Book Review: First Man: The Annotated Screenplay by Josh Singer

An enjoyable read and an insightful one for those who want to learn about how to write screenplays.
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As stated in my review of First Man, “director Damien Chazelle along with his cast and crew do an amazing job presenting a portion of Armstrong's life that led to him becoming the first person to walk on the Moon.” Based on James R. Hansen's biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the screenplay was written by Josh Singer, an Oscar winner for Spotlight. Titan Books presents an annotated version of the script from three weeks prior to picture lock, so there's a note that “there may be some discrepancies with the finished film.”

In his Introduction, Singer explains that along with the script is “an accompanying conversation between me and Jim Hansen...to give some greater historical context for various key moments in the script. We also try to separate those facts from the dramatic fictions.” For example, First Man opens with an X-15 flight that occurs before the death of his daughter Karen, but in actuality that particular flight occurred after. When asked by Hansen why the change, Singer explains the rationale behind the decision, which makes sense from a storytelling perspective.

The book has notations where scenes were omitted and editorial marks on the script. Red slashes through deleted items and dialogue that has been highlighted in green, though I am not sure what that indicates as I know one bit made the final cut. In addition to the text, there are corresponding pictures (production stills, behind-the-scenes shots, and archival material) to help the reader visualize the scenes.

There are also quotes about Neil and the film which add insight into the story of both. For the former, there are folks like Neil's sister Julie; Frank Hughes, former NASA Chief of Space Flight Training; and Alfred Worden, command module pilot for the Apollo 15. For the latter, crew members such as production designer Nathan Crowley, costume designer Mary Zophres, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren.

In his Foreword, Chazelle writes, “Working with Josh has been one of the greatest experiences of my professional life. What I love about these pages is that they offer people an opportunity to see...the hard choices we made in trying to bring Neil's experience to a new generation.” First Man: The Annotated Screenplay is an enjoyable read and an insightful one for those who want to learn about how to write them thanks to the conversation between Singer and Hansen. The process of writing a screenplay and the decisions involved can teach more than just reading the final product.

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