josh singer 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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