First Man: Interview with Oscar-Winning Director Damien Chazelle

First Man, the new film from Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of La La Land, is the opening night of the 2018 Venice Film Festival, August 29.  Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling plays the iconic role of Neil Armstrong, the first man who landed on the moon. (Armstrong died in 2012, age 82).


Interview during Set Visit, January 2018

Landing on the Moon: Recreation

Damien Chazelle: What’s interesting about the first moon landing is how limited the footage we have of it is. It was just that one television feed that so grainy, black and white and low resolution obviously. And so we tried to kind of use that as our reference to build out what it might have felt to actually be there. That’s really been the challenge–trying to make it feel like you yourself are on the moon, almost a virtual reality experience of being in Neil Armstrong’s shoes, making those first footsteps yourself.  We just did a lot of our kind of moon-shooting last week and the week before. I’m excited about it, but definitely we were trying to make it feel immersive.


Buzz Aldrin (as the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 11, he was one of the first two humans to land on the moon, and the second person to walk on it).

DC: Several of our actors and writer Josh Singer, who I have worked with on this, have met and spent some time with him. I haven’t yet but he was going to come to set actually a few weeks ago when we were doing mission control and then there was a power shutdown at the airport so that didn’t happen. But hopefully we’re filming in Florida so I’m kind of hoping to finally meet him there. I’m looking forward to it.


What Inspired the film?

DC: I was fascinated by the psychology of what it must take to take a trip like this. I have a hard enough time flying in an airplane so the idea of taking what were essentially glorified coffins, little sardine cans sticking people in and hurling them at the tip of a rocket into deep space and sending them farther than any person has ever gone before by a multiple of 30 was just both fascinating and awe-inspiring to me. It was also a little confounding to me, what it takes to make a journey like that, and what kind of commitment, what kind of sacrifices go behind making a journey like that.  I think I’ve always been interested in the story behind achievements like that. Myself and a lot of us in America and elsewhere in the world have kind of grown up just taking the moon landing as just a thing that happened or didn’t happen according to who you are, but sort of taking it for granted. We see the photos. We know that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and said this line and there’s iconic photos of the American flag. It’s all very glossy and almost looks kind of easy and so to try and rewind back to a time when the idea of landing on the moon was science fiction, it was crazy, and then to try and think what were the steps taken, and what were the people behind that thinking to make that a reality and to actually try to turn that into something possible. That to me is what’s fascinating and what the costs might have been of doing that on the people and on the world as a whole, and whether it was worth it is another question.


Parental Influence

DC: My mom is an historian and so her writing is all history so that’s certainly I think has given me a love of history and might have fed into this but I’m not sure. I guess every kid wants to be an astronaut for a certain phase of their life when they grow up. I might have had that period in my life for a little bit and then decided that it seemed way to terrifying to go into space so I stopped being interested in it.  What kind of made this story feel both timely and fascinating to me was not just what does it take as a human being to not just go into space but to go as far into space as these individuals did, but to do it before modern computers. To do it in tin cans that were fueled by less than what fuels our cell phones in our pockets. To do it in such an analog and handmade way, especially as we’ve been building we kind of have some of the crafts here like the land there. These things to me honestly look like science fair projects you’d see at a high school or things that someone would put together in a garage their so handmade and they’re kind of beautiful but they don’t look like they could withstand a trip down the highway, let alone a trip to the moon so that to me is just fascinating. It was kind of bit by bit handmade problem-solving and risk-taking that went into this and yeah the sacrifices.  But thankfully I’ve felt at least so far we’re still shooting but so far that I’ve gotten to make exactly the movie that I dreamed of making and have had an amazing cast and crew, and the studio has been really supportive and let us tell the story the way we want to.  It’s been hard work, I guess that’s a sacrifice, but that’s a sacrifice I’m glad to make.


Ryan Gosling

DC: I love working with him and that’s probably not a surprise. I think there is something about him that I think just fits Neil Armstrong like a glove. Part of what I find beautiful about Neil Armstrong as a character is that for someone who’s so famous and iconic he was this intensely withholding, introverted person who kind of shunned the public spotlight and who really lived his life just to do the job that was given to him. So as a result, he’s kind of enigmatic. For someone so famous like him, we know very little about him, very little about what he was feeling deep inside as he took this trip.  I think one of the great challenges and great pleasures of working with Ryan in this movie has been how to tap into what Neil might have been feeling at every step of the journey and how to put an audience into the point of view of a person who again for as well-known as he is, is kind of a mystery to a lot of us, and how to make us understand him and yet still preserve a little bit of that mystery. Ryan has this kind of mystery to him and to how he performs. He lets you in, but he also has this kind of Gary Cooper old Hollywood star kind of quality that maintains a mystique that feeds into what we’re trying to do. It’s a balance that has been really fun trying to perfect with him. Like Neil, Ryan is also an excessively hard worker so that’s been helpful as well. It’s been a tough movie to try to pull off.


Visual Style

DC: The biggest inspiration I’ve gotten from in trying to put this movie together and about how it should look and feel has been going back to the original documentary footage of these missions and the kind of imagery that you would get from these astronauts who weren’t professional photographers or film makers, but would bring either Hasselblad still cameras or little 16mm film cameras or what not and capture these incredible images that to me are very different from we think of as space today.

We think of space today as very kind of clean and sort of sleek and spare and high tech and this was anything but these are kind of machines that look more like World War II era machines or again sort of garage made machines and people who came from an earlier generation trying to, trying to make these machines work and so everything in the movie I wanted to kind of have that feeling of analog handmade, gritty sort of dirt under the fingernails, sweat under the brow, low-fi kind of feeling so I guess that’s in general what we’ve been trying to do and trying at every time remind you as an audience member how crazy and dangerous these mission were back when space flight not that it’s routine now was itself kind of an insane risk at very given instance.  Just trying to give it a little bit of that lived-in scary tactile sort of feeling has been the goal.


Support from NASA

DC: NASA’s actually been wonderful. They’ve been very helpful in providing us with information, but also just opening their doors. I mean we sent the whole cast to sort of a NASA supervised boot camp for two weeks at a time, and then for several years before then Josh the writer and myself  and our producers would go to NASA in Houston or Cape Canaveral in Florida routinely and just try to get a feel for the place and see the machinery, talk to the people.  A lot of them are still there, a lot of the people from mission control, obviously many of the former astronauts, people in this movie like Mike Collins and Buzz and Neil Armstrong’s family you know there are so many people to kind of get insight from and information from. So, apart from just reading the literature out there and working with Jim Hansen obviously who wrote the book that this is based on, it was a lot of just trying to hit the ground and talking to people and seeing stuff ourselves. It’s one thing to read about these crafts and machines, but getting to see them up close and see how tiny they were, how fragile they look and hear from the people themselves what it felt like to be up there, thousands of miles from earth that I think was the most helpful of all. To try to fathom that.