Screenwriter Josh Singer on Blending History and Fiction in ‘First Man’
It was the running joke from pretty much the moment it was announced that Damien Chazelle was going to make a movie about Neil Armstrong. “Well, I hope no one spoils the ending for me!” But it was actually something I wanted to know: How do you make a suspenseful, exciting movie about one of the most famous events in human history?
So that’s where I started my conversation with First Man screenwriter Josh Singer. Singer, who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Spotlight (with director Tom McCarthy), has made a career out of turning true stories into compelling works of cinema. His follow-up to Spotlight, about the journalists who exposed sexual abuse hidden within the Catholic Church, was The Post (co-written with Liz Hannah), about another team of muckraking reporters. Both movies were about unsung heroes of history; First Man, on the other hand, is about one of the most famous men of the 20th Century: NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the first man to set foot on the Moon.
So why did Singer (no relation) want to write a movie about an event that almost everyone in his potential audience will have already seen? “When you actually know what Neil went through,” Singer told me, “you’re shocked by the grace. How does he manage that? How does he survive all of this pain and still keep this image? I just found that tremendously inspiring and educational.”
During our nearly hour-long conversation, Singer also revealed how he and Chazelle settled on their film’s final image (and the alternate endings they also explored), separated fact from fiction regarding the movie’s surprising Moon landing sequence, discussed the controversy about the use of (or lack of) the American flag in First Man, and explained what he saw as Armstrong’s motivation for undertaking one of the most dangerous missions in human history.
I was curious, when you’re settling to write a film about this topic, is there ever any anxiety about the fact that you’re choosing a story that literally everyone on the planet knows the ending of?
Huge anxiety. Damien reached out to me in 2014. Whiplash had just been at Sundance. I was really at a bit of a low point. The Fifth Estate, which I had written had come out and gotten crushed, both at the box office and by the critics. With Spotlight, we’d had somebody attached to play Robby Robinson — a big, big movie star, and he dropped out at the end of 2013. So we were nowhere on Spotlight. [Director] Tommy [McCarthy] and I were rewriting but running without a cast or knowing exactly where we’re going.
My agents called and said “Are you interested in writing about Neil Armstrong with Damien Chazelle?” And I was like “Damien, who?” And they sent me a DVD of Whiplash and I was like, “Oh wow. Yes.” I thought Whiplash was just seminal filmmaking; I’m glad to see that I was correct. I thought I haven’t seen anything like this since Aronofsky’s Pi. With Whiplash, La La Land, and now this ... I think they are very few filmmakers working at his level. I am very lucky in that I have worked with a couple of them. [laughs]
Damien said, “Look, I don’t know that the danger of these missions has ever been depicted in such a visceral way.” And I said “Okay, that’s great.” But still: Neil Armstrong was just some bland icon who everybody thinks they know. Then I got into Jim [Hansen]’s book [First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong]. And Jim’s book is a little dense. But when you push through — and I think a lot of people haven’t, because he is so committed to being encyclopedic — but when you push through, the detail on Neil is really fascinating. This guy dealt with enormous tragedy and enormous failure. You look at just the 12-month period of 1966. February: Elliot See dies. And Elliot See was probably Neil’s closest friend in the program at that point.
Two weeks later, Neil’s got to go up. Then Neil almost dies. Which I didn’t know anything about — I didn’t know anything about Gemini 8. And even though he lives, he has to abort the mission. He has questions about did he screw up. He clearly didn’t. And then less than a year later in January of ’67, the Apollo 1 fire happens and he loses Ed [White], who’s his next-door neighbor and his other closest friend in the program. Brutal! I was just knocked out by the amount these guys had to get through and move on from. The fact that the story of our greatest triumph is actually a story of loss and failure — which most people don’t know — and that sort of fit hand in glove with Damien’s vision for ripping off the sugar coating for the unvarnished version.
We don’t live in a world of leaders who act rather than speak. We live in a world of leaders who tweet. This was a different world and I think that it is very informative in terms of the kinds of things we’re going to need to do if we want to achieve greatness, if we want to deal with some of the challenges that face us as a nation and a civilization.
Those kind of modern connections or relevance, is that something you’re thinking about as you’re writing? Or is that just something where after the movie is done and it’s coming out and you’re looking around at what you’ve made and what people are seeing in their daily lives you see the connections?
