Screenwriter Josh Singer has a knack for thoroughness. Having earned both law and master's degrees from Harvard before turning full-time to Hollywood, Singer has applied that work ethic and obvious assiduousness to his screen work, winning an Oscar for one carefully researched journalism drama, 2015's Spotlight, and a nomination for another, last year's The Post. His new film, the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, could have offered a bit more room for fact-bending and legend-affirming, but is instead his most rigorously investigated project yet.
The project came to Singer in 2014, after the poor premiere of his debut feature (The Fifth Estate, another journalism-ish film) and before production began on Spotlight, the screenplay for which he had already completed. He was ready to dive into something new, eager to re-establish what he feared could be an all-too-quick film career; after seeing director Damien Chazelle's debut feature, Whiplash, then on the festival circuit, and meeting with the young filmmaker, he made retracing NASA's difficult course through the space race, and understanding the man who would become its greatest hero, his new obsession.
After he got the gig with a ten-page pitch to Universal (whose parent company, NBCUniversal, also owns SYFY), he went to work, finishing a 72-page draft by October 2015. From that point on, Singer, with assistance from Chazelle, went into a feverish writing mode that produced an unprecedented number of drafts.
"I was probably doing a draft every four to six weeks, creating 16 writer's drafts, which are drafts that go to producers," Singer tells SYFY WIRE. "There are probably three or four drafts for each writer's drafts, which I'd send to Damien. We then did two drafts in prep and then ten drafts in shooting."
The sheer number of screenplays churned out reflected a number of equally important factors. The screenplay, which spans the 1960s, is based on part of James Hanson's years-in-the-making book about Armstrong, First Man, the only authorized biography of the late astronaut. A 700-page behemoth, the book is chock full of details about both the space program and Armstrong's life, and because astrophysics and humans are equally complicated, each fact sent Singer seeking out further understanding.
During his writing period, Singer made trips to NASA and other flight facilities, and during both pre- and post-production, met with Armstrong's friends, family, and former colleagues to learn as much as he could about these crucial moments and figures in history. Singer outlined some of his most important discoveries in a conversation with SYFY WIRE earlier this month.
The Scientific Revelations
Singer toured Air Force bases and NASA's Houston hub, taking a look at the different ships, equipment, and facilities that were central to Armstrong's astronaut experience. He saw T-38s and LRVs, training gimbals and control rooms. They poured over the voluminous transcripts from Apollo flights, including the 600-page Apollo Lunar Flight Journal, searching for a narrative around which he could condense week-long missions into 20-minute sequences.
Tech advisers were brought on with four weeks of post-production left, so that they could point out error after minor error, ensuring verisimilitude to both the emerging technology of the day and the toll it had on the people using it. The filmmakers needed to know what specific kinds of hell the astronauts were put through in their preparation, and where they mourned the colleagues who never made it up into the heavens.
What they don't tell you in school and on commemorative stamps is that there was a lot of death in this journey to immortality.
The first scene in the movie puts audiences next to Armstrong (as played by Ryan Gosling) in the tiny cockpit of the X-15 jet, an experimental plane that broke altitude and speed records. It's a nearly wordless action sequence that stays in the pressurized death trap for upwards of 10 minutes, introducing the viewer to Armstrong at one of his most stressed and vulnerable points.
Instead of relying on old documents, Singer wanted to fully capture the intensity of the flight, which takes Armstrong briefly above the Earth's atmosphere, and to present an accurate picture of the future astronaut at this moment in his journey. And so, the writer visited the X-15 facility at Edwards Air Force Base and spoke with engineers and pilots who were involved in those dangerous flights, while ultimately creating the connections that could help them rebuild an X-15 cockpit on set.
"I talked to Gene Tranz, who was an engineer who worked with Neil on the X-15, and I walked through the entire flight with him, with a chart map of what the flight looked like, and you can see exactly where Neil started ballooning, even though he was supposed to be coming down," Singer said. "I got Neil's pilot notes, which he wrote up after the flight, so I could actually see what he said about the flight, why he made the mistake."
Singer also spoke with Joe Engle, a former X-15 pilot who made the same trip and emphasized to the writer just how extraordinary Neil's accidental ascent was and how famous it still is within that pilot community. Equally incredible was the fact that Armstrong was able to crash-land his plane, which was dropping like a brick from the top of the earth's atmosphere.
"When that rocket's done, you're coming down with no power — the X-15 has a 3:1 lift-glide ratio, so for every one foot it comes down, it only glides three feet. Joe said that a commercial airliner, if you cut out all the engines, it would glide 20 to 25 feet. A real glider is a 60:1 ratio," Singer explained. "They would corkscrew around to slow down, and you can't do a straight landing, because you'd be coming in too hot. But in this case, Neil had to do a straight-in landing, because he couldn't corkscrew so far down range."
It can be hard to picture what this means, especially if you haven't seen the movie or don't work in aeronautics. Engle had to explain it to Singer himself three times just so that he could grasp the math and create a mental image of the trip. It makes for one of the most dramatic scenes in the entire movie, with Armstrong defying logic and probability and physics and crash-landing in the desert — a landing that, in its own way, provides an important insight into the future astronaut's psyche and personality.
