First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling)’s journey to the moon, beginning with the death of his daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford). The film suggests Armstrong may have left something of hers there.
Screenwriter Josh Singer adapted James Hansen’s biography of Armstrong. Damien Chazelle directed the film. No stranger to historical stories, Singer previously worked on the films Spotlight and The Post.
Singer spoke with Monsters and Critics by phone this week about his research into Neil Armstrong. First Man opens Friday, October 12.
Monsters and Critics: First of all, thank you for saving journalism with Spotlight and The Post.
Josh Singer: That’s kind.
M&C: I write about movies but I feel honored to be tangentially in the same industry as the subjects of those movies.
JS: Yeah, they were really joys to research and work on. What I love about those movies beyond the fact that they were such joys to work on is they celebrate local reporting, which I think is the heart of all good reporting.
I know The Post has become more of a national paper but at the time it really was a local paper. Same as The Globe was a local paper.
When you look at what’s happened with our culture over the last several years, I wonder if you can’t trace it in part to the decline in local journalism. The fact that all these local papers have gone out of business and we seem to go to a post-truth society.
I think some of that is about the fact that we lost, what, 40,000 reporters over the last 10 years. We just don’t have local reporters holding people accountable in the same way.
Look, I think Marty Baron’s doing his best and I‘m a big fan of The Post, but I don’t think there’s another paper that really is doing that right now like The Post is. It’s tough when you’ve got one paper virtually taking on a world of lies.
M&C: With First Man, Neil Armstrong has said that his actual quote was, “One small step for A man.” Did you choose to go with the more commonly understood “one small step for man?”
JS: [Laughs] It’s funny, we listened to the recording and basically tried to mimic the recording. If you listen to Ryan, in fact some folks have come up to us and asked us if that was Neil’s voice.
It’s not, although we are using Charlie Duke, CAPCOM. We use the actual audio and because it’s over comms and garbled, it actually is not a problem.
So we use actual audio as much as we can throughout the movie. For that reason, and Ryan wanted to be accurate, he tried to pattern the way he spoke as close as possible. I think he did a pretty good job of mimicking it.
Of course, Neil did always insist that it was “one small step for A man” that he had said. Although he admitted that it was possible that hadn’t quite been picked up, whether it was garbled in the comms or whether he rushed it a little bit.
I wrote an annotated screenplay where we talk about what’s fact and what’s fiction and why the license taken.
M&C: The actual landing must have taken more than 20 minutes. How did you condense the landing sequence for the film?
JS: It was tricky. There’s actually a 15 minute sequence online. You can watch it. It’s called First Men on the Moon. It’s a pretty powerful sequence. You watch it and it really takes your breath away.
With this sequence, just like the sequence of Gemini 8 and the Apollo 11 sequence, the X-15 sequence, a lot of the big challenge was whittling it down.
They spend eight days in space getting to the moon. The actual landing took a fair amount of time. Gemini 8 was an eight hour mission. How do I turn that into 15 minutes of screen time?
And yet, how do I still make it feel accurate? How do we still manage to make it feel accurate and specific?
I think one of the biggest challenges is the fact that you have to read these incredibly long transcripts. Some of them are 600 pages long.
Find the moments that are most dramatic in there. Gemini is a good example. What’s so dramatic about Gemini about rendezvous? That’s done regularly now, rendezvous and docking. How do we hint at the drama?
It’s a combination of talking to experts about what are the big moments. Then looking through the transcript to look for the moments that seem human.
There’s a great moment in Gemini where Neil says, “I can’t talk to you right now. I’ve got too much to do.” That’s verbatim. Stuff like that pops out.
One of the fun things about the landing is it’s a lot more challenging than people realize, and a lot more tense than people realize. There are really two main issues.
The first one is the 1201 and 1201 alarms that pop up. Suddenly you have a question, what do these alarms mean? What do we do?
Of course, there are so many alarms on the LEM, Buzz and Neil didn’t know what they were. I have one of them say, “What’s a 1202” and the other one says “I don’t know” because they didn’t.
As he’s coming down, they realize they can’t land. That’s another place where I added just a little bit through comms. I have Buzz say, “Those rocks are as big as cars. We can’t land there” to tell the audience about that.
Now Neil has to fly over the crater, but he’s running out of fuel. The fuel tank got much lower than they ever thought it was going to get. It got down to 2%.
Everybody starts getting pretty nervous and you can hear that in the flight director’s loop where they start giving the bingo call. The bingo call is how many seconds until bingo. Bingo is 20 seconds to mandatory abort.
What you hear from the CAPCOM is just 60, 30, which how do you translate to an audience? The two things we do there are at 94 seconds, I have Buzz say, “94 seconds to bingo, 114 to mandatory abort.”
Just so everybody knows, when I’m calling these timecodes, that means how long you’ve got until mandatory abort.
M&C: Is Karen’s bracelet still up there on the moon?
JS: The bracelet is conjecture but it’s not mine. Jim Hansen who’s the biographer, is really a historian, spent 20 years studying NASA at Auburn.
Jim spent two years working with Neil, did dozens of hours of interviews with Neil which was unusual because Neil didn’t give interviews barely ever, and they generally were pretty short.
