The Oscar-winning scribe behind such historical projects as Spotlight, The Post and First Man, Josh Singer can’t overemphasize the importance of getting his stories right. On the latter film from Damien Chazelle, based on a biography by James R. Hansen, the writer dove head first into a project of incredible complexity. Depicting the life of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the moon, and every challenge and sacrifice he endured to get there, the project was emotionally deep, probing the psyche of an inward-looking figure grappling with loss. Portraying the terrifying nature of space flight, as no film had before, it naturally concerned itself with technical detail as well, which would have to be reckoned with at the same time.
To present Armstrong’s experience of grief and unprecedented achievement as realistically and holistically as possible, Singer did an immense amount of research. Consulting Hansen’s text, he conducted interviews with Mark, Rick and Janet Armstrong, along with former astronauts and NASA personnel including Mike Collins, David Scott, Buzz Aldrin, and Frank Hughes. Inviting these individuals into his process—people who knew the space program, and knew Neil—he sent each of them multiple drafts of his script, asking for their feedback even in screenings, four weeks before picture lock.
“I had them do a stop-start with me, where literally every time they saw a problem, we would stop the movie, and I would write down what the issue was,” he recalls. “We wound up with 10 pages of notes, and then we took those notes and broke them up between editorial and ADR and VFX, and tried to tackle as many of them as we could.” In concert with Chazelle, Singer persisted in this “incredibly intensive” process, only to be met with praise from the most affirming source. Michael Neufeld, the curator of the Smithsonian Museum, wrote an article the day the film came out, calling it “the most historically accurate movie about the Space Race that’s ever been made.”
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only feedback Chazelle and company received. When the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, a “flag controversy” emerged, with critics taking aim at one omission. While Armstrong was seen walking on the moon, there was no scene depicting the planting of the American flag on that surface. Taking notice of this critique, Washington subsequently joined the clamor.
Singer was perturbed by this controversy, for a number of reasons. First Man was shepherded by a director of the highest integrity and esteem—the young visionary behind La La Land, who became the youngest Best Director winner in Oscar history with that film, and had earned the industry’s good graces. Even so, his latest couldn’t help but be hampered by the narrative that came to envelop it, with its merits thrown into question. In the writer’s mind, the impact on box office alone was undeniable. “We didn’t over-index in the middle of the country where movies like this always over-index,” he says, “and the way these award season things go, downhill box office hurts. Then people say, ‘Oh, well. Is it worthy of awards?’”
More damaging was an apparent rejection of the forest for the trees—an assault on truth, and a rejection of the virtues and methods Singer holds above all else. Reflecting on his artistic mission, and the painstaking attention to detail that it demands, Singer posed a question.“We’re dramatists. Why do we care about history?We’re just trying to tell a good story, and if the story doesn’t resound, then what does it matter, all that effort?” he asks. “For me, the reason I think it matters is because we’re not just creating stories, we’re creating historical documents. The easiest way to access Neil Armstrong now is to put this DVD in your player and watch two hours, and now you’ve got the Wikipedia entry on Neil Armstrong, and you’ve got better than that. You’ve got a full, fleshed out, 3D rendering of what it was like to be Neil Armstrong in this time.”
For Singer, the job of writing films like First Man is, by its nature, an immense responsibility, particularly at a time when the truth seems so easily discarded. “If it’s not right, if that rendering is not correct, then you’ve done all sorts of harm. Not only have you done harm to Neil and his family, but you’ve done harm to the public who’s watching, because now they walk away thinking that’s what it is,” the scribe says. “If the public walks away from a movie about going to the moon, thinking, ‘Oh, it was easy,’ then they think that everything should be easy. So for me, there is a huge responsibility we have as storytellers to get it f*cking right.” This can be a thankless job, to be sure, but as he looks toward future projects, Singer won’t be changing tack.
When did you get involved with First Man? What about the project was compelling to you?
