Every script from Josh Singer starts out based in fact. Having had a hand in “The Fifth Estate,” “The Post,” and “Spotlight,” not to mention writing on “The West Wing,” Singer mixes the truth into his fiction as much as possible. In fact, his feature screenplays never seem to veer into the fantastic. That’s incredibly difficult for any writer to consistently pull off, so it’s no surprise that he has an Academy Award on his shelf. Now having written another of this ilk in “First Man,” he again finds himself in Oscar contention. Plus, in case you thought this wasn’t going to be a continued focus for him, Singer’s next script is “Bernstein,” a Leonard Bernstein biopic in which Bradley Cooper plans to direct and star.
About a week ago, Singer hopped on the phone with us to discuss his latest fact-based script. The focus is obviously on “First Man,” though he also talks a bit about “Spotlight” too. Mostly, we really got into how he figures out what to do when turning a real person’s life into art.
“First Man” is directed by Damien Chazelle and stars Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong. “First Man” is currently playing in theaters and remains a must see. It’s one of the best things to hit in 2018.
Joey Magidson/Awards Circuit: Something really interesting to me is everything you’ve done has been based in fact. Even “The West Wing,” there’s a germ of truth in there. But this film is more about a person and historically they’ve always been about an idea or a struggle or a situation. The jumping off point is a little different. How did this come about? What made Neil Armstrong the person to make a movie about? What made the moon landing something to make a movie about? I’m sure every third person you talk to makes the joke about knowing how it ends. How did you make it into this?
Josh Singer: Well you know, Joey, to me what was…I have to say it was a real labor of love. It started with Damien [Chazelle]. Well, it really started with Temple Hill [Entertainment]. Apparently, they’d been trying to make this forever, but then Damien. They approached Damien and he had a specific take on it and I was slipped an early copy of “Whiplash” and I totally went nuts for it and basically came to the conclusion that anything Damien is doing, I want to do. And Damien’s take on it was very clear which is, “I want to show the cost in a real way.” And when I read Jim Hanson’s book, it just became very clear that Neil was the perfect way to do that.
You know, I think one of the things that I found super exciting about this was, it’s funny because (laughs), I feel like, as a screenwriter, if you deconstruct a script, it’s a pretty atypical character arc and maybe if you look a prototypical hero’s journey, it’s not that far off from the whole success, failure, success, failure, failure, failure, success. But in my mind, the character arc was very nontraditional.
He starts at a pretty dark place, and then he finds a bit of light and then we just knock him down and knock him down and knock him down again. Because that’s essentially what happened. This guy lost his daughter, which, you know, I’ve got a two-year-old now and I can’t think of anything more devastating. On top of my list of fears, of all the fears I have, anything happening to my son, that is absolute number one top of the list. And any real fears I have all have to do with his well being, right? In one way, shape or form. So the idea of losing a child, I cannot imagine anything worse, right? See, that’s where we start, right? Which again, pretty dark place just to begin.
JM: Of course.
JS: And then, from there, he then finds a new adventure, right? And by the way, in real life, there were questions as to whether he was going to be grounded. He certainly had these three incidents that actually happened right after, not right before she died, but there were three incidents all happening in April of ’62, and there was, you know, certainly [Paul] Bikle, who was his supervisor at the Flight Research Center, did not recommend him for the astronaut program. And so as result – and also there were real rumors that he was going to ground him, and so it was not a great…Neil was in a bad place. But because he was such a great engineer they really wanted him to be part of the astronaut program. He had friends who were down there already who he had worked with.
So he gets called down to Houston, and he starts to have this rebirth, right? Where he’s got a new mission, he has a new kid, he has this set of friends who are pretty like-minded. Specifically, he gets very close to Elliot See, who’s his backup on Gemini 5, and who is very like-minded with his civilian, among the peakiest of the pilots there. And then Elliot dies, right? And the Neil goes up in his first mission and he almost dies, and then that same year Joe Walker, his boss, and mentor from FRC, who he is super close with, and Ed [White] died, and it’s just like, one blow after the next. And Neil almost dies. And so it’s very much this downward spiral descent for this guy, who’s essentially the entire time running through grief. And so it’s a pretty dark, it’s more of a Bolero – the team, not the movie.
But he ended up getting a slow crescendo of agony and grief that ultimately then is, you finally get to the moon and you see something that no one has seen before and you can maybe release. Ryan [Gosling] used to say all the time that this is not about a guy trying to land on the moon, this is about a guy trying to land back on Earth. And he really is trying to find his mooring the entire movie. So in that way, he’s very nontraditional and I was frankly attracted to that because I don’t hate but I don’t like a traditional biopic.
