The Cinefex story on First Man – Universal Pictures’ dramatization of the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong – unearthed fascinating details about the production, which resulted in a 9,000-word story featured in our October issue. Director Damien Chazelle’s film told the story of the first man on the moon in a documentary style that required naturalistic approaches to all aspects of production – from production design, to cinematography, costume design, special effects, visual effects and makeup.
The challenge for Ryan Gosling, Chazelle’s leading man from La La Land, was to step into the title role playing Armstrong as a clean-cut aviator and a very private family man who embodied small town Ohio values in a turbulent counterculture era.
Makeup department head Donald Mowat, who previously collaborated with Gosling on Blade Runner 2049, attended Armstrong’s physical appearance with minimal technical artifice. “I’ve found that unless the makeup screams ‘prosthetic,’ no one is that interested,” asserted Mowat. “And yet, this was one of the hardest films I’ve worked on.”
“The challenge was that everyone knew our leading man was Ryan Gosling. There was only so much we could do to make him resemble Neil. However, the difference between how Ryan looks in Blade Runner to First Man was quite huge, even though it was all ‘just makeup.’ Neil was very boyish. That quality was something I stumbled on by accident while watching one of Ken Burns’ documentaries about the 1960s. That was where I did most of my research, especially for the female characters. Damien wanted to represent real-life 1960s, not Austin Powers sixties. Working with Ryan, we wanted to capture Neil Armstrong’s look that was typical of that period – short-sleeved shirts, short hair, very groomed, more ‘50s than ‘60s-looking. In all the reference, Neil had this very tight, short hair-cut and he always seemed clean as a whistle.”
For space mission scenes, costume designer Mary Zophres obtained period re-creations of NASA flight suits from Chris Gilman’s Global Effects, and production designer Nathan Crowley furnished authentic reproductions of cockpits and space capsules. The claustrophobia of the eight-day Apollo 11 moon mission put demands on cast and crew. “We had to play with levels of stubble and fatigue. That was quite a test, maintaining continuity over weeks of filming, working in very tight quarters, where accessibility into the set was difficult. I was pre-setting, and then I had the actors spray themselves. They worked so hard in that set for five or six hours without a break.”
Makeups included a moustache application for Apollo 11 command service module pilot Mike Collins (Lukas Haas), and a custom hair pieces for Gosling that wig maker Peter Owen supplied to cater to the eight-year story arc, while Marie Larkin served as hair department lead for broad range of characters. “It did feel like two distinct films, with the NASA missions and the stories of the families, wives and children. For Neil’s wife, Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy), we were very conscious that many of the astronaut’s wives seemed to represent a particular sort of middle class Americana – they all resembled girl’s Phys Ed teachers. The emotional level of the film, together with the period setting and the conservative nature of the characters was quite tricky to get right. The men were all clean-shaven, the occasional older man had a thin David-Niven-style moustache. But the younger men back then were squeaky clean, like choirboys, which was not the easiest thing to recreate as we took the characters into their 30s.”
The film spanned three U.S. presidencies, but avoided prosthetic likeness makeups. “I found reference pictures of all the characters represented in the film and Damien went through each one, including extras and day-players. He found look-a-likes for well-known astronauts, such as John Glenn. But we didn’t want to create elaborate makeups, and we accepted the fact that most people would not remember what the astronauts looked like.” A single character received prosthetic assistance, for astronaut Pete Conrad (Ethan Embry). “Conrad had a distinctive look, with a great gap between his front teeth. We did a dental impression for Ethan Embry – we called him, ‘Teethan.’ Other than that, we gave Ryan a little hairpiece to indicate the passage of time, and he captured the essence of Armstrong.”
First Man opened October 12. For the complete story on the production, special effects, miniatures and visual effects of the film, visit Cinefex 161.
Imagery © Universal Pictures. Special thanks to Donald Mowat, Damion Stene and Bette Einbinder.