After opening the Venice Film Festival to largely positive reviews, Damien Chazelle was keen to share the love for his Neil Armstrong biopic First Man by bringing screenwriter Josh Singer, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and production designer Nathan Crowley with him when he dropped by the Deadline studio at the Toronto Film Festival.
Acknowledging that the film was something of a departure for him, after the 2016 Oscar favorite La La Land, Chazelle suggested that the film bore more resemblance to his debut, Whiplash, in that it was a study of a man driven to extremes by his ambition. “I was just fascinated by the questions that I think the moon landing posed,” he said. “It’s a success story that we all know, but we don’t, I think, know all the failures and the near-failures that led up to it, and what was so hard about it, and what was so challenging. So I wanted to try to strip back a lot of the preconceptions and look at how difficult the job really was.”
Singer then stepped in to defend his and Chazelle’s decision to focus on Armstrong’s private life, since the film begins with the death of his infant daughter Karen in 1962. Said the screenwriter, “All kids in the US, and I think round the world, know who Neil Armstrong is, and almost no people know that he lost a daughter, and that his two best friends both died along the way. I think it was pretty unknown because he was such an emotionally tightly packaged man. It was unknown how much he suffered along the way. So that, for me, paired really well with what Damien was trying to do, in terms of getting underneath the myth and getting at the actual challenge of the mission.”
Chazelle went on to say that his main goal was achieving as much realism as possible. “Linus and I started talking really early on about giving it a documentary feel,” he said. “I think we really responded to just the look and feel of the actual archival footage, especially the footage that the astronauts themselves would take up in the space capsules—16mm footage, by and large, handheld, obviously. It just was a vision of space that I think we hadn’t seen before –you think of space in movies often as very clean and sleek and high tech, and this was a grainy, restricted-POV version of space that felt like an interesting new way for us.”
But even though it doesn’t open until October 11, First Man has already generated controversy at the highest level, drawing fire from President Donald Trump for its decision not to show the planting of the American flag on the moon’s surface. Singer defended the move, noting, “It certainly was an American achievement, but one that resonated at all around the world. And I think anyone who sees the film would say that. And so we encourage the President to come see the film.”
For more from our conversation, click above.