And this, by limiting the time span and really focusing on this descent… You know, another thing we really talked about was the Orpheus myth. He’s really going into…he’s going to Hell. He’s trying to find that lost soul, which he’s not going to find because she’s gone.
JS: Anyway, that’s a long way of saying beyond all that, one of the things I found distressing is nobody know this right? Portraits of astronauts have always been triumphant. Certainly, nobody knows about the suffering of Neil Armstrong. They just see this good-looking guy who was pretty smiley. But we worked very close with family and we spent time with Janet, we spent time with Neil’s sister June. We were getting at who he was. And he was not an easy guy. And it’s because none of these guys…I mean, there’s a reason that two thirds of these astronauts got divorced. It’s not because they were players, it’s because they were under intense, intense pressure and most of the times the home lives didn’t stand up to it. And it was very very hard on them and their families.
And so we did intense research. I actually wrote a book because we were so concerned that this would be provocative in the space community. It has been a little provocative, but the book has sort of helped that. I mean, Jim Hanson and I wrote this book which basically sort of details, you know, everything. Give background on all the facts and also details where we took license and we do that so that people would be able to see where we took license but also how much homework we had done and how accurate this portrait really is.
JM: For sure. I’m actually curious about that because I think that’s one of your best skills. Here, especially in “Spotlight” and “The Post” as well. You can usually tell what had to be fabricated. There are conversations that you’ll never know actually happened. There are individual moments that have to make a movie a movie, but in your scripts, they always fit so seamlessly. Even the grand moments, Mark Ruffalo giving the speech in “Spotlight,” for example. There are scenes obviously on the moon in “First Man,” etc. How do you figure out where a moment needs to be elevated or minimized? How do you figure that out?
JS: It’s funny because Michael Rezendes used to love… He came on tour with us for “Spotlight” and people would be like, “So when you blew up with Robby like that,” and he had to go, “It didn’t really happen.”
JM: He’s like, “I would have been fired!”
JS: (Laughing) Right! “I did blow up at him a bunch of times, but not that bad.”
But that’s the whole point of this book that I wrote. I think pretty hard about it. I think, for me, you always have to be careful, and I always feel a tremendous responsibility to both the public who oftentimes will see a movie and go, like, I saw “Glory,” and that’s all I really know about that black regiment. I don’t know how true that was, but I haven’t done a lot of homework on that. I saw “All the President’s Men,” and as much as I know journalism, love journalism, I haven’t read the book. I don’t know how accurate that is. So that’s my knowledge of the breaking of Watergate.
And so, there’s a responsibility first and foremost to the public. You’d better be in the ballpark, right? For some people, this is all they’re going to know about the moon landing. Now we’re in a little bit of a different place where a lot of people know a lot about the moon landing, but this is a side of the moon landing they didn’t know about. I feel responsible to the public, I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to the people, meaning Neil and his family. I mean, Neil’s family, we spent a lot of time with them. And like, the most terrified I was in this process is when Mark and Rick watched the movie. Like, god, if they don’t like the movie I don’t know where to start. That’s really what I’m, that’s my number one audience.
And so, I think because of that responsibility I feel, and again, this is what the book is about, I spent a lot of time really working on and working out the details of, you know, when do we fictionalize and how do we fictionalize? I mentioned earlier the X-15 flight where Neil sort of got distracted and, there’s more detail on what he got distracted by in the book, but he got distracted and ballooned off the atmosphere. That flight actually happened in April of ’62, which was pretty much after Karen had died as opposed to another flight in December of ’61, but that flight actually went off without a hitch. And that was a month before Karen died. So that’s a fiction of time.
JS: We take license in terms of time, but the point is the same. It’s this problem at home had an impact on his life. And Jim sort of goes large on that, again these three different incidents, of which this is one. But he talks about how a lot of people thought they were because he was struggling, and hence, distracted. So I feel like we’re not really fudging, even though it was a slight fictionalization in terms of time. Similarly, fictionalization in terms of place, like setting something…when we get the call about Ed White and Apollo I, he actually got that in a hotel room, not at the White House. He had just been at the White House, so it amps the drama a little bit to have him get that call in the White House as opposed to the hotel. So, like, it’s not 100% right if he gets it at the White House, not the hotel, but he had just been in the White House and lets us stay in that pretty set for a little longer and that doesn’t bug me so much.
