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Damien Chazelle’s mantra on the set of First Man was “the moon and the kitchen sink.” The Oscar-winning director of La La Land and Whiplash wanted to make his take on the moon landing from Neil Armstrong’s perspective more human and visceral than the typically glorified depictions of the lunar mission.
“Those contrasts always interest me,” Chazelle told The Hollywood Reporter at a private screening and reception in New York on Wednesday night, ahead of the premiere on Thursday in Washington, D.C.
“The idea of taking arguably the biggest event ever and yoking it down, not just to size but to a very intimate human granular level, that felt at least like it dictated a path forward for how to do this,” he said. “For us as filmmakers, it was just about trying to present a documentary kind of snapshot of this stuff, hoping that if we were honest about that, then it would wind up just naturally speaking to larger things because of what it is.”
Hosted by Barry Levinson and Tony Gilroy, the screening was held at The Whitby Hotel in Midtown and the guests, including film star Claire Foy who plays Janet Armstrong, gathered at The Monkey Bar. Guests included Darren Criss, Cuba Gooding Jr., Ben Stiller, Bob Balaban and Candice Bergen, who rubbed shoulders in the intimate space, as waiters circulated with sliders and pigs in a blanket.
Neil Armstrong’s sons Rick and Mark Armstrong also attended the event, and they have been involved with the film from the script level to postproduction. In fact, a few of the scenes, specifically the scene with the family before Armstrong leaves on his mission, is taken largely from the sons recounting the evening.
“We spent time talking with Ryan [Gosling] and Claire, who wanted a lot of detail about what the family life was like. The more we told them, the more it was clear that they really wanted to know what we had to say,” Mark Armstrong told THR. “When we see them onscreen, they feel very familiar. Maybe not exactly what we did, maybe not exactly what we said, but it’s like what we did and like what we said. The end result is people get to know our parents as who they really were.”
Screenwriter Josh Singer, who wrote Spotlight and The Post, found the family’s input invaluable, as well as collaborating with author Jim Hanson, who wrote the biography on which the film is based, and many of the astronauts who worked alongside Armstrong. Two names are David Scott, who was on the Gemini 8 mission with Armstrong, and Michael Collins, who was the command module pilot on the moon mission Apollo 11.
“When you’re doing a fact-based story like this, involving these people and making them be collaborators is going to [make the script] be so much better for it,” Singer said, adding that Scott beat him up relentlessly on the first few drafts.
Lukas Haas, who plays Collins in the movie, explained that many of the scenes, particularly those around the moon mission, were almost reenactments, right down to acting from transcripts and replicating the astronauts’ movements. Also, instead of using a green screen, Haas explained that the lunar module had LED screens inside so the actors were actually seeing what would be happening outside a space ship.
“During takeoff, the colors are changing the clouds are going by. Then, once we break the atmosphere, it actually got me really dizzy because the Earth went by and I lost my equilibrium,” Haas recalled, adding that he and the rest of the cast spent a lot of time at NASA learning from the astronauts. “I had to check the set just to get my bearings again on reality. In the moment that we actually approached the moon, we were seeing the moon coming. Every little thing about it was incredible.”
Although the story is on a much bigger scale than Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle ultimately found the heart of the story to be very similar to his previous films.
“This is about the cost of a goal and how hard and bloody that process can be to pursue a goal,” Chazelle explained. “I felt like I can demythologize this a little bit and dirty it up the image of the space race and that motivated me.”
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