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First Man: Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle

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.

Damian Chazelle working with DP Linus Sandgren on the set of “First Man.”

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.

What’s next?
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.

Tom Cross talks about editing First Man

By Barry Goch

As a child, First Man editor Tom Cross was fascinated with special effects and visual effects in films. So much so that he would take out library books that went behind the scenes on movies and focused on special effects. He had a particular interest in the artists who made miniature spacecraft, which made working on Damien Chazelle’s First Man feel like it was meant to be.

“When I learned that Damien wanted to use miniatures and do in-camera effects on this film, my childhood and adulthood kind of joined hands,” shares Cross, who is now a frequent collaborator of Chazelle’s, having cut Whiplash, La La Land and now First Man.

We recently spoke with Cross about his work on this Universal Pictures film, which stars another Chazelle favorite, Ryan Gosling, and follows the story of Neil Armstrong and the decade leading up to our country’s first mission to the moon.

Which sci-fi films influenced the style of First Man?
I remember seeing the original Star Wars movies as a kid, and they were life changing… seeing those in the theater really transported me. They opened my eyes to other movies and other movie experiences, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Along the way, I saw and loved The Right Stuff and Apollo 13.

Tom Cross

Damien is a big fan of all those movies as well, but he really wanted to try a different stylistic approach. He knew that 2001 owns that particular look and style, where you’re super high resolution, antiseptic and sleek in a futuristic way.

For First Man, Damien decided to go with something more personal and intimate. He watched hours of 16mm NASA archival footage, which was often shot by astronauts. He loved the idea of First Man feeling like we put a documentary cameraman in the space capsules. He also saw that these spacecrafts appeared more machine-age than space-age. All the gauges and rivets looked like they belonged in a tank from World War II. So I think all of that lo-fi, analog feel informed the cinema vérité-style that he chose.

As a creative editor, you have animatics, previz or temp comps in the Avid, how do you determine the pacing? Could you talk about the creative process working on a big visual effects film?
Damien preplans everything down to the letter. He did that on Whiplash and La La Land, and he did that on First Man, especially all of the big action set pieces — the X-15, the Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 scenes. He had storyboards done, and animatics that he cut with some rough sound effects. So I always used those as a starting point.

I rely heavily on sound. I really try to use it to help illustrate what we’re looking at, especially if we’re using placeholder shots. In general, I’m most reliant on the performances to help me time things out. What the actors bring is really the heartbeat of any action scene. If you don’t identify with the character or get into a point of view, then the action scene becomes something else. It might work on some formal level, but it’s less subjective, which is the opposite of what Damien was going for.

Can you talk about him capturing things in-camera?
Damien made the choice with production designer Nathan Crowley, VFX supervisor Paul Lambert and cinematographer Linus Sandgren to try to shoot as many things in-camera as possible. The backgrounds that you see out all the spacecraft windows were projected on LED screens and then captured in-camera. Later, our VFX artists would improve, or sometimes replace, those windows. But the beautiful thing that in-camera gave us were these amazing reflections on the visors, faces and eyes. That sort of organic play of light is very difficult to replicate later. Having the in-camera VFX was invaluable to me when I was editing and great for rough cut screenings.

A big part of the film played with only the point of view of the astronaut and feeling like it’s a VR experience. Could you talk about that?
It came down to what Damien and Ryan Gosling would refer to as “the moon and the kitchen sink.” That meant that the movie would hinge on the balance between the NASA space missions and the personal domestic storylines. For the earthbound scenes with Neil and his family, Damien wanted the audience to feel like a fly on the wall in their home. He wanted it to feel intimate, and that called for a cinema verité documentary approach to the camera and the cutting.

He wanted to continue that documentary style inside the space capsules but then take it even further. He wanted to make those scenes as subjective as possible. He shot these beautiful POV shots of everything that Neil sees — the Gemini 8 seat before he climbs in, the gauges inside, the view out the window — and we intercut those with Ryan’s face and eyes. Damien really encouraged me to lean into a simple but effective cutting pattern that went back and forth between those elements. It all had to feel immersive.

What about the sound in those POV shots?
It was brilliantly created by our sound designer Ai-Ling Lee and then mixed by Ai-Ling, Frank Montano and Jon Taylor. Damien and I sketched out where all those sounds would be in our Avid rough cuts. Then Ai-Ling would use our template and take it to the next level. We played around with sound in a way that we hadn’t done on Whiplash or La La Land. We made room for sound. We would linger on POV shots of the walls of the space capsule so that we’d have room to put creaks and metal groans from Ai-Ling. We really played those moments up and then tried to answer those sounds with a look from Neil or one of the other astronauts. The goal was to make the audience feel like they were experiencing what the astronauts were experiencing. I never knew how close they were to not even making it to the lunar surface.

