When Josh Singer began researching Neil Armstrong for the project that would become First Man, out Friday, he found himself using an investigative-reporting strategy he learned on the films Spotlight and The Post.
“Your first job in journalism is to find your most important source, marry him, and empty his pockets,” Singer said by phone this week. He based his First Man screenplay on James Hansens 2005 Armstrong biography, and Hansen—who extensively interviewed the astronaut, his wife Janet, and other Armstrong family members—ended up being Singers most important source.
“I very quickly married him and did my best to empty his pockets over the last four years,” said Singer. It took that long for him to really get Neil, as well as the aerospace engineering and NASA jargon he had to understand in order to write the script. “Jim would patiently answer all my questions, and I still wouldnt understand. So hed patiently answer my additional questions. I still wouldnt understand, so hed refer me to Joe Engle, who is the last living pilot of the X-15, or hed refer me to Frank Hughes, who is the retired head of astronaut training at NASA, and who knows the Gemini and Apollo crafts backwards and forwards.” Thankfully, Singer can now cut through all that “mind-numbing” technical jargon to explain his most surprising discoveries about Neil, Janet, and the tragic death of their two-year-old daughter, Karen—an event that looms large over the film, and inspires its most heart-rending scene.
Spoilers ahead for those who have not yet seen First Man.
Neils Emotional Makeup: Singers foremost priority was portraying Neil and Janet as authentically as possible. For Neil, that meant exploring the emotional makeup of a man who was willing to risk his life for the pursuit of science, even after so many of his colleagues died doing so. “Conventional portraits of astronauts are odd,” explained Singer. “They show astronauts as not being fazed by death, and yet, on the other hand, being these warm and jolly guys.” That contradiction didnt feel realistic to Singer, especially when it came to Neil. “If youre not fazed by death, I dont know how youre warm and jolly,” he said.
After speaking to Janet and Neils sons Rick and Mark, he learned that the astronauts response to the traumatic deaths around him was to withdraw.
“It was hard on his family,” said Singer. “Rick would say that oftentimes youd ask him questions, and he just wouldnt answer. Janet would say a no was a long argument from him. No was a forceful, long answer. As Jim describes him, he was incredibly tightly packaged emotionally.”
That makeup made it difficult for Singer and First Man director Damien Chazelle to telegraphs Neils moods—though they had an ace in the hole. “Whats tricky for us was, how do we get at his humanity? No. 1, you hire an actor like Ryan Gosling, who can do that amazing thing where his eyes go dead without moving a muscle when hes on the phone hearing about Apollo 1”—a failed mission in which three astronauts died due to a cabin fire. “Two, you look for ways in which you can have him show that emotion without showing that emotion. So the Apollo 1 phone call is another good example of that. In my first version, I had Neil basically do that thing with his eyes, and get off the phone and start hammering the phone on the receiver until he breaks it and bloodies his hand.”
Hansen rejected that moment, telling Singer, “Thats not Neil—no way, no how.”
Singers revised draft had him clenching a glass so hard that it breaks. “He doesnt react, really—but at least you know whats going on under the surface,” he said.
Janet and Pat Whites friendship: The astronauts wives relied on each other in real life as much as they did in the film, as attested by photographs shown to Singer in which Pat and Janet held hands while tensely listening to the squawk box narrating Ed Whites Gemini 4 space flight. “They were super close,” said Singer. “We took [creative] license at some points, but wanted to be very transparent about why we did it.”
Janets demand that Neil tell their sons that he might not return from his Apollo mission: “Janet told Jim that she had to push Neil to talk to the kids and specifically say that he might not be coming back,” said Singer. “That scene afterwards”—in which Neil sits at the dining-room table with his sons and answers their questions about his space mission—“is based pretty closely on the kids recollections of that moment.”
“Neils lines are almost verbatim to what [his son] Rick remembers him saying,” said Singer, revealing that Ricks only complaint about the dialogue in the script was that he didnt think his mother would have used profanity when confronting Neil. But after Mark and Rick saw Claire Foys powerful performance in the scene—in which she drops a single F-word—Mark turned to Singer, smiled, and said, “How can we argue with that?”
“I think one of the things all the families remarked on is how wonderfully Claire captured Janet,” said Singer. “Claire had private tapes of Jims conversations with Janet, as well as tapes from Janets conversations with me, Damien, and Ryan. She listened to these tapes over and over and over to get Janets American accent and a sense of her character.”
Karen: Janet and Neils daughter Karen died at age two in 1962—the same year Neil was accepted into the space program.
“Most of Neils close friends didnt know he had a daughter, let alone that he had a daughter he lost at this young age,” said Singer. “In some ways, I always knew that story line was going to be a key one, just because I didnt know anything about it.” During the course of writing the First Man script, Singer became a father himself, which helped him empathize with the pain Neil must have felt. “As I became a father, the more I was just knocked out by the fact that he buried [his pain]. And the way he buried it, and the way he rushed back to work. Ive got to think that was something that never went away and, from what I understand, it never went away for Janet.”
The Bracelet: First Man reaches its emotional climax when Goslings Armstrong leaves a bracelet that had belonged to his late daughter on the moon. It is a heartbreaking moment, and one that is rooted in biographer Jim Hansens conjecture. “I wouldnt have taken that creative license without any basis,” said Singer, explaining that Hansen spent countless hours interviewing Neil, Janet, Neils sister June, and other members of the Armstrong family. “At some point, he came up with this notion that maybe Neil left something of Karens on the moon.
“After all—its not unusual for astronauts to leave mementos like that. Charlie Duke left a picture of his family. The Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil and Buzz [Aldrin], left an Apollo 1 mission patch in tribute to Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee—and two medallions for the two cosmonauts who had died. The idea of leaving a memento for a loved one or a lost one is not unheard of, so Jim started to wonder if Neil had left something of Karens.”
In searching for the answer, Hansen asked Neil if he could see the manifest for his personal property kit, which listed everything that the astronaut took with him on the 1969 mission. “Neil claimed to have lost it,” said Singer. “We now know that Neil didnt lose it. Its actually in the Purdue Archives under seal, I believe, until 2022. Im not quite sure why, but Neil didnt lose it. He might have misplaced it, but its also possible that he just didnt want to show it to Jim. Jim suspected as much.”
So Hansen went back and spoke with Neils sister June, asking her, point blank, “Do you think Neil might have left something of Karens on the moon?”
Explained Singer, “Neils sister June, who knew him as well as anyone, said, Oh, I dearly hope so.”
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