The Post is a good counter-example. The Post is a pretty direct, you know, like, “Okay, we see what’s happening right now to journalism. We see what’s happening in terms of those in power challenging the press. Let’s have a response,” and here’s the response. So there’s, there’s a pretty clear “Okay, we’re talking to the present with this.” With [First Man] and with Spotlight. I think there’s more of a “What does the untold story of history teach us about today?”
There is a narrative around getting to the Moon that it’s about superheroes who easily leapt into the heavens. It wasn’t hard, they had a good time. They laughed and joked. I mean, you saw them laughing.
They drank Tang!
They drank Tang!
They ate space ice cream!
Right. Fun! That serves us not at all. Because then when I look back and think, oh, well they went to the Moon. Where are those guys today? I need a superhero in order to get to the Moon. I need The Right Stuff. Where’s my Chuck Yeager? That’s what I need to get to the Moon, right? Bulls—.
What you need to get to the Moon, if you’re going to achieve, you are going to have to pay. You’re going to have to fail and fail and fail and fail. You’re going to lose some of your best friends. You might die. That’s the only way to get there. It’s not dissimilar to what Steven [Spielberg] is doing in Saving Private Ryan. “The Greatest Generation” is not great because they were great. They’re great because they were willing to sacrifice.
What I didn’t know about this mission, about all that tragedy and sacrifice, was incredibly revelatory in terms of how I think about things like climate change and the great challenges we face. The reason climate change has not been dealt with, even though we’ve know really beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s a problem since the ’80s, is because we haven’t wanted to pay the price — specifically big corporations have not wanted to pay the price. And so we are deferring that cost and our children are going to have to face it.
There is something you learn by uncovering the real history. And I think that was what we were trying to do here. Not so much speaking directly to the present by writing to the present. But if we can accurately capture this history, if we can do the unvarnished truth of what happened to these guys and how these guys did it, is that something that will teach us about our present? I think yes.
With biographical films, I always feel like it’s about finding the balance between showing people the things they expect to see — almost feel like they need to see — and surprising them. It’s like a Rolling Stones concert; Mick’ got to sing “Satisfaction” or the crowd’s going to be upset. But you can’t just do what everyone already knows or it’s boring. How do you determine what famous moments to include and what take out in the interest of telling a great story?
It’s hard. Especially when you’re dealing with someone like this, you really want to focus on what you don’t know, what you didn’t see, because so much has been seen over and over again. My first draft, I didn’t write the “one small step” line.
It wasn’t in there?
It wasn’t in my first draft. I was like, “Everyone knows it. I want to focus on just what he’s feeling right now. And Damien convinced me “No, what’s interesting is that he says the line, but it’s like an exhale and he’s not even really thinking about the line. He’s thinking about something else.”
With Neil, there is so much that we don’t know — again, I refer back to Elliot and Ed and those relationships. Gemini 8 is known, but it’s known in a small community, not in the wider public.
I certainly didn’t know that it was this huge near-disaster.
Correct. The LLRV crash, which you can see on YouTube. It’s awesome, but I had never seen it on YouTube. I didn’t know about that crash. Again, that’s known in the space community, can not knowing much outside of the space community.
So in some ways, the more well-known your guy is, the more it almost gives you license to focus on what’s not known and to craft your story around this very personal, intimate journey as opposed to greatest hits.
Now, of course, Damien’s going to weigh in and say “We need ‘Satisfaction.’ We need to say once small step.” But what’s going to be interesting is that you’re thinking about somebody else.”
Obviously there’s some folks who haven’t seen the movie, who already have been commenting on “Why didn’t they plant the flag on the Moon?” The first thing I’d say is go see the movie. I think you’ll find it’s incredibly patriotic. In fact, to me, all this loss and tragedy just shows you even more that it’s a celebration of a blue-collar working class ordinary guy, his ordinary wife, who is not just a housewife but an astronaut’s wife. Everyone’s seen “that moment,” and frankly what you don’t know about that moment is not something that the “patriots” would want to see, which is that it took them an hour to get that flag up because they couldn’t get the damn thing to telescope.
I was going to jokingly asked you, but you brought it up. Do you now wish you had written in the script notes like “There are American flags over every inch of this NASA command center”? I saw the movie after that all already happened. I don’t even understand how that started.
