Damien Chazelle’s go-to editor since the time when Whiplash was just a short, Oscar winner Tom Cross threw out the musical playbook for First Man, tapping into a documentary approach he honed early in his career and had long since left behind. Crafting a brutally immersive, subjective experience, which would document Neil Armstrong’s efforts to get to the moon—and the many intense experiences he went through to set foot on that soil—Chazelle employed a range of filmic formats, purposefully messy photography and jagged cuts, to reflect not only the stunning nature of space flight, but also the inner turbulence experienced by a man of few words, dealing with a loss he couldn’t shake.
On First Man, Cross found himself gravitating toward a visual approach he would have never previously thought to apply. “There were stylistic moments and certain organic camera elements that I found value in, that I wouldn’t normally find value in. Things that were messy—things like rack focuses, and certain types of camera pans and moves—all became fair game when I was putting together First Man,” the editor observes.
Situating himself in the same facility as Chazelle and many of his long-term collaborators—all within shouting distance—Cross engaged in the constant interplay of image, sound, visual effects and score, “bouncing from room to room” over an extended period, to make progress on an “aggressive schedule.” For Cross, having each of the film’s department heads in close proximity became paramount in realizing Chazelle’s ambitious vision. “I think if we were not all together, we’d probably still be editing the movie,” he admits.
While a memorable sequence on the moon has been heralded as one of the crowning technical achievements of First Man, the most difficult segment for Cross came in the form of the mission aboard the Gemini VIII—a multifaceted part of Armstrong’s story, in which stars Ryan Gosling and Christopher Abbott are seen hurtling and spinning through space. “That was a big part of Josh Singer’s script,” he notes, “and we knew that if we didn’t pull that off, the movie was not going to work.”
When did Damien Chazelle approach you with First Man?
Somewhere in the middle of La La Land, he sent me an early draft of Josh Singer’s script. Josh Singer would come in from time to time to work on notes with Damien. We had a situation where Damien was doing work on the editing of La La Land and the script of First Man at the same time, in the same room. Damien’s pitch for it was that he wanted it to feel like a fly-on-the-wall documentary; he wanted it to feel like you took a 16mm cameraman and put him in a space capsule. It was going to be completely different from La La Land; instead of having this more romantic, slow pace where you’re floating on air, you’d have this very rough style that would be accented with these brutal, immersive launch scenes.
What excited you about this story, and the craft possibilities therein?
I love the time period and the subject matter. There was a certain amount of optimism in the country at that time. Everything was about looking forward; everything was kind of space age, culturally, but also from a design standpoint. I’m a big fan of Kubrick’s 2001, so I’d always wanted to work on a space movie. While First Man was not going to be science fiction, it was going to be about space travel, and that really excited me. Then, I really got very excited when I learned that he wanted to take this different approach. He loved 2001, but really didn’t want to tread on what that movie and other great space movies did so well, stylistically. He didn’t want to have everything be futuristic; he didn’t want to have the style be very minimal and modern, and almost antiseptic. He wanted to go for something that he hadn’t seen before, which was a much more personal approach, as if you were a fly on the wall in the Armstrong house, and in these space capsules.
Did this need to go for the authenticity of Armstrong’s experience necessitate research on your part?
I didn’t do any extensive research, other than rely on what Damien had put together for pre-production. He created what we called “The Notebook,” a collection of writings and photos, and reference illustrations for all the department heads. I also relied on Damien’s list of reference films. It’s something that he’s always created and talked about with me, starting with Whiplash. We never wanted to try to replicate what we saw in these movies, but they were meant to be an inspiration for us. I really try to do my homework, and look at all these movies. Sometimes, the movies are very close to what you have, stylistically, like Robert Drew’s Primary and Crisis films, that follow President Kennedy in the cinema vérité fashion. We also watched Salesman by the Maysles, High School by Frederick Wiseman, and many more documentaries from the ’60s and ’70s. All of that helped me get into a groove, in terms of the cutting. I really had to look at Damien’s footage differently than I did on his last two movies.
To my understanding, when it came to shooting the Armstrong family at home, and amongst their community, DP Linus Sandgren pushed this idea of a documentary style even further.
Yeah, Damien shot two weeks of rehearsal with Claire Foy, Ryan Gosling and the child actors who played their kids, and that stuff was completely improvised and unscripted. That was material that we had a feeling we would use, but we ended up using a lot more than I think we thought we would. That footage really captured personal and intimate moments that felt very authentic to us, in a way that some of the scripted stuff didn’t, so we even replaced some of the scripted scenes and moments with footage from the rehearsals. That was something that was very different from working on La La Land and Whiplash; we did a lot more rewriting in the editing room than we did with both of those movies.
