“It’s an emotional story of a guy who’s trying to be a father and husband while undergoing this cosmic journey.”
On the heels of their six-time Academy Award-winning La La Land, Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling reteam for Universal Pictures’ First Man, the riveting story behind the first manned mission to the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the decade leading to the historic Apollo 11 flight.
A visceral and intimate account told from Armstrong’s perspective, based on the book by James R. Hanses, with a screenplay adaptation crafted by Academy Award winner Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post), the film explores the triumphs and the cost—on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues and the nation itself—of one of the most dangerous missions in history.
Chazelle’s interest and stories continue to focus on the cost of achievement…and whether or not excellence is worth the price for those who reach.
Just as he re imagined the discipline of mentorship on the road to mastery in Whiplash—and deconstructed the movie musical in La La Land—Chazelle now challenges expectations of what a “mission picture” should resemble. Discovering First Man alongside numerous collaborators, Chazelle approaches the film from interior angles in order to immerse audiences in this impossible journey.
First Man: Uncovering a Private Life
Based on James R. Hansen’s book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” First Man reveals intimate insights into the global hero’s private life and previously unknown character-defining moments. After receiving a PhD in the history of science and technology from Ohio State and spending more than 20 years writing and teaching about space and history, Hansen set out to write his first biography. It was in the year 2000 that the author first reached out to Armstrong and requested to tell the hero’s tale. After two months, Armstrong—who rarely agreed to interviews, much less entertained the idea of a lifelong documentation—politely declined.
It would be some time after Hansen’s initial request before the pilot gave the go-ahead to pen his biography. “It took about two years for me to finally get the greenlight from him,” reflects the author. “Neil’s family encouraged him to do it. The crucial moment came when he invited me up to his home in suburban Cincinnati—where he had lived for about 20 years—and we spent the afternoon in his study talking for hours. I felt very positive, but even after this meeting it took some time for him to fully get on board.” Hansen saw the duality of his subject as a fascinating one. “Neil could be in a cockpit making instantaneous decisions but when it came to other things about his life, he was amazingly cautious and deliberate.”
Long prior to his in-person introduction to Armstrong, Hansen had conducted hundreds of interviews for other subjects; it was that experience taking oral histories that aided in gaining Armstrong’s confidence. “One thing that became important with him was his developing trust in you,” Hansen explains. “Not only did we grow up 50 miles from one another—he grew up in Ohio and I grew up in Indiana, and went to school at Ohio State—but both our families had also grown up on farms. In a lot of ways, we spoke the same language, in terms of regional dialect. What we know of Neil is as this one dimensional, iconic symbol…but he was a living, breathing, three-dimensional human being.”
It was crucial to the production team not simply to tell a story about a hero of whom we’ve seen many pictures and interviews, but to explore what drove him, his family and colleagues at NASA to accomplish the unthinkable.
“This is a story about how hard it was, how much of a risk it was, how dangerous it was to all of those men,” says First Man executive producer Adam Merims. “Neil started out in the Korean War as a pilot and then became a test pilot for the Air Force, then ultimately for NASA. At that time test pilots would die with alarming frequency, so many people in the early part of the story in his life were killed; yet Neil stayed true to his path and achieved what was previously considered unachievable.”
Armstrong developed a close kinship to the author of his biography, who serves as a co-producer on the film, and that indeed allowed the production to move forward. “Neil had a great relationship with Jim Hansen, and he felt very comfortable with the idea that Jim had captured in his book—and what he had hoped to convey,” says First Man producer Wyck Godfrey. “Neil thought that as long as we followed the blueprint that Jim provided, he was comfortable with us moving forward with making this film.”
Although known for being a very private person, after meeting the filmmakers, Armstrong agreed to a movie adaptation of his life. Fortunate to have been introduced to Armstrong before he passed away on August 25, 2012, Godfrey explains that there was no way to make this film without his blessing. “It was a gratifying experience to be able to meet him,” states the producer. “Neil was very open to the idea of making a movie about his life. If he wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here.”
Known by the public as a reclusive individual, Neil Armstrong was so much more in the eyes of his family and the people who held him close. Younger son Mark Armstrong hopes the film brings to light the person his father truly was. “I hope people see him as a man who was faced with very difficult circumstances,” says Mark Armstrong. “A lot was asked of him, and he did his best to do the right thing. That was always his mantra: to take each situation and find the right way to handle it.”
