First Man: The Mystery of Neil Armstrong

The screenwriter of First Man, Josh Singer, tells us how he got under the hood of astronaut Neil Armstrong to see what made him tick.

Ryan Gosling in First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong, the legendary engineer, pilot and astronaut who achieved one of the pinnacles of human history on July 21, 1969 when he became the first explorer to successfully land a spacecraft on the Moon and then set foot on the lunar surface. Armstrong’s journey (on which he was accompanied by Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins) was the culmination of years of research, experimentation, trial and error by the dedicated men and women of NASA, a quest marked by several heart-rending tragedies yet yielding that historic “giant leap for mankind.”

Famously taciturn, Armstrong was a man of few words and often distant emotions — characteristics driven home early in First Man when Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) lose their two-year-old daughter Karen to brain cancer. That devastating loss haunts Armstrong for the rest of the film, although he buries himself in his work and never speaks of it — even as he soars to the Moon.

First Man is directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) and written by Josh Singer. After stints on TV shows like Fringe and The West Wing, Singer has since specialized in screenplays that deal with critical turning points in history, including his Oscar-winning script for Spotlight and his prescient work on Steven Spielberg’s The Post.

While those films highlighted dark moments in America’s history, First Man leads to a moment filled with awe and optimism despite the spectre of death and the unknown surrounding it. And at the center of that is a man who was likely never interested in becoming a hero, but did so anyway.  We spoke with Singer via phone about getting under the skin of Neil Armstrong (who died in 2012), what First Man means for today and more.

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(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Den of Geek: What drew you to the story of Neil and what was your way into his life?

Josh Singer: Damien is what drew me into the story. Damien had read a script or two of mine and so reached out to see if I’d be interested in writing. I didn’t know much about Damien because Whiplash had just been at Sundance. So they sent me Whiplash under lock and key and I watched it and immediately turned to my wife and we both said, “There’s nobody like him,” meaning Damien. It was very clear to us both then what is hopefully quite clear to the world now. I think he is probably the best filmmaker of his generation, maybe one of the best filmmakers working today, just in terms of his vision and his sheer talent.

I immediately said okay, if he’s commanding this mission, I want to ride shotgun. I went in very excited, but knowing very little about Neil Armstrong other than that he was an icon. And Damien basically said look, “I want to tell this viscerally. I want to try to be more honest about the dangers, about the challenges of the missions, than had been done before. I want to do this documentary style, I want it to be vérité. You know, I really want to get at how terrifying this all was and take on these challenges.” And that all sounded great. But the thing that worried me was mostly, okay, so I don’t know much about this guy, Neil Armstrong, other than that he’s an icon and I don’t know much about him at all.

So I started reading Jim Hansen’s terrific biography, which, you know, is a bit of a challenging read at first because it’s very technical, as Neil wanted it to be, and which wound up being incredibly helpful later on, but once I got through all the technical material, what I found underneath was this surprisingly human portrait of a man that sort of, along with what Damien was talking about, really punctures the myth of NASA at that time. It really gets across how challenging this was on a human level.

I hadn’t known about Karen. I hadn’t known he lost a daughter. I really hadn’t known anything about what he and Janet had gone through, and, you know, you really wind up with a portrait of an American family that is just, you know, a fairly ordinary American family in these extraordinary circumstances, really sacrificing everything for the greater good, for the good of the country, for the mission, and for mankind.

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There’s a palpable sense that death surrounds them.

What Jim unearthed that I think nobody’s really looked at is how much loss and tragedy there was. We only depict the deaths of two close colleagues, but there were three of Neil’s close colleagues (who died). Joe Walker died in that same 12-month period that (astronauts) Elliott See and Ed White died. Joe Walker was in a freak plane crash out over Edwards AFB…Neil got that call right in that same 12-month period and it’s also the same period as he goes up in Gemini 8 and he almost dies.

So the perseverance and the grace with which he and Janet pushed through all this loss and tragedy and failure was, frankly, inspiring and remarkable and right on the line of what Damien’s central thesis was and so, you know, as soon as I sort of got my head around all that, I was very compelled by the narrative and what this effort could be.

What do you think, ultimately, drove him to keep going?

