Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer helps bring Neil Armstrong’s amazing story to life with ‘First Man.’ Josh spoke with us EXCLUSIVELY about why the movie’s powerful ending, exploring Neil and Janet Armstrong’s relationship, and more.
First Man is just as much about Neil and Janet Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, as it is about space exploration. The film’s screenplay was adapted from James R. Hansen’s First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by screenwriter Josh Singer, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Spotlight. Josh was blown away by Neil’s story and the “repeated sacrifice” Neil and Janet experienced. “In terms of Neil’s story, as soon as I started reading it, I was shocked at how much I didn’t know, because everybody knows Neil Armstrong, right? And everybody knows ‘one small step.’ And yet no one knows that he had a daughter who died,” Josh told HollywoodLife. “I grew up the ’80s. I had Space Hop and loved all that stuff, so it’s not like I was foreign to this world, and yet I didn’t know about the Gemini 8 near disaster. I certainly didn’t know who Elliot See was. I had a vague knowledge of there was something that happened with Apollo, but I didn’t know it was fire on the launchpad that was during a routine test. I certainly didn’t know anything about Ed White, you know? For me, just the repeated sacrifice and loss that Neil and Janet went through, the idea that they’d lost a child, then they start to get their bearings in this new place in Houston, and then Neil loses his closest friend in the program, Elliot See, and two weeks later has to go up. He almost dies. Can you imagine? Reading about that spin was terrifying. But it’s even more terrifying when you’re thinking about Janet, you know? Like, with the squawk box shut out and literally just having no idea what’s going on. I just had no idea the cost and the sacrifice, and felt like, wow, that movie had been hidden from me growing up, and it makes the achievement all the more spectacular and inspiring, knowing what this family gave up.”
Neil and Janet’s daughter, Karen, died when she was just two years old in 1962. First Man explores the Armstrongs’ grief and how they both dealt with it. During the moon landing scene in the movie, Neil leaves his late daughter’s bracelet on the moon. Josh explained how that scene made it into the movie without him being completely certain it happened. “The real answer is I don’t know. You know, it’s conjecture, but it’s not mine. Jim Hansen, who’s the biographer, wrote about it in his book,” Josh said. “Jim spent a ton of time with Neil, and a ton of time with his family. He interviewed Neil’s sister, June, and spent time with Janet. At the end of the day, Jim started to wonder if Neil left something like that on the moon. You know, because it was not unheard of. Charlie Duke left a picture of his family on the moon. Neil and Buzz [Aldrin], in fact, left a pouch with a patch for the Apollo 1 guys. The idea of leaving a memento for a loved one or a lost one, again, that’s something that was fairly typical, actually. So Jim started to wonder, and so he asked Neil for the manifest for his PBK, personal preference kit, where you would take jewelry or anything you wanted personally to take up to the moon. You had a manifest because that stuff had to be weight, because weight was very important. Neil said he had lost it, which didn’t sound like Neil. That manifest has been found since and was given to Purdue. It’s under seal at Purdue until 2020. But Jim, even more curious, because Neil had ‘lost this manifest,’ went and talked to June, who Jim thought knew Neil better than anyone in the world. He asked, ‘Do you think he might have taken something of Karen’s to the moon?’ And June said, ‘Oh, I dearly hope so.’ So, Jim wrote about that in his book on Neil, and as such, it felt like fair game to me. It’s something I would have been very low to make up of whole cloth, but given that the authorized biographer, who is a well known historian, was actually willing to put that down in the biography, I felt like I could get behind that.”
Most people assumed the film would end with the historic 1969 moon landing, but First Man did not. The movie ended with a powerful scene between Neil and Janet after he gets back from the moon. Josh admitted that the First Man team considered ending the movie on the moon, but revealed why they went down a different path. “You know, what’s interesting is that Neil comes back, and he’s never going to fly again. And not only is he never going to fly again, he’s also going to be deluged by press and by a life that he’s not ready for,” Josh explained. “And so, there was a version of showing the ticker tape parade and showing Deke Slayton talk to him about that he’s never going to fly again. We always had the scene of coming back to Claire, right? Coming back to Janet and this idea of Neil trying to reach out after having had to go so far away. And that scene was always in there, it just wasn’t always the end of the movie. While we were shooting, there was so much wonderful chemistry between Ryan and Claire, and it became clear to us that what we were hoping was going to happen had happened, which is that this was a movie that was as much about the two of them as it was about him. And so, the idea to end it on them trying to reach for each other felt really right.”
The journey to get First Man had been years in the making. Josh was ecstatic to work with director Damien Chazelle after seeing Whiplash, which Damien also directed. “I was just blown away and thought, ‘Wow, this is one of the best directors we have working today.’ He pitched me a rough version of what this should be, that it should all be about the sacrifice and the cause, and I was in. I just wanted to work with him.” Once Josh was finished working on Spotlight, he got to work on First Man. The movie started shooting in Nov. 2017 and was released in Oct. 2018. “What’s great about working with a collaborator like Damien is you have a great compass. You know, he was true north. And so, it was just incredibly valuable to have that compass as I was strolling through,” Josh told HollywoodLife.