About The Production (Cont'd)
Life after Gemini
The mission objective for Apollo 11 was to complete a national goal set by
President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961: perform a crewed lunar landing and
return to Earth. From launch to Earth landing it took 8 days, 3 hours, 18 min,
and 35 seconds for these three Apollo 11 pilots to make history. On July 20,
1969, they did exactly that.
Many of the Gemini pilots went on to Project Apollo, designed, among other
goals, to carry out a scientific exploration of the moon and achieve
pre-eminence in space by the U.S. Among the Apollo 1 pilots were Gus Grissom (Whigham),
Ed White (Clarke) and Roger Chaffee (Smith). Sadly, one of the worst tragedies
in the history of spaceflight occurred on January 27, 1967, when the crew of
Grissom, White, and Chaffee were killed in a fire in the Apollo Command Module
during a pre-flight test at Cape Canaveral. They were training for the first
crewed Apollo flight, an Earth orbiting mission scheduled to launch that
As a part of their tour of Kennedy Space Center, the cast was able to see the
launch site of Apollo 1, which proved one of the most poignant moments of
production. "It was a very sombre experience," recalls Clarke. "NASA, along with
Bonnie White and Ed White Jr., have included us in something that is very
precious to them. As well, the gentleman who toured us around worked there back
then." He sums the cast and crew's thoughts on that day with: "I feel very lucky
they were generous enough to share this memory with us and for NASA to open
Among the Apollo 11 pilots, those whose mission was the first lunar landing,
were Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar
Module Pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. To cast the Apollo 11 crew, filmmakers again
focused on talent-meets-a likeness to the astronauts being portrayed.
"I adore Corey Stoll, he's a tremendous actor. He actually looks like Buzz,"
laughs Godfrey. "But Buzz had this irascible quality that rubbed people the
wrong way, just because he had a sort of outsized personality. And yet he also
was extremely intelligent. Neil saw a quality in him that he believed was the
perfect guy to be in that cockpit with him. But Corey has both, he has this
fierce intelligence but he also has this kind of rascally twinkle in his eye,
that you're not quite sure what to make of him. And the thing that we wanted
Buzz to do is to kind of keep everybody a little bit off balance."
"When Buzz enters into our movie, you've got this calm group of friends. Then
Buzz comes in with a lot of energy and personality that knocks things off
balance a bit. So that, we're letting Corey kind of bring that energy to it,"
To play Mike Collins, who had the critical role of Command Space Module
pilot, was Lukas Haas. Describing his experience on the project as a
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Haas says: "It's insane how much I've learned.
Space travel is a fascinating subject, and I feel blessed to be a part of this
project. I have new heroes after working on this film and a new respect for
where humanity lives in the universe."
Inspired by Mike Collins' book "Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys,"
Haas decided to reach out to Collins. "I wrote Mike a letter because I loved his
writing so much. To be able to learn about his experience through his book was
touching. Rather than try and get a phone call with him or meet him in person, I
just figured I'd write him. He wrote me back this hilarious letter about how he
wished that Mickey Rooney had played him," laughs Haas.
Haas was surprised when Collins agreed to come to set on the last day of
filming at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Collins, along with Buzz Aldrin,
visited set to observe filming and finally meet the cast playing them. "Mike is
as pleasant and funny in person as he is in his writing, and getting to meet him
on our last day of filming was one of the most profound moments of my life,"
adds the actor.
"It was a surreal experience to say the least," adds Stoll.
Commanding the Men
The duo in command of these brave few were director of flight-crew operations
Deke Slayton, played by Kyle Chandler, and Bob Gilruth, played by CiarĂ¡n Hinds.
"Bob was the first director of the space center, and he's the boss who oversaw
Deke," notes Chandler. "Deke's job was to help choose the men for the missions,
to rotate them in and out based on skills." He pauses. "Bob had the final word
over what my character may say, and Ciaran is just a fantastic peer."
The need for the performers to demonstrate unequivocal authority was not lost
on the producers. "Kyle has the stature of both a father and a coach," states
Godfrey. He laughs: "You feel like that he could also punish you. You needed
another grown man who felt a step above all these other grown astronauts, in
terms of authority and maturity. He feels like a guy who would have lived in
this time: spit-and-polish, straight collar. As well, Ciaran has that quality
where you don't quite want to cross him. He feels authoritative, but not
Slayton and Gilruth were among the officials were in charge of acknowledging
when the mission received a green light-the weight of many lives were in their
hands. As there is a chance they cannot bring their boys home, the stress
Gilruth and Slayton carry while reading the White House's potential
moon-disaster speech was overwhelming-a responsibility they took with might
Special Extras Casting:
Art Imitates Life
Extras casting director ROSE LOCKE worked with Chazelle to satisfy his push
for authenticity. In turn, she cast such names as CHRIS CALLE, son of sketch
artist, Paul Calle. Paul Calle was known as one of the first eight artists
chosen by NASA in 1962 to document the American Space Program. In a Space Art
career spanning more than 40 years, Calle covered Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and
Space Shuttle Missions.
