Audiences don’t grade movies on degree of difficulty. Academy voters do, and they will recognize that “First Man” is a cinematic feat. Back in 2014, after he made “Whiplash,” Chazelle collaborated with screenwriter Josh Singer, impressed by his work on Julian Assange film “The Fifth Estate” (his Oscar for “Spotlight” came later). Chazelle wanted to show on film what it took for astronaut Neil Armstrong to land on the moon.
The filmmaker was not a space junkie growing up. The spark for him was how other movies like “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff” never quite conveyed “how fragile and precarious and dangerous this was,” he said. “I imagined putting myself on top of a missile waiting for launch. I wanted to try to capture that.”
From the beginning, Chazelle wanted to “marry the big and the small with this movie,” he said. “This is a story of extremes: going to the moon, as far as any human has gone from Earth, the biggest cosmic journey in history, and then they’re making breakfast for their kids, figuring out how to make dinner for their friends, doing jigsaw puzzles, little family details that I found poignant. They tried to balance normalcy with most unnormal things ever. They didn’t think of themselves as walking around making history. In a way it became routine in this little bubble of Houston. For me at least, it’s unfathomable almost how that could become routine. I wanted the launches to be as a scary as they could be, and wanted the family life to be micro and textured.”
What Singer discovered in NASA-wonk James Hansen’s tech-heavy biography blew his mind. After filling his brain with details about test pilots and NASA’s technological race with the Soviets to the lunar surface, Singer identified four dramatic pillars of Armstrong’s life: his young daughter Karen’s death; his family anchor, wife Janet (“The Crown” Emmy-winner Claire Foy); the Gemini docking mission; and the moon landing. Chazelle and Singer took their pitch to Universal, and as Chazelle made “La La Land,” Singer got to work.
Singer dug into the details of exactly what happened on Armstrong’s flights. The movie opens with his teeth-rattling X-15 escapade above the atmosphere, shot from inside the cockpit — for 8 pages — instead of going outside with wide exteriors. The filmmakers had to understand what he was doing as the windows …read more