There was that pressure of the world watching as alarms are going off in this capsule, and was fuel running out. It was very dramatic. Damien always wanted to honor how heroic these astronauts were by showing how difficult their missions were. They risked everything. We tried to illustrate this by creating sequences that were experiential. We tried to do that through subjective cutting patterns, through sound and by using the big screen in certain ways.

Can you talk about working in IMAX?
Damien is a big canvas director. He always thinks about the big screen. On La La Land, he and Linus shoot in Fox’s original Cinemascope aspect ratio, which is 2:55.

On First Man, he again wanted to tell the story on a wide canvas but then, somehow, take it up a notch at the appropriate moment. He wanted to find a cinematic device that would adequately transport the audience to another world. He came up with this kind of Wizard of Oz transition where the camera passes through the hatch door and out onto the moon. The image opens up from 2.40 to full 1.43 IMAX.

The style and the pace changes after that point. It slows down so that the audience can take in the breathtaking detail that IMAX renders. The scene becomes all about the shadows and the texture of the lunar surface. All the while, we linger even longer on the POV shots so that the viewer feels like they are climbing down that ladder.

What editing system did you use?
We edited on the Avid Media Composer using DNxHD 115. I found that resolution really helpful to assess the focus and detail of the image, especially because we shot a lot of 16mm and 35mm 2-perf.

Tom Cross

I would love to give a shout out to your team, for your assistants and apprentices and anybody else that helped.
I was pretty blessed with a very strong editorial crew. If it weren’t for those guys we’d still be editing the movie since Damien shot 1.75 million feet of film. I need to give credit to my editing team’s great organizational prowess. I also had two great additional editors who worked closely with me and Damien — Harry Yoon and John To. They’re great storytellers and they inspired me everyday with their work.

Ryan Chavez, our VFX editor, also did a lot of great cutting. At the same time, he kept me on target with everything VFX-related. Because of our tight schedule, he was joined by a second VFX editor Jody Rogers, who I had previously worked with on David O. Russell’s movie Joy. She was fantastic.

Then I had two amazing first assistants: Jennifer Stellema and Derek Drouin. Both of them were often sent on missions to find needles in haystacks. They had to wade through hundreds of hours of NASA radio comms, stock footage, and also a plethora of insert shots of gauges and switches. Somehow they always knew where to find everything. The Avid script was also an indispensable resource and that was set up and maintained by Assistant Editors Eric Kench and Phillip Trujillo.

On the VFX end, we were very lucky to have our VFX producer Kevin Elam down the hall. We also had two incredible postviz artists — John Weckworth and Joe DiValerio — who fed us shots constantly. It was a very challenging schedule, which got more difficult once we got into film festivals.

Fortunately, our great post supervisors from La La Land —Jeff Harlacker and Jason Miller — were onboard. They’re the ones who really kept us all on track and had the big picture in mind. Together, with our trusted post PA Ryan Cunningham, we were covered.

The truly unsung heroes of this project had to be the families and loved ones of our crew. As we worked the long hours to make this movie, they supported us in every way imaginable. Without them, none of this would be possible.


Barry Goch is a finishing artist at The Foundation, a boutique post facility in the heart of Burbank’s Media District. He is also an instructor for post production at UCLA Extension. You can follow him on Twitter @gochya

The Hate U Give director George Tillman, Jr.

By Iain Blair

The Hate U Give, which recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, has immediately generated big Oscar buzz. This ripped-from-the-headlines story — which scored 100% on Rotten Tomatoes — is a work of fiction based on the New York Times bestseller of the same name by Angie Thomas. It stars Amandla Stenberg in a breakout performance as Starr, a 16-year-old who witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend by a police officer.

Starr lives in a working-class community with her close-knit family. Her father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby), is a reformed ex-gang member who once served time in prison. Now, a family man and valued member of the community, Maverick owns the community grocery store. Starr’s mother Lisa (Regina Hall) is a nurse, and half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and younger brother Sekani (TJ Wright) complete the family.

Dismayed by the academic shortcomings of schools in their community, and wanting to give their children better opportunities, Lisa and Maverick enroll Starr and her siblings in a predominantly white school. The kids then find themselves having to juggle two very different worlds.

Starr, whose two best school friends and boyfriend are white, seems able to compartmentalize her life until everything changes when she witnesses the shooting death of her friend Khalil during a traffic stop. As the sole witness, Starr must choose between speaking up for her friend or remaining silent. Telling the truth could also endanger herself and her family by implicating the violent local drug lord whom Khalil worked for.