It’s because it’s people talking about the movie that haven’t seen the movie. Here’s the other thing that I think is really interesting about that. Think about all the leaders who commented on the movie without having seen it. One thing I’ve learned about Neil is he never spoke before doing his homework. In fact, when he spoke there would often be a pause as he’s thinking about what to say. And then when he talks it comes out like poetry, because he’s thought through exactly what he’s going to say. I don’t think he would comment on anything before doing the research. And that’s how he led. He did the work.
There are stories all of his family members told me about when he was on all these corporate boards. Most corporate boards, you collect the dough and you do none of the work and you don’t really think about it. But Neil did the work — and in fact Carol, his second wife, was telling me he would always be the audit,. He’d do the audits on the companies because he was the guy who knew the most about the company on the board and would actually go and do the full-on work, because that’s the way he was. To me, that is a really powerful commentary on leadership.
In the script, I don’t talk about the flag on the Moon. I talk about how this was a very personal journey and that’s why that’s what we focused on the Moon. That’s all I say about it.
There’s a line in Neil’s job interview for NASA where he says something like “When you get a different vantage point, it changes your perspective.” He’s talking about why he wants this incredibly dangerous job. And it was something that I was thinking about during the IMAX scenes, because when you go on the Moon in the movie, you literally change the perspective. Was that the impetus for that specific line or is that just a happy accident?
Happy accident. I love two things about that line. One, I can’t take credit for that line. It’s a Neil line. I adjust it slightly, because it was actually about being up in the Gemini, and I have it be about the X-15. It’s a beautiful rationale for space exploration. It was in Jim’s book and Ryan actually found it on a tape. And that’s the other thing I love about that line. It was not in my initial script.
Damien and I did 16 drafts. Those are just producers’ drafts. For each of those 16 drafts, there were probably two or three drafts that Damien and I did just on our own before handing something over to the producers. So Damien and I are working very, very closely together. And even so, with all the research I was doing, Ryan comes in probably right after the La La Land Oscars. And he starts throwing all this stuff at us. “Neil liked musical theater, why isn’t that in there?” That’s a good question. And I wrote the scene with that in it. [Neil Armstrong’s son] Mark gave Ryan a tape with that quote and he’s like “Isn’t that a great quote for the interview?” And I was like “Yes, it is.”
We had always wanted the missions to each have a very distinct tone. When Damien and I first sat down and started talking about the missions, in our very first sessions we were like, “How are we going to make this different than what you’ve seen?” Well, in the X-15 we’re going to be in the cockpit. I’m going to be in that cockpit the entire time, which is challenging. You can see in the script book, that’s a nine-page scene. That’s pretty unusual.
We then talk about Gemini. For Gemini, we’ll do that more traditional. Yes, during the launch I want to be in the cockpit the whole time again. I want to feel that launch, feel what it is to be in that tin can. But then once I get in space, then I’m going to do the Apollo 13 thing. I’m going to go to Mission Control, I’m going to go to [Armstrong’s wife] Janet. It’ll help me tell the story of that mission, which is somewhat complicated.
Then for Apollo 11, yes, we’re gonna have some big wide shots, the grandeur of launch. But once we get off from Earth, we’re basically going to be in the cockpit, and we’re never going to cut to Mission Control and we’re never going to cut to Janet, because we want to be with those guys and feel that isolation and feel what that voyage is.
The second big choice is “How are we going to shoot this?” We’re going to be in 16mm for most of our space stuff. We want to feel documentary-style. We wanted it to feel gritty and visceral and real. They shot 35mm 2 Perf on the ground, so it had a little bit of grain so it matched the 16mm. Then we get to the Moon, we’re going to go IMAX. The idea was we wanted it to be that sharp. You’ll also notice we’re handheld throughout the movie until we get to the Moon, and that’s the first time we use Steadicam. It’s a totally different style of filmmaking to make you feel how different that world is. And then obviously the aspect ratio is going to change if you see it in IMAX.
[NOTE: The rest of this interview discusses the end of First Man and contains some SPOILERS.]
I think we’re gonna run out of time soon, so I want ask you to at least two more questions. The first one is about the very last scene, which blew me away; the shot of Neil and Janet separated by the glass, reaching for each other. I loved it watching it and then after the movie is over, of course, I go and read Wikipedia discover they ended up getting divorced. And the image you and Damien found is so perfect to convey that. I did wonder, though, if you ever thought about putting a more concrete note on that, or doing the typical biopic thing of putting title cards onscreen explaining what happened to them next.
It’s funny. At some point, the studio asked for title cards [at the end of the movie]. Filmmakers tend to not like cards because, like, how do you make them different?
