“I knew so little about him. When I read the book, I couldn’t believe what an extraordinary life he led,” Ryan Gosling said of Neil Armstrong, the man he portrays in the Oscar-nominated First Man (2018). Director Damien Chazelle wanted to capture “what it actually took to get them to the moon: the deaths, the costs, the danger, the physicality of it—the brute toll it took physically and emotionally.” Both men appeared with Claire Foy at a Q&A after the movie screened at the Aero Theatre on January 8, 2019.
Foy commented that she thought of Armstrong as a “man’s man” until she got the part of Armstrong’s wife Janet and experienced the love she felt for Neil as a husband and father. Neil and Janet suffer the loss of their young daughter in the movie and then go on to raise two boys together. “At some point you create a fictionalized version of Janet,” Foy explained. She described her performance as Janet as focusing on a feeling of “betrayed” in the marriage, because Neil was gone so much and she was left on her own. “That wasn’t what she signed on for,” concluded Foy.
Chazelle read the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen and began thinking about the movie during a point in the development of La La Land (2016) where it looked like the musical might not get made. Chazelle and Gosling first met to discuss First Man — and then Gosling said to Chazelle, “I hear you have a musical.” It seemed like an incredible opportunity to Gosling. “First I’ll make a musical and then I’ll go to the moon! It all happened at craft services,” he joked.
Gosling said he and the creative team met Janet Armstrong just before she passed away last June. He also shared that they had visited the farm where Neil grew up and spoke to people who knew him. Gosling said he was grateful for “an incredible sharing of small, personal details on the part of people who cared about [Neil.] That was an inspiration to us.”
Chazelle added that they also visited NASA, both the Cape Canaveral and Houston facilities. “I did a bit of spinning and shaking,” Gosling joked, adding, “It was pretty overwhelming to tour these facilities and see what they are working on now.”
“The more we learned, the more we became aware of what these people did and the more we were in awe of them,” Chazelle observed. He credits Gosling for “honing in on what the movie was about,” and praised Foy for her ability to “excavate the intimate, smaller moments that history washes away.”
Asked how he was able to capture these intimate moments, Gosling said, “You just work with Claire Foy.” He recalled the relaxed atmosphere on set when he was working with Foy and the young actors playing the Armstrong children. “You couldn’t write that,” he noted. “What a beautiful way to work.”
Foy explained that those scenes didn’t feel like acting. “People are afraid of acting,” she said. “It’s about really paying attention,” she concluded -- and being ready to appear on camera at any time.
“It’s two films, in a way,” said Chazelle, illustrating the contrast between the broad scope of the space missions and the intimacy of the family's saga.
Chazelle articulated that his challenge was to get the tone of the camerawork to match that of the characters. He used hand-held cameras and shot on 16mm to get a casual look for the family's story, and then ramped up the production value for the polished grandeur of the space storyline.
Asked what was the most difficult aspect of this performance for him, Gosling replied that he felt a strong sense of responsibility to the family and friends of the Armstrongs. “They trusted us,” he said.
A key moment in the moon-landing scene grew from a suggestion from Neil’s sister, Chazelle shared: Armstrong's time on the moon included a 10-minute period during which his actions were unkown. He never spoke about it, but his sister said she liked to think he did something to memorialize the daughter he and Janet lost just before he joined NASA. That gesture ends up serving as the emotional climax of First Man, linking the two stories Chazelle is telling.
Chazelle screened many documentary films for his cast and crew while making First Man. He and his colleagues watched documentaries about the event itself like For All Mankind (1989) and Footprints on the Moon (1969) with actual footage of the lunar landing and moonwalk, of course, but also documentaries about the era. “[We watched] things that helped give us some feel of America at that time -- not the America of the coasts, but more middle-class, middle America,” Chazelle explained.
One audience member asked Chazelle whether a common thread connected his directorial efforts. “I like to tap into the headspace of people who are locked into some goal. It’s almost a MacGuffin that lets you see what makes the person tick,” Chazelle responded.
“I love directing film,” Chazelle concluded. “It’s real.”
Judith Resell is a volunteer for the American Cinematheque.