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Oscar-Winner Damien Chazelle Talks About His New Film 'First Man'


Neil Armstrong was meticulous, calculated. In the Apollo 11 mission, where everything could go wrong, Armstrong thought of every contingency plan. But the one thing he didn't prepare for was sitting at the kitchen table to tell his boys he might not make it home.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As son) Jimmy asked what you going to say when you get onto the moon.

RYAN GOSLING: (As Neil Armstrong) Well, we're not sure we're going to get onto the moon. A lot of things have to go right before that happens.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As son) Do you think you're coming back?

GOSLING: (As Neil Armstrong) We have a real confidence in the mission. And there are some risks, but we have every intention of coming back.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As son) But you might not?

MARTIN: Ryan Gosling plays the stoic Neil Armstrong in the new film "First Man." It's directed by Damien Chazelle, who also did "La La Land" and "Whiplash." And in "First Man," Chazelle brings viewers right inside the loud, claustrophobic spacecraft that carried a crew to the moon, a seemingly impossible journey that verged on reckless.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE: I think it was one thing that struck me the most, when I saw some of these aircrafts and space capsules in person, was how small and rickety they looked. They looked like sardine cans. You know? And the technology is so crude-looking and so analog. So there's a beauty in that, and there's also just something terrifying in that. And I think, actually, by honing in on that we really wanted to hopefully remind audiences, you know, that this wasn't the sort of gilded, easy, sleek, high-tech space travel that might have been sold to the public. This was really hard and dangerous labor.

MARTIN: And risky.

CHAZELLE: Insanely risky. I mean, you know, they said, we're going to go to the moon, before they had the technology to do it. And they just had faith that they would catch up in time.

MARTIN: The film makes you realize how little the public actually knows about Neil Armstrong the man. And this particular loss that you learn about early in the film, his infant daughter died of cancer years before he ever went to the moon.

CHAZELLE: I mean, it's this unfathomable tragedy. But in some ways what's even more striking about it is how, like, many people that Neil worked with didn't even know he had ever had a daughter. I mean, that's how close to the vest he kept that event. He and Janet were fiercely private. And I think in many ways, the movie, especially as we did more and more research, the movie kind of shifted in my mind and, I think, in Ryan's mind and all of our minds from a, you know, sort of mission movie about the race to the moon to a movie about grief and coping. And in Neil's case, a man who suffers such a profound loss that in some ways you understand that his thoughts wind up just going to space, going to the broader universe and maybe searching for answers that he just can't find here on Earth.

MARTIN: He, Neil Armstrong, in the film is portrayed as a man pretty typical of his generation in his ability to compartmentalize his emotions. Was that true of him?

CHAZELLE: I think it was. And we had to really rely on people who knew him behind those closed doors, people who knew the non-public Neil. 'Cause the public Neil, yeah, was pretty reticent and pretty - even seemed reclusive.

Of course, once you get to the private Neil, he was actually immensely complicated. You know, he was capable of goofing off. He had a really sly sense of humor and a dry wit. He was also capable of a real, you know, almost sort of scary intensity when it came to the passion with which he attacked his work and his passion for aviation.

I think we wanted to try to get at that vulnerability, that human quality so that - you know, because I think he's become in the collective imagination such a poker-faced, almost marble statue hero. But to people like his kids, he was just Dad. You know? And to people in the neighborhood, he was - you know, he was the guy down the street.

MARTIN: So as you know, the movie has gotten some criticism from some on the conservative side of the political spectrum who have taken issue with the fact that the film doesn't show Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag on the moon. So let me ask you about that. Was that an intentional omission?

CHAZELLE: Well, you know, we don't omit the American flag on the moon. You see it clearly in several shots. And I think this conversation about this sort of omission has been happening exclusively among people who haven't seen the film. So I'm just really excited that the movie is opening, and that people can start seeing it and see for themselves the tribute, I guess, that we try to pay in the movie to what was undeniably an American enterprise and a group of just American heroes.

The one other thing I'll say, though, is that it was really important to us to try also to, wherever possible, focus on the untold story and things that people didn't see and didn't know, and take a very personal, subjective angle on these sort of big historical events in between the things that you read about in the history books. And you were actually seeing the sort of stuff that, again, hopefully helps tell the human story and helps show that, you know, these were human beings and not mythological figures. These were ordinary people doing it.

MARTIN: He, as we've been talking about, became this hero and an icon. But you stopped the story before we see that happen in the chronology. Why did you make that choice to end the film where it ends with him coming back, but we don't see him emerge to, like, the throngs of cheering crowds?

CHAZELLE: Well, it's - we know about the sort of ticker tape parades and whatnot. I was really surprised to learn about this time in quarantine that the astronauts spent right after coming back from the moon, and to get to actually visit that quarantine and see how small and unglamorous those bedrooms were that they stayed in. And, you know, those government buildings. And you come back from the moon, and suddenly you're thrust right into the epitome of the mundane. And I just found that fascinating.

And it was this tremendous moment of hope that the entire world was given by the moon landing, but also just a reminder of the loss that it took to get there. It didn't actually feel - appropriate, maybe, is the word, to end the movie with just nothing but cheering crowds and people getting their pictures taken. It felt that there had to be some acknowledgement, in a way, of just the immense sacrifice and a loss that will never go away, but without which, you know, we wouldn't have had this tremendous gain that the whole world got to benefit from.

MARTIN: And he never went up into space again.

CHAZELLE: No. He didn't. Yeah. I mean, in some ways, you know, Ryan had an interesting way of referring to when we were kind of trying to figure out how to frame certain scenes in the movie in the shooting of them. He would talk about how, you know, to him this wasn't a movie about a guy landing on the moon. It was a movie about a guy landing on Earth. And it's that journey, to actually truly come home in every sense of that word and to land on the ground and to be at one with your family, it's a much longer journey, in a way, than the journey to the moon.

MARTIN: The film is called "First Man." We've been speaking to the director, Damien Chazelle. Damien, thank you so much.

CHAZELLE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.