Ryan Gosling was my first and only choice to play Neil Armstrong: Damien Chazelle
The director of Whiplash and La La Land talks about his upcoming film First Man
First Man, which marks a reunion between Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle and his La La Land star Ryan Gosling, will chronicle the challenges Neil Armstrong and his colleagues faced as America took on the seemingly impossible task of sending an astronaut to the moon. Here, Chazelle talks about finding the perfect cast and balancing the mission aspects with Armstrong’s family life.
How did the concept of this film come to you?
Shortly after Whiplash, I began talking with the producers at Temple Hill, who had been toying with the idea of a film on Neil Armstrong and had the rights to First Man by James R Hansen. I didn't know much about Neil or the Apollo or Gemini programs. But after reading the book and looking at the archival material, this world opened up for me. How insane what these people did really was and the way an entire country mobilised behind it. Also the burden that would put on the individual who actually had to take those first steps. I just became fascinated with that specifically. I didn't want to do a cradle-to-grave biopic of Neil, I wanted to look at the mission through his perspective. The film opens when he joins NASA in 1962 and ends when he returns from the moon.
He is one of the most famous people in history, but he was also very private and didn't really share much. Was there something that you learned as you worked on this that you were fascinated by?
I think what's fascinating about Neil is the extent to which he is a mystery. He became this canvas that the whole of humanity projected themselves onto, this symbol. But once you get past that and look at him as a person, he wasn't what you expect. You expect maybe a certain kind of hotshot pilot attitude, but he was an engineer first and foremost. He became a pilot because he wanted to figure out how planes work. He got into space flight through that. He wound up doing these incredibly death-defying things, but never seemed to view them as death-defying, he viewed them as doing his job, solving problems. There was a humility to him that I found fascinating, one that I also think Ryan Gosling as an actor is uniquely capable of portraying and burrowing into.
You approached Ryan for this before you made La La Land together. How did that come about?
The first time I ever sat down with Ryan was to essentially pitch him this film. I don't think we had a script yet at that point, but he was my first and only choice for the role. So I talked to him about it, and he was very intrigued, yet somehow the conversation took a turn and wound up at Gene Kelly and Singing In The Rain, which led to La La Land. But we had such a great time on that that it only confirmed my feelings about him as an actor and about what he could bring to Neil. So we got right to work on this one, and it was just this really immersive experience for both of us. Getting to know the Armstrong family, the astronauts, diving into the research, and soaking up every detail that we could. We really wanted the film to feel like a documentary, as though you were plopped into 1960s Houston, and these space crafts.
What was it about Claire Foy that made you think she'd be right for [Neil’s wife] Janet Armstrong, and how did you build the dynamic between them?
I didn't know Claire personally. I just knew her as an actor, and she was incredible in The Crown. I could tell from both her level of craft, and also her as a person when I met her, just what she could bring. We had a two to three-week rehearsal period that was essentially just her, Ryan and the kids playing their children, living as a family on location and in costume. We filmed all of it and some of it is in the film. The kids had never been on screen before, so it helped them get used to being on camera, and it also helped Claire and Ryan sink into their roles.
The film has a lot of special effects. What was it like for you to work on that?
It was a different level of effects work, but I worked with the same cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, who I worked with on La La Land, and both of us felt very strongly about relying as little as possible on post-production visual effects and as much as possible on practical, in-camera effects. So we set up these giant LED screens and built full-scale replicas of all the crafts, and the actors would be in their full spacesuit attire inside on a motion control system, on a gimbal, shaking and rocking back and forth -- essentially a full 3D simulator. We stuck our very small 16mm cameras inside and tried to just capture what they would've been feeling. That was something I felt really strongly about when it came to portraying space. I wanted the audience to be completely tied to the characters' point of view.
How did you go about building the ensemble cast?
I worked with a great casting director, Francine Maisler. We wanted people who were great actors, but also people who wouldn't stick out in a documentary reality. A lot of the people you see in the film, in Mission Control or other NASA settings, are actual flight controllers, NASA engineers. I just wanted to fill the film with as many real people as possible, and then the actors' job was to sort of fit into and take their cues from that environment. We filmed it just like a documentary crew would, in long shots, so it would feel like it was all happening.