No one can accuse Damien Chazelle of playing it safe or staying in his comfort zone as a filmmaker. Whiplash (2014) is an intense tale of drive, ambition, and talent. La La Land (2016) is a musical in and about modern-day Los Angeles. And his third feature ups the ante even further as a biopic about Neil Armstrong and his lead-up to the moon landing. First Man is a spectacular technical achievement with affecting dramatic beats and memorable performances, and it comes home on 4K UltraHD/Blu-ray and Blu-ray/DVD on January 22nd. The disc includes deleted scenes, multiple featurettes, and the special feature that brings us together today.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
First Man (2018)
Commentators: Damien Chazelle (director), Josh Singer (writer), Tom Cross (editor)
1. Sound designer Ai-ling Lee created the opening “build-up crescendo wall of sound.” It was described this way in Singer’s original script, and he adds that while they discussed it beforehand Lee’s creation is far more detailed than they had imagined.
2. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) originally spoke through the entire opening sequence in the X-15, but they trimmed it to focus more on sound and to put more of an impact on his first words being “I’m down.”
3. Landing the X-15 was often referred to as “landing a brick.”
4. They knew Armstrong’s little cabin in Juniper Hills, CA was still around but had no address. Their search wasn’t going well so they asked a man driving by, and it turned out that not only did he know where the cabin was but that he also lived in it. He offered them access so they could take hundreds of photos for their own production design.
5. There was some push-back to the scene of Armstrong crying after the death of his daughter, but they know in addition to being an astronaut he was also human. They wanted to puncture the myth that he was “unfeeling, unstoppable.”
6. The multi-axis trainer had been taken offline in 1962 as NASA realized it wasn’t simulating a situation they were actually experiencing in space through the Mercury missions. The filmmakers took a small license here to include it anyway knowing that it was the exact situation that would arise in Armstrong’s Gemini mission.
7. Gosling wanted to ensure Armstrong’s child-like love for flight was captured in the film. Chazelle mentions that more aviators/astronauts have come from Ohio (including Armstrong) than any other state and hypothesizes that it’s due to the uninterrupted views of the big open sky.
8. The first Assistant director suggested they not film the house-burning scene in order to save time and money, but Chazelle wasn’t hearing it. He went off in a huff, shot the sequence, and then ended up cutting it from the finished film. “It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong.”
9. The car-ride conversation where Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) mentions how they’ve gotten “good at funerals” having experienced so many of them during their time Edwards AFB was taken from direct conversations with her.
10. The start of the Gemini 8 sequence where Armstrong and the others are loaded into the rocket used a giant LED screen outside the small windows as opposed to a green screen. There are various benefits to this, but the most visible is the sharp reflections in Armstrong’s visor throughout the scene.
11. They learned early on why most filmmakers use CG to create the helmet’s visors. Once it’s closed there are issues of oxygen, over-heating, and sound-proofing. “What’s amazing is how quickly you basically have to construct a real working space suit. It has to provide them with a little mini eco-system.”
12. Chazelle wanted both the X-15 and Gemini scenes to “feel” like viewers were in there with Armstrong.
13. Cross mentions how fun it was constructing the mission control sequences as he had twenty-four separate audio tracks as nearly every character in there was mic’d and had speaking lines. Singer adds that Chazelle had told him he wanted to shoot the sequence like Paul Greengrass shot United 93 meaning he had to write things for everyone to say.
14. The thruster malfunction that sends the Gemini 8 into a spin actually lasted for nearly 17 minutes, but they streamlined it for the film.
15. Armstrong’s real son Mark plays the mission control worker who turns off the squawk box that’s broadcasting audio during the Gemini 8 mission. Janet apparently laughed when he told her he would be playing the guy who turned off the audio she was listening to back then.
16. They brought their various technical consultants in for a screening four weeks before picture lock. They got ten pages of notes. “Everyone was really glad to get those notes.” [laughter]
17. Chazelle’s parents cameo during the White House scene at 1:16:44. “It’s probably the most important point in the movie.”
18. The lunar lander practice in the field is a practical effect with the craft actually hanging from a large crane.
19. The brief clip of Kurt Vonnegut was from a televised debate between his negative take on the space program and Arthur C. Clarke’s positive one.
20. The bus seen at 1:40:45 is the actual bus that took Armstrong and the others to the rocket for their Apollo 11 mission.
21. They intentionally minimized some of Justin Hurwitz‘s score beats because they knew they wanted to “save ammo” for the upcoming landing sequence. He actually wrote a core score of sorts before the film was finished
22. The sequence with the capsule approaching the lunar surface to land features miniatures, “bigatures” (at 80% scale), and full-size scale replicas.
23. The radio chatter is a mix of actual recordings and actors reading from the recordings.
24. They miss their intended landing area because excess oxygen in the craft’s dock which “kicked” them a little as they undocked. That’s what brought them low on fuel and risked causing a mandatory abort before even touching the surface.
25. They compared the moment where we exit through the lander’s hatch onto the moon’s surface as a “Wizard of Oz” moment. They go from grainy 16mm inside to Imax outside.
26. The first test screening resulted in a viewer yelling out “What happened to the sound?” during the intentionally silent exit from the lander. Another viewer replied, “That’s how it’s supposed to be!” A third person then asked the question again. Because people are dumb.
27. Armstrong’s walk onto the moon’s surface was filmed in a rock quarry at night with a giant light in the distance to simulate the sun. The light, the biggest used in film production, blew up several times.
28. Armstrong’s detour to Little West Crater wasn’t part of the mission plan, and no one really knows what he did there. Some theorized that he might have left a trinket of his dead daughter Karen’s, but Armstrong denied it. Of course, he was unable to provide his inventory manifest as evidence, and it currently sits under seal at Purdue University.
29. The end originally featured Armstrong leaving the quarantine, driving home, and leading us back to his family, but they realized the better ending was husband and wife looking into each other’s eyes through the glass window.
30. The end credits feature some real Gemini 8 communications, but Chazelle made sure they didn’t include Armstrong’s voice. “I’ve always been allergic to the trend of historical/biopic movies ending with showing you the real people. To me it’always seems a little defeatist. ‘Why did you just do two hours of fakery then to show the real pics?'”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“It was actually much more dangerous to be a research test pilot at Edwards than it was to be an astronaut.”
“This movie is tough, just like Neil’s life.”
“Unfortunately you have to let your actors breathe. You’re not allowed to let them asphyxiate.”
“I actually hate this scene.”
“This is one of our accuracy nightmares.”
“If someone is still there listening and watching you’re making the three of us very happy.”
“We haven’t said anything of meaning or value in these last few minutes.”
First Man may not be making the expected waves at the box-office or with awards circuit pundits, but it’s a compelling and at times towering achievement all the same. The commentary shows three filmmakers with both knowledge about and affection for the story being told, and fans of the film will want to give it a listen after re-watching it again of course.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.