Back in 2014, Damien had gotten interested in it after Temple Hill sent him the book, and my agents called and said, “Would you want to meet Damien?” I didn’t know Damien, because Whiplash had just been at Sundance, so I said, “Can I watch this movie which I hear is so good”? They sent me Whiplashon DVD, and I flipped for it; I was just so knocked out. It was pretty clear to me that Damien was one of our seminal filmmakers, after watching that movie, so any journey he wanted to go on, I wanted to be riding shotgun. But what was more intriguing was, I didn’t know much about Neil Armstrong, other than what everyone knows. I hadn’t known a thing about the fact that he had lost a daughter, that he had lost two of his closest friends to the Gemini program. I was just really blown away by the amount of sacrifice and loss that he and Janet had had to live through. So, my initial excitement was only compounded when I realized that the material was so rich.
On the surface, First Man feels like a departure from films you’ve written in the past. In your mind, what is the through line connecting all your efforts?
I guess in some ways, it’s a departure, but in other ways, it’s not at all. I tend to be intrigued by historical, fact-based stories, especially when I think they shed a fair amount of light on what’s going on today. It’s funny, I just caught a couple of scenes from The Post on HBO, and I thought to myself, “Geez, we should have released it this year.” [Laughs]We were all so up in arms and in a hurry to release it last year, and sadly, it’s only become more relevant over the course of the last year. I think Spotlight is one of those eternal stories, hitting on the notion of deference— how much we defer to a large institution for the sake of a common good, and how problematic that can be. To me, that is a story that reverberates in any time.
It’s funny because I feel like in this day and age, there’s a desire or need for stories to be either total entertainment or to be political with a capital P. [First Man], to me, is political with a little p, in that it’s about what it really took to make America great. In this day and age, when so many of our leaders are telling us silly stories about how they’re going to fix everything without us doing any hard work, to me, showing a story about just how much sacrifice and work had to go into this huge achievement, that’s a really important story. And it’s doubly important because I feel like the mythology around the Space Race and the moon landing has been one of triumphalism and easy victory. Or not easy victory per se, but “can do,” and “will do,” and “we’ll survive and be victorious,” as opposed to focusing on what was behind the Life magazine covers, and looking at the real costs and sacrifices these astronauts and their families had to live through. One of the things that’s so frustrating about the flag controversy was that we really made this movie for the entire country. This movie is not a red state or a blue state movie. It’s really about what you need to do as a country to succeed, looking back and showing how challenging that was.
You wrote an annotated script for First Man. Why was that important in this case?
We worked to be incredibly accurate here, [going] into great detail and giving factual context, but also talking about why we had taken the various liberties that we had, and what was the point of taking some license in those couple little places. We wanted to be totally transparent because we thought this was such a provocative portrait of the Space Race—not provocative in any of the ways that were talked about by the people who hadn’t seen the film, but simply in showing how devastating this journey was for Neil.
I think it’s a really important message, and frankly, being factually accurate in our mythologies, in our stories, is actually very, very important. I think when you’re not truly reflecting what happened in your movies, they become embedded myths, which then can be challenging for a country. I think if you look at the embedded myth of the space program, that it was just victory all of the time, that makes it feel like Trump should be right. He should be able to just snap his fingers and all should be easy and better; we shouldn’t have to deal with the fact that technology is changing the workplace, and certain jobs that were around 25 years ago are gone, and we’re going to have to work to find ways to tackle industry if we’re going to all be okay again.
I feel like we live right now in an era of, “What’s flashy and exciting is what sells,” as opposed to what’s nuanced and accurate, and I would dare say that [with] that sort of focus, there’s a reason we have a reality television president. It’s because we put that guy on reality TV, and we made him a star. So as Hollywood, do we not have a responsibility? We play a profound role in changing the way people think; the way people see the world. Everyone is giving Black Panther lots of props, and they should. Because finally, 50 years after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, we’ve made a black superhero. We should have made it 25 years ago, right? But good. That’s the thing we do here in Hollywood. We make myths. We make stories that people hold onto, and believe in, and so we have a profound responsibility in how we make those myths, especially when we’re telling stories about history. Right now in [this] country, there’s an assault on truth, writ large. I think that to some degree, it seems like a silly place to try to fight back on that assault on truth in our fictional narrative. But it’s not fictional narrative, so being true to the spirit of what happened here is important. I think our storytelling has an impact on our truth telling, so I think it’s important to be clear on what we’re doing.
