You can check Josh Singer’s homework; in fact, the Oscar-winning screenwriter would love nothing more than that. In an awards season that has exalted fact-based features like “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” that have been dogged by claims of inauthenticity and fact-stretching, Singer’s “First Man” screenplay provides a compelling counterpoint: a rigorously investigated script that was vetted by experts, family members, and friends, and one that still offers a fresh take on the mythos of astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling).
Singer is no stranger to turning true stories into lauded features — while his 2013 debut film, the Julian Assange-centric “The Fifth Estate,” was hardly a smash hit, it opened the door for his follow-up projects. Two years after “The Fifth Estate,” Singer earned his first Oscar for “Spotlight,” which dramatized the true story of the Boston Globe journalists who uncovered the Catholic Church molestation scandal. In 2017, Singer and co-writer Liz Hannah took on another major story about the power of journalism, earning a Golden Globe nod for their script for Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.”
But even for a screenwriter well-schooled in the art of fact-based feature writing — and with a law degree to boot — tackling the story of Armstrong, the early space program, and the literal ascent to the moon for director Damien Chazelle came with plenty of new challenges. It wasn’t just that Singer was taking on an American icon, but that his approach to the story, based on James R. Hansen’s exhaustive Armstrong biography of the same name, was never going to yield to expectations.
“I think this was different in that Neil is not only a household name, and so has that level of ‘everyone knows who the guy is,’ but he’s also an icon,” Singer said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “In being an icon, people have a set of expectations and assumptions about who he is, and what he was like, and what he was good at.”
Those expectations and assumptions have long formed a so-called “master narrative” around Armstrong and his accomplishments, a paint-by-numbers approach to history that Hansen also rebuffed in his book. “When there’s any great moment in history, a master narrative around that moment tends to evolve,” Singer said. “There’s a master narrative around the American space program, which is a triumphalist narrative… and one of the key ingredients is this set of these swashbuckling, manly, stoic astronauts, a la ‘The Right Stuff.’ From the outset, Damien and I knew that we wanted to blow that all up, because that’s exactly what Jim’s book did for us.”
The result is a deeply human, often internal film that explores Armstrong’s remarkable life through his own eyes, a life that was indelibly shaped by tragedy. The emotional center of the film is not Armstrong’s eventual space walk, but the early loss of his daughter Karen to childhood cancer, a story few people knew. Singer and Chazelle worked closely with Hansen, and frequently consulted Janet Armstrong (who passed away last June), Armstrong sons Mark and Rick, and fellow astronauts and NASA brass Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin, Dave Scott, Frank Hughes, and Joe Engle.
“When you get into the details of Neil’s life, when you talk to the sons, when you talk to [ex-wife] Janet [Armstrong], you wind up with a narrative that is much more human, frankly,” Singer said. “It doesn’t have that sheen, it doesn’t have that glow that your traditional space epic has. We knew that we were going to be taking this on. … I think for that reason it was incredibly important to get it right, because we were doing more than just telling a good story. It was actually pushing the needle on the history.”
Karen’s first act death signals that “First Man” is not at all interested in presenting a swaggering tale of fated success as it applies to Armstrong or the other early American astronauts. Singer ticked through the various tragedies that informed Armstrong’s life, not just Karen’s “shocking” death, but the loss of some of his best friends in the space program, including Elliott See (Patrick Fugit) and Ed White (Jason Clarke).
“They were not the Life magazine image, they were something else,” he said of the Project Gemini crew the film follows. “The amount of suffering that they and their families had to go through – which was totally obscured by NASA for good reasons, because they needed the funding, there was a reason why they were propagating this myth – but if you look at the reality, it was nuts.”
Singer’s desire to stick to the reality of Armstrong’s experience pushed him to be even more “obsessive” than he typically is with his work (which he readily admits is already pretty obsessive), resulting in not just the script for Chazelle’s film, but a recently published annotated screenplay in which he and Hansen meticulously go through every single page of the work. The book is fascinating as a companion piece to the film, but it also stands alone as a compelling insight into the twinned process of historical authenticity and artistic creation that go into making biopics.
“I feel like screenwriters need to do a better job of having this conversation, creating a set of standards, a set of ethics. What are the ethics? What are the rules?,” Singer said. “I take license too, but I try to be pretty careful about where and how, and what choices I’m making when I take license. … These movies are going to propagate myths. Those myths can be more powerful than the history itself, like ‘The Right Stuff.’ That propagates a certain myth of what the astronaut is. Any one of these historical movies, they create a sense of, ‘This is what it was like.'”
