He talks about his most recent film, First Man
By Iain Blair
It’s been two years since I spoke to writer/director Damien Chazelle for postPerspective about his film La La Land. While he only had three feature films on his short resume at the time, he was already viewed by Hollywood as a promising major talent.
That promise was fulfilled in a big way when La La Land — a follow-up to his 2014 release Whiplash (which received five Oscar noms, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle) — earned 14 Academy Award nominations, winning six awards, including Best Director for Chazelle. He was the youngest to receive the award. The film also won a record-breaking seven Golden Globe Awards and was honored with five BAFTA wins and 11 nominations.
Recently, Chazelle reteamed with that film’s star, Ryan Gosling, who plays astronaut Neil Armstrong in Universal Pictures’ First Man, the story behind the first manned mission to the moon. Focusing on Armstrong and the decade leading to the Apollo 11 flight, it’s an intimate account that puts the audience squarely inside the planes and rockets, fully immersing the viewer in the exciting and terrifying test flights and space missions.
Based on the book by James R. Hansen, the film also explores the triumphs and the cost — on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues and the nation itself — of one of the most dangerous missions in history.
The film co-stars Claire Foy, as the unsung hero Janet Armstrong, and a supporting cast that includes Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, Ethan Embry, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott and Corey Stoll.
Written by Academy Award-winner Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) — with Steven Spielberg as an executive producer — the film also reunites Chazelle with his Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle), Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross (Whiplash) and Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz (Whiplash). The director also teamed for the first time with Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert (Blade Runner 2049, The Huntsman: Winter’s War).
I recently talked to Chazelle about making the film, which has already generated a lot of Oscar buzz, and his love of editing and post.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
I wanted to strip away the mythology a bit, as it’s very easy to forget these are real human beings who risked their lives in glorified sardine cans. It was a time before personal computers, and they were using technology that seems so antiquated now. It was about figuring out the edges of their potential. To me it felt like a story of resilience and sacrifice that was really worth telling, and my hope was to make it totally immersive. I wanted it to feel like you’re right there — in the capsules, in the test flights, wherever the characters are. I wanted to give it a feel of being almost like virtual reality.
What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
The big thing was, we all wanted to get it technically right, down to the very smallest details, so all the help we got from NASA was invaluable. And first, we had to deal with the sheer density of material. There was so much knowledge we had to quickly gain in order to reflect it accurately. There was so much research and trips to landing sites and space museums, and meeting and talking to former colleagues and former astronauts. We also got the input and support of Neil’s sons and family. Then there was a lot of prep time where our production designer Nathan Crowley started designing and building all the spacecraft pretty much to scale.
How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Right away, but Nathan and I agreed that we should do as many of the VFX as in-camera as possible rather than using greenscreen, so we used a lot of full-scale models and also some miniatures. We used gimbals, motion-control and LED technology and some other in-camera effects, so the result felt like a very physicalized approach. I thought really suited the subject matter. I didn’t want to glamorize it, but show just how raw and tough it all was.
We looked at a lot of archival footage, and I storyboarded every scene in space and then made animatics set to Dustin’s music, so it gave us a very precise sense of, “OK, this is the shot. How are we going to do this other shot? How are we going to combine this effect with that one?” It was figuring out the methodology, shot by shot, and we had lots of multi-departmental meetings around tables with models and art work laid out. This allowed us to walk each other through the process. It was a bit like a relay race.
Can you talk about how you collaborated again with Linus Sandgren?
He did such a beautiful job on La La Land, and I knew what he was capable of, so it was great to collaborate with him and watch him work on this bigger canvas. He was able to tackle all the technical challenges, yet he was also always able to ensure that his photography had humanity to it. The human beings are at the center of it all, and he captured all the emotions in their faces, all the poetic moments in between all the big set pieces. He’s always searching for those things, which is what I love about his work. He built special light rigs for scenes with the sun, and then we shot the moon sequences at this gray-colored quarry near Atlanta, which we then sculpted.
To get that harsh lunar light, he developed the biggest film light ever built — around 200,000 watts. That gave us that black sky look and stark shadows. We also did a lot of testing of formats to figure out what the balance should be because we planned to shoot a lot in 16mm, some in 35mm, and then all the moon stuff in IMAX. All the transitions were important in telling the story.
(See your interview with Sandgren about his work on La La Land here.)
Where did you post?
All on the Universal lot in LA, including the sound mix.
Do you like the post process?
I love it, especially the editing. It’s my favorite part of the whole process, and where it all comes together.
Talk about editing with your go-to guy Tom Cross. What were the big editing challenges?
The big one was the huge amount of film I shot — two million feet — and a short editing schedule, shorter than La La Land. So figuring out how to take all that, and a lot of it was documentary style, and wrangle it into a narrative space and make the movie feel visceral, kinetic and propulsive was very challenging. Then finding the balance between the big set pieces in space and the quiet moments at home was demanding, but Tom’s so good at that and finding gems. Our first cut was over three hours long, so we had to cut a lot and find the most economical ways to work through the footage. This wasn’t like our last film, which was full of cuts and close ups. This was more a first-person point of view, and we had to edit in a way that gave clarity, structure and a kineticism to make it feel like this one big breathless ride.
All the VFX play a big role. Can you talk about working on them with visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert.
He was there right from the start, and he also designed all of the in-camera effects, and he’d refer to it as “doing the VFX in prep rather than leaving them all to post.” We used archival footage projected onto LED screens through the windows of the spacecraft, and that gave us our backgrounds. We didn’t have a lot of CG stuff created from scratch, but there was a lot of fine-tuning and finessing, so it was a big endeavor both in prep and post. But it never felt like that kind of effects movie where you shoot a ton of greenscreen and then fix it all in post.
(See our interview with Tom Cross about his work on First Man here.)
Talk about the importance of sound and music.
It’s huge for me, and that’s why music drives a lot of my films. I used to be a jazz drummer and I’m always thinking in terms of rhythm and sound. The sound team collected a huge range of sounds we could play with. Our sound designer Ai-Ling Lee would go down to the Cape and record stuff, and we also recorded sounds in old hangars and sounds from the old space suits and their cooling tubes and so on. It was really specific. Our set sound mixer Mary Ellis also recorded a ton of stuff, and it all went into a pile. The mixing took a long time, and we’d also augment the authentic sounds with animal noises, gunfire and other things, so it was quite experimental. Then there’s the absolute silence of the moon.
(Stay tuned for our interview with the audio post team on First Man.)
Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
We did it at Universal with colorist Natasha Leonnet from EFilm. She did La La Land and Whiplash for me and is very experienced and an artist. The DI is such a key part of post, and I love the look we got.
I’m doing pre-prep on this TV musical drama, The Eddy, for Netflix. It’s set in Paris and we’ll start shooting there in March. Then I’m also writing this drama series for Apple TV, which I’ll direct and also executive produce. I have some movie ideas in development, but nothing set yet. I’m excited about the TV stuff.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.