First Man TIFF

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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