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First Man’s screenwriter thinks Neil Armstrong would be disappointed by the flag controversy

“That’s very un-Neil”: Josh Singer talks about facts, fiction, and the man behind the Armstrong myth.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in First Man.
Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in First Man.
Universal Pictures/AP
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.

Long before almost anyone had seen First Man, which focuses on Neil Armstrong and the moon landing, the film had been drafted into the culture wars.

Based on the film’s trailer, politicians and pundits began expressing outrage over the fact that the film doesn’t show the Apollo 11 astronauts planting the flag on the moon. And as things do in the cable news and internet outrage machine, that dramatic choice quickly morphed into the plainly false assertion that the flag doesn’t appear on the moon in the film (it does, twice) or in the film at all (it definitely does), and that the flag was omitted (it wasn’t) to either to appease Chinese audiences or as another anti-American ploy by liberal Hollywood.

All of those ideas fall apart once you see the movie, and thus they’re somewhat mystifying to those who saw the film during its September festival runs in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. And on October 12, when the film hits theaters, audiences will be able to see for themselves.

Directed by Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash), the movie stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy as Neil and Janet Armstrong, and is as much an examination of grief, loss, and ordinary heroism as it is about the moon landing and the space program.

Ryan Gosling in First Man.
Ryan Gosling in First Man.
Courtesy of TIFF

Screenwriter Josh Singer is used to writing these sorts of movies. He co-wrote Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which came out last year, and won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for 2015’s Spotlight. He was nominated for Golden Globes for both of those films as well, after making his big-screen debut with 2013’s The Fifth Estate.

So Singer, who cut his writing teeth on The West Wing, is no stranger to telling complex American stories grounded in real situations and figures. First Man is a special challenge, not just because of its iconic images but because of the vast quantity of highly technical details and historical characters that he and Chazelle felt needed to be as accurately represented as possible.

To pull this off, Singer worked closely with a host of advisers and former astronauts, as well as James Hansen, author of the only authorized biography of Armstrong. Hansen spent 50 hours interviewing Armstrong for the book, and thus was familiar with not just the details of his story but his reserved temperament as well.

I talked to Singer by phone a few weeks after the controversy broke about the challenges of writing First Man, what it was like to work with Hansen and many other advisers, and why he thinks Neil Armstrong would have been disappointed by the controversy around the film.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Most people don’t know much about Neil Armstrong

Alissa Wilkinson

How much did you know about Neil Armstrong before you started writing this screenplay?

Josh Singer

Very little. You don’t grow up as a kid in the 1980s without knowing about the space program, and a little bit about Apollo, and I played a lot of Space Hop. While I wasn’t a full-on space geek, I was definitely interested. But I didn’t know a ton. In fact, I didn’t know much about the Gemini program at all, and when I started digging in, it turned out that, like most people, I knew almost nothing about Neil.

Most of the people who know the program well — people who have studied the program for ages — don’t know things about Neil, like the fact his supervisor at the FRC [Flight Research Center] didn’t recommend him for Gemini. We talked to experts who were like, “Where’d you get that?” I said, “Well, it’s in Jim [Hansen]’s book.”

There are all sorts of details which people don’t really know. So that was what I was most struck by.

The IMDb Studio presented By Land Rover At The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival - Day 3
Josh Singer (left) and Damien Chazelle in Toronto in September.
Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb

Damien [Chazelle] reached out to me in 2014 with this idea of showing the visceral nature of spaceflight, showing how challenging it was. I had seen some of Whiplash because it had just been at Sundance, but it hadn’t really been out in theaters yet. I was just blown away by Whiplash, so I was very interested in Damien. But I have to say, I was like, “Yeah, but isn’t Neil Armstrong sort of a bland guy?”

Then I started reading Jim’s biography, and I couldn’t believe how much loss and tragedy and failure there was in this seven-year period. I also had no idea about the X-15 program, which I thought was just extraordinary, and I had no idea about the fact that Neil almost died in the LLRV [Lunar Landing Research Vehicle]. You can watch that footage online, and it blows you away.

