First Man: The Panel
On Friday 12 October, the highly-anticipated film First Man directed by Golden Globe winner Damien Chazelle and written by Oscar winner Josh Singer will open in cinemas worldwide. The film depicts the experiences of Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, throughout his career at NASA, including his X-15, Gemini 8, and Apollo 11 flights.
Last July at Spacefest IX in Tucson, we were treated with a panel dedicated to the film and its production, back when the film itself was still being edited. On the panel was screenwriter Josh Singer, family consultants Rick and Mark Armstrong (sons of Neil), technical consultants Al Worden and Rick Houston, costume designer Ryan Nagata, and art consultant Chris Calle (son of Paul), moderated by prop consultant and collectSPACE editor Robert Pearlman. First Man book author, consultant, and co-producer James Hanson also participated via Skype.
Before discussing the panel in detail, I must introduce the original book First Man. Hansen’s book is perhaps the most well-researched, complete, and scholarly biography ever published on an astronaut. It is a shining example of space history done well, substantiated by Hansen’s career as a professor of history at Auburn University as well as his prior prize-winning writings. The notes and bibliography section of the book alone is 83 pages. So impressed by the historian, Neil Armstrong himself became involved with the biography, officially authorizing it and providing interviews and documents for its completion. Large segments of the text are direct quotes from these correspondences between the author and Armstrong in the early 2000s, or direct quotes from Armstrong in other settings. It is, therefore, the only true authoritative biography of the first person on the Moon.
What strikes me about First Man the book is the stories it doesn’t tell. In his post-NASA career, Armstrong was, compared to other famous astronauts, a private person who dedicated his time to scholarly pursuits and engineering projects. He almost never sat for one-on-one interviews, stopped signing autographs in the 1990s, and spoke more often about airplanes (his true passion) than spaceflight. Due to his perceived nature as a “recluse”, many myths and legends about Armstrong developed over time. Some of the blatantly untrue myths are the infamous “Good luck, Mr. Gorsky” story and speculations on an Islamic faith. Hansen’s book addresses these myths and shows them to be untrue. By reading more about who Armstrong wasn’t, the reader discovers that this 20th century legend was actually a regular person. This regular person happened to do extraordinary things, but he simply did not seek the public eye for them.
With that background in mind, one may wonder about Hollywood’s undertaking of the book and adapting it into non-scholarly entertainment. In today’s action and superhero devouring pop-culture, I was concerned that studios and producers would butcher history in the name of profit. That belief changed after being present for the First Man panel, and meeting people involved with the film’s creation.
After the trailer previewed, we learned about each panelist’s role in First Man the film. The Armstrong brothers were involved in the most personal way. Mark Armstrong provided an oral history of his father and mother, Janet, as well as family photographs and consulting on aspects of their home life. He expressed that the film will give audiences an idea of his father’s sense of humor and temperament, noting Ryan Gosling’s professionalism. Mark also believes the audience will gain insight into being an astronaut’s wife through the portrayal of his mother by Claire Foy. He stressed that his mother was not the only wife to go through the constant “worry” of having their partner embark on a dangerous mission.
Rick Armstrong discussed his role as a “general helper”. He admitted that in the beginning, he had reservations about the approach of filmmakers and how exactly they wanted to tell his father’s story. After meeting with Singer, however, he was impressed with the project and soon agreed to take part. Despite the filmmakers’ responsible approach, he notes that there are still certain scenes and occurrences in their home life which were fictional or exaggerated, but only for the purpose of moving the film along or evoking feelings in the audience. Rick assures that it is still respectful to history and his father.
Screenwriter Josh Singer had the most attention on the panel due to his integral role in writing the film’s script. In response to Rick Armstrong’s mentioning of fictional or exaggerated scenes, he stated that the Annotated Screenplay, released today on Amazon (9 October), explains in detail the decisions filmmakers made regarding these scenes. What stood out to me most about Singer, and director Damien Chazelle via proxy, was their compulsion to get details correct, down to consulting with former flight director Gerry Griffin to track down Mission Control audio-loops. For background: during any spaceflight, flight controllers wear headsets and microphones to communicate with one another, as well as record the conversations in order to transcribe and document them. At the insistence of Chazelle, background conversations in Mission Control (e.g. actors and extras not in focus) were accurately scripted according to the official transcripts, opposed to having the actors and extras say “watermelon” repetitiously, as Singer described it.