Paul was the only artist present with the Apollo 11 crew with Neil Armstrong,
Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins the morning of July 16, 1969, as they prepared
for their launch to the Moon.
His sketches of the Apollo 11 crew breakfast and Suiting Up stand as a visual
record of the activities of that morning, saved in a family sketchbook in the
possession of his son Chris Calle. Bringing the sketchbook to work in the scene
in the movie, Chris Calle played his father, while mocking up sketches during
the scene this time with Gosling, Stoll and Haas.
RICK HOUSTON, the author of "Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission
Control, 1965-1992" also played a role in mission control for the tense Gemini
VIII flight sequence. "We play a role in the mission-control scene when
everything went wrong in the Gemini VIII flight. Being a part of that and seeing
the way it was put together was exciting and unlike anything anyone's ever
seen," says Houston. "Ciaran Hinds and I talked quite a bit about his character
of Bob Gilruth. Kyle Chandler, who played Deke Slayton, had quite a few
questions about how to do various things in mission control."
Mark and Rick Armstrong were not only involved with the project from the
film's inception, but they also had roles in the mission control scene. "I play
the character of Paul Haney, who was the mission control public affairs officer.
Essentially, he was the member of the press that was inside NASA, and an
employee of NASA" says Mark Armstrong.
Impressed by the detail Chazelle had put into the project, youngest son Rick
Armstrong explains he felt his father's story was in good hands. "I play the
flight operations director in mission control in the Gemini VIII sequence,"
explains Rick Armstrong. "I initially became part of the movie, because I wanted
to do my part to see that it was as accurate as possible," he says. "But after
meeting Damien and the producers-and Ryan and Claire and Josh and other folks
that are on the project-I found out that they cared just as much as I did about
Author Hansen had a cameo role played Dr. Kurt Debus, Director of the Kennedy
Space Center, in the scene in which the Apollo 11 astronauts walk toward the
spacecraft for the launch. In the same scene, BONNIE BAER (Bonnie White),
daughter of Ed White also makes a cameo appearance.
NASA Opens Its Doors:
Having done extensive research into NASA and the missions leading up to
Apollo 11, Chazelle was familiar with the operations at Kennedy Space Center in
Cape Canaveral, as well as Johnson Space Center in Houston. "It's an amazing
thing to experience, and I wanted to make sure everyone who is playing an
astronaut in the movie got to experience that first hand," he offers.
"The training that went into getting up into space are incredibly visual
events," adds Godfrey. "NASA has been intimately involved in the movie they've
opened their doors to not only the places but the people that were there."
For Klausner, the key element of these pioneering astronauts was that they
spent an extraordinary amount of time training and preparing for these missions.
"One of the biggest challenges for an actor stepping into these roles-especially
for the cast members who are seen in missions-is the ability to act with a level
of confidence, and comfort and knowledge, that the astronauts had without nearly
the same number of hours of training," says the producer. "Some of these
astronauts are guys who could probably have flown blindfolded. They knew where
every button was of several hundred panels."
Finding ways to give the actors prep time to access research, speak with
experts and sit in simulations was crucial. Gosling, Clarke, Fugit, Embry,
Whigham, Schreiber, Haas and Stoll all went to Johnson Space Center in Houston,
as well as Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral for astronaut training.
"The biggest influence going into this film was the NASA employees' enthusiasm
and love for the world that they live in and the world that came before them.
Going to the moon was their seminal moment in history. I've got to say that
literally every single one of the people that we met knew this story inside
out," shares Clarke.
While visiting NASA's Johnson Space Center, the First Man cast members were
able to experience a behind-the-scenes view of NASA that encompassed both the
past and the future. Through a series of briefings and hands-on activities, this
group gained a first-hand perspective of astronaut training, flight control and
engineering critical for flying humans in space.
From the chance to get out in the Mars lunar vehicles, it set not only a
sense of awe, but made the words of Singer's script and the upcoming shoot so
much more real. "We got to practice in simulations of zero and lunar gravity,"
offers Klausner. "We got to see where the astronauts worked and lived, what they
ate, how they trained and practiced-a lot of essential tools for helping the
actors get immersed in these roles."
After visiting NASA, Clarke explains the space program no longer felt
unobtainable; the experience made the endeavor tangible. "It's not like some
fantastical imaginary place, it's very practical, and they were lovely and
generous and smart and dedicated. They imparted this sense of the importance
they give to their job."
The cast also happened to travel to Houston while Johnson Space Center was
setting up for their traveling exhibit "Destination Moon: The Apollo 11
Mission," which displayed the actual Apollo 11 Command Module, "Columbia." Upon
seeing in person the living quarters for the three-person crew during most of
the first manned lunar landing mission in July 1969, the cast was astounded by
the tangible history.
One of the more interesting exercises for the cast was their time spent a on
the anti-gravity apparatus. By standing upright in a harness, they were able to
simulate what it feels like to walk on the moon. Reminiscing about his
experience in astronaut training, Schreiber reflects: "When I got this job, it
was one of those moments in life where you realize that you became an actor for
a specific reason: it's to get to be a child for the rest of your life. The idea
that I would get to play an astronaut and go to NASA, both Houston and Cape
Canaveral, and have complete behind-the-door access to all of their training
tools is a childhood dream."
