How Damien Chazelle's 'First Man' Took a Page Out of Christopher Nolan's Playbook
Damien Chazelle knew First Man would be his most technically challenging film to date. However, the bigger challenge for the Oscar-winning director was finding a personal connection to an American hero’s historic feat that took place long before he was born.
The film stars Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, whose story Chazelle initially was hesitant to tell, particularly because through Whiplash and La La Land he'd established himself as a filmmaker who prefers to conceive of and write his own personal stories. With First Man, it would require him to adapt the 2005 book from James R. Hansen.
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“I didn’t have any real connection to Neil or the space program. It felt so far removed from me," Chazelle told The Hollywood Reporter by phone this week. "I was intrigued enough to start reading the book and start looking at a few documentaries. Then, one thing led to another, and suddenly I just became obsessed. I kind of realized that not only is there this untold story, but it’s an untold story that actually is personal to me.”
Chazelle assembled a team that included production designer Nathan Crowley, known for working on Christopher Nolan films such as the space drama Interstellar.
"I really wanted Nathan because of all his work, not just with Nolan. I knew he’d bring the practical approach, the same approach he brings to all of Nolan’s movies," says Chazelle. "He relies on in-camera effects, miniatures, full-scale replicas, gimbals, motion control and also sets, down to the smallest detail, that feel lived in, that doesn’t feel overly clean, that feel like they’ve got dirt, grime and a real texture to them. Nathan is the best in the world at doing all that stuff, and I was really overjoyed to get him. I certainly spent a lot of time asking him about tricks he had used on movies with Chris like Dunkirk and Interstellar."
Read the full conversation with Chazelle below, in which he discusses meeting Nolan for the first time during post-production and why frequent collaborator J.K. Simmons doesn't pop up in First Man.
After making First Man, are you more interested in traveling to space someday, or is Imax still your preferred method of space travel?
I think Imax is my preferred method. You get the scope, grandeur and sensation –– but you don’t have to worry about getting killed. (Laughs)
We’re nearly the same age, and like you, I was amazed by how little I knew about the Armstrong family as well as the preceding missions that culminated in Apollo 11. I even surveyed some of my own friends, and sadly, they knew more conspiracy theories than facts. So, was separating fact from sensationalism one of your many reasons for telling this story?
Absolutely. It was also removing the veneer of mythology that I think has separated us and people of our generation from those events. We kind of think of it as though it were superheroes or Greek mythology. We don’t really think of people like Neil Armstrong as an ordinary, [at times] uncertain, doubtful, scared, happy, sad, going-through-stuff human being. Rooting it at the human level, especially the family level through Neil and his wife Janet and what they were going through together, is what interested me. It felt like that would be the perspective through which we could then tell the audience a lot of things they didn’t know. Because Neil was so private, we know so little about his private life, emotional life or all the emotional upheavals that he went through, that Janet went through, during that time. We also don’t really know about what actually went on behind closed doors at NASA, and in those spacecrafts. The image of NASA propagated to the world was so gilded. It was designed to curry support. But, the actual dangers, the way in which the whole program existed at such a proximity to death at all times, the deaths that the program resulted in, I think all those things are part of this untold story that we just wanted to lean into.
The photography in First Man is such an achievement. In fairness, I could say the same of every department. But, what you accomplished alongside your director of photography, Linus Sandgren, is a testament to why celluloid should forever be an option for all filmmakers. With 16 mm, you transported the audience to the 1960s, while your use of Imax elevated our own experience on the moon alongside Neil Armstrong. In terms of testing, how long did it take to find the look and feel that you ultimately wanted for each facet of the film?