But backtracking to the third set of fictionalization, which to me is the one I’m most careful with, and that’s fictionalizations of manner. Meaning, how did he react when he got bad news? The first time I wrote that scene, I had him slam the phone down over and over. Slamming the phone down, the receiver, over and over until the phone breaks and his hand gets all bloody. And I said that to Jim Hanson, and to the boys, and to Mike Collins, and to several others to read and give notes. All of these people who had given me notes to begin with. And they all basically came back at me and said he would never in a million years do this. So then I’m stuck in a position of, okay, this is the most profound loss he’s had since Karen. How do I communicate that yet do it in a way that would actually be realistic for Neil? And so, I came up with the glass, which is, you’re going to be on his face, he’s not going to move a muscle, you’re going to see his eyes go dark because I’ve got Ryan Gosling who’s going to do that incredible work for me. But then I need something to show that he’s bottling everything up. Because that’s what we know about Neil Armstrong. And so off-screen, you hear a pop, and then you look down and the glass is in his hands, he’s broken it because he’s just squeezing it so hard. And I wrote that version of the scene and I sent it back to Jim Hanson and to Mark and Rick, and they’re like, okay, that we can buy. And so to me it’s about basing everything pretty closely to what happened, and then when you’re going to take a leap, making it a small leap, not a big one. Right?
JM: Makes sense.
JS: Similarly, like, the bracelet. Everybody comes up and asks, did the bracelet happen? Did that actually happen? And so what I say all the time is, it’s conjecture, but it’s not mine. It’s Jim Hanson’s. Because Jim Hanson wrote about this in his book. He basically started to wonder if Neil had taken something of Karen’s to the moon. Why would he start to wonder that? Well, number one, it’s somewhat common, right? Astronauts would leave mementos for loved ones or lost ones on the moon. Charlie Duke left a picture of his family on the surface of the moon. Still there. Probably pretty faded at this point, but still there. Neil and Buzz actually left a little pouch with an Apollo I patch, and coins, medallions for the two Russians who had died, Kamarov and Gagarin. So they left a memorial. There was a memorial later left on the moon for all of the astronauts who had died. So it’s a somewhat common occurrence.
Moreover, Neil grieved greatly for Karen, as anyone would, and it’s only six, seven years later. Not a lot of time has passed in the grand scheme of things. And I think that’s a loss that never goes away. All of our losses never go away, but this one in particular, right? So Jim asked Neil for his manifest. For his private property kit. PPK, or Personal Preference Kit, I think the technical term is, where he would have put something in there. And Neil said he had lost it. Now that manifest has since been found, and it’s in the Purdue archives under seal, apparently, until, like, 2020. Jim starts to get suspicious, so [he] goes to the person who knows Neil best, who is June Hoffman, Neil’s sister. And Jim says to June, “Do you think Neil might have left something of Karen’s on the moon?” And June says, “Oh I dearly hope so.” So Jim writes all this in the book.
To me, I feel like, okay, this is an educated guess. That feels like, okay, it’s a leap, right? So that’s the biggest leap I’m going to make. And I never would have done that if Jim hadn’t written about it in his book. But if his authorized biographer, who spent years and years studying Neil, thinks that this is a distinct possibility then, okay. Good enough for me.
JM: Yeah. And it’s an earned moment for the audience in a movie that, for all its strengths, is not super concerned with pleasing the audience. It’s about telling this story.
JM: In that moment, you get that one emotional release, in a movie where you learn pretty quickly that emotion is not going to be a part of it. The closest you get is the glass and the moment where he tells Ed, “Do you think I’m out in my backyard alone because I want to talk?” That’s not what you get with this movie. But seeing that one moment, whether it happened or not, you get that moment of feeling the way he feels, and sharing that moment, and that makes the ending even more profound because you’ve now shared a moment with him.
JS: Yup. Exactly.
JM: It works.
JS: Did you like that moment? When he says, do you think I want you back there because I want to talk?
JM: I love that. That’s one of my favorite moments in the movie.
JS: Um. That’s interesting. And what did you think of Neil in that moment?
JM: I like that he…It was sort of an acknowledgment of, yeah other people see that I’m hurting but I don’t…one, I don’t want you to see that I’m hurting, and two, I really either don’t have the tools, or the desire to talk about it. In every other movie he would talk about it and he would monologue about it, and it would be a good scene, but I really like how it doesn’t make the character more likable since that’s not the intent. You really get a sense of who he is in that moment. Maybe more so than any other moment in the film.