How did you feel when you saw President Donald Trump and others in Washington coming after the film?
Trump and Cruz and Rubio all made comments on the film without having seen it, and to me, it seems like we have this “Know Nothing” political party right now. We actually did in history have a party called the “Know Nothings,” but it seems like they’re back. That reaction was galling not only because they were they so far off, but especially because the message of the movie is antithetical to the message of that “Know Nothing” party. Right now, that “Know Nothing” party is telling those folks in the middle of the country, “We’re going to take care of you,” and they’re doing the opposite. Over 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” and we need political leaders who are brave enough to say that, because that’s what is going to have to happen. We are going to have to sacrifice as a country if we are going to protect this planet for our children. The “Know Nothing” party is upset, and says there is no such thing as climate change. Well, that’s bullsh*t. We all know [there is], and by the way, it’s the work of these pioneers, and the incredible data that NASA collects, that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are in a dire situation. It’s a dire situation that we are going to have to sacrifice to fix, but that is a sacrifice we could and should make right now.
You’ve mentioned the current presidential administration’s disregard for facts. As a writer on a mission to preserve and defend the truth, how are you to deal with a president who simply won’t? Even in the face of a meticulously documented presentation of real events, it’s been easy enough for Trump and his supporters to throw up their hands and say, “Who cares?”
This is where I would turn to the community. Janet Maslin is hosting an event for me and the film at the Jacob Burns Center because she is a champion. She wants to get this message out because we’ve talked about this a little bit. The one thing I do believe about film is that good film has the power to survive. Politicians come and go; good film lasts. If you look at The Right Stuff, as Neil used to say, “It’s bad history, but a good film.” That’s a movie that did not do particularly well at the box office, did not get showered with awards. It did fine, but it’s a film that lasted for 30 to 40 years, much beyond the administration that was there at the time. The Catholic Church hasn’t quite changed, although it still keeps getting beaten down. But Spotlight stands there, and continues to stand there, and will, I believe, still be around when, hopefully, the Catholic Church has made the changes that they need to make in order to stop pedophile priests from attacking children. To me, that’s the value of art: Franco is gone, but Guernica exists, and inspires us to try to avoid that.
As an artist and as a person, are you optimistic in your worldview? Do you believe that necessary change will come, politically and otherwise?
I don’t know that I have an easy answer. I was incredibly buoyed by what happened with Spotlight, and then was actually pretty devastated to see that nothing really changed. Immediately after Spotlight, there was a whole panel that was supposed to make recommendations to the Pope, and he got rid of the one person who was challenging him on the panel, and then you saw what happened in Pennsylvania this summer. Clearly, nothing has changed with the Church. They give a lot of good lip service, but they’ve not held any prelates responsible, and I found that pretty devastating.
And frankly, what’s happened with this film has been pretty upsetting. I still think Damien is the seminal filmmaker of our generation; I would hold his direction of this movie up against the direction of any movie this year. I think what we’re saying is really important, and I feel a bit like the flag controversy has been a tremendous damper on that. But when you work with someone who, to me, is the future of moviemaking, that is a treasure. I think we should be treasuring Damien’s work, and hoping that he continues. These are the studio movies I want to see made. For a guy like that to take all his chips and put them on a $60 million art film that is akin to a ‘70s epic, to me, there is nothing more artistically brave or laudable than that. To me there’s nothing more valuable than our artists, especially at a time like this.
But look, the whole point of this film is about continuing to move on with our wounds. I think we need to keep trying. I don’t know whether I’m an optimist or pessimist, but I’m not going to stop writing. I’m not going to stop trying to say things with known history, and trying to learn from history, and sharing those lessons with the world.
What is the spectrum of history you’re interested in looking at? The stories you’ve taken on so far are all to do with the fairly recent past.
I’m actually writing a pilot about the Oval Office, an anthology series about crisis in democracy through that lens, where each year will be a different president and a different major issue. The first one I’m tackling is Woodrow Wilson, which may seem a little surprising. But if you look up Woodrow Wilson and what happened to him in 1919, you’ll understand.
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