Culture

A behind-the-scenes look at Damien Chazelle's latest epic.

How Oscar-Winning Editor Tom Cross Found the Heart of First Man

Space is terrifying. Maybe you already know that, intellectually. It is, after all, an endless void, a place where, perhaps you’ve heard, no one can hear you scream. But thanks to Damien Chazelle and his team — the editing by Tom Cross and the cinematography of Linus Sandgren and the superlative, instant Oscar-frontrunning sound design — First Man makes the previously merely existential terror of space travel into something tangible. Visceral. Tactile.

Something that’ll make you squirm in your seat and think, I know man went to the moon, but we really did it like this? In that tiny thing? A little tin can on top of a 6.5-million-pound rocket? That was the whole point of making the movie — a drama about Neil Armstrong and the 1960s space race — according to Cross, who’d previously worked with Chazelle on La La Land and Whiplash, resulting in two Oscar nominations and one win for the editor.

To make audiences feel the scope and scale and, yes, awe, but also the danger and claustrophobia of those early days of space travel. This is a film that puts you not just inside the cockpit with Armstrong, but in his helmet, so you feel every hum, every bone-and confidence-shaking rattle. It is not a movie for those prone to motion sickness.1

To make you realize that, sure, the idea of going to space may be something we take for granted in 2018, with NASA putting rovers on Mars and Elon Musk firing Teslas into orbit, but stepping back, it’s pretty insane we ever managed to do any of this in the first place.

Also insane — and unfortunately, we’re sort of obligated to mention it — is the pseudo-”controversy” that orbited First Man back in September, when Chazelle got attacked by some half-baked, bad faith argument about his “anti-American” artistic choice to dramatize the moon landing without explicitly showing that iconic flag planting shot. (Just for the record, you see over a dozen American flags in the movie’s final 10 minutes — including the one planted on the moon — so keep walking, Marco Rubio.)

And, yes, I did talk to Cross about that decision when we spoke shortly after the movie’s TIFF premiere. But we also talked about much more interesting things: like how First Man owes more to Saving Private Ryan than Apollo 13, the tiny mistake that nearly made the final cut, and the challenge of editing nearly 2 million feet of film2 — which, yup, is enough to get to the moon and halfway back. I did the math.

TITLE: Like a lot of kids, I grew up dreaming about going to space. But I have to say, after watching this movie, I’m so glad that I wasn’t good enough at math or science to seriously consider becoming an astronaut. Because you make it look so much more claustrophobic and so much more terrifying than I’d ever seen before. 

TOM CROSS: I’m really happy that came across, because that really was what Damien was going for. [Laughs.] You know, he’s a big fan of a lot of the classic movies people love: 2001The Right Stuff, Apollo 13. Those were all inspirations, but he really wanted to try to not tread on what those movies did so well. To not have [space travel] be so clean and futuristic. I think a big inspiration for him was when he was doing the research, he and [screenwriter] Josh Singer, went to NASA and saw these spacecrafts, and saw that they were like these tin cans held together with nuts and bolts. They were more machine age than space age. So I think that kind of analog, lo-fi feel inspired Damien’s stylistic approach — he wanted to go in the opposite direction of what had been done before.

He wanted to show how messy everything was. How dirty and submarine-like spacecrafts were. And certainly to show how claustrophobic these things were. Watching a lot of NASA footage, Damien wanted to give it the feel of the 16mm documentary cameraperson climbing into the space capsule. What would that look like? That was the starting point, to make it feel like you were a cinema verité, fly on the wall, watching these missions happen.

So how does that aesthetic get reflected in the edit?

Damien really wanted me to look at a lot of classic cinema verité documentaries from the 1960s and ‘70s. He had me look at films by Frederick Wiseman, like High School. He had me look at Gimme Shelter by the Maysles. At D.A. Pennebaker movies and Robert Drew movies, Primary and Crisis. He wanted me to get used to the shooting [style], but also the rhythms and the cutting patterns. So what that means in terms of what you see — unlike Whiplash and La La Land, which have very clean, precise cutting — Damien wanted it to feel messy. He wanted it to feel cinema verité. That meant that the things that you might normally cut out of a movie — like finding focus and snap zooms and messy camera moves — those visual moments were things that he wanted to preserve.