The Two Neil Armstrongs
Reading through Armstrong's flight notes, Singer gained a new appreciation for the future astronaut's curiosity and aptitude for engineering, as well as his very subtle sense of humor. At one point in the notes, Armstrong explains that he couldn't land his X-15 in a Palmdale airfield because "there was too much traffic." Singer didn't think much of the bullet point, one of many in a somewhat technical document, until he discussed it with one of the people who worked on those flights.
"I started talking to people and they were like, 'He couldn't have landed in Palmdale. And it's a commercial airport, you can't skid on that tarmac,'" Singer recalls. "And I was like, 'Oh, that's his sense of humor.' It's very subtle."
Singer captures that very soft-spoken sense of humor throughout the movie; the line he is most proud of writing, he says, was when Armstrong and a fellow pilot, Elliott See, discuss one of the ice baths they're forced to take during training. While See (played by Patrick Fugit) is very demonstrative about the pain he felt the ice bath, Armstrong says simply, "Well, I made it pretty clear I thought it was cold."
Delivered with Gosling's trademark understatement, it's a fantastic glimpse into the character. As the movie makes clear, there was a reason Armstrong was so quiet, especially during this time. He is a determined pilot but reluctant person, wound tight and almost impervious to the chaos of the space program.
Because the movie is based on Hanson's book, there's plenty in it that already shocked the modern American space community, which had over time polished Armstrong into a shiny, untroubled legend, a modern stoic superhero whose giant leaps for mankind obscured his own uneven path. The book describes how Armstrong struggled with the loss of his daughter during the X-15 flight tests, which becomes a central throughline in the movie.
Armstrong's two sons, Mark and Rick, along with his ex-wife, Janet (played in the film by Claire Foy) all consulted on the screenplay and were brutally honest about his emotional distance.
"Janet would say that 'No' was a long answer from Neil. And Rick would say often, you'd ask him a question, he just wouldn't answer," Singer explains. "He was a very taciturn, emotionally tightly packaged guy. One of the things that I think we are trying to say in the movie is, this was a reaction, and it had to be. You lose a daughter, how do you move on?"
The tragedies only continued to pile up throughout the '60s, as NASA, an experimental organization living trial by fire under the international spotlight, continued to make the errors inevitable when trying to defy nature and physics and all of human history. Armstrong loses his two best friends in the program within a period of nine months, and in the movie, it looks like the world is burning around him as he stays focused on this impossible mission.
"The astronaut Dave Scott would tell me early on, 'You were at some guy's funeral, and you're just checking your watch for when you can get back to work,'" Singer says. "And I believe that on the surface that's exactly how they were, but below the surface, I also believe it was intensely traumatic."
Buzz Aldrin, portrayed by Corey Stoll in the movie, also did some consulting for Singer and Chazelle. A number of his scenes were cut for time, including one in the lead-up to the flight, when Armstrong was given the option of subbing in Jim Lovell for Aldrin, who was not particularly popular in Houston due to his willingness to actually speak his mind. Aldrin says he was always grateful that Armstrong decided to take Aldrin anyway, due to his skill and his rightful place in line, and it paid off up in the Apollo 11 capsule. After they landed on the moon, when Aldrin found a way to fix an engine breaker that threatened to keep them from returning home.
Another deleted scene shows how different the two men were at the time. Fuel is running low during the descent to the lunar surface, to the point that yet another crash landing seemed like a real possibility. It's a tense, almost wordless scene, largely because the captain of the mission is so preternaturally silent. Singer asked Buzz if he said anything, if there was any panic. HIs response? "Well, I wouldn't want to say something to my commander to distract him, but I gave him a little body english."
That was more than enough.
Singer says that he discovered two Neil Armstrongs as he wrote the movie. Many of the people who knew him later in life were sort of shocked to read the script and see his relative lack of emotion and conversation during the 1960s. That decade was all about survival. Armstrong and his wife, Janet, clung tightly to one another, but over time, he had less and less to offer. In 1994, Janet left him, a devastating moment that served as a wakeup call.
He ultimately got remarried, to a woman named Carol, who helped him loosen up, move on, embrace life over the next decade and a half.
"Most of the guys who remember him well now, other than the people he worked with at NASA, they knew a somewhat lighter guy," Singer says. "When we've sent the scripts out to some of those folks early on, they were like, 'Neil was much lighter than this. He'd dance and sing.' Yeah, he would dance and sing, but not really at this time."
At the same time, the depiction of Armstrong also surprised some of his NASA colleagues — especially the much talked-about scene on the moon, when he releases his late daughter's bracelet into a dark crater, having carried it with him throughout the tumultuous journey.
"Robert Pearlman, who runs collectSPACE, he was one of our great technical advisors, he said when he saw Neil crying at Karen's death, he realized he was gonna have to totally rethink everything he knew about Neil."