EXCLUSIVE: The road to bringing First Man to the screen was certainly not as arduous as the real journey of putting a man on the moon, but it was a long labor of love that amazingly is the first time the backstory of Neil Armstrong and the history-making achievement has been told. The project, which has now been realized by Oscar winner Damien Chazelle with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, has been a decade-long endeavor that started when producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen first pitched it to Universal Pictures’ Peter Cramer who snapped it up 10 years ago.
Godfrey and Bowen, along with Cramer and exec producer Isaac Klausner are here at the Venice Film Festival for the movie’s gala world premiere today and I sat down with them to discuss the project that Godfrey and Bowen say they “muddled” their way through for about eight years after Universal bit. Then, they met with Chazelle who sparked to the material.
This was just as Chazelle was going off to make La La Land, but he was keen and remained so when he read the script by Spotlight’s Josh Singer who adapted James R Hansen’s eponymous book.
Godfrey says the book encapsulated and covered all the historical information “and in the most evolved way, what his life was like.” Armstrong and his wife Janet lost a child, Karen, at the age of two, and her death haunts him throughout the film as NASA scientists and astronauts continue the complex trials, missions — and loss of life — that would ultimately lead to July 20 1969.
One of the fortunate things about the contemplative project taking a decade was that the parties involved early got to meet Armstrong. He died in 2012 and was never keen to tell his story, says Cramer. “It wasn’t until more recently, towards end of his life, he had an openness to tell the story. He authorized the book, but he didn’t take a penny for any of this. He’s a true American hero who didn’t want to be seen as profiting.”
When Chazelle was off directing La La, Singer, who Godfrey calls “an obsessvie research oriented writer” wrote the script. “Thankfully, Damien had not lost interest, his passion was even greater and so the second he walked offstage at the Oscars, he dived right into it.”
Asked about the challenges of recreating the era and all of the attention to technical detail, the group of execs offers up a collective exhale. Says Klausner, “One of the things that was challenigng and part of why Damien connected with it is trying to get inside the head of a man who didn’t embrace the celebrity that came with his accomplishments and was much more about the work and the problem solving itself.”
Chazelle, Klausner says, is a student of the pursuit of passion and the psychology. “That really evolved with both he and Josh going incredibly deep into the technical side of what Neil was trying to accomplish. It was kind of for all of us a crash course in rocket science.”
The scenes of NASA’s pioneers in cramped, tinny vessels provide a window onto the era that contrasts with our vision of space travel today. Co-star Jason Clarke said at the First Man press conference today that the claustrophobic conditions caused him to have “a meltdown…it was surreal.”
For Cramer, another achievement of the movie is the recreation of the mission itself which takes up the latter section of the film. “I don’t think anyone’s ever seen a space journey like this before.”
Godfrey says, “None of us really knew the steps along the way and all the people who were lost along the way in the pursuit of something that had never been done before in flight. There were dangers at every turn. As the movie goes along, you become more and more burdend in the way Neil is burdened with the weight of responsibility and the cost.”
For Bowen, “That was somethig Damien really wanted to create. He wanted to create an intimate journey, but also on an epic scale and I think the contraast of being stuck with him inside those capsules — but also eventually when it opens up on the moon — it has the release we surmise that it had for Neil.”
He adds, marveling, “I may go to Universal 50,000 times in my life but I still use Waze because you’re so addicted to it. Imagine if you shot yourself on a roman candle in the middle of outer space and you went too far and you literally had to take out a pen and paper and start figuring out the math of how to get back — and that’s real.”
Godfrey notes, “The other thing that makes it a beautiful film are the personal aspects of his life that I certainly didn’t know. The loss of a child, the most profound thing any human can go through, is something that sparked him and pushed him onto this journey. Damien always says in a sense he’s going to the most isolated place in order to process that loss.”
The movie is multi-facted as a space epic, a drama, a thriller and a film about science. So how is it being positioned? Says Cramer, “It is obviously in some ways one of the greatest achievements man has ever made and this gives a real look at it, but it is not a flag-waving, confetti parade look at it. It is about the true cost of heroism which brings the movie back to the personal space.”
The thriller aspects are also key. Cramer says, “I think it’s an incredible achievement that you’re still holding your breath when you actually get to the end. That is fillmaking at its best if you know what’s going to happen and you’re still sitting there.”
Some have noted that the giant leap for mankind does not make hay of planting an American flag on the moon in the final sequences. Says Godfrey, “Damien wanted to be truly emotionally back with the character and process the emotional journey.”
Venice with First Man mixes a commercial film with an introspective journey. When fest chief Alberto Barbera first announced he had selected it for the opening night slot, he said, “It is a very personal, original and compelling piece of work, wonderfully unexpected within the context of present day epic films, and a confirmation of the great talent of one of the most important contemporary directors of American cinema.”