Although disappointed the cast had to miss out on riding in the legendary
(and aptly named) "vomit comet," Schreiber states that astronaut training was
still an opportunity of a lifetime. "The only real life way that you can
simulate anti-gravity is to do this thing called the vomit comet, where they
take you up in the plane and descend at a certain rate for six seconds at a
time. You get a sense of real weightlessness; that's the only way unless you go
into space. We didn't do the vomit comet, but to get to do those two robotic
simulation training programs was just amazing."
"You see those images your whole life, the launch pads and the big crawler
taking the shuttle to the launch pad," echoes Haas. "To be there and see it and
experience it in the way was awesome."
For Chandler, just seeing a Saturn 5 rocket laying on its side and being able
to walk its more than 100-meters length gave him an idea of what these guys were
climbing into. "We saw a lot of different things that give you a hands-on feel,"
states the actor. "Being that close, to be able to touch some of the things and
to be in the spacesuits allowed our imagination to settle into these characters
when we got on set."
Admitting researching for other films or shows can feel like work, Stoll
explains this exercise was different. "There are certain projects where research
is a bit of a slog, but this was so much fun," he gives. "There are so many
great books and movies and documentaries, so it's been fun digging deep into the
minutiae of the technology and the people involved. I grew up taking space
flight for granted, but now we are able to go back when this was all brand new,
and they had to invent everything."
Chazelle encouraged all cast playing an astronaut to experience NASA first
hand, and he also sent each cast YouTube videos of the actual people they'd be
portraying. This allowed the talent to hear cadence and affectations of those
speaking or being interviewed. In addition, the director provided a
hand-selected list of recommended movies and books.
Among the book recommendations were "Carrying the Fire" by Mike Collins, "Deke!"
by Deke Slayton and Michael Cassutt, as well as "First Man" by James R. Hansen.
Movies Chazelle recommended included For All Mankind, Moonwalk One and Mission
Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, among others.
"It was great to have Damien there to curate the material, because you can
get lost in the weeds," adds Stoll. "Buzz has written numerous books, and I went
through some of that material to get a sense of his voice. We all went to
Johnson Space Center in Houston, and there's this whole avalanche of technical
information, as well as anecdotes about the astronauts and the people in mission
control. It was helpful to be directed towards what was important in telling
The influx of information continued throughout production, as Chazelle and
filmmakers lined up technical advisors to assist in re-creating each mission as
accurately as possible.
Among the tech advisors on set were CHRISTIAN GELZER to assist in all LLTV
(Lunar Landing Training Vehicle) work. Gelzer served as Jacobs Technology's
Chief Historian for the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center. As well, JOE
ENGLE was brought on to assist in all X-15 spacecraft work. Engle served in the
United States Air Force and was one of twelve X-15 test pilots along with Neil
Frank Hughes, retired as NASA's Chief of Space Flight Training, assisted with
astronaut training and mission control, as well as Gemini and Apollo 11 work.
Hughes was a computer and guidance navigation and control systems expert during
Apollo training and he worked closely with Apollo 11 astronauts.
AL ROCHFORD and RON WOODS assisted as suit technicians. Woods supported the
training and pre-flight suiting activities for Apollo 11, suiting up Mike
Collins, while Rochford served in the same capacity suiting up the likes of John
Glenn Jr. for the Mercury-Atlas 6 Earth-orbital space mission. AL WORDEN, who
was the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 15 (the same job as Mike Collins),
assisted in Apollo 11 work. Lastly, JAMES BILBREY- NASA/Marshall Space Center
videographer and editor-assisted in tracking down archival footage.
All advisors were in constant communication with Chazelle and his fellow
producers in pre-production and were on set during the filming of the
scenes-under their respected area of expertise. "It was amazing, the people we
got to meet, the different astronauts, the information, the personal stories
from those who were there on the day. These are things that you just can't make
up in your mind that you can spin a lot of tales off the truth as you're doing
your work," says Chandler.
Flying into Space:
Designing Modules and Capsules
Production designer Nathan Crowley admits that there's a grittiness and
reality that he likes to focus on in his work. "I will push to do things in
camera for real," he sums. "For instance, we used miniatures on this film. I'm
not trying to reinvent the wheel; we're just using old school methods with
Upon meeting for the first time, Crowley and Chazelle clicked over their
shared opinions of design. "The minute Damien indicated that he wanted to only
do this movie in the camera, I was in," says Crowley. "I have a love of physical
objects and scale and he wanted to get it in the camera. That is actually very
difficult but a fun challenge-one we were both willing to take on."
It was important to Chazelle to show the danger of pioneer going to space in,
as Crowley puts it, "in tin cans being fired up." He had no interest in showing
the glamour of NASA rather this hard-edged fight to get to the moon. The
designer reflects: "These men had so much knowledge, but there was still so much
unknown. They were explorers, and the fact that they would spend days in these
cramped conditions interested me."
When the collaborators first spoke in pre-production, Chazelle offered that
he wanted to juxtapose the claustrophobia with the vast expanse of space.