Jim also got access to Janet and June, Neil’s sister, and the kids and really got at this portion of Neil that I think nobody had ever seen before. It’s looking at Neil in a very fresh way.
One of the things about this was Jim started to realize how profound the loss of Karen was for Neil. Both because Neil wouldn’t talk about it with anybody and because of what June said about that time and about that loss.
So Jim started to wonder if Neil might have left something behind on the moon. It turns out leaving mementos on the moon is not unusual.
Charlie Duke left a picture of his family. Neil and Buzz left a pouch with a little memorial for the Apollo 1 astronauts. They left a patch for those guys who passed and they also left mementos for the two cosmonauts who died.
It wasn’t unusual to leave some sort of token on the moon which is what Jim started wondering if Neil had done. He asked Neil for the manifest for his personal property kit and Neil claimed to have lost it.
Which we now know isn’t the case because it was found and donated to Purdue and is actually under seal until 2020, I’m not quite sure why. So Neil wouldn’t give Jim the manifest and Jim started to get suspicious.
So he went to June and said, “Do you think Neil might have left something of Karen’s on the moon?” And June said, “Oh, I dearly hope so.”
From that, Jim was really knocked out about what June said so he wrote about it in his book. When we went to write the script, it was such a great dramatic moment, it felt like I couldn’t let it pass.
I felt like it was good enough for Jim, it was good enough for June. It’s certainly good enough for me.
M&C: So much of the movie is the sound of suiting up, getting in the pod, etc. Did you indicate the sound in the script?
JS: Yeah, we did actually. I tend to write pretty visually to communicate on the page what’s on the stage.
One of the first sounds I was really obsessed with was the sound of the crank at a funeral and how haunting that is. So I wrote that as a pre-lap which is how we do it. You hear that sound before you cut to the Karen’s coffin going into the ground.
Certainly the sounds of flight, the sounds of the hatches closing, of the hatch opening, I wrote a lot of it into the script although some of it was a discussion with Damien. The sounds of the moon was an idea he had from the outset which I thought was the coolest thing in the world.
What was really remarkable about sound was the length to which Ai-Ling Lee and her team went to go get all those sounds. They went up to Edwards and they still had Joe Walker’s X-15 suit on mothballs, so literally recorded zippers and the helmet closing.
Then they went and got an Apollo suit and put the mics in the helmets and turned on the air and got the flow of air. They recorded obviously hooking up all those hoses and what not, trying to get that sound right.
M&C: Is this the first anyone’s suggested that Buzz Aldrin was kind of rude?
JS: No, no, no. It’s funny, the night before we showed the movie to Buzz, I was very nervous. Robert Pearlman, a good friend of his, said, “Oh, don’t be nervous. There’ve been much worse portrayals of Buzz.”
I think were pretty careful here. Everyone we talked to basically said the same thing which is Buzz never had a filter. Very bright guy, but just never had a filter in terms of what he should or shouldn’t say in a given situation.
Which is actually quite helpful as a writer because now you’ve got this guy who’s very smart, who’s going to be right most of the time. He’s just going to be saying the right things at the wrong time.
So in the wake scene after Elliott See dies, he basically says, “The error was in the approach. Really, it was Elliott’s fault” which is what they came to. They ruled that flight pilot error.
He’s actually saying what the experts concluded and what any astronaut will tell you. That accident was Elliott’s fault. It’s just not something you say at Elliott’s wake, but again it’s true.
Similar to when he’s talking about the lunar lottery, the concerns about Apollo 8 and why are they sending this rocket that’s had all sorts of issues to the moon? Those were real concerns.
There’s a whole book about how Apollo 8 was a really dangerous mission. There were all sorts of major risks there.
M&C: Did you want to make sure there was no Right Stuff slow motion walk?
JS: No, I try not to watch other films in the arena while I’m doing research. The stuff I like to do is so historically based, I try to avoid that.
I think Damien on the other hand is a voracious consumer. I think he watched every space film that’s ever been made, just to try to understand things that had been done, things that hadn’t been done and try to figure out how he was going to cut an original path.
I did watch The Right Stuff and one of the things I actually avoided was, Damien was interested in the scene where you see a rocket blow up on the pad. But it’s done so well in The Right Stuff, I was like I don’t think we need to do this. It would just feel like a ripoff.
There were certain things we did avoid.
M&C: Did you have past research jobs before you did research for screenplays?
JS: It’s funny, I went to law school which is pretty research intensive. I actually worked at McKinsey and Company before law school.
Oddly, one of the big jobs you have as a management consultant is researching competition, learning a new industry and learning how a product works.
When I was 23, I probably could tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Spunbond, which was a synthetic textile made of molten polyester. That textile was then used under road pavings and for modified roofing.
I had to learn quite a lot about something I had not a whole lot of interest in. In that way, I think that was probably some good training.
I’ll tell you though, the best training was probably Spotlight just because I learned from Tommy [McCarthy] you gotta go back and back and back to get the story. I think if I hadn’t had that training with him, I just wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to do this.
M&C: Is your next subject going to be Leonard Bernstein?
JS: Yup, theoretically, that’s right. I love music, so first and foremost I love his music. Then he’s just an interesting character who I think struggled.
He was trying to change the world and I think struggled along the way. Like this, it’s actually a pretty interesting story about a marriage.