‘First Man’: How Damien Chazelle Made That Terrifying Opening Scene

From the get-go, “First Man” shows how Neil Armstrong cheated death

First Man explosion

Millions of children say they want to be an astronaut when they grow up — but at what cost?

“First Man” shows just what fulfilling that dream entails, as it opens by recounting the first of many instances in which Neil Armstrong cheated death en route to set foot on the moon.

The film starts with a jolt, as we join Armstrong in the cockpit of an X-15 rocket plane, soaring to the highest layers of the Earth’s stratosphere as the plane’s metal rattles and the rushing air roars around him. The camera shakes violently, and the seats in the movie theater shake with it as the noise rumbles through the room. But then, suddenly, a moment of peace, as Armstrong reaches the point where he can see the vastness of space and the curvature of the Earth.

But that moment of peace is short-lived as Armstrong realizes something that will make your stomach drop. The engine’s off … and the altimeter says he’s still going up. He’s bouncing off the atmosphere, and he’s seconds away from falling out of gravity and into space. Yet, a few minutes later, Armstrong somehow finds a way to make it back to the ground, calmly walking away from the beaten-up aircraft while leaving everyone else shaken.

When speaking to TheWrap, director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer both said that they knew they needed to get the opening scene absolutely right to send the message of what this film was about: the risks taken and the price paid by Armstrong to make history. Singer says that in addition to taking info from the James R. Hansen biography the film was adapting, he also looked into simulations and other records from NASA of the X-15 flight Armstrong did in 1962.

“In some respects, that X-15 flight is just as remarkable an achievement as the moon landing was. The plane still holds speed and altitude records for piloted flights 50 years later, and Neil’s flight was the longest of all the test flights done with that craft,” Singer said.

“We talked with people who worked on the test flights with Neil at Edwards Air Force Base, and they showed us diagrams and records from the test flight. I got to try out a simulator that really felt like a fancy video game but gave me a great idea of what it was like to try to land one of these planes,” he added.

Once they had the information, Singer and Chazelle agreed that the best way to show the tension of the scene was to keep it entirely in the cockpit, an approach that also helped keep the film under its $60 million budget as it avoided having to depict the X-15’s flight with costly effects.

But keeping that tension also meant compressing a 12-minute test flight into a five-minute sequence that would put the audience practically inside Armstrong’s head as he flies the plane. To that end, Singer rewrote the scene four times before reaching the final draft used by Chazelle, with the drafts checked by Joe Engle, the last living pilot that took part in the X-15 program.

“Joe helped us make sure that we got the first-person perspective right, and it was more than the script,” Singer said. “He helped us when Damien was doing his prep with the storyboards and animatics. He guided us step-by-step through the process Neil would have done when flying the plane so we’d know what the cameras would focus on in the cockpit.”

Engle’s guidance and Singer’s research also helped production Nathan Crowley faithfully recreate the cockpits of the X-15 and NASA spacecrafts that Armstrong pilots in the film, with Mary Zophres designed the flight and space suits based off of archive photographs and footage from NASA and Edwards Air Force Base.

From there, Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren filmed the scene in 16mm camera to give it a feel similar to NASA test footage from the 1960s.

“We were able to devise a very efficient way to get everything we wanted for the test flight and for the space scenes as well,” said Chazelle.

“I remember the first time I saw some of the actual capsules and cockpits [Neil] used and thinking about how rickety they looked and how I wouldn’t feel the least bit assured if I flew up into space in one of them, so we all worked together from the production design to the sound team to create that sense of instability, and then we put LED screens in the windows to let the light playing off of Ryan’s face tell the story of how he was flying up into space.”

Armstrong’s 12-minute flight saw him ascend to 207,000 feet above Los Angeles and travel 350 miles, the farthest and longest flight recorded by the X-15 program. Of course, as we all know, he ended up traveling much farther than that a few years later.