It took a while. I was really lucky that I was able to re-team up with a lot the people from La La Land, like Linus Sandgren, [composer] Justin Hurwitz, some of the same sound engineers (Ai-Ling Lee, Mildred Iatrou) and Mary Zophres on costumes. With all those people, and others as well, we talked really early about both broad strokes and granular details. Everyone, whether they were a NASA history nerd or a space geek before starting on this movie, all of us kind of became one during the course of making it. The look of the movie, everything from production design to photography and costume design, all of it was inspired, more than anything, by the archival materials that we found through our research. The actual photography taken by the astronauts themselves in space, the LIFE magazine photography of the families, the old home movies and photo books that some of the astronaut families would show us, visiting their homes and workplaces, seeing the actual capsules, talking to people Mark, Rick and Janet Armstrong, as well as David Scott, who flew with Neil on Gemini 8, [astronauts] Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins –– that’s what fed into the look. It all started with trying to capture the reality of it. And then finding a way to make that reality captivating to an audience, and leaning into the stuff that wasn’t as well known, the in-between moments. Everyone kind of knows the Apollo craft, but very few know or remember the Gemini craft, the LLRV that Neil almost died on while training for the moon landing, the multi-axis trainer that you see Neil spinning in, or the X-15 aircraft that this film begins with. A lot of those aircrafts have been forgotten in the dust of history.
Neil Armstrong had a reputation for being “cool under pressure,” as well as notoriously private and introverted. As far as public perception, Ryan Gosling seems to share these traits on and off camera. I know you discussed the role with Ryan prior to La La Land, but aside from a resemblance to Neil, were these commonalities what drew you to him from the start?
They were, actually. As you mentioned, I first pitched this movie to Ryan before we’d even done La La Land together. So, I didn’t know him personally when I first thought of him for Neil. I just knew him as an actor. I’d always wanted to work with him; I think he’s one of the great actors of his time. Specifically, he has this unique ability to say so much with so little. For Neil, who was a man of such few words, I just knew I would need an actor who could communicate a tremendous amount of emotion and complexity of feeling, sometimes without any dialogue at all, or with just a simple one-sentence line. So all of that led me to Ryan, but getting to work with Ryan on La La Land in between was further affirmation in my mind to just how great he could be in the role. He’s such an immersive actor, he’s such a dedicated actor, he just goes full out and builds his characters from the ground up. It just made me all the more excited to get on the set with him for this movie.
Because of Nathan Crowley’s involvement, your very first use of Imax cameras and your overall commitment to shooting this film as practically as possible, I would wager that Christopher Nolan offered you some advice. If my inference is true, what insight did Nolan offer since he ventured into space with Crowley via 2014’s Interstellar?
Well, I hadn’t met Chris by the time we shot the movie, but I was really lucky that I got to meet him when I was still in post-production –– actually through Imax. So, that was my first time to get to ask him stuff, face to face, but again, it was ironically after I had shot the movie. So, we shared behind-the-scenes stories a little bit and war stories. But, working with Nathan Crowley, I really wanted Nathan because of all his work, not just with Nolan. I knew he’d bring the practical approach, the same approach he brings to all of Nolan’s movies. He relies on in-camera effects, miniatures, full-scale replicas, gimbals, motion control and also sets, down to the smallest detail, that feel lived in, that doesn’t feel overly clean, that feel like they’ve got dirt, grime and a real texture to them. Nathan is the best in the world at doing all that stuff, and I was really overjoyed to get him. I certainly spent a lot of time asking him about tricks he had used on movies with Chris like Dunkirk and Interstellar.
Because you've become a name brand as a writer-director, was there any hesitation about directing First Man since it wouldn’t include your own script?