JS: Yup. Yup. Yup.
JM: So it’s a long winded way of agreeing with you on that. I like that choice.
Before we wrap up I am actually curious about one thing slightly lighter. For all the talk we do about awards season and who will get nominated and who will win Oscars, you’ve actually won one. What’s that feel like? It’s got to be an awesome feeling.
JS: You know it’s funny. It’s two things. First of all, it definitely was super exciting to win for “Spotlight” for writing. And you know Tom [McCarthy] and I, I love Tommy to death and we had a real, it was such a wonderful experience working on that movie. You know, it’s funny. The writing with that movie and the working with Tommy and the shooting of that movie and then taking it through its paces in editing, it was all really just, I don’t know if I’ll ever have one like that again. There’s something special about it both in terms of the work that you’re doing but also in terms of you know why you’re doing it. And I don’t mean important with a capital I, but I just mean that, hopefully, this is going to have some sort of an impact. Obviously it had zero impact on the church, but hopefully, it’s going to mean something to the survivors, right? And it’s going to mean something to reporters. And I feel like that was, in some ways, it was a lovely crowning moment but I think because of all of that and because we got to know some of these survivors and we saw so many reporters, the moment that blew my mind was when we won Picture. Winning an Oscar for screenplay, it’s like winning an MVP award. And that’s really great. It’s really great. But winning the Best Picture award is like winning the Series. (Laughs)
JM: I mean listen, I’m a Met fan and I’m glad Jacob deGrom won the Cy Young but I would have rather seen them win the World Series.
JS: Right! It’s not the same, right? There’s something about winning the Series and that moment and it was such a, we were so convinced at that point that we were not winning the Series. But that moment when Morgan Freeman said “Spotlight” and Tommy and I are backstage and we were like little boys and we just hugged each other. And everybody pours on the stage and Phil Saviano was there, who was the very first guy, the face of the survivors really and the first guy to really start tracking us down and a lot of his leads were really what the team was working off of. So he was there and the reporters were there and I just, you know, that’s a night you never want to end.
JM: Yeah. That was a definite surprise, but a great one, since it was the rare time where almost no one was predicting it. The math just didn’t work.
JS: Exactly. No one was. Here’s the thing I think, you know, it’s a special thing. One thing I will say, there are politics involved in the Academy and having now been through the process a couple times it’s a funny thing. It really does become political campaigning. Most people in the wider world don’t know that and I’m not sure they would care either, but what I find a little hard about this period right now is it’s so far away from what you’re doing. I saw that on “Spotlight” too, like, the period of work on the movie was so great and the initial response to the movie was so great and it was just month after month of, where are we in the standings? It’s hard to ignore it on the one hand and the other hand it’s certainly probably the least healthy thing you could do as an artist.
JM: One more thing, thankfully no one is going to give a damn about flags anymore since that was a weird five minutes. That had to be really annoying, right? People not having seen the movie complaining about an aspect of the movie that actually didn’t happen. Did that bug you?
JS: (Laughing) I think that speaks to the time. And I will say this, and you can quote me on this, what I find hard about that is that this movie is about what really made America great. This movie is about the real sacrifice these people put in, and it’s not about a bill of goods that a politician is trying to sell you. It’s about real leadership, leadership of actions not speech, and we’re not on the nose about that, but frankly that’s what this is. For me it was so frustrating because that’s a part of the world that I want to see this movie. The fact that there’s a segment of the country that, and there’s no question in my mind our box office was hurt. If you look at how we performed in the middle of the country, a movie that should overperform there which underperformed there, right?. And it’s just a shame, it’s a real shame because I think there was a lot to learn and it’s our politicized time. It’s one of the reasons I hope we get a couple of nominations so that people can be like, oh, let me take another look at that.
JM: I don’t think any nominations will be affected. I think, to be 100% honest, I think the chances of winning Picture and Director are a little less likely now just because they are going to look at that.
JS: Yeah. I agree.
JM: Nothing below the line will probably be affected. The movie will still get six, seven, eight nominations at the end of the day, in all likelihood.
JS: I hope so, I hope so. From your lips to God’s ears! (Laughs).
JM: I think people are going to wonder why this wasn’t one of the hits of the year, a year or two from now, when it is on HBO and available on Blu-Ray. The box office will be a thing of the past and the quality of the work will remain. So, congratulations on that.
JS: I appreciate that.