Utilizing NASA's resources was pivotal to get the design as accurate as
possible. "NASA opened their doors to us," says Crowley. "I went to Kennedy in
Florida and analyzed the Lunar Lander up close, as well as the Gemini capsule;
we went to Houston to look at the LLTV in detail, and we studied all of the
manuals and other information we could get; that allowed us to re-create what it
felt like being trapped in these things.
"I say trapped because it's tiny; these capsules were like being in sardine
cans," adds Crowley. "NASA's goal was to constantly improve on their capsules
and their missions, so there is not just one blueprint to reference with all of
the answers they were constantly evolving. The best way to understand the design
was to stand right next to it with someone who flew it or trained in it."
Chazelle's pursuit of authenticity led them to analyze diagrams and dashboard
instruments, as well as meet with experts and enthusiasts, in addition to
collaborators at NASA. There were many moments when the production designer and
director felt like detectives out to figure out each piece of the puzzle.
Some filmmakers might sacrifice the integrity of the spacecrafts by changing the
scale in order to satisfy filming needs or to make the actors more comfortable,
but this was not Chazelle's intent. Gemini and Apollo trainer Frank Hughes
discusses how that would not be done under his watch, and how he was so
impressed by what he saw: "I brought with me my own library of things that we
used at the time-check lists and books that tell how we did it.
"They fell into place these guys! I got here with my treasures, and they'd
done it already. Man, they got it. It's so small the things that I had to
suggest to change. They did a hell of a job. Being in that control center felt
like I was back at home in Houston. Then, in the spacecraft, you're surrounded
by the thing. It was all really well done."
A stickler for every single detail, Crowley firmly believes that one should
never exaggerate any craft more than 10 percent. For Gemini, his team tried to
keep it the exact size but it caused problems with the cameras. The solution was
this jigsaw puzzle of a set that came apart. In fact, they had to break the
seats in half just to get the camera in the capsule with them.
It was necessary to make small adjustments for the actors, as a few of them
were taller than the astronauts they were playing. "For Apollo 11, we went about
five percent over the size, and then the X-14 we were the real size," Crowley
explains. "But we had to lower the seat a little because Ryan is taller than
Neil, and his helmet was too close to the roof."
It wasn't just the building that would prove tricky. "There are so many
logistical items that go into creating these things," adds Crowley. "For
instance, the challenge with the Lunar Landing Module was just building
something of that size...but then figuring out how to transport it to the
location. As well, we had to make it wind- and snow-resistant because-as it
turned out-on our moon we got snowed on."
Reflecting the Sun:
Creating and Filming the Moon
Although familiar with re-creating space after working on films like Chris
Nolan's Interstellar, Crowley explains when addressing the film's biggest design
challenge: "this is my first time going to the moon." He reflects: "When I went
through the script, I knew this movie was going to be challenging but I got
through X-15, Gemini, Apollo, landing on the moon. We have all these missions to
get through, which, I naively thought 'I can deal with those.' Then we have to
do the residential neighborhoods, and NASA and Houston and life at NASA-and we
have to bridge these all together but it was something I knew we could handle."
"But the moon is something I pushed to the back of my mind for a long time
because it was such a challenge to figure out how we were going to fake this,"
he continues. "I didn't have the answer right away, but I knew we either needed
a quarry or cement-and somewhere that was vast enough that could give us the
scale of the moon. I knew the quarry would be the best option, but to match the
moon's surface we needed a gray quarry, which is rare."
Sometimes a place can change your problems, laughs Crowley. "We were lucky
enough that Atlanta happens to have gray quarries. Through the friendliness of
the industries that work here, we found our moon at the Vulcan Rock Quarry in
Stockbridge, just south of the city; they let us sculpt the landscape to our
For Chazelle, the search for the perfect moonscape was an exhaustive one. "We
had the idea that instead of shooting the moon on a stage, we would shoot
outdoors and at night; that would allow us to create sunlight with a giant film
light. So we started looking around for outdoor possibilities in and around
Atlanta. It took us a while to find this quarry. We looked at a bunch of
quarries that either weren't big enough or weren't quite flat for long enough.
But we found this one and we were able to sculpt it a bit."
To tell the emotional story, Chazelle teams with director of photography
Linus Sandgren. Not surprisingly, they found lighting the expansive moon to be
an incredible challenge, "Nathan designed the moon outdoors in a big quarry, and
the set is enormous," gives Sandgren. "It's much bigger than any other moon set
used in production. Because of that, we need to light it all up. To do that, we
need a lot of lights, but we didn't want to have many lamps because you only
want to have one source as the sun and one shadow. That gave us a challenge to
try to create a very strong light source that is single."
Only one solution, and that is to find the strongest lights on the planet.
"We talked to DAVID PRINGLE, who made the 100K Softsun lights," notes Sandgren.
"We asked him if he could help us develop a 200,000-watt lamp, which he did.
This 200,000-watt light is just enough for us to shoot in this big space."