“He was just kind of a regular guy,” adds Mark’s brother, Neil’s elder son, Rick Armstrong. “For those who just saw him on the news might not know that, but he was a pretty funny guy, too. When you saw him around his friends, he was a completely different person than his public image. I’m hoping that the movie will help bring that out.”
Seeking the Brave Few: Damien Chazelle Joins
Although producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen had been developing First Man for some time, it would not be until they met Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle that the final pieces would fall into place.
This was after the period in which Chazelle created Whiplash and during pre-production of La La Land.
Relays Godfrey: “We told Damien about the character in the story, and he fell in love with it and came aboard to help us. From there, it all moved quickly.”
Alongside his fellow producers, Chazelle would seek out Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer to craft the screenplay. Chazelle was struck by Singer’s singular take on the protagonist’s arc, feeling their writer instinctively got what was most fascinating about their hero. “Damien wanted to treat the story like a thriller,” Godfrey notes. “He wanted to defy expectations about what it took to successfully land a man on the moon, and put you in the shoes of what it would have been like at the time—with all of the technological barriers facing these guys.”
Chazelle’s request of the team was to ensure that anything seen on screen was authentic to the time period and these brutal missions. Months before pre-preproduction began, he and his collaborators were workshopping scenes, spending time with the Armstrong family, as well as others who understood this story intimately.
His fellow producers agree that Armstrong’s reality was more terrifying than fiction. “That goes to the aesthetic of the film,” reflects Bowen. “We’ve all seen films that are done in space, and when you think of space you think of technology, computers, digital formats and computer graphics. Damien’s goal was to try to make this as visceral as possible, and in order to do that the film had to feel as analog as possible. The challenge of this film, the thing that is so exciting about it, too, is how do we put an audience in that cockpit? How do we make them really feel—not just see, but feel and witness this incredible accomplishment?”
A common refrain heard during pre-production and shooting was ‘we have computers in our pockets that are more powerful than the ones that got us to the moon.’ “We forget that when they were trying to put a man on the moon, we didn’t have the technology we had today,” Bowen says. “We hoped to put the audience through that experience and show the detail that was required by thousands of people working toward one goal. If any of them messed up, it would end in failure.”
Chazelle’s fascination with the messiness of mastery drew him to Armstrong’s story. As well, his interest in injecting into a massive period movie—one filled with action set-pieces—a genuine sense of raw spontaneity felt like a natural evolution. While the director admits that type of filmmaking is usually impossible within the constraints imposed by scale or big technical effects, he felt that a tight collaboration with Gosling—extending to their bond with their fellow production team—would make it feasible.
“Before I began work on First Man, I knew the textbook narrative of the mission to the moon—the success story of an iconic achievement…but little else,” Chazelle says. “Once I started digging, I grew astounded by the sheer madness and danger of the enterprise—the number of times it circled failure, as well as the toll it took on all involved. I wanted to understand what compelled these men to voyage into deep space, and what the experience—moment by moment, breath by breath—might have felt like.”
Intrigue of the fascinating details and by Armstrong’s instincts drove Chazelle to dig deep and research. “To grasp, I had to explore Neil’s home life; this was a story that needed to hinge between the moon and the kitchen sink, the vast expanses of space juxtaposed against the textures of quotidian life,” he continues. “I chose to shoot the film in vérité, playing fly-on-the-wall to both space missions and the Armstrong family’s most intimate, guarded moments. My hope was that this approach could highlight the heartbreak, joy, lives lived and lost in the name of one of history’s most famous goals: setting foot on the moon.”
Although the director initially saw the movie as documentary in style, Gosling pushed him to take that term more literally. The First Man star asked his director to present a full picture that would capture every little detail, as well as all the in-between moments, that led to the moon landing. Sums Chazelle: “Ryan pitched it as ‘the kitchen and the moon,’ which in turn became the mantra I used to describe First Man to every department head, every craftsperson and performer in the film.”
Known for developing historically ignited and riveting scripts including Spotlight and The Post, when he was commissioned to pen First Man, Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer went to work researching a new kind of hero. The writer describes his process: “I was able to dive in and do more and more research with the family, with the astronauts—with people like FRANK HUGHES, who was a Gemini and an Apollo trainer and who is incredibly knowledgeable. This is what I love to do as a screenwriter: thoroughly immerse myself in a world and learn as much as I can…and then try to put that on the page.”
