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How the Neil Armstrong movie First Man got the technical details of spaceflight right

Screenwriter Josh Singer talked to specialists and NASA engineers, because “a lot of it feels like it’s in Greek.”

A scene from First Man
To get space right, the First Man filmmakers had to talk to those who went there.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

First Man is as much a movie about grief and determination as it is about the actual moon landing — but that doesn’t mean that director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer didn’t expend a great deal of effort trying to ensure that all the details were as accurate as possible.

When I spoke with Singer in September, he talked about working very closely with James Hansen, the author of the only authorized biography of Neil Armstrong, whom Ryan Gosling plays in the film. (Singer and Hansen have also co-authored an annotated screenplay detailing where their choices were based in fact and where they were fictionalized for the purposes of the movie.)

But it wasn’t just writing the characters that required careful attention. When you’re making a movie about spaceflight, there’s a host of technical and scientific details that are usually left up to the specialists — the scientists and astronauts at NASA. To get those details right, Singer talked to many of the people who were around when the moon landing project was underway.

In this excerpt from our conversation, Singer explains many of the people who helped First Man get all the details straight.

Ryan Gosling in First Man.
Ryan Gosling, playing Neil Armstrong, looks at a rocket launch in First Man.
Courtesy of TIFF

Alissa Wilkinson

As far the technical details go, how do you dip into those, as a non-specialist in spaceflight?

Josh Singer

[Exhausted groan.] Thank god I had four years. I probably could’ve used 10.

It’s incredibly challenging. I befriended Jim Hansen because of the biography, and thank god I did, because not only did he have details beyond just what’s in his encyclopedic book, but he also knew where all the bodies were buried, so to speak, and knew who to put me in touch with. He put me in touch with NASA and I had tremendous help from Frank Hughes, who was head of astronaut training when he left NASA, and from Joe Engle, who’s the last living X-15 pilot. I got stuff from Mike [Collins]; I talked to Buzz [Aldrin]; Dave Scott gave us a lot of notes; Al Worden was tremendous help on the production. All of these people were incredibly valuable along the way.

There is a lot of technical information online about Apollo, but it’s hard to access; you almost need a master’s degree. For example, there’s this Apollo Lunar Surface Journal and the Apollo Lunar Flight Journal, which are both online and both have great detail around all the surface-to-air comms, and then describe exactly what’s happening at those moments.

There’s also a site, First Man on the Moon, which actually shows you the last 15 minutes toward the landing on the moon and gives you a picture of what they were seeing up on the moon there. It also gives you the surface-to-air comms, and the flight directions, which is what’s going on in Mission Control.

But really, even to be able access that and understand it required a ton of research just so I can understand, “Okay, what are the moments I’m going to focus on, and how can I literally edit these comms in a way that I’m being accurate?” But also then, at certain places, adding little bits and pieces so the viewer will understand what’s going on, because a lot of it feels like it’s in Greek. They say, like, “30 seconds to bingo.” What does that mean? Well, “bingo” is the moment when you are 20 seconds before a mandatory abort. So how do I …? At some point, I had Buzz say, “94 seconds to bingo, 114 to mandatory abort,” just so you understand what’s going on.

What got really hard was with Gemini, where the comms are not as accurate, because after the scare with Gemini 8, they weren’t really worried about going back and correcting the transcripts. They were more worried about what the hell had happened. So I really pushed and pushed on the historians at NASA, and everywhere I could to find accurate transcripts of what people were saying on the ground while the crisis was happening in the air. Nobody’s got it.

So Dave Scott put me in touch with Gerry Griffin, who was in Mission Control for Gemini 8. I interviewed him — one of the most well-known flight directors in Apollo. Gerry literally walked me through it: “Okay, here are the eight guys on these desks that you need to know about, and here’s what they would say, each of them, at each of these five moments.”

Damien wanted to shoot that documentary-style, so he wanted language for all of them that we could have them say during the actual shoot, rather than adding it later in post-production. So I literally wrote 40 pages of dialogue for the scenes in Mission Control during Gemini 8. We shot that scene like a play. Damien was whipping the camera around the whole time.

‘First Man’ Washington, DC Premiere
Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong in First Man, with Neil’s sons Rick and Mark Armstrong at the film’s Washington, DC, premiere in October.
Shannon Finney/Getty Images

To write those 40 pages — I couldn’t just make that up. I had to work with Gerry. I had to pull out of Gerry, “Okay, this one would say this at this point.” So I wrote those 40 pages, sent it to him, and got a round of notes from him.

The other thing that was incredibly helpful was all of our advisers, from Mark [Armstrong] to Frank Hughes to Gerry to Joe Engle, were willing to read multiple copies of the script and offer notes, and then also were willing to come in four weeks before picture wrapped and watch the film. They gave us notes on the film. Mark and Rick [Armstrong] watched the film, like, three times in a span of 24 hours and went through and gave us specific notes: “Okay, this feels fake-y. This is all good.” All of that was just tremendously helpful.

First Man opens in theaters on October 12.