was done. They all lived in these couple of developments that basically sprung up for the folks working in and around Johnson Space Center. The command space center before was really at Johnson.

The guy across the street would be a technician, and the guy down the block would be... They're all working for NASA. Neil always sort of downplays their role, like, "We're just a point of a very long spear. There are 400,000 others who help get us there." But the astronauts were the guys that were risking their lives.

Not only were they risking their lives, they also were in the international spotlight, and so had to deal with that. At the same time, they were concealing from the press just how dangerous and challenging this was. To some degree, concealing how death was really nipping at their heels constantly. I think one of the things that Damien's trying to get at was that created so many challenges, this sense of claustrophobia in these sort of extraordinary circumstances.

Neil Armstrong's relationship with Ed White (Jason Clarke), who he probably opens up the most to, what did you learn about their friendship through your research that influenced how you portrayed them?

You know, it's funny, we have them live across the street in the movie for a couple of different production reasons. They were next door neighbors. There's a whole scene we shot that didn't make it into the movie, because of pacing and for a couple of other reasons. There was a house fire at Neil's house in 1964, not too long after he and family moved to Houston. It literally woke them up in the middle of the night. Neil wound up having to run back into the house to get ... First, he took out Mark who was 10 months old. Then he had to run back in for Rick, who hadn't found his way out. That was pretty, I think, harrowing. One of the vivid memories of the evening was Ed literally jumping the fence between the houses and then grabbing a hose. The Armstrongs actually lived at the White House for a couple of days while they were finding a rental. That was sort of the level of closeness.

The thing that really struck me was Neil was also, as we show in the movie, super close to Elliot See (Patrick Fugit). We don't even really get at this. One thing that I think is not commonly understood is, you know, when your backup on a mission ... So when Neil and Elliot were back up on Gemini 5, you do everything that the primary does save for the actual mission. That's months and months of training, and it's really the two of you, in this case, Neil and Elliot, working together, because they're the team that's going to step up should something happen to the prime crew. Neil and Elliot had had all that training time, and moreover they were really peas in a pod. They were both on the cerebral side, and so they become quite close. When Elliot died, it was a real loss for Neil.

The thing that struck me in my initial research was Elliot dies, and that's February of '66, and two weeks later, Neil goes up in Gemini and he almost dies. Then less than a year later, his next door neighbor, who he was close with, Ed, is part of the Apollo 1 tragedy that January. That Apollo 1 fire was, you talk to anybody who was involved in the programs at that time, it was a real turn. I think it affected them all greatly. They all felt responsible. They all felt a renewed purpose in some ways in terms of pushing forward so that those deaths would not be in vain.

It was really that the fire is a moment that has a lot of import, for anyone who's working at NASA at the time, but for Neil, it had this secondary component, which was intensely personal. I mean, there's nine guys in the Gemini 9, right? To me, it always, you know, from [author] Jim Hansen's research, it always seemed like the two guys he's closest with were Elliot and Ed. They both died within 12 months. It's not quite test pilot odds, you know? Where pretty much one in four test pilots were going to die almost every year back in those days, but it's pretty close. You're talking about two out of nine guys. It just so happens that those were the two that Neil was tight with.

Again, all of this only makes the ability to move forward with such grace, the fact that we didn't know any of this really, in some ways, it makes it more profound. It's funny, because Bonnie White Baer, Ed's daughter who talked to us while we were doing our research and came to set, and was traveling around with us. She came up to Toronto, and came out to the premier with us, and came down to Kennedy Space Center when we did a junket there. She brought some pictures. She had this one great picture of Janet and her mom during Ed's Gemini 4 flight. You know? Your mom grabbing Janet's hand. There's nobody else there. That's the thing. These women were pretty isolated. It wasn't tons of people over the house, at least not for the Gemini missions, because everybody was so busy. Generally, it would just be some of the affairs officer from NASA and the Life photographer, and that's it. I think Janet and Pat got very close. To hear the voice tell it, after Ed's death, Pat just wasn't really all there.