The vastness of the space was in stark contrast to the tight quarters from
which the men were about to emerge. "The Apollo 11 is about 10 feet in diameter,
three men were there for over a week," says executive producer Merims. "It's
incredibly claustrophobic and incredibly tight quarters. Damien wanted to
simulate how hard that journey was. When Buzz and Neil landed on the moon and
the moon is infinite beyond, it's a big contrast. When the two walk out onto the
moon, we switch to IMAX, 65 millimeter, which is the largest available format in
film. That allows audiences to feel it and be there with them."
Sandgren likens looking at the moon this close as "like looking at the land of
the dead...something that we've never seen before." He pauses, and explains how
that informed his choices as DP. "It's something much more surreal than real
world. Because of that, we thought that if you shoot intimate scenes on 16
millimeter, then you come out onto the moon and all of the moon is IMAX; that
has a much greater negative and much more detail."
Producer Bowen appreciates that visceral switch. "When Neil Armstrong is
going up in Apollo, you're seeing that with 16 millimeter. You are seeing it
shake. Hopefully, you're feeling what it must've been like to be there. If we
pull off this immersive experience, this great story is finally going to get
Interestingly, the lenses the cinematographer and Chazelle chose for the moon
sequence are the same lenses Armstrong and Aldrin used on the moon when they
took the infamous still photos. Says Sandgren: "They did with those Hasselblad
cameras and six-by-six centimeter negatives; that is the same film stock and
film we've used to shoot the moon."
To re-create the famous moon landing, their team looked a lot at those
photographs that they took on the moon. They were very precise replicating the
real photography. That extended to looking at the height of the sun angle. For
example, if the sun angle at one location was fifteen degrees in the original
shot, they would ensure the length of the shadows are the same in the film.
Production shot the moon sequence in the last few weeks of filming in
mid-January, with most of the movie under their belt. "When filming the moon
sequence, we were closer to the end of our shoot. By the time we came here, we
sort of felt the way our character feels...knowing all the stuff that led up to
this moment," says Chazelle.
When discussing how he captured the famous first steps on the moon, the
director says: "We've tried to be as authentic as possible and to get the little
things right-the little details that make the original footage so exciting and
moving, but we've also tried to put a stamp on it that's unique to the movie. We
didn't want just a re-creation, but hopefully fill it with some of the emotion
the movie's built up."
For Godfrey, it's all about building the emotional journey so that the
success of landing on the moon becomes an emotional release for not only the
characters but the audience. "You want to create such a sense of anxiety and
tension-dangers that we don't realize that Neil and the other astronauts face,"
he says. "From the second that ship touches down, it's just this release of
This isn't just a release of tension for the audience, but for the actor
portraying the man who took that rare walk. Gosling explains: "We arranged it so
that I was able to hear the original recordings between Neil, Buzz and mission
control as I was taking those first steps. It was very surreal to experience
that moment in a way that Neil may have. Also, an exciting element to the POV
style in which that scene was filmed is that the audience will now get to
experience that moment as Neil may have as well."
Filming the moon sequence during mid-January in Georgia was a gamble with the
weather, and it turned out to be a low of 17 degrees Fahrenheit some nights on
the moon set. "On our moon was quite cold," says Chazelle. "The real moon varies
between super-hot and super-cold, so maybe a little hostility of the elements is
"The natural challenges we've had is that when it suddenly started to snow,
we had to break for a little bit and move back to stage for a few days. But when
we returned the weather was pretty good; it wasn't so windy, and the flag stood
still." Laughs Sandgren: "It's just like the real shoot on the moon."
Back to Houston:
Having the ability to see mission control prior to filming allowed the actors
playing the astronauts to prepare themselves for what to expect in filming. As
well, they learned the protocols inside the room where the famous words, "The
Eagle has landed" echoed through the walls.
One of the design team's biggest fans was advisor Frank Hughes, who saw it
all the first time during the Apollo 11 flight. "The mission control set is
marvelous. It's set up just like it would be in the real deal in Houston, Texas
and it's just great," he commends.
"We saw mission control what it was then and we got to see the mission
control now which is active, You go in there and you see the space station
orbiting the earth and they're talking as you're standing there it was amazing,"
"What drew me to this room for the very first time when I visited it in the
summer of 2012, I was just struck by the history that had taken place there. But
when I walked in, all the consoles were dead, there was no electricity, so they
were all dark; the carpet was bunched up and dirty, so it was very dreary," says
author and expert Rick Houston. "So when I walked in here on set on the first
day of rehearsals, it was an emotional moment. I had never seen mission control
like this. It took me a few moments to collect myself and make myself realize
that this wasn't the real mission control room. I looked around and started
noticing things here and there that were very accurate. I was very impressed by
the lengths that they went to make it historically accurate."
For Houston, that attention to detail on Chazelle's set mattered more than
you'd think. The filmmaker and his team were honoring the sacrifices made by
those on the ground whose priority objective was to keep the astronauts safe.
