How metro Atlanta helped makers of ‘First Man’ capture Armstrong’s story

Mark and Rick Armstrong, sons of Neil Armstrong, visited the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta on Oct. 9, ahead of the “First Man” movie release. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Mark and Rick Armstrong, sons of Neil Armstrong, visited the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta on Oct. 9, ahead of the “First Man” movie release. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

As Ryan Gosling re-created Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind during the climactic moon landing scene in “First Man,” the audience at Atlantic Station was fully engrossed in the awe-inspiring moment.

It was slightly disorienting when the movie theater lights came on a few minutes later, transporting the viewer from outer space back into the advanced screening. That jet lag-feeling intensified when Gosling and Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle came in and divulged that the “moon” was actually a gray rock quarry just outside Atlanta.

Actor Ryan Gosling, who portrays Neil Armstrong, and director/producer Damien Chazelle attend the “First Man” premiere on Oct. 4, 2018, at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. SHANNON FINNEY / GETTY IMAGES

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Gosling and Chazelle were in town to promote the film, a deep dive into the decade leading up to the 1969 Apollo 11 flight told through Armstrong’s notoriously private point of view, ahead of its Oct. 12 release. The movie is quite the departure from the pair’s first project together — the six-time Academy Award-winning, energetic musical “La La Land” — in tone, storyline and filming location.

Chazelle, who also directed the Academy Award-winning “Whiplash” in 2014, had not filmed in Atlanta before this recent drama. The metro area was able to re-create a “host of topographies,” including space, the moon and circa-1960s Houston, California and Florida, the director said during an interview at the Fernbank Science Center on Tuesday.

“It’s crazy. I’ve lived in (Los Angeles) for 10 years; more stuff shoots in Atlanta than in L.A.,” Chazelle said. “One thing that comes from that is the incredible crews here, so there’s just a depth of talent, a really deep bench.”

Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong in “First Man,” appreciated the support shown by a Roswell neighborhood while the movie filmed there. SHANNON FINNEY / GETTY IMAGES

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It was Gosling’s third time filming in Atlanta, along with his first movie, “Remember the Titans,” and the more recent “The Nice Guys.” The actor said he was also impressed by the crews, but there was something else that made an impact on the director and actor duo: the residents of one Fulton County city.

The production team found an empty lot in Roswell to replicate the family’s home, brick by brick, during Armstrong’s tenure at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Chazelle and Gosling remembered neighbors passing space-themed cookies around to crew members during a night shoot.

“That neighborhood was very understanding and gracious. Oftentimes I think it can put people out to have a film being shot in their neighborhood,” Gosling said. “And maybe it was, but they certainly never made us feel that way. They were just very supportive, and invested, and involved.”

“It was a great feeling of community in exactly the way we wanted to re-create on screen,” Chazelle added. Indeed, one scene depicts an astronaut’s wife welcoming Armstrong’s wife — brilliantly played by Claire Foy — to the neighborhood with a plate of baked goods.

First Man, the riveting story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the years 1961-1969. A visceral, first-person account, based on the book by James R. Hansen, the movie will explore the sacrifices and the cost—on Armstrong and on the nation—of one of the most dangerous missions in history.

Georgia didn’t always cooperate, though. Chazelle wanted to avoid using computer-generated images; no easy feat when you’re shooting scenes of men walking on the moon. The team sculpted the landscape at Stockbridge’s Vulcan Rock Quarry one January but ran into an unexpected issue: snow on the moon. The actors had to shoot other scenes back at Tyler Perry Studios while the satellite thawed out.

Chazelle also strove for authenticity in the film that’s based off James Hansen’s biography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.” Armstrong’s sons, Rick and Mark, were heavily consulted and even had small roles in the mission control scene.

For Rick Armstrong, who was 12 at the time of the mission, walking into the Roswell replica of his childhood home nearly 50 years later was “pretty interesting.”

“The living room was really good,” he said in an interview. “They spent a lot of effort to make that just like it was, down to the red tile on the floor.”

The film reveals sides of the late Neil Armstrong that were previously unknown to many, with his wry sense of humor contrasted against the torment of his young daughter’s death from an illness in 1962. Armstrong was 38 when he walked on the moon; Gosling, 37, portrays him stunningly.

One incredibly raw scene shows Armstrong talking about the mission’s risks during a family meeting shortly before the launch.

“Mom and Dad somehow projected this level of confidence — especially Dad, because he was kind of driving the discussion — that made us not worried,” said Mark Armstrong, who was 6 at the time. “That’s amazing, really, but that’s the way it was.”

From the first scene, where Gosling as Armstrong is rocketing toward space as a test pilot, terror is injected back into the sometimes taken for granted accomplishment of the moon landing. Proved to be a team capable of producing marvelous results, Chazelle and Gosling said they hope to work together again. For now, though, the next move is unclear.

“Going to the moon is a tough experience to beat,” Gosling said.


“First Man”

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy and Jason Clarke. Directed by Damien Chazelle.

Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements involving peril, and brief strong language. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours, 35 minutes.