Again, to see that, you see that from Neil's point of view, but also from Janet's point of view, to see how devastating it must've been, and how challenging. It really just gives you even more respect for these folks. To me, I find it even more inspiring and remarkable what they're able to achieve.

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One of the few scenes we see Neil Armstrong at his most vulnerable is with Ed when they go for a walk at night. Over the 16 drafts you wrote working with Damien, how did that scene evolve? 

You know, it's funny, we did a bunch of different drafts on that scene, really playing with it. We always wanted to get to a moment of that swing and Karen, and this idea that Neil never talked about Karen. The fact that even just mentioning her to Ed was a huge step, and suggested, you know, a guy who was actually starting to open up in some ways. It just makes it all the more tragic when the fire happens.

We'd always talked about that portion of the film, really as the last moment of respite, the last moment of happiness before a real trip into the abyss for Neil. We jokingly refer to it as the Apollonia moment. There's a montage, which actually comes right before that scene, which was all improv, which was all stuff that Damien did on set with the gang.

To me, it's one of my favorite little segments, set pieces in the film, and in the annotated screenplay, I call it the Apollonian montage. It's that moment in The Godfather, where Michael marries Apollonia and has this moment of, oh is he going to get out of the life. Is he going to find a new way? Is he going to find happiness? Then of course, she dies. The next time you see him he is a totally different guy, like comes back and there's black in his eyes when you see him. It's just a totally different guy.

This whole story is how many blows can you take, right? Both for Neil, and for Neil and Janet as a couple. How many blows can that relationship take? There is the original sin, if you will, of the death of Karen and then you start in that tough place. Then you start to come back a little bit, and you throw yourself into work, and you to move to Houston, and you're just starting to come back and you have that great dinner scene with everybody. Then Elliot dies, and then your closest friend in the program dies. Then you've got to push through that and you go off on your own flight and you almost die. You have to push through that. You just managed to make it to the other side, where they tell you it wasn't your fault. In fact, thank goodness, you figured out a way out. You find this respite of oh, we're going to be okay. You get to that scene with Ed, and you open up to him a little bit, and then he goes. From that point, it's pushing everything down until he gets to the moon.

In some ways, this whole movie is about fighting with grief and dealing with grief. That's really ... I think that moment was always very key that walk with Ed. We always knew it was going to be something about Karen there. Then we went back and forth. I wrote several different drafts. I wrote a draft where I had Neil talking about ... There's a great story of Neil's, where he talks about flying and crashed ... He used to fly back and forth from Purdue to Cincinnati, and he actually crash landed this little plane that he was flying back to Purdue, and had to throw it into his grandfather's truck, and drive it back to Purdue. At some point, I had Neil talking about that, and how, you know, he just concentrated hard enough, and he was sort of struggling with the same thing, you know, with Gemini 8, that Elliot distracted him. We would up pulling that back. Then we wound up removing that entirely. Then we had him talk about something else entirely.

Suddenly we got to set, and then Ryan and Jason and Damien and I were playing with it. Ryan said, "Well, what if this is more of a moment for Ed's character, and let Ed talk." Then I wrote three or four different versions of that sort of thing that Ed said. The thing about that is like, you know, there's plenty of stuff about Ed talking about, you know, advancing ourselves as a civilization by this sort of exploration. Moreover, he mentions faith a little bit, which is something that was very important to us.

What's interesting about this script, and I think all movie scripts, they're really blueprints, right? You work on them and you work on them. Then they turn into these sort of blueprints for your team. You keep working on them with the director. They basically are, this is our battle plan, you know, for the production designer, and costumes, and everybody else. Then the actors hop onboard and they often bring sort of a thing to the table as well. The thing evolves and evolves and eventually, it doesn't really get set until you lock picture. That process of the evolution, the change, is hopefully a good one, and hopefully one where you're taking in good inputs from all sides, and still maintaining the general schematics of the piece.