Sharing some of his findings about mission control, Houston explains: "the
thing that impresses me most about the people who worked in mission control was
their dedication to the mission first. Their number-one goal was to bring the
astronauts home safe." The author states that one might be surprised to find
"they had an intellectual arrogance that wasn't egotistical; it just meant that
they had confidence in themselves to be able to get the job done and to get the
astronauts home. They were able to do that in the case of Gemini VIII and Apollo
"One of the NASA techs told me that when he walked in to the mission control
set, it brought back every possible memory. He was just flooded with memories.
That's the best compliment you can get," says Crowley.
Roll, Pitch and Yaw:
Additional built sets Crowley and his crew constructed included the Lunar
Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) and the Multi-Axis Trainer. "The LLTV is a
machine that in this day and age we would never risk putting people in," the
designer explains. "When Neil knows that he's going to be the guy that lands the
lunar lander, the only way for him to practice is to get into this cockamamie
testing mechanism. He barely ejects in time before he crashes it. Then he went
back and did it many more times because it was the only way to train."
Chazelle's team was able to reconstruct the LLTV and the multi-axis trainer
thanks to NASA's support and archival photos. In Houston, they had the chance to
look at the LLTV in detail and were able to take those findings back to the shop
to try and re-create these apparatuses.
"When I found out they wanted to do the multi-axis trainer, practically, I
knew that one was going to be extremely challenging, and not something that just
anyone could build." proclaims special effects supervisor JD SCHWALM.
Although the multi-axis trainer's use was suspended after the Mercury
program, filmmakers chose to incorporate it into First Man to show the
excruciating training these astronauts went through. "It's an extremely complex
device that hadn't been built since the '60s, and nobody even knew how it
worked," says Schwalm. "We reverse engineered that from photographs, and it was
one of the bigger challenges and the most fun on the show."
The multi-axis trainer was designed to simulate the astronauts spinning out
of control in space on all three axes: roll, pitch and yaw. Schwalm walks us
through the process: "They would have a visor over their heads so they couldn't
see where they were, or orientate themselves. Then they'd have to get out of the
spin on the three axis, one at a time. So they'd figure out how to get out of
the spin, and then essentially get them comfortable with the situation of being
out of control in space, and regaining control."
The trainer's use was later suspended for several reasons, one being that the
roll astronauts experienced on earth with gravity did not accurately portray the
weightlessness and anti-gravity they would experience in space.
Building the Armstrong Home
Crowley teamed up with locations scout KYLE HINSHAW to find the perfect 1960s
neighborhood to replicate the Armstrong's El Lago, Texas, home. This was the
house in which they resided during Armstrong's tenure at Johnson Space Center in
Although Atlanta is a city built in the middle of a forest-with
beautiful hills and sits at the southern tip of the Blueridge Mountains-Crowley
and Hinshaw found a flat neighborhood that would best represent the Texas
"The whole street played out like El Lago in Houston. It was that sort of
'60s architecture, and it was relatively newly built," gives Crowley. "So the
street could play this safe haven for the film's astronauts and their families."
After finding an open lot in the middle of the neighborhood, Crowley and his
construction team began re-creating brick by brick the Armstrong home. It even
included a heated swimming pool in the backyard; an almost perfect replica.
To satisfy Chazelle's desire for authenticity, Crowley settled on building
the Armstrong house from the bottom up. After filming in the Roswell
neighborhood for over two weeks, the crew quickly became embedded in the
neighborhood. They were welcomed as family with neighbors passing baked goods
around to crew members in the middle of a night shoot.
The majority of filming took place in Atlanta on various locations and
stages. Production then spent one day filming at Kennedy Space Center in Houston
to utilize the crawler, which was the vehicle that transported the Saturn 5
rocket from NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to the launch site.
Production then traveled to Edwards Air Force Base in California to re-create
Armstrong's X-15 flight take-off and landing.
Aim for the Heavens:
Photography and SFX
The screenwriter was a fan of working with his filmmaking team, especially
the unique skills of director of photography Linus Sandgren. "As a writer, you
can't do better than having Damien and Linus shooting your movie," says Singer.
"The only way you can do better is having Linus shooting this cast. The work
Ryan and Claire and Jason and Olivia do at home is beautiful, and then to have
Corey, Ryan and Lukas in the Apollo 11 spacecraft-it's just remarkable. It's a
"First Man is both a very grand story, but it's also a very intimate personal
story," reflects Sandgren. "We wanted the film to feel much more intimate in
certain scenes. On those scenes, we decided to shoot it in 16 millimeter, which
is grainier and feels more poetic. As the story progresses-and we get more into
that industrial NASA world-we go into 35 millimeter and a harder contrast."
Sandgren reteams with Chazelle after working together on La La Land. The
filmmakers raved about their DP. "Linus operated every shot," explains Godfrey.
"Because we're going for the style, it's all handheld. You want stolen moments,
things to be a little messier than they are, on a dolly or with Steadicam. It's
also allowed Linus as a DP and a camera operator to become much more connected
to the actors. He's right there with them through all of these scenes and was on
a headset the whole time with Damien-who could say, 'Zoom in to him, pan over
For some it would be considered an impossible feat to shoot all of the
missions leading up to the moon landing in camera, but for Chazelle and fellow
producers it was a challenge they were willing to fully embrace. Utilizing
ground-breaking technology in the effects field, with the help of NASA's
archival footage, filmmakers began to brainstorm. "Eight months before we
started shooting, we began discussing how we might use the amazing beautiful
archival footage that NASA accumulated over the various Apollo missions,"
Hesitant to use just the archival footage, because of the quality and the
limitations of the camera angles, filmmakers came up with a unique solution
utilizing technology that has only been used in a handful of films, but never at
the scale needed for First Man.
