Thanks to an unscripted flashback, Oscar-winning editor Tom Cross found the aha moment for Neil Armstrong on the moon.
What boldly separates “First Man” from all other space movies was Damien Chazelle’s decision to make NASA’s mission to the moon the personal story of a grieving Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling).
Part documentary, part domestic drama — shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”) on Kodak 16mm and 35mm and IMAX– the adventure thrusts Armstrong out of this world to say goodbye to his departed young daughter.
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And Chazelle tasked his go-to editor Tom Cross (Oscar winner for “Whiplash” and a nominee for “La La Land”) with balancing both the meta and micro elements of the movie (scripted by “Spotlight Oscar winner Josh Singer).
“Damien and Ryan Gosling always talked about how this movie was about the moon and the kitchen,” Cross said. “It’s not only how painful and risky these missions were for the astronauts, but how painful they were for the families. It was about reaching crescendos and contrasts with intensity and moments of quiet.”
But unlike the drumming of “Whiplash” and the musically-driven “La La Land,” “First Man” made use of a looser, rougher, more free-form process. There were many unscripted moments (specifically two-weeks of rehearsal footage with Gosling, Claire Foy, and the actors playing the kids) that found their way into the domestic scenes because they seemed more natural.
Plus there was a fair amount of rewriting in the editing room. Crucially, the last-minute insertion of some of this rehearsal footage during Armstrong’s moon walk helped provide closure. This culminates when he throws his daughter’s bracelet into the Little West Crater (invoking accusations of creative license).
“I think there’s a lot of speculation about what he might’ve been thinking about because he did spend a certain amount of time standing at this crater alone,” said Cross. “And those are the moments that Damien found more interesting to delve into: What he might be feeling and what he might be thinking. And, editorially, it was more cinematically interesting to juxtapose those visions with this very cryptic view of his visor. It was almost a test of editing itself because we’re filling in the gaps.”
At the same time, “First Man” was meticulously pre-planned, with Chazelle delivering more than 320 hours of footage in the different film formats. Fortunately, DNEG’s elaborate in-camera VFX process was a time saver for Cross, allowing him to cut whole sequences as a result of the on-stage presence of a large, curved LED screen projecting 90 minutes of CG space footage.
But the primary narrative concern was exploring Armstrong’s dance with death during the X-15, Gemini 8, and Apollo 11 missions. “First Man” excitingly opens with the near-fatal X-15 flight, staying inside the plane and focusing on the astronaut’s eyes. We’re like a fly on the wall in this claustrophobic space, a visual motif sustained throughout the movie.
“In the script, there was a sequence before the X-15,” Cross said. “Basically, kind of a news collage. We thought it was more powerful to immediately throw people into the front seat of the X-15. The other thing is that there was a lot of dialog in the X-15 that was part of a sound montage over black about the Cold War. We played around with that in the editing room, but it was important for Damien to lean into the visceral emotions of experiencing this ride.”
The stakes are raised during the nearly 30-minute Gemini 8 sequence, beginning with the suspenseful liftoff. “And in that section, there is the cross-cutting between immersive mission sections, Mission Control in all its cinéma vérité glory, and also the domestic home sequences,” Cross said.
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Then, after the chilling Apollo docking sequence and nerve-wracking lunar landing, the movie shifts tones entirely with Armstrong’s historic moon walk. Shot in IMAX from the viewer’s and Armstrong’s POV, it becomes Chazelle’s “Wizard of Oz”moment: otherworldly and ghostly.
“Damien always knew that the ace up our sleeve was that we could lean into the unseen, more personal aspects of Neil’s story,” Cross said. “And it was fun to find the right places to juxtapose these POV shots of the moon with these shots of the flashbacks, because they really felt like they were Kodachrome home movies. And to feel this almost black-and-white sense of foreboding on the moon. It was all ripe for something to play with.”