What's it like writing a character as internalized as Neil Armstrong? I imagine it would sometimes be restricting, but is it freeing at all writing a character who won't open up, give a big speech, and maybe check more conventional narrative boxes? 

You know, I don't know if freeing is the right word. Neil is a pretty clear guy. It's pretty clear he's not going to say a lot. It's pretty clear that he's going to be concise and to the point. It's pretty clear that he's going to be very dry and wry, which is fun. The parameters of the character are pretty ... The more you read about him and talk to people about him, he is a very clear character. In that way, there's a certain clarity, which is great. Not to mention like he doesn't ... He is taciturn. In terms of his voice, there's always a go-to, which is as little as possible, right? Have him say as little as possible. I wouldn't call that freeing, but I would say there's a pretty clear rule of thumb when you're trying write him and what he might've said. It was challenging though, because I think there were times when we might have, as dramatists, wanted more of an emotional response, and knew that it wouldn't be true to him.

A great example was when he hears about the Apollo on fire. I mean, Damien and my first cut of that, we were like, well what if he totally loses it, and starts ramming the phone down on the receiver and bloodies his hand? I remember this great, full page action set piece of him slamming the receiver and hand getting bloody. It was really powerful, and it's the kind of thing that you read that, and you're like, "Oh wow. This is the moment where he really ..." We send it back to Jim Hansen, and the boys and some of the other folks. Everyone said that's not Neil. He would never in a million years would've done that.

What do you do? Because you need to show how upsetting this is. You know, Ryan's going to give you a great performance just in the eyes, so I write what I think Ryan's going to do, and he does it better than I could ever write it, but then I came up with this idea of like, okay, we have this glass that Neil's holding that he doesn't realize he's squeezing so hard and eventually breaks it.

It's one of these things where it's tough in that he is a ... To me, it seems that he needed to compartmentalize to such a degree, and to package up him emotions to such a degree, that it's hard to get at. I think that's what the people around him found. The challenge is how do you recreate that in a way that is true to who he was and at the same time, give the audience enough that they really bought into the story. It definitely was a challenge.

What about the moon landing? How did you approach it in your first draft? 

You know, in my first draft, I didn't happen to say one small step. We really were trying to get away from what you know, right? And what you've seen, right? And really lean in to what you don't know and haven't seen. In my first draft, it was so subjective and personal. I didn't necessarily want to hear those words or see that step. Then Damien said, "No, no, no, it would be cool if we shoot it the right way, it will be we are hearing the words and seeing the step, but from the vantage point and the point of view will be so completely different, you'll really feel that." I said, oh okay, that's really interesting.

We always were focused on this little trip to little west crater primarily because it's the one thing that wasn't scripted, the one thing that wasn't in the mission plan. Neil just decided oh I want to go over and see this crater. There's a real random moment. We were always sort of intrigued by that and what might've happened there. The thing he does in that moment, the bracelet moment, that was an idea that had been raised in Jim's book. He speculated is it possible that Neil left something of Karen's on the moon. He talked about it with June, Neil's sister, who knew him very, very well. June said, "Oh I dearly hope he left something of Karen's on the moon." That, for us, was a big deal in terms of a way to get insight and have this moment of release. I don't think I ever would've written that and come up with that on my own. Given that Jim threw it out there, I thought that sounds interesting, yeah.

The subtext of that was always to get under the skin of Neil. I will say one thing though, the flashbacks on the moon, that came in late. We made a pretty strong artistic choice not to lift the visor until we get to the crater. When we watched the first couple of cuts, we were wondering how well that would translate if we really put you in Neil's head. We started playing with the idea of flashbacks in post. We thought they were beautiful, so we kept them.

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With the ending, I really like the idea of you going on this sprawling journey and then the story concluding with two people in a room. How did you arrive at that ending? With the ending in mind, how did it maybe influence how you wrote the rest of the script and the build up to that final moment?