The annotated screenplay (an exclusive page of which can be seen below) also provides insight into when – and why – Singer was willing to take even mild creative license with Armstrong’s life. In the film, Armstrong’s long-standing grief over Karen inspires the film’s most overtly emotional revelation: upon landing on the moon, Gosling’s character takes a brief moment to himself, during which he produces a baby bracelet that belonged to Karen, gently tosses it into a crater, and lets a tear finally slip free. It’s a satisfying, movie-ready beat, but Singer is clear that its inclusion wasn’t the product of easy choices.
“The bracelet is something we’re not sure happens,” Singer said. “It’s clearly conjecture. There’s no proof. But it was conjecture that Jim made in his book. Jim started thinking about this idea, and knew that leaving things on the moon for lost ones or loved ones was fairly typical, and so he asked Neil. Neil said, ‘No, I didn’t,’ but Jim didn’t believe him.” Hansen even asked Armstrong for a copy of his flight manifest to see if any personal items made the cut. The meticulous Armstrong told the biographer that he had lost it, which wasn’t true: it’s currently at Purdue University, under seal until 2020.
Published by Titan Books - © 2018 Universal Studios, All rights reserved.
“I went back and forth on it,” Singer said. “It’s such a great moment. Damien and I always knew it was such a great moment. … But what I kept coming back to was, look, it’s not something I made up. This is something Jim came to. If Jim, who I believe is the leading expert on Neil Armstrong in the world, other than the sons, if Jim was okay with it and the sons are okay with it, then I think I’m okay with it.”
The screenwriter pointed to another pivotal scene in the film – when Neil learns that Ed White has died during a test – that he initially wrote as a much more dramatic outburst. “The first thing we came up with is, he should hear this on the phone and start slamming down the phone and pounding it and pounding it and pounding it until the phone breaks and his hand gets bloody,” Singer said. “I wrote huge action lines, all caps, bold, bloody hand, blah blah blah. I sent this to Jim Hanson. … Jim read that scene and was like, ‘No way. No way Neil would ever do that. The man I knew would never do this.'”
Singer and Chazelle went back to the drawing board in an attempt to create a moment that could speak to Armstrong’s stoic nature while still telegraphing the emotional weight of the revelation. “I came up with this idea: What if you’re out in space and you basically see his eyes go black? I knew we had Ryan I knew Ryan could do that amazing thing where your eyes go black and suddenly you have that Michael Corleone moment,” Singer explained. “Then what if you hear a pop off-screen? He looks down and he realizes he’s been squeezing this glass so hard he’s broken it, and it shattered in his hand.” Hansen went for it.
“It’s more work,” Singer said of that part of the process. “I’ve got to say, if we had done the big moment that Damien and I had talked about originally, would viewers have liked that better? Would that have made for a better movie? I don’t know if it would have made for a better movie. It would have made for a slightly more commercial movie, moments like that. Maybe. Maybe. But it would’ve been so antithetical of the actual human and what actually happened, that’s not how I want to make a buck.”
Speaking of making a buck: Singer believes that the flag controversy that popped up after the film’s Venice premiere (which eventually led many people to believe, incorrectly, that the film didn’t feature American flags and was thus un-American; in fact, just this week, an investigation by Uproxx’s Mike Ryan provided a mountain of evidence against the claims) “severely depressed the market” for the film in the middle of the country, audiences that have embraced other films about American heroes. (Singer pointed to the 2014 smash hit “American Sniper” as a film he expected to be a corollary.)
“I heard tons of anecdotal evidence of people who said their friends won’t go to the movie,” he said. “[Astronaut] Charlie Duke wrote me an email, ‘Loved the movie, but my friends aren’t going because they heard it’s unpatriotic.’ We heard that from all sorts of people that we work with, whether it was in Ohio or Texas, folks who were in the middle of the country.”
He’s still smarting from it a bit, but Singer believes that the film will continue to win fans and that space enthusiasts, cinephiles, and historians will keep coming back to it, at least partially because of its rigorous adherence to historical fact. “It’s hard to imagine that I would want to do this without taking that kind of care,” he said. “This is not saying you’re not going to take license. This is not to say you’re not going to make dramatic choices.”
Singer continued, “I think oftentimes the best drama is in what actually happened,” he said. “I don’t quite know why people wind up taking different paths, but I do feel that we as screenwriters, and as filmmakers, really should have more conversations about this, and have more of a dialogue about this, about what is kosher. … To me, there’s something really powerful in telling history as it is, in trying to bring history back, and letting that history speak for itself, and letting us learn from it.”
“First Man” is currently available on digital, and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on January 22. “First Man – The Annotated Screenplay” is available now.