Two years after director Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling cleaned up award season with La La Land, the dazzling duo reunite to create movie magic again with First Man.
Returning to the awards race with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk the moon, and The Crown’s Claire Foy as his wife, Damien Chazelle takes an intimate look at the private drama behind the space-race.
“When Ryan and I met for the very first time, it was initially to talk about First Man. I was in the early stages of getting La La Land off the ground,” Chazelle tells STACK when we meet him at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Now 33, Chazelle, would make history as the youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar for La La Land, although it was his 2014 film Whiplash which first announced his arrival, netting him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nod and a Best Supporting Oscar win for JK Simmons.
“After Whiplash, I saw First Man as an opportunity to explore a similar theme; the cost of a goal and the cost of certain kinds of ambition, but when I met with Ryan and talked about it, the conversation segued to Gene Kelly pretty quickly, so then we did La La Land together. But, right from the get go, I knew I wanted him for First Man,” he says of this biopic charting Armstrong’s path from his entry into NASA’s astronaut programme in 1961 to his Apollo 11 mission and historic moon walk on July 20, 1969.
Given that neither its director or A-list stars were even born before the moon landings – excluding Australia’s own Jason Clarke, who was born three days prior – Gosling professes to a long fascination.
“I think as soon as I knew what the moon was, I learned that a man named Neil Armstrong walked on it. He was always synonymous with the moon but, like the moon, I knew very little about him.
“So when I met with Damien and he told me he wanted to uncover the man behind the myth, and I started to learn about Neil and his wife Janet, I realised that this incredible life was really deserving of the tribute that Damien wanted to pay to it. I understood it was an enormous responsibility,” says the actor, looking every inch the movie star in a grey plaid suit.
“In some ways I’ve always been interested in people who have a hard time communicating their emotions. With Neil there was such poetry, for me, just looking at his life in the story of someone who seemed to sublimate his emotions into his work and this passion he had ever since he was a little boy,” says Chazelle, explaining how Armstrong’s lust for aviation resulted in his learning how to fly before he learned to drive.
“I spent some time in the cornfields of his old farmhouse in Ohio where he grew up. It’s not in the movie but it informs the movie where you just see this sea of flat cornfields and this giant sky. You immediately understand why Ohio produces more astronauts than any other state in the US or any other part of the world. He was a man who needed to find answers up there [in space] even if he couldn’t understand why. That became the real through-line for us in taking this peak behind the curtain,” says the director who professes to space camp envy, prepping the movie while Gosling andCorey Stoll, who plays Buzz Aldrin, worked in zero gravity chambers and messed around on the Mars Rover.
If it seems like there should have already been a Neil Armstrong movie by now, then, judging by First Man’s starry cast, it was worth the wait.
Armstrong’s son, Rick, explains the delay. “Many people approached our father but he said no to everybody until Jim Hansen came along with a more technical approach,” he says, in reference to author James R. Hansen who spent 60 hours chatting with the famed astronaut for First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, publishedin 2005, and on which Chazelle based his film.
“I think our father would be pleased with this film,” says Rick Armstrong, admitting how he has seen the movie six times, crying every time.
Diving into his role, Gosling says he was greatly helped by Rick Armstrong and his brother Mark. “The greatest challenge of this movie, and there was many, was that they were going to see this film when it was over. I thought about that often. They were extremely helpful and supportive and always available to answer questions. Also I met with Janet and spent time with her on her own, and Neil’s sister June on the farm where they grew up. I’ve never had more help on a film between family, friends and colleagues and James’s thoroughly researched book. I could really feel how much love everyone had for Neil and Janet and their legacy.”
In portraying Armstrong’s first wife, Janet Shearon – who died earlier this year after a long battle with lung cancer – Foy sports a Midwestern accent, a feisty attitude and 1960s pixie cut.
“I think Janet and all the women left at home were extraordinary, but it takes a filmmaker like Damien to find them interesting,” she says of her no-nonsense portrayal of a woman who both supported and butted heads with her husband, later divorcing him in 1994 after a 38-year marriage. “Those women were always there but the story was with the men who were going to the moon. Until now, nobody really wanted to know that they had lives; that they had arguments with their wives or had kids. I think it takes a real filmmaker to shine a light on that and say ‘that’s the real story’. We don’t want to know what we’ve been told and fed; that makes us believe in heroes and all these people have super-powers. I can’t read a script like that, I’m afraid.”
In her research, Foy met with two of Janet’s best friends. “It’s a bit scary when you talk to people who say: ‘You do realise you’re going to play somebody truly special whose friends love her and who gave so much of herself for other people,’” she says, describing how the Armstrong sons never treated her like a ‘weirdo’, even when she quizzed them with mundane domestic questions.
When Gosling utters the famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” his accent is so spot-on, many moviegoers believe it’s an original recording of the real Armstrong.
“That was arguably one of the most famous lines that has ever been said and it was a huge responsibility to get it right,” concedes Gosling. “I feel like that line says so much about what I admired about Neil, which was his ability to see everything in broader terms; that he could see a giant leap in one small step; that he could see himself as a man both representing his country and a human being representing mankind.
“It’s such a profound thing to say and it always fascinated me. Who is that person who could make this heroic moment not about them, but about everything? And to put it so eloquently and beautifully. It was an honour to be able to say it and try and understand the man who would say something like that.”
Despite making the movie, neither Gosling nor Foy have any plans to visit space.
“No, I’d be too scared,” grins the actor while Foy shakes her head in a vigorous denial.
First Man is in cinemas on October 11