There was just so much here. It was so powerful that I got very taken with the subject matter and with what Damien wanted to do with it.

Alissa Wilkinson

I think some people expected this movie to just be “the story of the moon landing.” But instead, it’s really Armstrong’s story, isn’t it?

Josh Singer

Yeah. It’s funny — we don’t like to call it a biopic, because we don’t think it’s traditional by any means. But it is really a personal story about his journey and about his mission. We think of it as a “mission” movie, but it’s really from a very personal point of view.

And again, there’s so much that I don’t think is well-known about him. One of our great consultants, this guy Robert Pearlman, runs a space website [collectSPACE]. He knows everything there is to know about Apollo and Gemini. He saw the film, because we had all of our tech advisers come and see the film and give us notes, in addition to Rick and Mark [Armstrong, Neil’s sons].

Rob said, “When I first saw Neil crying [in the movie], I realized I had to rethink everything I knew about Neil Armstrong,” because you never thought of that guy crying. He also said this punctures the myth of what the program was. That was always our intent: to really change how people see the space program.

Ryan Gosling in First Man
Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong in First Man.
Courtesy of TIFF

The astronauts weren’t superheroes — and that’s important to realize

Alissa Wilkinson

Which myths needed puncturing?

Josh Singer

I think that the space program has been somewhat sugarcoated. People at NASA will tell you the same thing.

Over the course of the last 40 or 50 years, the narrative around the space program has always been fairly triumphalist. It’s almost like these astronauts are seen as superheroic ubermen who leaped over tall buildings and achieved greatness without sweating very much, because you never saw them sweat very much. A very “jock”-ular culture of test pilot types. I think that’s very much what people think of when they think of astronauts.

What’s interesting is that the Gemini program, the “New Nine,” they were all engineers. They were brought in to help design these capsules and to fly them.

As we show in the movie, they all had to have a much more solid background in engineering. On the spectrum of thinkers and doers, most test pilots are on the doers side, but Neil was way over on the thinkers side — even among that New Nine group.

Neil was not superhuman. He was an ordinary guy who pushed himself, who sacrificed. I think the myth that this was easy and was done by superheroes makes that achievement, in some ways, seem much harder to reach. We’re not superheroes, so how are we ever gonna do what we need to do?

If in a film you show the sacrifice and the cost, you show that these are ordinary men and women who sacrificed greatly. It actually tells us, “Oh, no, this is how you achieve.” It’s not dissimilar to what Steven Spielberg was trying to do in Saving Private Ryan. Why were they the Greatest Generation? They were the Greatest Generation because they gave so much, because they were willing to give so much.

Especially these days, there’s a lot of asking what the country can do for you as opposed to asking what you can do for the country. I think we need to flip that on its head.

I also think this is a time where leadership is in pretty short supply, and leadership seems to involve talking rather than doing. Neil is the opposite. He shows us what real leadership is.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean real leadership is “white male.” Janet [Armstrong] shows real leadership too. What Janet deals with, and lives with, and has to sacrifice in order to hold it together. … These wives were not housewives; they were astronauts’ wives. That was a real job unto itself.

So I think looking at what these two people did, and what their family gave and sacrificed — I find it inspiring.

Why those who pushed the controversy should take a cue from Neil Armstrong

Alissa Wilkinson

A lot of what has come out in advance about the film is easily debunked once you actually see it. But I’m sure you guys were startled, knowing what the gist of the movie was, and then seeing the backlash after its premiere in Venice from people who hadn’t seen it at all. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Josh Singer

Yeah, I mean, I think the film is incredibly patriotic. [laughs] It’s hard to walk away from this film without thinking the film is incredibly patriotic.

We wanted this to be a film that whether you’re in a red state or a blue state, or whatever, you can get behind what Neil and Janet stand for and what they did. I certainly think every inch of this film shows it was a true American achievement, but it was also a human achievement.

Part of what we’re trying to do here is get to the humanity underneath. That’s why we focus where we do on the moon — because we’re trying to really get at the humanity of this icon and pierce the veil around him. In the biography, Jim Hansen calls Neil “emotionally tightly packaged,” and he was! It’s not easy to pierce that veil, and we’re very much focused on the personal there.

