How ‘First Man’ Pulled Screenwriter Josh Singer Out of a Low Point in His Career (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Screenwriter Josh Singer is no stranger to success, having won an Oscar for co-writing Spotlight as well as earning acclaim for writing The Post and First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling as the titular astronaut who was the first man to walk on the moon on July 21, 1969.
“I’m fascinated with history and learning,” Singer tells ET about his interest in translating nonfiction stories for the screen.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Singer found himself working in the writers’ room of The West Wing shortly after John Wells took over for creator Aaron Sorkin. It was there he first cut his teeth, calling it “John Wells screenwriting school,” writing five episodes during the final three seasons. “I really learned how to think about stories,” he says of his time there before going on to write for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Lie to Me and Fringe. By 2012, the screenwriter made the jump from TV to film with The Fifth Estate, the biopic about WikiLeaks creator Julian Assange released in October 2013.
Directed by Bill Condon and starring Daniel Bruhl, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, the film was initially thought to be an awards season contender. However, the film was criticized for not taking a point of view and it ultimately was a dud at the box office. Even goodwill for Cumberbatch, who was amid a breakout year thanks to 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Star Trek Into Darkness, couldn’t save the film.
Meanwhile, Singer and Tom McCarthy had finished the script for Spotlight, but the “big star” attached to play Boston Globe investigative reporter Walter Robinson had just dropped out. (Matt Damon was reportedly the front-runner before the part ultimately went to Michael Keaton.)
“I was actually not in a fantastic moment, career-wise,” Singer says about first getting a call to do a Neil Armstrong biopic with director Damien Chazelle, who had yet to debut the 2014 Sundance Film Festival breakout Whiplash. Blown away by the film, Singer agreed to meet with Chazelle, who he thought had the potential to be “another [Martin] Scorsese or another [Steven] Spielberg.”
That initial meeting laid out the themes and ideas for what would become First Man,a film that gets at the real cost behind Armstrong’s story. “I was interested in this notion of loss and sacrifice Neil has had to bear and live through,” Singer says. “I was struck by how his greatest triumph was actually a story of loss.”
While the deal for an adaptation of James R. Hansen’s First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong was finalized, the cast for Spotlight came together and began filming in September 2014. Soon after, Whiplash was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning three. From there, both Chazelle and Singer’s careers continued to rise. The latter won a 2016 Best Original Screenplay Oscar and co-wrote The Post, for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination. Meanwhile, Chazelle went on to write and direct La La Land, winning the 2017 Oscar for Best Director.
“As we were working on [First Man], Damien took great glee in telling everybody he found me before Spotlight, which was true,” Singer says, adding that he enjoyed Chazelle “getting appropriately applauded and watching the world recognize what I’d already known.”
His trajectory continues to only look up as he’s slated to next write Bernstein, a biopic about composer Leonard Bernstein, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper. Like Singer, Cooper is enjoying plenty of Oscar attention for writing, directing and starring in the hugely popular remake of A Star Is Born, co-starring Lady Gaga.
Writing the script last fall, it eventually found its way into the hands of Cooper, who became interested in the performer and a story about how the he wrestles with all his many talents. But the writer says there’s still a lot work to be done on it. “I don’t know where it will lead but he’s a great director,” Singer adds. “It’s all about working with good people. I’m excited and hopeful.”
Until then, the writer says he pinches himself in disbelief of being surrounded by the likes of Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz, who’s worked on Whiplash, La La Land and now First Man, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, whose work includes La La Land, Battle of the Sexes, First Man and Disney’s upcoming Nutcracker adaptation.
“If you would have told all of us back in 2014, that between us we’d have more than a couple of Academy Awards, we would have all been very surprised,” Singer says.