First Man has lift-off: Damien Chazelle on out-of-this-world new film

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First Man sees Ryan Gosling star as Neil Armstrong

Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle is following up his huge hit La La Land with what he describes as “an origin story for a real-life superhero.”

The hero in question is Neil Armstrong, and the story is how he came to be the first man to walk on the moon.

First Man, the trailer for which debuts on Saturday, sees Chazelle reunite with La La Land star Ryan Gosling in the lead role.

Chazelle tells BBC News he wanted to explore just how radical the mission seemed back in the 1960s.

‘It was superhuman’

Chazelle, 33, wrote the script after shooting his directorial debut Whiplash, his film about an obsessive jazz drummer, but before La La Land had been filmed.

“What made me want to tell the story was, in some ways, similar to what I was exploring in Whiplash,” he explains. “This idea of, how much is an individual willing to give for a goal? What can the costs of achievement be?

“The moon landing is the perfect vehicle to ask those questions. It’s one of the most famous human achievements. It’s all very gilded: this great success story.

“But I think there’s an element of taking it for granted that comes from that.

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Chazelle, centre, with Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy

“I wanted to look at just how radical, crazy and controversial the whole mission was,” the director continues. “What’s the psychology it takes to be the individual taking those first steps? At a time when a lot of people think it will be a failure that will potentially cost your life?

“I became fascinated by Neil, and in what must have been going through his head in the months and years leading up to that mission – and how superhuman it was.”

‘The moon and the kitchen’

The trailer sets adrenaline-pumping scenes of Armstrong’s lunar mission against domestic scenes with his wife Janet, played by The Crown’s Claire Foy, and children. In one touching scene, his son asks if he will be returning.

Chazelle says he wanted people to put themselves in Armstrong’s shoes – or moon boots – and imagine everything he experienced before the moment he stepped onto the lunar surface.

“The more I looked at the research, the more fascinated I became in how people like Neil Armstrong were forced to juggle ordinary lives with these sort of cosmic roles,” he says.

“I thought of the movie as existing between two points – the moon on one side, and the kitchen on the other. Can you tell a story about such a giant, cosmic, historic achievement but root it in everyday life?

“I got to know Neil Armstrong’s kids and his first wife and was really asking them what it was like on a day-to-day level. What did they have for breakfast? What was Halloween like?”

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The Crown’s Claire Foy stars as Armstrong’s first wife Janet

So how did Chazelle cope with having one of the famous lines ever spoken – “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” – in his film?

“The structure of the movie is more or less building up to the moon landing, starting in 1961 when the country has set its stall on landing on the moon by the end of the decade, and finishing in 1969.

“In some ways, it’s an origin story for a real-life superhero. It’s someone who started out as an ordinary person, certainly not a known figure – he’s one of many at Nasa, all doing missions, and sometimes they go awry. There was the success of the moon landing, but how many failures [were there] before that?

“I wanted to make a movie about someone forged through failure and loss. It’s what makes him the person who says that famous line. So by the time we get there, it’s said in a realistic way.”

‘Ryan can do anything’

According to Chazelle, Gosling has “the same quiet, introspective quality” that Neil Armstrong had. (The former astronaut died in 2012, aged 82.)

“He was someone surrounded by the kind of individuals you might expect from a movie like The Right Stuff, these kind of hot-shot pilots – and Neil was completely different. He was very much a man apart.

“He would often be the outsider in a room, but there was a drive in him and an intelligence. When you look back, you understand why he was the one picked to go the distance.

“I think Ryan can do anything. He has this amazing ability to convey a huge amount of feeling, toil and turmoil.”

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Chazelle won a best directing Oscar for La La Land

La La Land, released in 2016, was a huge success and won six Oscars, including the best director award. So how do you follow that?

“I feel a certain amount of pressure,” Chazelle admits. “But that’s just due to the nature of the story we’re telling.

“You feel the pressure to do it justice and to do it right. It was a challenge, but a really thrilling one.”

Much like Armstrong would have felt, no doubt.

First Man is released in the UK on 12 October.

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