The team decided they would re-photograph the archival footage through the
use of the LED technology. "A number of years ago, people started using LED
technology to simulate the backgrounds that you'd see through cars or through
trains," states Merims, "so we thought we could use the archival footage
projected on the LED screen through the windows of the crafts. When we're in
space on Gemini VIII and Apollo 11, there's all this beautiful footage that we
acquired through NASA's help...and then repurposed to project on the LED."
Now that the backgrounds were in order, it was up to JD Schwalm and his
special-effects team to mount each of the space crafts to a motion-based rig.
This would simulate the motion each craft would have felt during various stages
of the flight.
"At the same time, we're simulating the flight through space and the various
trials and tribulations that occurred to Neil and Dave Scott on Gemini VIII,"
adds Merims. "We're moving this craft, we're turning them, they're spinning, and
the sun is rising and setting. To do that with our LED plates, we had to
synchronize them. The crafts typically go on a motion base called a gimbal,
which was handled by the special effects department. What's different on this
particular film is we were able to figure out a way to connect through a
computer the projection of the LED and the actual use of the motion-base
It goes without saying that the biggest challenge was doing the majority of the
effects, practically, on camera. "There are a lot of effects that we would
typically do nowadays in a visual effects environment with CG, but Damien wanted
to try and do everything practically in front of camera with the actors," says
Schwalm. "From the multi-access trainer to the weightlessness when they go to
outer space. We faced that challenge head on."
The benefit of doing everything in camera for Schwalm and his effects team
was that they were able to see the playback after filming and essentially see
what was going to be seen in the film. "The instant gratification was there
every day," laughs Schwalm.
With the help of Show Rig, an innovative technical company that deals with
lighting for film, as well as arena shows, the production solved a major
lighting conundrum. "Show Rig helped us design a 360-degree sun that could
circle on a 360-horizontal plane," states Merims. "At the same time, it had this
accordion drop mount which allowed it to go up and down simultaneously in a
circle-synched with the LED screen to emulate the sun and its movement."
One of the many crafts Crowley and the effects team mounted on the
motion-based gimbal in front of the LED screen was the Gemini VIII capsule.
Actor Christopher Abbott, who plays David Scott, explains what it was like: "I
wasn't looking at a green screen outside of the window, but at this huge LED
screen. When we were taking off for the launch, we were looking at the sky,
going through the cloud and you make it into space. When the spin happens,
you're looking at the Earth go by and you feel the sun. While physically it was
demanding, it made it feel that much more real."
Quite familiar with model making, Crowley embraced the idea of utilizing a
miniatures unit to re-create parts of the missions-from launch to in-flight
sequences. "I used to model and make everything to figure out designs, so I
could see it in three dimensions," explains Crowley. "I now have 14 3D printers,
so I can print anything overnight and stick it together quickly. That allows me
to see if I like it or throw it away. This has become a massive tool for me
because I don't get precious about the process of model making.
"As printers got better and bigger, we now have ginormous 3D printers that
can print a three-and-a-half foot cube," continues the designer. "All within the
art department, we can now 3D print miniatures and actually shoot them as
miniatures in the film. It's new technology to do old techniques. We're not
reinventing the wheel; we just found a process where it allows us to move
quicker, and make miniatures."
After working together on films including The Dark Knight, Inception and
Interstellar, Crowley teams up with IAN HUNTER the film's miniature unit
supervisor. "One of the main challenges we had when we took on the miniature
effects for First Man was knowing that we were working on drama. When you're
working on a fantasy or a science-fiction movie, there is a certain level of
disbelief the audience will buy," shares Hunter. "It was important for us to be
able to create these miniatures of the spaceships that looked absolutely
realistic and made the audience fully believe that what they were watching was
Hunter explains the infinite amount of footage NASA kept on the Gemini and
Apollo missions worked as both an aid and a hindrance for his process. "There is
a lot of documentation on these missions and that helped us in terms of
detailing and making sure our models are accurate. But everyone in the audience
also has access to that same sort of documentation, so they can always check our
work. It was important to us to try to strive to create as realistic as possible
the depiction of these miniatures that matched the detail of these missions."
Excited for the technological advancements of 3D printing, Hunter explains
the times have changed in a very short period. "I worked on the HBO miniseries
From Earth to the Moon, and at that time, we did quite a bit of the work by
hand. We hand drew our plans for the spaceships, built patterns by hand, etc.
Since that time, the technology has changed where we can build miniatures in a
much different manner."
With the help of BigRep 3D Printers, Hunter and Crowley set to work building
their models. "In this particular case, we designed all of the models in 3D
first, on the computer. Once we had that very solid 3D model, we were then able
to divide the parts up and create different pieces using different modern
techniques," says Hunter.