Actually, there was at first. When I was first approached by the producers, they said, “Hey, are you interested in Neil Armstrong? There’s a book we’ve been trying to make into a movie; it’s called First Man.” And they gave me this book by James R. Hansen. If I can recall correctly, I think my first reaction was probably: I’m not sure about adapting a book, doing something based on real life, all the restrictions of not just being able to come up with something off the top of my head and something that wasn’t personal to me. On that personal angle, I didn’t have any real connection to Neil or the space program. It felt so far removed from me. But, for whatever reason, I was intrigued enough by the producers’ passion and their insistence that there was so much I didn’t know –– that this was not the Neil Armstrong story I initially might think it would be. But, there was something in this book that really got to a totally different story. So, I was intrigued enough to start reading the book and start looking at a few documentaries. Then, one thing led to another, and suddenly I just became obsessed. I kind of realized that not only is there this untold story, but it’s an untold story that actually is personal to me, even though I’ve never been to space, I’ve never been to the moon, I didn’t live in the ‘60s, I wasn’t even alive when Neil walked on the moon. This idea of making a movie about how hard it is to achieve something, whether it’s a small-scale achievement or a big-scale achievement like the moon landing, just the step-by-step, grueling process, the physical, emotional, mechanical, mental process of achieving something, of realizing a dream, whatever that dream might be. That felt like something that I’ve done variations of in earlier movies, and that felt like a story I could tell. We started trying to meet with a writer, someone who could do this adaptation. I felt I couldn’t write it myself. I felt like I really needed to work with someone who could get into the research and really collate history into a narrative. So, meeting Josh Singer back in 2015, I got even more excited because he came at it with such a take and such a passion of his own. He really loved what I wanted to do with the project, and wanted to take that even further. So, he went to town with the research. He was working and writing while I was shooting La La Land. So, it became this great collaboration with him, and it just continued from there.
You’re also working with writers on your upcoming TV series for Netflix and Apple. Are labels like “writer-director” or “auteur” something you’re not as concerned with at this point in your career?
I don’t know if I’ve ever been or wanted to be precious about those kinds of labels. I try to approach things the same way, whether it’s something I’ve written or something I haven’t written. I have to find some way to make it personal, and sort of put myself into it. But, in a way, that kind of felt similar to doing something like La La Land. Even though I’d written it, I was working within a genre that has its own kind of codes, conventions and restrictions. But, I like that idea that you can take a genre or a piece of real-life history, and then try to flip it on its head, try to subvert it a bit, and try to inject your own personality into it. That’s the hope with anything, whatever your role on it is.
Because you've had so much success in your young career, have you caught yourself resting on your laurels at all, or do you take nothing for granted?
I would say I don’t take anything for granted. I think I’m too perpetually neurotic and pessimistic. “The sky is going to fall” is my mentality. It feels like my brain is adamant to not let me take anything for granted, even if I’d like to. So, I just take it one movie at a time.
As is the case with every film, sometimes you have to kill your darlings, including some beautiful footage that was used in the film’s marketing. Approximately, how many minutes of deleted footage will end up on the Blu-ray release?
I don’t know, exactly. There was a ton of deleted footage. There are whole sequences like Neil and Janet’s house burning down, Neil and Buzz almost not being able to get off the lunar surface due to a broken switch, the Apollo 8 launch… just lots of big scenes. We’re definitely intending to at least put a bunch of those onto the DVD or Blu-ray.
You have a couple TV series in the pipeline, The Eddy for Netflix and a drama for Apple. Because you’ve had so much success in feature film, did you want a new challenge via long-form storytelling, or are you merely following the stories that appeal to you most, regardless of medium?
I think it’s just story by story. I’m definitely looking for new challenges and trying to make sure that nothing feels like something I’ve done before. Can I grow in some way as a filmmaker? But, it does ultimately come down to that more intangible, hard-to-describe thing of the story I want to tell at any given moment and what the script personally resonates.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about J.K. Simmons who is your Michael Caine, in essence. Naturally, I kept looking –– and listening –– for him throughout First Man. Did you hope to find a place for him or was it never really in the cards?
I love working with him, and I would’ve loved to put him in the movie. With the ensemble cast, I felt like J.K. had such an iconically recognizable face that it wouldn’t have quite worked, unless he were one of the leads. The ages of the lead characters just didn’t work. So, it was kind of by happenstance in a way, but I’d love to work with him again.
First Man is now in theaters.
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