Damien Chazelle had just completed “Whiplash,” the 2014 film that would put him on the map, when a project called Armstrong biopic First Man crossed his desk. He wasn’t that interested in astronaut Neil Armstrong, per se, or even NASA history, but after taking a look at James R. Hansen’s biography of the first man to set foot on the moon, and digging into a few documentaries to see if there was a story he wanted to tell on the screen, everything got reframed for him.
“I don’t know what clicked but at some point I was just like, ‘Wow, how have I taken it for granted that in order to have the success story we grow up with of people walking on the moon, people had to turn fantasy into reality and completely put their lives on the line in order to do that,’” the 33-year-old Oscar-winning director says at the Telluride Film Festival, two days removed from the North American bow of his latest. “How do you get from 1961 to 1969, from barely getting into orbit to walking on the moon? It’s 32 times the size of the earth, from the earth to the moon. It’s an insane magnitude. You look at it on a plot and it’s mythological. Suddenly it was like Orpheus going into Hades. You’re going where humans are not supposed to go, and everything about the natural world is telling you that this is not where humanity is supposed to go. And they did it.”
He was immediately gripped by the possibility of crafting a truly immersive, even scary movie about this landmark event that we somehow take for granted today.
“It’s so gilded in triumphalism in the modern perspective, almost as though it was such a shining moment in history that for a few years, it was easy,” Chazelle says. “I wanted to do away with all of that and make it seem as hard and scary as it was.”
After hammering out a 72-page treatment, Chazelle confesses he wanted to leave the “heavy lifting” to another writer. In early 2014, he and the producers brought in Josh Singer, who was coming off of Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate” and Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” which was launching into production. Chazelle went off to shoot “La La Land” and Singer got to work on cracking a story.
“The first piece was really nailing down where you’re going to start, because Neil has a whole career before he gets to NASA,” Singer says. “Neil’s first love was planes. He was a taciturn guy but he would talk a blue streak about the X-15, and there were some pretty wild X-15 flights like the one we depict that happened right as his daughter Karen was struggling [with a malignant tumor] and kind of going downhill. So that felt like an interesting place to start.”
In sketching out a skeleton for the script, Singer next zeroed in on the Gemini 8 mission as a midpoint, during which Armstrong and fellow astronaut David Scott completed a successful docking test in orbit before things went haywire and the mission nearly killed them both. Then of course the Apollo 11 moon landing would be the finale. Throughout, a theme of loss began to surface.