Right off the bat, from the very first page of the very first scene of First Man — a biopic determined to cast off the staid traditions of historical biopics — screenwriter Josh Singer faced a major challenge.
He and director Damien Chazelle wanted to open the movie in the cockpit of Neil Armstrong’s X-15 jet and then stay there, in that cramped and rickety single-seat bubble, for the entirety of the opening scene, as it rockets up toward the atmosphere. “We don't cut away to flight control, we don't cut outside the ship, you don't see the craft until you're on the ground, and you gotta sell that that's gonna be super exciting,” Singer explained to SYFY WIRE earlier this month, outlining the initial task.
Because the viewer would be with Armstrong in the cockpit the entire time, the normal tricks deployed to sell the excitement in scenes like these were off-limits. They couldn't cut to the plane blasting through the highest reaches of the sky, wouldn't give a bird's eye view as it rushed through clouds, and were definitely not able to zoom out in a drone shot to show the plane vibrating as the air thins are above the earth. And because the audience would never feel the changes in gravity that Neil Armstrong felt — gimmicky 4D theater technology just isn’t there yet — Singer had to figure out how to convey the extremes some other way.
At the time, Singer had yet to win an Oscar for Spotlight, and he was coming off the bruising experience of his debut movie, The Fifth Estate, flopping at the Toronto International Film Festival. But what he may have lacked in confidence, he made up for in experience in the school of J.J. Abrams action set-piece writing.
“Everything I needed to learn about writing the action set pieces in this movie, I learned on Fringe,” Singer said, reaching back to his stint on the Fox sci-fi series, where he worked from 2009-11.
Prior to staffing at Fringe, his TV writing experience came on The West Wing and Law & Order: SVU, neither of which required Singer to script big action scenes (other than maybe a walk and talk on the Sorkin White House drama). The first time he had to write that kind of smashing sequence, he received some hard lessons from Jeff Pinkner, one of the show’s producers.
“I probably wrote like three action lines and moved on, and Jeff came to me and he was like, ‘No, let me feel it on the page, I want to see it on the page, walk me through it,’” Singer said. “There was a school of writing, in terms of writing action sequences, and I'll never forget it. So I turned that three lines into a page, of like ‘This happens! Then this happens! Then this happens!’”
Pinkner learned the method from Abrams, who Singer describes as the master of the style, of punching up and emphasizing every twist and turn of the action like a play-by-play broadcaster. Now, nearly a decade later, it’s a vital part of Singer’s repertoire as a writer.
“I try to never write more than three lines [in a paragraph] together, and it's a lot of underline, italics, all caps, bold, letting the writing try to grab you on the page,” he said. “The X-15 flight at the top of the movie, it's not your traditional two or three-page scene, it's a nine-page scene. And I've gotta be writing all that action, a lot of all uppercase, and bolds, and underlines, and I learned that all in the school of J.J. Abrams.”
Singer used the technique on Spotlight and The Post, too, even when the action was contained to a spreadsheet. "I used to joke about that with Spotlight, too. Everyone would ask, ‘How do you make the piece where they're actually developing the Excel spreadsheet, the database of all the priests, how do you make that exciting? And it’s the J.J. school of writing.”
He never got to work closely with Abrams on Fringe, but was at least able to let the filmmaker know about his profound influence on Oscar-winning screenplays when Abrams, a friend of director Steven Spielberg, visited the set of The Post.
"J.J.'s much more elegant, if you read his writing on the page, it's much more elegant than mine, but you need to do that when you're trying to show action."
First Man, written by Josh Singer and starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, debuts in theaters on Friday, Oct. 12.