How deep background research created a realistic, yet exciting, screenplay
Singer and Chazelle knew early on they wanted to structure the movie around three major flights for Armstrong. The first, which opens the film, is his trip in an X-15 in which he bounces off the atmosphere. It's a near-fatal moment that arouses the suspicions of Armstrong's boss at NASA's Flight Research Center over his capabilities, while back at home, Armstrong's daughter is suffering from a brain tumor.
The next mission is the Gemini 8 flight -- Armstrong's initial trip to space. There, the action cuts back and forth between the cockpit, mission control, and Armstrong's home, as his wife Janet (Claire Foy) begins to worry he might not get back to Earth. Finally, there's Apollo 11. You know how that plays out.
Singer started by working from James R. Hansen's biography on which the movie is based, but from there he went deeper. For the X-15 sequence -- which remains entirely in the cockpit with Armstrong -- he headed to Armstrong Flight Research Center, where he pored over Armstrong's pilot notes and comments. Then, Singer himself was subject to a flight simulator. "It's really a big, fancy video game where I get to try to land the X-15," he says.
The Apollo was a bit trickier, given how iconic it is. Singer listened to the comms (which are readily available for everyone online) and dug into the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal and Apollo Lunar Flight Journal. "I could not make heads or tails of them until I had been studying this stuff for three years, and then suddenly I was like, 'Oh wow, this is the greatest thing in the world,'" Singer explains. "They not only have the transcript, but they also have what happens and how. When you get to this landing, what's really challenging is there were far more issues and nerve-racking issues than anyone really knows."
He added small bits of dialogue to the transcript in order to convey just how hairy the journey was, like in moments where Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are met with unfamiliar alarms or low fuel. "We just need a little Hamburger Helper to help the audience understand what's going on," he says.
Singer was also in conversation with the production's technical advisors, among whom were astronauts Joe Engle, Mike Collins, and Al Worden, as well as NASA's Frank Hughes. "With all of this, we have to edit this stuff down," Singer adds. "Gemini was an eight-hour mission. Apollo was an eight-day mission. We're not going to be able to show all that on film, so how do we get the highlights?"