Gosling, Chazelle Tackle the Neil Armstrong Story with “First Man”
The piece of advice that actor Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle must be following is, “Make no small plans.” It seems fitting as their second collaboration, after coming off the Academy Award winning La La Land is First Man, an adaptation of James R. Hansen’s massive biography of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Sporting a modest budget of $60 million, the film is being touted as a major Oscar contender for Universal Pictures and it may very well prove to be a multiple winner as it tells an inspiring story with nary a touch of cynicism or spin.
In Chicago recently on the first stop of a nationwide promotional tour, Gosling and Chazelle talked about not only the challenges they face making the film, but their inspiration as well. With the clout to make anything they’d like at this point in their careers, I asked them why they decided to tell Armstrong’s story.
“There are so many reasons,” said Gosling, “it’s hard to pick just one. It always feels relevant to tell the story of people who live their lives outside their own self-interests and the Armstrongs are wonderful examples of that. But it’s also a great story about what we’re capable of when there’s enough collective good will. I think it’s a story we think we know but when Damien came to me with the idea I realized how little I did know and how much more extraordinary and heroic it all seems when you remember what was involved.”
Chazelle had his own reasons for pursuing the story. “I think we’ve forgotten these were human beings with fears and insecurities and loses and hope and dreams,” he said. “These weren’t superheroes who descended from on high, this wasn’t an easy thing, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. This has become mythologized some 50 years hence but at the time what they were doing was radical, new, dangerous and scary. Sometimes it tore families apart and we wanted to look at one family and examine what they went through on a day-to-day basis during that ten-year period that led up to the moon landing.”
While Chazelle was busy figuring out how to replicate arguably the most important event in human history, Gosling was faced with his own challenge – doing justice to a bona fide American hero. I asked him if there was a particular moment or a specific piece of information he had come across about Armstrong that convinced him he could play the role.
“The reason I realized I could do this wasn’t because of one piece of information I learned about him,” he recalled. “It was because his sons would be so involved. I had the opportunity to meet them and his ex-wife Janet Armstrong. His sister June took us to the farm in Ohio where he was born and grew up. The extraordinary amount of good will and support that I felt from those who knew and loved Neil really bolstered me and made me feel that with that hope and good will we could do this.”
What’s most surprising about First Man is the intimate approach it takes to the well-known events it depicts. Instead of looking at the space race as a whole, as The Right Stuff does, Chazelle’s film focuses on the Armstrong family alone, taking us behind closed doors to examine the stress and strain they had to endure over a ten-year period.
“To think of them as real individuals, I find it that much more inspiring,” states the director. “When I think of Neil Armstrong not being someone chosen to be the one to walk on the moon from birth and to think of Neil and Janet as just taking things day-by-day and not knowing what the next day will bring, I’m amazed. And going through an enormous amount of upheaval as a family makes it that much more remarkable in regards to what they accomplished.”
Gosling took advantage of a two-week window that allowed him to form a distinct impression of what life in the Armstrong house was like. “We actually started the film with a two-week rehearsal in which we went to a few of the locations we would be using in the film,” he said. “The Armstrongs lived in a cabin in Juniper Hills and their house in Houston. There’s a line in the movie that says, ‘We have to fail down here so we don’t fail up there,’ and in a way we were trying to pull a page out of that book. Actually, a lot of the stuff we shot made it into the film but it also set a tone, the documentary style we used for those scenes. The film felt like two movies - making this little documentary about the Armstrongs and then this whole other space aspect to the film.”
Chazelle not only took an intimate approach to the man and his family, but to the missions he flew as well. Eschewing the traditional shots of showing rockets hurtle through the sky, he instead provides the viewer a cockpit or capsule view of these flights, putting the viewer in Armstrong’s shoes by replicating what it was like to be in these aircraft. Utilizing a myriad of sound effects and rattling camerawork, he creates a claustrophobic nightmare in which we realize how trapped these brave men were. I asked him how these scenes were constructed and what source material he used to ensure their accuracy.
“It was piecemeal really,” he said. “I started with some great archival footage that some of the astronauts themselves would shoot inside these capsules and immediately that opened my eyes to a new way of shooting space travel. We think of space travel, because of the movies, as being high tech and spacious, with 2001 being the benchmark for all of that. But these were capsules that were the size of Volkswagens, these were things hurled on the tops of missiles that looked like something out of the machine age not the space age and these were people stuck inside of them looking through grease-stained windows, not being able to see. The analog nature of all that shows how scary that must have been, how claustrophobic that must have been. That speaks to the risk taking and the heroism that was involved. Again, this was not technology that had been perfected, this was stuff that was being made up as they went along.”