For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s 3,800 word cover story interview with First Man screenwriter Josh Singer written by Jeff Goldsmith from Backstory Issue 34.
After graduating magna cum laude from Yale and getting a J.D. and MBA from Harvard, star student Josh Singer turned his back on a career in law or finance and instead jumped right into television. The idea of working in entertainment had been growing on Singer before he even began grad school and he enjoyed his jobs as an intern for Children’s Television Workshop (the company that makes Seasame Street) and then Nickelodeon in New York and the Disney Channel in L.A. But he stayed on the academic track—until he got hired at The West Wing right after graduating Harvard and began a career as a TV writer. That eventually led to him collaborating with co-writer/director Tom McCarthy on 2015’s Spotlight—a film that yielded the pair screenwriting Oscars. The years since became somewhat of a blur for the busy writer. He teamed up with director Damien Chazelle in 2015 to begin work on First Man, based on history professor James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. Upon finishing a draft in 2016—with Ryan Gosling playing Armstrong—Singer was relishing some down time while waiting for production to begin, and then he was hired by Steven Spielberg to do rewrite work on Liz Hannah’s script for The Post. When that wrapped, he went straight into production on First Man.
Before discussing his latest film, the screenwriter took a moment to reflect on what he’s learned from his last two. “Spotlight was really such an education for me,” Singer says. “Just getting a sense of how hard this is—the fact that it’s supposed to be hard and you’re supposed to do 600 drafts and the fact that you’re not necessarily gonna get it right on the first try. That applies not only to the writing but the research. I really try to take a full-on journalistic approach and dive as deep as I can. As much as I love research from my graduate school experiences, I really learned a lot from Tommy, who basically kept driving us to go back at the story. There were things we uncovered in Spotlight that we only uncovered after a year of research.”
As for his time on The Post, Singer says Hannah had already laid out the blueprint and he just came in for quick rewrites. “My education there was probably more working with Steven and seeing how he thinks of narrative and looking at how he directs. I think, in some ways, what I’ve been very fortunate to have over the last several years is training with some great directors. But the amount of research we needed to do for First Man was so exhaustive and intensive. My hat’s off to anyone who’s ever tried to do this kind of thing. Technically, I think it’s incredibly difficult trying to make it both accurate and dramatic, so that’s number one. Number two on what was really challenging was that this portrayal of Neil Armstrong is somewhat provocative. It’s something no one was really all that aware of because he’s a pretty private guy. So I felt an even greater responsibility to get it right and make sure it was backed up in fact. That required a ton of time going over material and reaching out and going back to Neil’s kids and [wife] Janet [played by Claire Foy in the film] and other folks. I think if I hadn’t had the experience of Spotlight, I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal for this one.”
One reason Singer was so well poised to take on First Man stems from his sharp talent for dramatizing historical events, meaning he had become a pro at navigating how to take dramatic license while still remaining true to the facts. “It’s funny, Jim Hansen the biographer and I wrote [a companion to the movie] First Man: The Annotated Screenplay, and we literally talk through every scene and give historical context where you can’t give it in the movie. We also discuss where we take license and why. I’ve always thought about it in very basic terms of time, place and manner. We open the movie with Neil’s first X-15 flight. It actually happened in April, and his daughter Karen [Lucy Stafford] passed away at the end of January and he’d had an X-15 flight in December. So we essentially swap out those two flights. It’s just that the three mishaps he had were all in March and April—after her death as opposed to before. But we wanted to open the movie on the X-15. We also wanted to see Karen as opposed to just opening the movie and knowing that had already happened. So for that reason I did a little bit of a time shift, but that didn’t concern me greatly. I thought the hypothesis Jim makes in his book, which I think is pretty well backed up, is that Karen’s death had an impact on Neil’s flying and Neil was almost grounded because of it. In fact, Paul Bikle, his supervisor at Edwards [Air Force Base], basically didn’t recommend him for the astronaut program because of [Karen’s death].”
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