You know, what's interesting is we played with several different endings in the course of the writing. I say we had an ending for a while which involved Deke driving Neil home from quarantine... We had an ending which involved seeing some of the break, because after quarantine, there was this huge three day tour and then a subsequent like 45 day tour.

The two or three day tour was they literally went New York, Chicago, LA, this is all in one day. There was a huge parade in New York, and then a similar parade in Chicago, and then a huge banquet for them in LA. Reagan, I believe, was governor at the time, came down and spoke. There's all sorts of dignitaries there. We played with that in detail. Neil, just before he was introduced that he'll never fly again, because he's a national treasure now. The President Patterson ending, but we then discarded that. Then what should really be Neil coming home from quarantine, having to face the house, and not quite knowing a way to matter. We actually shot that.

As we were filming, the stuff leading up to it and what would happen with Claire and Ryan and their interaction and that relationship really started to pop. It became pretty clear that that relationship was going to be our real central thread, which we had always hoped for, but you never know until you get the actors on set and see what they do. Claire was just so marvelous, as was Ryan, that we really were sort of knocked out by the work. We began to really latching on to this idea ... I think at some point on set, Damien reached out like, "Wow, the end of this movie might really be the two of them in that quarantine."

What we loved about it is, it's a moment of hope, right? It's a moment that despite all the brutal stuff we've seen this couple go through, at the end of the day, maybe they are still reaching for each other. It felt redemptive. We started to really talk about that throughout production.

In post, Damien never even cut the other ... He cut them once, but he never showed us a cut with anything other than this as the ending now. Now, we did play with various versions. We played with a version where they looked at each other and they don't reach for each other, which was slightly darker ending. It just was a little too dark and a little too ambiguous. We then moved into this world in which they are reaching for each other. That wound up feeling right.

There's still that darkness there, though, with the huge sheet of glass between them. 

Yes. Exactly.

I think that's a great final image because it leaves you with mixed emotions like that. How have you found the ending lands with audiences? So far, is the response to the movie close to what you intended? 

You know, it's interesting. I would say most of the folks who I've spoken to find the movie as emotional as we intended. For me, it's a super emotional movie. Just starting with the death of that child is devastating. For me, it's all about loss and grief. I think there's some folks who find the movie and Neil cold and distant. I would say that's not entirely wrong. I mean, I think he was a bit distant and remote. On the other hand, it mystifies me a little bit because to me, it's a very deeply emotional and upsetting story.

I will say this, the story is, I likened it a little bit to Bolero, the piece of composition, which is repetitive, which is beautiful and pulls you in, and is sort of repetitive, but in the end, it's a crescendo that can leave you speechless if it's done right. To some degree, I think we were going for that a little bit, this notion of it is grief and loss and failure, and grief and loss and failure, and grief and loss and failure, until you get to the moon. Then there is the moment where there is a moment of release, which is surprising and powerful. I think for those who find it frustrating until they get that last 20 minutes, that's the point. That's the point [Laughs]. It was incredibly frustrating and incredibly hard. The movie is somewhat in that fashion. It can be frustrating and hard, because this is not a biopic, where you're supposed to be walking alongside ... I think most biopics are about walking alongside your protagonist, getting to spend two hours with Abraham Lincoln.

I love that movie and Steven and Daniel-Day Lewis did a terrific job of literally putting us in the presence of this man we only know in legend, and letting us see, oh this is what he was like, right? This movie is a little bit that, but what it really is is the human issues. Neil, I think, was certainly very, very bright and had a heck of a nice brain, but he was an ordinary American, right? And trying to raise an ordinary family. A bit of an every man from Wapakoneta, Ohio, who dreams of flying, and winds up being the first man on the moon. There's a little bit of an every man quality to him. We're really trying to put you in his shoes, so you can feel how tough that journey really was.

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First Man is now in theaters.