Could you further define the nature of the aesthetic you honed in cutting First Man, and the process of getting there?
When I was cutting my first scenes on First Man, it was very hard to warm up to, at first. But once I did, it was actually something that came very easily to me. I think part of that is because of the documentary background that I had a long time ago, and part of it was just getting more in tune with the footage that Linus was shooting. Finding the beauty in that really just comes from following the footage. Some of my favorite scenes to put together were the mission control scenes, because Damien staged all of that. All of the mission control actors had scripted dialogue, even if they were off camera, and they just ran it like a stage play—and Linus filmed it as if he was covering a real event.
The press conferences were also exciting to cut because there was a lot of roaming cinema vérité camera. All of that stuff was exciting because it made you think about the ingredients that make a scene. What are those ingredients? What are the bare necessities to put a scene together? When you have something scripted, you think of that in a very different way than when you have documentary footage. “Normal issues” about continuity, and eye lines, and matching, all of that stuff really does take more of a back seat to something that is much more emotional.
There must have been a real art to shooting and cutting this film, such that it would feel messy and real, without pushing those aspects too much.
It’s funny because I’m not always a fan of found footage, of that aesthetic, and I’m very sensitive to shaky camera that does not seem motivated. I always feel like great movies have a higher calling than just imitating a messy style, merely for the sake of style, so I definitely was very conscious of that. I’d like to think that we were always very careful to keep the style closely in tune with what was going on with the characters at that moment—that we kept it very close to what was going on, emotionally. If it ever felt like some type of visual panache or style was getting in the way of the scene or the characters, we really tried to cut those little flourishes back.
A lot of times in First Man, it’s about what’s going on in Ryan Gosling’s face because one of Damien’s biggest goals was to make this movie subjective and immersive. To do that, we became reliant on point of view shots—but also, shots of Ryan Gosling’s face and his eyes, to really let the audience in on how he’s experiencing something. It was an interesting needle that we had to thread. Because on one hand, when you’re a fly on the wall, there are times when that feels very objective. Our goal was to always feel like a fly on the wall, but at the same time, feel subjective. There is a balance there, where if you feel the messiness too much, we knew we were risking losing the audience seeing in Neil Armstrong’s point of view.
How did you navigate the challenge of stitching multiple formats—16mm, 35 and IMAX, for that climactic moment on the moon?
I tried to be very careful about looking at those things, and making sure that all of that stuff would blend together, and a big part of that is to really get the audience used to the grit and the grain of this cinema vérité footage, so that you could have someplace to go when you get to the moon. A big part of Damien shooting in IMAX for the lunar sequence was to enable us to have this Wizard of Oz transition, where we go from the world that we’ve gotten used to, to a completely different feel, which is stark in its resolution, but also in its spare color quality. That’s the way Damien likes to work. He’s so great at working with contrasts because he knows one thing accentuates the other. One great thing that IMAX did, too, is this resolution, which actually invites you to slow the pace down. It invites you to linger in the detail, and that was something that was of great consequence. At the same time, because you really have this vivid resolution, it also let us double down on this subjective, immersive style that we had started with the other space missions. So, we really were able to linger on those hands going down the rungs of the ladder, on the close-ups of the foot stepping on that soil.
Were there other sequences or aspects to this production that were particularly challenging?
With 1.7 million feet of cinema vérité footage, all of the film was pretty challenging. This movie was certainly much more challenging for a bunch of different reasons than La La Land or Whiplash. There were just so many more moving parts on this one. The section that Damien and I were the most afraid of was the Gemini VIII section. We knew that that sequence is supposed to do so much heavy lifting, emotionally; it was really the centerpiece of the film. A lot of people are aware of the Apollo 11 mission, but most people don’t remember or aren’t aware of the Gemini VIII mission, and how unique that was, and how dangerous it was. How they almost died.
That was a section that was very daunting to start on because it contained so many different elements that I think are really special for First Man. It contained a very immersive, subjective launch, where we never leave the space capsule. At the same time, it has the docking scene, which we always refer to as the “docking ballet,” which was supposed to be more of a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. That one is set to Justin Hurwitz’s beautiful waltz, and it’s slow and optimistic, and it’s a completely different emotional tone from what came before. And then we then go into probably the most harrowing part of the section, which is the Gemini VIII spin, something that Damien really wanted to get right. He really wanted it to make the audience feel like they were going to die. So, that was something that we really had to sell. All the while, throughout those three big Gemini VIII sections, they’re all intercut with mission control and with domestic scenes back in the Armstrong house, with Janet and the sons. I really love that section because I feel like it’s a good representation of a lot of the different styles and emotionsthat you have in the entire movie.
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