We just put out a new trailer. It’s my favorite of the trailers. Some will see it as responsive to all the controversy. But actually — well, I don’t think anyone knows this, but Damien cut together that trailer on the last day of shooting.

We were up at Edwards [Air Force Base]; we shot the F-15 landing not on the exact lakebed that Neil landed on, but one right next door … We shot all day, and it was a long day of shooting, at the very end, like back in February, Damien had had [editor] Tom [Cross] cut together some footage and set it to the Kennedy speech. (There’s actually two Kennedy speeches spliced together: the one he gave to Congress, and the one at Rice University.)

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in First Man.
The astronauts get ready for their mission.
Courtesy of TIFF

Tom threw that together and showed it on a big screen for all the cast and crew who were assembled, in order to say, “This is what the movie’s gonna be.” We all got choked up. We all thought it was amazing.

So it’s funny, because I think some people will see this new trailer as responding to the controversy, but it wasn’t that way at all — it was something Damien did back in February, before this all controversy broke out, because we all thought this is an amazing movie that really can and should play to all sides of the aisle.

The last thing I’ll say on all that: I would really encourage people to see the film. Neil Armstrong was always prepared. He always did his homework. He never spoke unless he not only knew what he was talking about, but had actually researched it out.

In fact, there’s one moment in the movie, at the wake of a pilot who was a friend of Neil’s, where someone says, “Well, this is the pilot’s fault, and you of all people should know because you’re close with this pilot,” and Neil goes, “I wouldn’t pretend to know. I didn’t study what happened, I wasn’t on the team that was looking at the accident. I have no idea whose fault it was.” That very much is Neil. He’s a guy who does his homework.

And so it’s a little bit of a shame that all these people, who might really love the film and find it quite patriotic, are speaking before they see it. That’s very un-Neil.

Why leave iconic images off the screen?

Alissa Wilkinson

I’m wondering if you could talk about the actual moon landing scene. It’s surprisingly moving but not at all what I was expecting. How did you approach it?

Josh Singer

I guess it could have been worse, because in my very first draft I didn’t even have him say, “One small step …” I wanted to get out of what was expected entirely. [Laughs.] I literally just wanted the personal moment at Little West crater to be the whole thing.

Then, Damien was like, “No, we should do ‘One small step …’ because it’s so iconic.”

Alissa Wilkinson

Why leave those familiar images and scenes out of this particular movie, though?

Josh Singer

To me, it’s all about what you didn’t know, not what you do know. Everyone has seen “One small step …” Everyone has seen the flag planting, the phone call with Houston.

But what most people don’t know is that Neil wandered off to Little West crater at the end of his little sojourn on the moon. It wasn’t planned. He just wandered off to take a look at the crater. Then the question is, “What did he do there? What did he think about there?”

The thing we have him do there is actually not something I made up — it’s actually conjecture on the part of Jim Hansen, who wrote the biography. Jim, I think, studied Neil more than anyone else on the planet.

Editor’s note: Very slight spoilers for First Man follow in the next paragraph.

Astronauts had a habit of leaving things on the moon. Charlie Duke left a photo of his family. The Apollo 11 astronauts actually left a little satchel, which had an Apollo 1 patch and medallions for [Vladimir] Komarov and Yuri Gagarin, because they had both passed, Komarov during a flight and Gagarin in an airplane crash after. So this idea of leaving a remembrance on the moon had been done. So Jim, in talking to Neil, in thinking about him, thought, “Huh, I wonder if he left something of Karen’s on the moon.”

It was also supported by the fact that Neil didn’t have the manifest for his PPK. Neil claimed to have lost the manifest, which said what was in his personal preference kit, which is where he would have kept something like that. So, Jim, during his own journalist digging, went and talked to Neil’s sister June and said, “What do you think?” because June knew him better than anyone in the world. And June said, “Ah, I dearly hope that he left something of Karen’s on the moon.”

Spoilers end here.