The Hate U Give is deftly and intelligently directed by George Tillman, Jr., whose credits include Soul Food, Notorious and Men of Honor. The behind-the-scenes creative team includes director of photography Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master), production designer William Arnold (Magnolia), editors Craig Hayes (Django Unchained) and Alex Blatt (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and composer Dustin O’Halloran (Lion).

I spoke with Tillman about making the film, his process and the upcoming awards season.

This is based on a celebrated novel and translating any novel to cinema is always tricky. How difficult was it?
It was a little tricky as it has so many layers, so many great characters — a lot of good stuff, and we wanted to make sure we got it all into 120 pages. Well, you can’t fit it all in. But it was very helpful that Angie was so involved as I wanted to be true to her spirit and the book. So I flew her to LA and we sat down and talked through every character, every viewpoint, and then I realized, ‘Maybe I don’t need this character’ and ‘we can lose this bit,’ and it took four to five weeks to really nail down what we needed.

The film is quite a mixture of genres, tones and themes. Is that what you had in mind from the very beginning?
Yes, a film that really shows what an African-American working-class family goes through. There are a lot of obstacles, a lot of struggles and a lot of the money’s going to the private schools, so there’s not much left. It’s a tough neighborhood, but you push through and find humor, sadness, warmth and loyalty in all the ups and downs. That’s the tone I wanted, where it can change in a second, from grief and sadness to a happy emotion and glee. And with a film like this, which deals with such serious issues, you don’t want it to be just heavy and coming at you. You need the humor.

Obviously, casting the right actor to play Starr was crucial. What did Amandla bring to the role?
She brought a lot of her own experience since she also went to a private school but still lives in her old neighborhood in LA. So she knows those two worlds. She also came with her own dedication since it was an important story for her. She’d read the book and we spent months and months talking and breaking down all the details of her character and how you can go from one strong emotion to another in an instant. So by the time we shot she was just free to be Starr.

We did a couple of weeks of rehearsal, which was invaluable. We improvised and experimented, and everyone got into the whole family vibe. I think that’s a very important part of being a director, getting all the actors together and really digging deep together. You build all these memories, bit by bit.

Why did you shoot in Atlanta rather than Mississippi, where it’s set?
It was down to the tax breaks. At the start, I wanted to check out a ton of different cities, but when you get down to it, it’s all about getting the most out of the budget, and we didn’t have a huge budget. So it’s a matter of putting more on screen, and I really liked shooting there. They have a great pool of background actors that we used for the protest scenes. We shot a lot of stuff like that at night, so we had to work fast. They were great.

Where did you post?
All on the Fox lot in LA. We did the DI at Company 3 with colorist Siggy Ferstl.

Do you like the post process?
It’s the best part of filmmaking and my favorite bit, as you get to see everything you shot, and it’s like rewriting the whole film. You get to focus the film, work on music and sound, and it’s the least stressful part. And on this, we felt like we had everything we needed – great performances, good coverage — to make the film.

You used two editors. Can you tell us about that relationship and how it worked?
I asked for two editors because I shoot a lot of film, a lot of different takes and adjustments to performances and dialogue. So I needed two guys just to deal with all the footage. They were in Atlanta cutting while we shot, but I don’t like to look at footage while I’m shooting. I saw a couple of scenes early on, but then I just focused on the shoot. Then back in LA we really got into it, and they’d trade off scenes. I like to get through a cut as fast as possible so it still feels fresh to me.

Craig and Alex did a great job. There are scenes they cut right at the start that were so good I wouldn’t even touch them, like the diner scene with the family when the cops arrive. I think it’s because they were so in tune with the material.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film, and crafting a soundscape that was so naturalistic and realistic? And how you worked with BAFTA-winning sound editing supervisor Don Sylvester (Walk the Line), Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Andy Nelson (Les Miserables) and Oscar-nominated re-recording mixer David Giammarco (Moneyball).
I’m so glad you said that, because that was exactly how we approached it. I’ve worked with those guys on so many projects, and it’s hard to over-estimate the role sound and music play, and I didn’t want it to sound too Hollywood, too big.

We did all the mixing on the Howard Hawks stage on the Fox lot, and a lot of the scenes were specifically designed to have Starr’s point of view. The sound didn’t get big until the riots, but then we took it way down once she gets on the car. And a lot of times we took sound away. We spent a lot of time getting all the little details and touches just right. The music was key too, for her inner world, her inner emotions, and we had about 40 or 50 minutes of music — a lot.

I loved what composer Dustin O’Halloran did on Lion, which is why I hired him.

We’re already heading into the awards season. How important are awards to you and this film?
To be honest, I don’t think about it too much. I’m still so close to the film. I just want people to see it and remember it. And if it wins something, that’s like icing on the cake.


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.