Singer admits that he was fascinated by just how relentless Armstrong was in pursuit of a signature goal. “He can fail and fail and fail and he’s going to get back up again and again and learn from his failures, which is also the NASA program,” he offers. “If you look at his career, even as truncated as it is in the script, you know the X-15 has its problems; Gemini VIII had life-or-death problems, not to mention the LLTV he had to eject from.” He pauses, thoughtfully, “Given the trials he faced, he doesn’t sound like the ideal person to land on the moon. But when you think about it, those trials made Neil exactly the right person to land on the moon.”
After delving into the challenges Armstrong faced and discovering profound details about his life, Singer was confident there was a cinematic story to be told. “The individual who survives these difficult events and gets stronger and can move on…who is that guy?” he asks. “It struck me that this was ultimately a movie about sacrifice and grief and the wounds we bear. How do we get past those wounds and carry on? What does it take to be able to do something as incredible as what Neil did?”
Singer found a curious definition of this pioneer through his choice of careers. “There is an expression that engineering is the obviation of failure—meaning that what an engineer does is test and test and test and find where something fails and fails…so that then it succeeds. If you look at Neil’s career, he was always pushing up against failure, and then moving forward and succeeding,” recounts Singer. “What we wanted to get at is that this is very hard. When you lose a buddy, it’s not just something you look at your watch and go fly again. You lose a buddy, and it hurts. You lose a daughter, and it’s the worst thing in the world. The real strength is being able to move on, even though you have wounds and that pain. The real strength is failing, and picking yourself back up.”
Although the outcome of the Apollo 11 moon landing is well known, the rigorous and dangerous steps leading up to the mission—as well as the endurance and determination of the man who took the first step—are to most, a mystery. “For the most famous event in world history, it’s shocking how little known the particulars of the event actually are and how little is known of the man who took those first steps,” says Chazelle. “It blew my mind that an event of this magnitude hasn’t been portrayed in a feature film before. We want to emphasize how scary it was to go up into space; it literally was like a rickety tin can or a coffin.”
The director’s goal is to give audiences a firsthand perspective of what it required to train for this type of mission, as well as be the one inside the first cockpits of this type. Alongside Singer and Gosling, Chazelle was inspired to capture just how visceral, difficult and terrifying this journey was…as well as the sacrifices required to become the first man on the moon.
“There are many other stories that tell about the moon landing, but I wanted to know what it felt like in all the years leading up to that first footstep on the moon—as well as what it felt like to be that man who put the first footprint on the moon,” says Chazelle. “Only a handful of people in history have ever gone to the moon, and Neil Armstrong was first. Even more importantly, it’s an emotional story of a guy who’s trying to be a father and husband while undergoing this cosmic journey.”
It was key for the filmmakers to expose the man who left the first footprint and reveal the truth behind his private persona. “One of the many challenges of trying to figure out how to do this story justice was that Neil was a very soft-spoken character who refused to conform to classic hero tropes,” shares producer Isaac Klausner. “He didn’t give a lot out emotionally; he was very reserved to the public. It was a big puzzle to figure out how to get real access to Neil and the way to tell the story…where you feel like you learn something about this man without betraying who he was.”
With the support of the Armstrong family, Chazelle, Singer and the producers went to work bringing the American hero’s story to the big screen. The film, which spans from 1961 to 1969, gives audiences a clear vision of what happened behind the walls at NASA—as well as a look inside the notoriously private Armstrong’s personal life.
It was crucial for the team to note that, although he was deeply serious about his work, Armstrong had a sharp sense of humor. “He was great with his kids,” offers Godfrey. “There’s an aspect to him that we hope to reveal and convey—one of a fully rounded human being. The pressures during this decade were extraordinary, yet he kept his head down. It took that kind of perseverance and dedication to accomplish what he ultimately did. Damien has always been focused on obsessive characters, and you find in his movies a level of intense obsession that is very captivating from a dramatic standpoint.”
After the passing of Neil Armstrong in 2012, the support of his family on this project was paramount. “I met with Josh Singer back in 2015 once I knew that he was working on this movie,” says Rick Armstrong. “I wanted to see what approach they were going to take to decide whether or not this was a movie I wanted to be part of or not. I was impressed with the amount of research that Josh has done and the commitment to accuracy,”
After discussions with Chazelle, the Armstrong sons had the confidence to move forward. “I subsequently met Damien, and the same thing was true; that would be a real important thing for Dad,” adds Rick Armstrong. “The fact that they wanted to try to make as accurate a movie as possible was a good thing. So, we wanted to make sure they had all the information they could get to be able to do that.”