Another example of attention to detail was explained by Al Worden, Apollo 15 CMP and technical consultant. In a scene involving the Lunar Module (LM), the film crew examined the layout of the instrument panel, hoping to find a light that illuminated when the LM had completed a vital stage of its flight. Worden phoned the only person who was with Neil in the LM, Buzz Aldrin, as well as doing other research. Ultimately, no such light existed. Worden, however, suggested this light be included in the film anyway to help the audience better understand the scene, and the film crew agreed. Worden, ever jovial, described his technical consulting role as helping “screw up the truth”. In seriousness, however, he described the experience as helping the crew “iron out the difference between the book and the film for the audience”.
First Man book author James Hansen, whose voice projected into the room via Skype, visited the set frequently in its various locations and was consistently pleased. As Armstrong’s authorized biographical confidant, he related that the “great responsibility” he felt towards Armstrong became much greater with the production of a film based on the book. He was pleased to see the film crew with copies of the book on set (Singer described it as “encyclopædic”). There were a couple moments when Hansen stood firm that the crew was doing something incorrectly, but the filmmakers usually heeded his advice. When Hansen wasn’t on the set, Singer and Chazelle frequently reached out, asking questions about certain details the book was not clear on. In fact, there were times when they asked questions Hansen didn’t immediately have the answer to, and he had to consult with his own sources to work the problem.
Panel moderator and prop consultant Robert Pearlman recalled one of these incidents. The filmmakers wanted the exact type of torque wrench that closed the Gemini spacecraft’s hatch. This is one instance where the film crew’s appreciation of detail launched an investigation into something no one had previously inquired about. Ryan Nagata, noted artist and spacesuit modeller/replicator, whose work has attracted the likes of Adam Savage, consulted-on and constructed various spacesuits used in the film. He remembered speaking to professionals in the film industry who said they’d never been so stressed about a production in their careers, largely due to the precision in the filmmakers’ approach.
Rick Houston and Chris Calle, both extras in the film, acted as consultants about their roles as well. Rick Houston’s book with Milt Heflin, Go Flight!, is a go-to resource about the workings of Mission Control during Apollo. Rick, therefore, plays a flight controller onscreen. He related the magic of seeing the set “alive”. He had spent years researching Mission Control, and seeing it recreated was a privilege. Chris Calle, whose father, Paul, is a renowned space artist, and one of the handful of people in crew quarters on Apollo 11’s launch morning, plays his father in those scenes. Calle even recreates the sketches that his father drew that morning.
In the film’s recreation of the famous moment the Apollo 11 astronauts exit crew quarters in their spacesuits, author James Hansen is stood next to the ramp, playing Kurt Debus, then director of Kennedy Space Center. Even at the time of the panel, when the film was not complete, Hansen had seen three different cuts and conveyed his happiness with the production. Recently on Facebook, the Armstrongs, James Hansen, and others who have seen the final product have given “two thumbs way up,” to quote Rick Armstrong.
The panel was also host to unique stories about Neil Armstrong. Singer stressed that the film was more about Armstrong’s personal life and experiences than Apollo 11 or space history. In fact, his favorite scene takes place at the Armstrong family dinner table. When asked by an audience member how his father would react to the idea of a feature film showing his life, Rick replied that he’d simply say “No”. Rick also told the story of the day Neil ejected out of the LLTV (Lunar Landing Training Vehicle), which subsequently crashed as Armstrong parachuted to the ground beside it. Armstrong was unhurt in the incident, but had he ejected more than a second later, he may have been killed. The prevailing memory of that day to Rick was coming home from school to find his father already home, which was an unusual occurrence. Rick asked, in surprise, “What are you doing here?” His mother, Janet, authoritatively replied, “Don’t talk to your father. He bit his tongue.”
Concluding the panel, Mark told a great story. After Neil retired from NASA to pursue other work in the 1970s, the family moved to a rural property outside Cincinnati. As a young man, Mark became interested in dirt biking, an interest his parents enabled. Janet, however, knew the danger in the sport and stipulated to Neil that Mark must wear an helmet. Neil went to the garage with Mark, where he gave him a clunky, metal, white helmet, which Mark wore thereafter. Only years later did Mark find out that this was the helmet Neil wore when he bailed out of the LLTV. Mark said with a smile, “He knew the helmet worked.”
First Man premieres in cinemas worldwide on Friday 12 October. Expect a film review to follow soon after.
Images and Videos Courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise
Cover image - a First Man poster signed by panelists (Photo: Tom Usciak)
Hansen, James R. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Pearlman, Robert, Mark Armstrong, Rick Armstrong, Chris Calle, James Hansen, Rick Houston, Ryan Nagata, Josh Singer, and Alfred Worden. "First Man." Panel, Spacefest IX, JW Marriott Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ, July 7, 2018.