But the other thing is, a lot of the shooting was documentary-like. He had two weeks of rehearsal footage. Before he started principle [photography], he got together Claire Foy and Ryan Gosling and the children, in full hair and makeup in a fully-dressed set of their house, so that the kids could get used to the cameras. But also so they could play house and get used to each other. That was stuff he did to help the actors. It was also material that we ended up using for a lot of domestic scenes. That stuff was completely unscripted and improvised. So in a lot of cases, I had as close as you can get to actual documentary footage.

That’s really interesting. So you focused more on those ‘60s documentaries as visual references as opposed to other Hollywood space movies?

Damien and I get along really well because we both love movies so much. He always has a list of reference movies to watch that is extremely long, and the goal is always to be able to reference something. Our hope is to never just replicate or copy something. But his reference lists are really long and dense and they’re all over the place. So I mentioned a lot of documentaries that were on there, and certainly we looked at a lot of NASA archival footage. But there were also movies like Saving Private Ryan on there because he really appreciated — I think as everyone did — how visceral and subjective some of the scenes in that movie were. He was really inspired to try to give the audience a “You are there” feeling. For all of the mission scenes and all of the spacecraft scenes, Damien wanted to have a certain sort of visceral brutality in those scenes. He really wanted me to lean into the subjective and the POV. He didn’t want to just present a launch, he wanted the audience to experience a launch.

That was probably my biggest takeaway from this movie, that it made me feel what it would have been like to actually be there.

That was a big goal of his, to give the audience something very immersive. He wanted that to be supported by the editing, focusing on what Neil Armstrong sees: the instrument cluster, the window. He wanted the audience to really feel like you were strapped into that space capsule. But at the same time, he wanted to balance it with the family stuff, the domestic stuff. That was our other important part of the story. Damien always referred to the spine of the movie as being “the moon and the kitchen.” That’s the way he and Ryan Gosling spoke about it. So “the moon” would be all the missions leading up to the Apollo 11 mission, and “the kitchen” refers to the family life and all of the relationships that Neil has back on Earth. Relationships with Janet, his wife, with Rick and Mark, his two sons, but also with his best friends, Ed White and Elliott See.

How long did it take for you to hit on a good balance between those two?

That was the big challenge of the movie in a lot of ways, to find the right balance between the moon and the kitchen. The more we leaned into the mission, the more we focused on that, the movie started to become more predictable and more conventional, if we lean too heavy in that direction. And at the same time, if we just focused on life at home, swimming in the pool and running around the house with kids, then we lost the trajectory of getting to the moon. So our big challenge was to find that right balance. That’s something we worked on right until the end.

One of my favourite sections in the film is the Gemini 8 section. And part of why I love it is because it has a lot of the elements that I think Damien was hoping would make this film special. It starts off with a very subjective moment, where the elevator doors open and Neil walks out in a space suit and we see him approach the Gemini capsule. We see it through his eyes, we see him look into the capsule, we see how tiny and claustrophobic it is. And then we climb into the capsule and experience a launch and then the hair-raising moment where the capsule goes into a spin. But all of that exciting and visceral, immersive space stuff is intercut with mission control and also intercut with Janet and the kids at home. So it’s, in some ways, all of “the moon and the kitchen” wrapped up into one 20-minute section. That was definitely one of the most daunting sections to work on, but I was really happy with the end result.

I think you can see that reflected in the ending of the movie too. And first off, I am glad this is one of the few movies where we can openly talk about the ending without needing to add a spoiler alert. 

[Laughs.] We all know what happened. They did it!

How long did you work on getting that sequence just right?

That definitely was a beast to work on. And it was hard not just because there was a lot of footage to work with, but the stakes are really high. When Damien makes a movie, usually his favorite scene, the reason he’s making a movie is the end. I think making La La Land was an excuse so he could do the end of La La Land. That scene was really important to him. Same thing with Whiplash, the last number. And First Man is no different. When Damien and I sit down to edit together, we always go to the end first. We did that on Whiplash and we did that La La Land and we did that on First Man.

So, First Man, we didn’t just go to the very last scene, we went to the last section, which is him saying goodbye to the boys and then the entire Apollo 11 mission all the way to the end. We edited that first, because: number one, it’s the biggest thing in the movie and Damien likes to get that to a place he’s happy with, and then it takes a big weight off our shoulders and we can see what we need to focus the rest of the movie on. And what was really challenging about the last section was that it needed to sustain a certain amount of suspense. It needed to be scary, it needed to be immersive, and it needed to feel new. Because, I mean, we all know the ending. We all know Neil, Buzz, and Mike Collins made it to the moon, they walked on the moon and they survived.