I remember with Spotlight, we didn’t want cards. We had all sorts of different ideas. How are we going to do the cards? Maybe with newspaper headlines, or something like that. All the President’s Men is like one of the few movies that does cards really well.
Tommy never wanted to do cards in Spotlight. And then ultimately it was like, “Okay fine, we’ll do cards. What are we going to do?” We literally last minute in post-production came up with “Okay, let’s list all the cities where abuse has been found.” You’ve just watched this intense drama about this one place, and this same drama happened all over the place. My wife still maintains that we won the Best Picture Oscar because of those cards at the end of the movie.
So the studio asked for cards, and I had written a set of cards. And they are brutal! Because the cards are: “Pat White [the widow of astronaut Ed White] committed suicide,” “Neil and Janet divorced,” and “Neil never flew in space again.” Those are the cards! And you can write those cards, but whoa... Maybe we should have tried it. It might’ve been pretty gutting.
Look, in point of fact, Neil and Janet didn’t get divorced for another 20 years. They were both strong-willed individuals who were going to muddle through regardless. In the first version of that scene, we didn’t have them touching hands. On the page, it was just them looking at each other through the glass. Then there was a subsequent scene where Neil is told he’s not going to fly in space again and he comes home and looks at his house and he can’t quite bring himself to go in because he’s a stranger in his own home.
We actually got feedback from Janet who was like “Well, it wasn’t over. The seeds were there, but we kept trying for a long time.” And ultimately we also decided we’ve got to leave you with a little hope. They’re still reaching for each other. So we re-wrote it and that’s where we wind up.
There’s a great Eric Sevareid quote which we do some of in the film. Sevareid says “We’re always going to feel somehow strangers to these men. Disappeared into another life that we can’t follow. I wonder what their life will be like now. The Moon treated them well. How people on Earth which treat these men, that gives me more foreboding.” There was a little bit of that feeling, and in fact it wasn’t easy being Neil Armstrong. After he returned from the Moon, he got 10,000 letters a day for months. And Neil would be the type of guy who wants to answer them. He was the biggest celebrity in the world. They did like a 55-day world tour. They hit 46 countries and in every country had millions of people turning out.
Did you ever think about including some of that in the movie?
We did. There were a couple scenes that we scripted. It’s such an intimate movie we wanted to end on the small.
The last thing I wanted to talk about was Neil’s motivations. Talking with some of my colleagues, a few felt like he was doing everything, going to the Moon, for his daughter Karen, who died so young. To me, it felt more like he’s doing it to escape the pain of her death. I wanted to hear what you intended.
I don’t know if you’re “correct” but that was certainly the intent. When I first approached this material, I didn’t have a child. My wife and I were trying to get pregnant and over the course of the four years we got pregnant and had our son, who’s now two years and four months. So I didn’t really know what I was talking about.
When I learned that Neil had a daughter who passed ... It’s the worst thing I could really imagine, and that was before I had a kid. Now that I have my son, who is walking and talking and joking and laughing and he’s a character. It’s not just like what I imagined a kid to be. They’re fully-formed humans at this point. He’s maybe a little younger than Karen was when she was diagnosed. She was getting towards three when she died — and granted Neil was off, away for a good bit of that. Nonetheless, he loved that little girl. From everything we’ve been told, she was the apple of his eye.
The idea of losing that individual is unthinkable. I don’t know what I would do, other than what I would probably do is what Neil did, which is: The funeral was on a Wednesday on Monday he was back at work. Which Janet was not pleased about. And that created, I think, the initial wedge that ultimately separated them. We depict that in the movie and we see Janet trying hard to keep the marriage together, but that’s what Neil did. He thew himself into his work.
We heard it again and again, left and right: These guys were checking their watches at the funerals. “When do I get back to work?” And [Gemini 8 astronaut] Dave Scott would tell me “Oh, these deaths didn’t really matter.” I went “No, no. That’s because the deaths were so painful, you could not face them.
I think for Neil, he is running. As all these guys did. That has an enormous toll on you and your family. I was terrified of [Armstrong’s sons] Mark and Eric seeing this film. One because, did we get it right? Two because it’s not exactly a happy family! This is certainly — like from where I come from, a Jewish family, this is pretty rugged. And Mark said at the Toronto Film Festival, “There are a lot of people who ask me what it was like growing up the son of the first man on the Moon. That’s what was like.”