So it is conjecture — but it’s not my conjecture, it’s Jim’s. For me, it’s trying to get to the humanity of the guy, trying to get underneath the icon.

Alissa Wilkinson

There are a bunch of technical and specific details in this movie, things that ordinary people won’t be familiar with and that you probably weren’t super familiar with either. How much of what’s in the film is drawn from people hypothesizing, conjecturing, and how much is from interviews and the book?

Josh Singer

I’m glad you asked! We have an annotated script book, which I wrote with Jim, because we’re taking on an icon; we wanted to be very clear what’s fact and what’s fiction, where we’re fictionalizing and why. So Jim and I wrote this book around the script and take apart each scene. We talk about what’s based in reality, and we go into some detail that we couldn’t put into the film. Where we’re fictionalizing, we talk about how we fictionalized and why.

We did this because we wanted it to be clear what we did, for history’s sake. With films like these, sometimes the story can morph into the history. So we wanted to be very clear about where we are fictionalizing.

But I also did this because I think it’s worth screenwriters talking about how they make these decisions. The press often talks about a movie in terms of “what we got wrong,” but as screenwriters, we don’t always talk about why we make certain dramatic choices. When you’re doing something like this, fact and drama can compete. The LLRV ejection, there’s nothing competing — that’s an amazing dramatic sequence, so you write it as is. But how do I take eight days of Apollo 11 and compress them into three minutes? That’s a real challenge.

Ryan Gosling, Corey Stoll, and Lukas Haas as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins in First Man.
Ryan Gosling, Corey Stoll, and Lukas Haas as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins in First Man.
Universal Pictures

We tried to be pretty accurate in this film, for a couple of reasons. One, that was the whole nature of what we were trying to do: to try to show spaceflight in a way that hadn’t been shown before. We wanted to show the sacrifice, challenges, and costs that it hadn’t been shown before. That’s number one.

And number two … it’s funny, because as emotionally tightly packaged as Ryan plays Neil, we’re doing stuff that nobody has ever seen before with respect to Neil. We’re showing him in a light that no one’s seen before. So we wanted to be as accurate as possible, because this is a bit of a provocative portrait of Neil, given that everyone just assumes him to be the smiling, good-looking icon that he was on the cover of Time magazine.

Making an accurate, dramatic movie about such a technical subject takes a team

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.

A scene from First Man
The moon landing scene in First Man challenges expectations by showing it through Armstrong’s eyes.
Universal Pictures

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.

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.

What First Man has to say to 2018

Alissa Wilkinson

Because you’ve been working on it for four years, you’ve spanned a really weird time in American history. You co-wrote The Post in the meantime too. Did you find what you were writing shifting at all with the changing political landscape in the US? Or did it stay mostly the same?

Josh Singer

It’s hard not to be affected by the things around you. Getting the details right was very challenging, and it took a long time. Thank god we had the time we did, because otherwise, we wouldn’t have gotten close. In fact, I feel sorry for those who read early drafts of the script, because they were really bad. …

For me, this is one of those stories that actually became more relevant with time, as opposed to less relevant. The leadership on display in our country shows we’ve sort of forgotten what leadership looks like. We’ve forgotten what we need to sacrifice and what that kind of sacrifice looks like. It’s been glossed over. It’s been sugarcoated. I think all of us in the country need to be reminded how hard we have to work if we want things to change. For me, personally, climate change is a huge issue. We haven’t even begun to figure out how to tackle that because it would be really hard. It’s a great sacrifice to write to move the needle in a different direction.

We need this story to serve as a reminder that, yeah, we can do really hard things. We can achieve greatness. But it is going to be costly.

You know, Neil was not born a great man of history. Neil was a hardworking, intelligent engineer who loved planes and who pushed himself to the limit to get us where we needed. He gave a lot.

Obviously, I think Neil is a great American hero. But I think we’re trying to show you that he was an ordinary human, and the sacrifice it took for him to get there. His wife was an ordinary human; we want to show what it took for her to hold it together too. That, I think, is what is worth watching right now.

First Man opens in theaters on October 12.

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