Although aided by 3D printing, some hands-on work was still required to make
these miniatures authentic. "Once the parts were made with these high-tech
cutting-edge techniques, it still came down to doing a lot of hand-work,"
recalls Hunter. "It still came down to craftsmen assembling these parts, fitting
them together, painting them, and, even adding some of the textures that you
would expect to find from that era. For instance, the Apollo CSM, the command
service module, was covered with metal tape on the command module itself. So, we
had to hand-apply aluminium tape to get that reflective surface."
The lunar module was covered with a heat shield made of gold foil and black,
anodized foil. Despite the fact that their team had all of this modern
technology, it still came down to someone hand-cutting and applying these
textures; that allowed them to get that realistic depiction of the mission.
Another challenge the miniatures unit faced was matching the main unit's use
of the larger models and shooting styles. "The lunar lander, or the LEM, as they
called it was built in both miniature and full size for the gimbal/LED work,"
states Hunter. "So for the scenes where it's on the moon, there was a full-size
prop built; then we used a miniature version for any scenes of it in the
trans-lunar journey. It was important for us to work with the main-unit art
director to match our detail and our paint work. Our graphic designer laid out
the graphics for the full-size and miniature." He quips: "It was important for
us to work hand in mini-hand to get the models to match."
To bring this vision to life, Hunter worked closely with Chazelle utilizing
his animatic based on found footage. "We had an animatic based on found footage
of the real missions," Hunter shares. "Damien gave us this guideline of what the
feeling of the shots was supposed to be, as well as mood and timing. Because we
were matching to a piece of music, that was all going to be tied to the imagery.
Once we had that imagery in front of us, we followed that using his notes about
what was supposed to happen with the spaceships. That gave us a guideline, a
mood setting to fulfil his vision."
Thanks to NASA's database-complete with its archival photos-costumer Mary
Zophres and her design team were able to research exactly what the astronauts
were wearing at any given time. "NASA's database is like a treasure trove of
information," says Zophres. "We go from X-15 to Gemini V to Gemini VIII to
Apollo 1 and then Apollo 11. As the space program progressed, the documentation
of it became more and more intense. As the country got closer to Apollo 11, they
documented it more thoroughly."
Sifting through NASA's archives quickly turned Zophres and her design team
into period-dress detectives. "There is a magnitude of research that is
available, but it was tricky," she reflects. "They photographed everything from
promotional events to test launches, which made it difficult to tell which
photos corresponded to what events we were shooting. I felt like I learned about
the space program and the launch to the moon all over again. For the Apollo 11
suits we have two. One for each actor, and one for their stunt double."
For the civilian looks in the film, Zophres explains they were lucky enough
to have documentation of the astronauts in their personal lives, thanks to Life
magazine photographer Ralph Morse. "For Mike, Buzz and Neil, there was quite a
lot of civilian photographs taken of them leading up to the launch," says the
costumer. "We tried to look at as many of the photographs of the real people
that we could possibly get our hands on and then get glean from that. For
example, Olivia, who plays Pat White, went to visit with Ed and Pat's daughter
and got her hands on some family photographs. That was hugely helpful. I wasn't
trying to replicate the actual photograph, but just glean from these pictures
what the general sort of individual style of the people that we're trying to
"There are certain things that were dictated by what was available," she
continues. "First of all, it's before the internet; there were two places to
shop in El Lago, Texas. There was a JC Penny and a Sears, and that is a reason
why some of the guys feel like they're in a similar style. That's because that
that's all they had access to."
The costumer appreciated that there was nothing frilly about Janet. She
muses: "That's obvious in her clothes, but we did try to show a passage of time.
In the beginning, she's in her twenties, and then she ends up in her thirties.
There's a maturing that goes on with both Janet and Neil, and that we see more
obviously with those two characters than with anybody else."
With a film set from 1961 to 1969, Zophres and her team had their hands full
portraying a period piece that spanned almost a decade. "Suiting is the hardest
thing to find, even down to the right weight in suiting," she offers. "That was
the biggest challenge on this, but we did find some good pieces of vintage
material that we were able to construct pieces for Janet and pieces for Neil. We
did build a lot of clothing but a lot of it was found also, which was great. It
helps lend to the authenticity of the look is to use real period clothing."
To cap off production, remaining honorary astronauts Schreiber, Haas, and
Stoll stayed behind after filming at JSC in Florida to watch SpaceEx launch of
their Falcon Heavy Rocket on top of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) that
housed rockets like the Saturn 5.
The world's most powerful booster since NASA's Saturn 5 that launched Apollo
11 into history, the Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at
Kennedy Space Center, the same site used by NASA's Apollo 11. After the rocket
launched and the two core boosters landed back on earth successfully, amazed,
the cast slowly made their way to the elevator to go home. As they stood on the
roof of the VAB, waiting for the elevator to arrive, incredulously a bald eagle
alit just behind where the actors stood. Awestruck, Haas explains the experience
was an unforgettable one. "It was a send-off like I'll never forget. The Eagle
has literally landed."
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