So Damien really wanted to lean into parts of the story that we don’t know. That meant leaning into more intimate moments. That’s why you really wanted to focus on saying goodbye to the boys, because that’s not something that people are privy to. That’s also why you wanted to lean into Neil’s point of view on the moon. He wanted you, the audience, to really feel like you were climbing down that ladder. He wanted to continue that immersive experience. And he accentuated that by filming all of that in IMAX. But at the same time, by leaning into the subjective, it also helped suggest what Neil might have been thinking or feeling — which was another goal of Damien’s. He really wanted to focus on the unseen and unknown aspects of the story. His feeling was, if he could achieve that, if we could show people things they hadn’t seen before, they would come away with much more than just what they [already] knew about this mission.

Honestly, that’s why I found the whole sort of ending “controversy” so ridiculous. Like, I think it’s pretty telling that was coming from people who hadn’t seen the movie yet. Because the way you structure the ending, it’s so much more emotional than just some archival shot of a flag going into the ground.

There are certain things, like the flag planting, which are great moments in history. They’re totally iconic. We all know the imagery. Even if you didn’t really know about the event, you knew it through, like, the old MTV logo.3 [Laughs.] It’s so iconic. But I think that Damien really wanted to… instead of show you Neil Armstrong, the icon, to focus on the unseen parts of his story. The things you didn’t know. That’s what he felt like he could offer. Something that I learned was just how much of a regular person he was. He was a very smart engineer, a very talented pilot, but he was just a guy. And when these astronauts go on these dangerous missions, there’s a lot of pain and loss that goes along with it, and their families are brought along for the ride. That’s something that I really didn’t think about. And hopefully the movie shows not only how dangerous it is for the astronauts, but that their families are invariably taken along on these journeys as well.

And then their families get to see this movie too. Does that add an extra layer of pressure for you to get everything just right?

Yes. [Laughs.] Absolutely. It was very different [from] working on La La Land. When Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fly up into outer space in the planetarium, we really didn’t have anyone to answer to about that except for our ourselves, creatively. But working on First Man, we all felt an enormous responsibility to get the technical details right, but also to get the personal details right. Because this is based on a true story, and there are real people involved. So I know that Damien and Josh Singer worked closely with several astronauts, several consultants, and worked very closely with Rick and Mark Armstrong, Neil’s sons, along the way. From the screenwriting through the shooting. And then toward the end of editing we brought in several people, including Rick and Mark, to look at the film, and not only assess it technically but also assess it from a personal standpoint. And we’re really happy that they were happy with it.

And in the case of the technical stuff, we definitely had some adjustments to make. We know that there are tons of NASA fans and Apollo fans and Gemini fans out there who want to see this story told correctly. So it was really important for us to get those details right. I remember editing one of the Gemini sections, and there’s a moment where Neil is firing thrusters and I think we had him pushing a button on a joystick and that looked really effective and it was very forceful; it was really exciting. And then we discovered afterwards that the button that Ryan Gosling was pushing, or that we were having him push in the way I edited it, was the “talk” button. So the astronauts could talk to mission control. [Laughs.] So we had to go back and change that.

And that’s not because they shot it incorrectly. It’s not because Ryan did it incorrectly. It’s the way I edited it. I said, ‘Oh, this would look good. It looks like he’s firing these things.’ But I had cut it so that he was pushing the wrong button. These are the sorts of things that, dramatically, you can get away with. But, in a movie like First Man, where you want it to be technically correct, you can’t get away with those things. That’s where the consultants and the NASA experts could help.

References   [ + ]

1. This is a movie that deserves not just to be seen in theatres, but on the biggest screen and best sound system you can find tickets for. Seeing the lunar sequences in IMAX is like when The Wizard of Oz suddenly switches from black-and-white to colour.
2. “My entire editorial crew was really dedicated to the movie,” he said. “I was very lucky to be supported by an amazing crew, starting with our VFX editors, Ryan Chavez and Jody Rogers, and I also had two great additional editors, Harry Yoon and John To, who did incredible creative work with us. And I’d also want to just say that my incredible first assistant editors, Jennifer Stellema and Derek Drouin, somehow held together this whole movie and helped us find needles in haystacks that consisted of hours of NASA archival footage and all the film Damien shot. It would have been impossible for me to cut the movie without all of their efforts. I’d still be cutting it.”
3. And if you don’t even know that, then you really need to brush up on your history.