Universal’s First Man touched down on the Lido this morning, ahead of its opening gala slot this evening that will officially kick off the 75th Venice Film Festival. In town for the movie’s maiden voyage, Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling were greeted enthusiastically by the press corps which is nevertheless under an embargo from reviews for another few hours.
First Man marks Chazelle’s return to the Venice opening-night berth just two years after he set the Lido alight with La La Land. Gosling of course starred in that film, scoring a Best Actor Oscar nomination. In First Man, he’s Neil Armstrong, the humble introvert and ace pilot/engineer who became the first man to walk on the moon.
The film, based on James R Hansen’s book, traces Armstrong’s journey from family tragedy to the moon landing and what the NASA technicians and astronauts endured along the way.
Writer Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for penning 2015’s Best Picture winner Spotlight (a film that also premiered on the Lido), credited Armstrong’s family for helping the filmmakers get “underneath who Neil was” which helped get at “the human as opposed to the icon.”
Gosling said in researching the intensely private Armstrong. “I’ve never had more help in my life on a film… Whether it was Neil’s sons or his late ex-wife Janet or Neil’s sister, his childhood friends… NASA opened the door to the facilities. Neil was a very famously introspective quiet humble person so the challenge was to honor that but also to create windows into what he might be or had been experiencing emotionally at the time.”
Gosling also learned a lesson. “I thought what I should do was learn how to fly.” But not too long in, when the instructor told him to take the plane into a controlled stall, “I thought in that moment, ‘This is a terrible idea and there was a reason why Neil Armstrong was destined to be one of the greatest pilots and I’m not.’ In that moment, I realized something about Neil. It’s a certain kind of person that will get into a plane and intentionally push it to its breaking point for the sole purpose of pushing our aeronautics forward.”
To achieve authentic sound, the team used actual X15 suits and the helmets of real astronauts at the time. They also re-created tiny space capsules that are faithful to the originals. Jason Clarke, who plays Apollo astronaut Eddie White, called the experience of shooting in them “surreal.”
Chazelle discussed growing up with “iconic images” of the moon landing which for people of his generation “it’s easy to take for granted.” He became more interested in what went into the achievement and tried “to fathom the step-by-step process and what the costs were.”
Gosling has done more than one film with Nicolas Winding Refn and now has two with Chazelle. Asked what draws him to a director, he joked, “Good hair is important.” More seriously: “We met about this film initially and then there was this issue that he had to make a little musical first. Even though they are wildly different both movies were in his head at the same time.” And, “in some ways there is a similarity in the way he viewed them. They both lend themselves to the big screen. They are both films you would want to experience in an audience with other people. Whether it’s La La or this film, Damien has incredible instincts not only for what the audience wants to see but wanting to unite people through film. This is an incredible story where as complicated as it is and the complicated opinions about it, it unified the world for a certain period of time.”