Damien Chazelle Explains Why Ryan Gosling Was the Perfect Collaborator on 'First Man'

By Kay, Jeremy | Screen International, December 7, 2018 | Go to article overview

Damien Chazelle Explains Why Ryan Gosling Was the Perfect Collaborator on 'First Man'


Kay, Jeremy, Screen International


Chazelle discusses the technical vision for the Neil Armstrong biopic.

It was in early 2014 when producers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen approached Damien Chazelle to adapt James R Hansen’s 2005 book First Man: The Life Of Neil A Armstrong.

A daunting task for any filmmaker, things began to crystallise when Chazelle enlisted the support of Oscar-winning Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer. From what he saw on the set of La La Land, for which Chazelle won the best director Oscar, Chazelle felt that Ryan Gosling was the only option to play the pioneering astronaut, and cast Claire Foy, best known for The Crown, as Armstrong’s wife, Janet.

Shot between October 2017 and January 2018, First Man spans the years from 1961 to 1970, a tumultuous era of hope and tragedy in NASA’s lunar programme, which culminated in Armstrong’s historic moonwalk on July 20, 1969. Seeking the right tone for the narrative, Chazelle settled on a thriller format that orbits somewhere between low-gauge film stock and IMAX to convey the flight sequences in a way that evoked the tension of the times.

After Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle found himself on familiar territory with First Man’s exploration of the high price of lofty ambitions. The key to it all, he discovered, was the grief Armstrong endured following the death of his infant daughter. “That became more and more important,” says Chazelle, “and more the reason to make the movie.”

Screen: What were some of the most challenging technical aspects of First Man?

Chazelle: It was tricky to figure out the methodology of the space sequences. We knew we wanted them to be very visceral, raw, gritty and grimy, like documentary footage, and we wanted to shoot all the interiors of the capsules on Super 16mm [film] to get a feeling of the archival footage that we loved. But we didn’t know how best to go about making these [spacecraft] seem like they were falling through space.

Early on, Linus Sandgren, the DoP, and [production designer] Nathan Crowley proposed the idea of using LED screens for both projection at the windows and outside the crafts. So we could have imagery in-camera that the actors could see, and you could get in-camera reflections and in-camera lighting from that projected imagery.

There was the idea of utilising the soundstage to put full-scale replicas of the crafts up against LED screens, play footage on them, have them on gimbals moving back and forth, and then have a white rig representing the sun moving around the craft at various points when we needed direct sunlight or shadow.

Do you prefer to shoot on film?

Yes, generally. That said, it depends on the story. On [First Man] it was a no-brainer because we wanted to have a very low-gauge film look. I liked the idea of being in keeping with how old school and analogue the crafts were going to be, and how analogue by today’s standards NASA technology was at the time. It’s appropriate that in the film itself you should feel the tactile nature of celluloid.

Yet you shot the moon sequences in IMAX.

It was the contrast we were working towards. Early on we decided we’d have this 16mm-esque look, except for the moon. …

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