First Man: Interview with Scribe Josh Singer

First Man, The new film from Oscar winner Damien (La La Land) Chazelle, starring Ryan Gosling, is the opening night of the Venice Film Fest, August 29.

Josh Singer, Screenwriter

Set Visit: Atlanta, January 26, 2018

Process of Writing

Josh Singer: I think most humans have seen that clip or know those words, everyone is familiar with Neil Armstrong but for us what I think was fascinating for Damien and me from the outset is the story behind that story. Neil was a pretty private individual. He wasn’t a hermit as some people said or a recluse, but he was private and he was a taciturn man and he was someone who didn’t really share his innermost feeling unless you really got to know him well.  That’s one of the reasons why the story’s never been told because it’s not the easiest story to get at, but I think the goal for Damien and me from the very outset was to try to get to that moment you know when you get to the one small step moment to understand a little about the journey that has taken you there.

Sacrifice and Loss

JS: It’s funny I was at the NBR dinner for “The Post” a week or two ago and Stephen Colbert made a lovely speech and Greta Gerwig  got up  and started crying and I was talking with Lawrence O’Donnell who’s a dear friend from my “West Wing” days about why we cry at moments like that and he made an astute point that the reason we cry is because we’re thinking of all the steps that have led up to that moment, that have gotten us there.  I think for most of us we’re unfamiliar with the steps that Neil up to that moment and they are very extraordinary, and I think the thing that was very powerful from the very beginning for Damien and me was how much sacrifice and loss there was. Most people don’t know even his close friends who were in the astronaut core didn’t know that Neil lost a daughter, a two year old daughter when he was out at Edwards flying the X-15’s right before he joined Project Gemini. He joined Project Gemini which was the second group of astronauts there were nine of them and two of the members of Project Gemini two of those nine and the two who Neil was closest with both perished before Neil went to the moon and it was actually 1966, in February 1966 Elliot who had been backup on Gemini 5 with Neil, who Neil was very close with he died in a freak flying accident, and then in January 1967 less than a year later Ed White who was Neil’s next door neighbor and another good friend was one of the three astronauts who died in Apollo One fire and right in the middle of that is Neil’s only other space flight Gemini 8 which had to be cut short because Neil and Dave Scott almost died because they got to this horrible role. So, when you sort of follow Neil’s journey you realize there’s just a tremendous amount of loss and grief and sacrifice.

Both Damien Chazelle and I speaks to what is required to achieve greatness. That’s probably not surprising with Damien–it’s a little of bit a theme in his work.  But I was just excited to sort of dig into that and try to get at who Neil was, and try to get underneath those famous words.  Hopefully by the time we’ve got you on the moon, you will feel what that journey was like for Neil in a similar way.

Buzz Aldrin 

JS: We’ve spoken to both of them.  Any of you know Buzz? I know how was out in L.A. for the Globes. He’s something.  I went and sat with Buzz for a couple of hours in L.A. and we’ve talked on the phone and I have a lot of four minute voice mail messages from which I’ll be honest I haven’t even listened to. He has some wisdom and when you talk with him there are some bits of wisdom but he also is someone who got fixated on certain things and he’s gotten older I think he’s gotten more so, it has been delightful to sit with him and a real honor and we’ve gotten some stuff from him.

Mike Collins

JS: I think Mike frankly has been a little more helpful. Mike is terrific, Mike wrote one of the best… anybody who loves space and astronaut stuff will tell you that Mike’s book is the best astronaut memoire by far. It’s called Carrying the Fire it is a wonderful book, Mike’s a terrific writer and Mike is the one of those three guys whom Jim Hansen called amiable strangers of Neil, Mike and Buzz. Mike is the one who’s actually very funny and he’s gregarious and a guy you would just love to hang out with. I flew down to Miami and then drove across Florida to get to where he is, which is in Marco Island on the west coast because that’s actually the fastest way to get there which is to fly to Miami and a three hour drive, and so I could sit with him for three hours, you know we had talked on the phone but to go over the Gemini space craft.

Challenges in Writing Script

JS: One of the real challenges in the writing here is beyond all the research into Neil and all the research into Neil’s journey there is so much technical knowledge that you really need to master at some level. I joke that I can now fly an X-15 aircraft and Gemini spacecraft and Apollo spacecraft and I can’t really but I have a pretty good working knowledge at this point and it’s because I spent a ton of time with Joe Engle who is the last living X-15 pilot and we had great transcripts from the X-15 flight of Neil’s that we’re using and so I sort embellish from there and sent to Joe and got notes and then sent to Joe again got notes and then Joe came and trained me on the X-15 so then I could then adjust the script and trained Ryan on the X-15 and then trained our on the X-15 so everybody gets trained such that they know what they’re doing and what they’re shooting. We did the same thing with Gemini, Gemini was a little tougher because Gemini there are no… there is a transcript but it’s really bad. In fact, the folks there, I’m sorry I’m getting a little nerdy here this is writer nerd, writer nerdom here, but there are two online great resources in Apollo. There’s the Apollo flight journals and the Apollo Surface journals and that’s a cadre of experts who literally have gone over all the transcripts and not only have made sure that the right people are saying the right things but also then have annotations of what’s happening so it’s not just reading, you actually can read what happened and that has been tremendously useful with Apollo and with the landing and being on the surface of the moon but with Gemini all we have are the rough transcripts and be the way we only have the transcripts for what happened in the spacecraft and it’s really air to ground.

Mission Control

JS: We don’t have transcripts for what happens at Mission Control, and that’s the one area that Damien Chazelle wanted to shoot to Mission Control. We’re not shooting Mission Control for Apollo. We’re not shooting Mission Control obviously for the X-15, but he wanted to shoot Mission Control for Gemini and we had no transcripts at all.  So I literally had to work with Gerry Griffin who was there, a guy who worked in Mission Control who worked as fido and then worked as a flight director and I literally had to write scripts together, I literally would get him to sort of help me.

Frank Hughes

JS: Not only did we talk to Buzz and Mike but we have Frank Hughes was one set today he was one of the original trainers. He trained astronauts on both the Gemini and the Apollo spacecraft and on the Lem. We have Al Worden who flew Apollo 15, was the command module pilot on Apollo 15 and we had Joe Engle as I’ve mentioned and Rick and Mark Armstrong have been incredibly helpful. We sat with Janet, Damien and I sat with Janet and then Damon Ryan sat with Janet, so we’ve reached out and not to mention there are all these self-appointed experts out there in the space world who we’ve also got their input and Jim Hansen who’s book we’re working off of has just been incredibly helpful, so this has been one where again I’m not a rocket scientist apparently though I play one in the movie, we’ve needed as much help as we can get.