When Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) lands on the moon and exits the spacecraft, the “First Man” soundtrack goes quiet, the camera still, and the image expands to accommodate the IMAX-shot footage. The 15 minutes leading up to this inevitable, climatic moment of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon move like music. Not unlike director Damien Chazelle’s previous film, “La La Land,” the visuals are carefully designed to match the timing and emotion of composer Justin Hurwitz’s score.
This third act conclusion is the polar opposite of the 110 minutes that preceded it, when the film leaned heavily on documentary-style footage. As a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, the Oscar-winning director explained that building emotional currents toward the cinematic explosion of the film’s conclusion required using the camera to unearth the man behind the myth.
“With someone like Neil Armstrong, both the challenge and the appeal to me of doing a movie about him was that it’s hard to get more iconic, or more mythic, than him or his exploits as a subject matter,” said Chazelle. “The thinking was, what if this was actual authentic documentary footage and we could use that style to maybe de-glamorize, de-mythologize this part of history.”
In development, Gosling coined the phrase “the moon and the kitchen sink,” which Chazelle used throughout production to capture the dichotomy of the film’s two opposing forces. For Chazelle, the success hinged of finding a way to balance and interweave the two, as the domestic scenes with Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) informed and collided with the visceral scenes of the dangerous Gemini and Apollo missions that led to the triumphant Apollo 11 space walk. According to Chazelle, it was key to make the scenes in the home “feel as un-staged and unscripted as possible.”
“We felt that by committing to that kind of language, shooting handheld with a zoom, was the most immersive way of telling the home-life story because it would signal that you are there for real, like in a documentary,” said cinematographer Linus Sandgren. “Then when you go into the spacecrafts with them, it would feel more scary than if you there just watching actors. We believed if we had proper crane shots or dolly shots, it would have signaled it was more a movie that you were watching.”
For Chazelle, the approach was a return to his Harvard undergraduate filmmaking roots and his first feature, the 16mm cinema verite-styled “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” Chazelle said it’s a style he gravitates toward, but that wasn’t called for with “La La Land” and “Whiplash.”
“If I look at my first film, ‘Guy and Madeline,’ it’s almost a similar situation where characters that don’t really speak their emotions, [they] kind of hide or obfuscate their emotions, and sublimate their emotions into other aspects of their life,” said Chazelle. “It ends up dictating a subtle performance style and by extension it feels like if I’m thinking of the camera on a human being’s shoulder, who is trying to, like an archivist or archeologist, grab stuff and instinctively put a microscope on [them that] picks up the smallest flutters, the smallest micro-gestures or the in-between moments between people.”
It’s a style of shooting meant Sandgren and Chazelle would find their shots on set.
“You need the flexibility for the camera to find very delicate moments in the action,” said Sandgren. “We worked much more organically with the cast so we could be as spontaneous and find the drama and zoom in really quickly if something happens.”
According to Chazelle, the goal was to act like a cinema-verite crew that was on set to capture moments that would happen with or without them. However, that demanded meticulous planning.
“We had a rule on set where basically everything had to be 360, which can be tricky for a period film,” said Chazelle. “It meant no matter where the camera turned, or what room an actor decided to go into, it had to be lit, it had to be obviously correct set design, and cleared of any equipment.”
At home, that meant having the kids and pets running in and out of frame. During the dinner party, extras in the background have a conversation that may end up on screen. Sandgren needed to be able to start the shot in any room and end on any character. Characters without scripted lines needed to create their personal scripts for the scenes.
“That’s also how we did mission control. I remember that was one place it was tricky to make work,” said Chazelle. “So for example, every desk, every flight controller, and there are 20-30 flight controllers in a scene, they each had to have their own private script that would walk them through the entire scene, so they always had something real to be saying so we could be shooting wherever we wanted. We could move the camera over to the flight director at any given moment and they would be saying what they would be saying at that time. It was never planned, ‘OK we’re just going to shoot this person, or just this person.’ Everything was fair game.”
At times Sandgren would intentionally zoom in, eliminating a character speaking scripted lines from the frame, just so it felt more like documentary footage of the era. This also meant abandoning plans to shoot 35mm, and only relying on the larger format for wider shots that required more detail than 16mm could handle.
“We shot the spacecrafts on 35mm for the camera test, which we thought we were going to do, then we felt it looked too good. It looked like too much like a movie,” said Sandgren. “It didn’t feel as authentic and real as the inspiration, which was [NASA’s] actual footage that we’d screened. To be authentic ’60s, to be emotionally connected as well, the grain and 16mm softness is something we felt was more human and connected with them, while the moon was so far away.”
Adds Chazelle: “It felt like that [16mm cinema verite] could be a way to unify the language of the movie, and also at the same time setting up a contrast with the moments where we do finally going into the expanse of space on the moon, where we switch from shooting 16mm to shooting the polar opposite, which is IMAX. It was about setting up those contrasts that we knew we could pay off at the end.”