First, frankly, is that he was an engineer who was fascinated by flight and, in fact, his first love was airplanes and he literally was fascinated by how they flew…He was really an engineer, who was a good pilot, but he wasn’t a pilot by feel, he was much more of a thinker.

Then I think, with the loss of Karen, he did what a lot of folks do: he just threw himself into his work. I think he was sort of running, he was sort of burying that grief and throwing himself into his work, and I think that became something that he did over and over again.

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We believe Neil suffered greatly with these losses and just then pushed it down, which is why he was so emotionally tightly packaged and why, I think, he became so distant from his family, which we depict in the movie and which is based on conversations with Janet and (his sons) Rick and Mark.

The movie really channels both the terror and awe of what these guys were doing. How much of what you put on the page is reflected in what we see on the screen when it comes to just the pure visceral intensity of the flights or the awe of actually being on the moon?

Actually I wrote an annotated screenplay. Jim Hansen and I did commentary where we talk about, in every scene, what’s real and what’s not. Not that we took a lot of license, we just wanted to be very clear about where we did.

I tend to heavily write on the page. I tend to write out action pretty heavily, and especially in a script like this, because essentially a script, at first blush it’s a marketing tool, right? It’s a marketing tool to sell to the studios, and it’s also then a blueprint to put everybody on the same page, from your production designer to your costumes.

So I get pretty specific in terms of what we’re going for and some of that isn’t necessarily in terms of the missions, because those sequences…We’re in the cockpit for most of those sequences. We don’t go outside a whole lot, and so you’ve got to see what’s being seen through the windows and feel what they’re feeling.

In terms of the moments on the moon, and it’s funny, you’ll laugh at this, I learned this writing for Fringe. When I worked at Fringe, which is my last TV job, I wasn’t working directly with J.J. Abrams but it was the school of J.J. and Jeff Pinkner had been working with J.J. since, I think, Alias, and so Jeff wrote a certain way and Joel Wyman, who was the other boss of that show, they wrote in this way where they made the action pop on the page.

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I had never done that before. I’d worked on The West Wing and Law and Order, I didn’t know from action popping on the page, so when I wrote an action sequence, it was, like, a quarter of a page. Jeff said, “Make that a full page. Show me what’s happening.” So I was like, “Okay.” And what I did was I imitated the J.J. style, which is throwing things in all caps and saying “Fuck!” And, “Shit!” on the page in the action sequence, putting things in bold…I’m really trying to get across what we’re supposed to be feeling in that moment.

In the screenplays that you’ve done like Spotlight and The Post, you’re writing about history and real life people. Is there a thrill, if that’s the right word, to exploring history through the process of writing and researching a screenplay?

Number one is I love to learn. Any new world, I’m always fascinated by and I have so much information in my head now about how to fly an F15 and about Gemini 8 and then Gemini 4 and Apollo 8…I love to learn a new world. I love to look at how a world works and just try to inhale and figure out what are the dynamics of that world and what the human sides of that world are. So I always really enjoy that.

Then I think, right now, why this story? I think we have a bit of a burden in this day and age telling a great white men of history story, right?

True, we’ve seen a lot of that already.

You know, you better have good reason for it, and I think we do here, because, first of all, I don’t think it is a great men of history story. He was an ordinary guy with some exceptional skills who put himself through the wringer, and, you know, it’s an ordinary family, an ordinary American family that put themselves through the wringer to succeed, right? To do some of value for their country, for all mankind.

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So that’s tremendously inspiring, and, to me, what it says is, oh, if we actually want to make huge inroads and achieve and deal with tremendous issues that we are facing as a world and as a nation, we are going to have to sacrifice, we are going to have to take our lumps like Neil did. That’s the only way you ever reach greatness. Ed White would say, “The only way to move forward with civilization is if we try to look beyond our borders, if we try to explore.” And I think that’s true, and I think that’s something we’ve lost a little bit.

So that, and just the fact that Neil, again, it’s a great portrait in leadership. Neil doesn’t lead by talking, he leads by doing. When you get to know Neil as a human, he doesn’t give big speeches. He leads with his actions and to me, in this day and age, again, that’s something that’s tremendously inspiring, something I feel like we need a lot more of.

First Man is out in theaters today (Friday, Oct. 12).

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye