Damien Chazelle: ‘I liked doing something that was the polar opposite of La La Land’

The Oscar-winning director on his new movie about the 1969 moon landing, that infamous best film mix-up, and finding time for a honeymoon

Damien Chazelle, 33, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, to a Canadian mother (a history teacher) and a French father (a computer science professor). He released his first feature film, the jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, aged 24, but it was Whiplash that yielded a career breakthrough in 2014. He capitalised on this with La La Land, which last year won six Oscars – including best director for Chazelle – though it was mistakenly announced as best picture before the award went to Moonlight. His latest film, First Man, follows Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) through years of preparation for the moon landing in 1969.

This feels like a very different film to your last one – where La La Land was flamboyant and emotional, First Man is reserved and claustrophobic. What persuaded you to take it on?
I liked doing something that felt like the polar opposite of La La Land, just as La La Land felt like the polar opposite of Whiplash, at least emotionally. But I was also just interested in exploring a different world – this was my first time doing something that wasn’t directly tied to my own life experience.

Were you interested in space travel as a kid?
Yeah, but no more so than your average kid. I would say I was more interested in movies about space travel than space travel itself. I always wanted to do art, whether it was music or movies or drawing or storytelling. Certainly I learned more about space travel by doing this movie than ever before. It took one trip to Houston early on to slap me in the face and go, oh shit, if I actually want to do this I have got to buckle up and learn.

How was this story personal for you?
I related to it as a movie about trying to turn dreams into reality, somewhat similar to La La Land and Whiplash [which was inspired by Chazelle’s own experience as an obsessively focused jazz drummer]. I also wanted to give a sense of the work involved in becoming an astronaut, which movies tend to obscure – the sweaty hands, the vomit on the shirt, the dirty, gritty, cobbled-together aspect of it. When I first saw one of these capsules for real, it was so much less gilded than how I imagined it. I wouldn’t get into one for 10 minutes, let alone the time it takes to fly to the moon. I wanted the audience to feel like they’re inside that capsule, screaming to get out.

Watch a trailer for First Man.

Republican senator Marco Rubio raised a stink about you not showing the US flag being planted on the moon. Were you anticipating that reaction?
No, not really. The whole point of the film was to tell the untold story, to look at things that we didn’t know, that we didn’t see. So it was purely an aesthetic choice – there was nothing political in it at all.

Donald Trump joined in, saying: “It’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America, I think it’s a terrible thing… I wouldn’t even want to watch the movie.” Do you feel sad about losing that particular viewer?
I feel sad about losing any viewer. I hope he changes his mind. I think anyone who sees the film will see the patriotism that I think is fully a part of it.

This is your second film with Ryan Gosling. What’s unique about him as an actor?
He does a deep dive [into the character] and has some of Neil Armstrong’s obsessiveness and determination to get things right. In between takes he’d be huddled off with one of the astronauts we had on set, asking: “Did that look OK?” “Was it this button or that button?” “For the next scene I have to pull the RCS switch – do you pull them fast or slow?” He’s just like a hawk for all those things.

Sorry to make you relive the best picture fiasco in 2017, but what was going through your head when the mix-up with Moonlight was revealed?
[laughs] I was so out of it and I didn’t really hear what was going on for most of the time. After the Moonlight people started crowding on the stage, someone had to come and explain to me what was happening. What people watching the telecast maybe don’t realise is that, when you’re in an awards season, you’re seeing people from the other films all the time and you become buddies. So that aspect of it was really nice. Who walks home with what prize is maybe a little less important, but I was certainly happy to see it go to them.

You’ve spoken in the past about having an obsessive streak with your work. How’s your work-life balance now?
Maybe it’s better than it used to be. It’s helpful to have people to force me to clock off. My wife [actor Olivia Hamilton] is very instrumental in that regard. I think I would be either crumpled up in a corner somewhere or just a lesser human being without her.

You got married recently.
We got married – actually we eloped – last December. It was our little secret city hall marriage. We’ve been trying to find little pockets of time for a honeymoon, but I’m afraid we haven’t managed it yet.

What do you do to relax?
I love reading. Watching films, obviously. Listening to music. Also, it’s really lovely to be in places like London or Paris and walk the city. I’ve always liked that idea of the flâneur, the street walker. Just wandering can be endlessly inspiring.

What’s next?
Talking about Paris, I’ll be returning there next year to shoot the first two episodes of a Netflix series called The Eddy. It’s about a jazz club run by an expat with a motley crew of locals and foreigners who all gather there. It follows their daily life in and out of the club – a bit of an ensemble piece. Meanwhile, I’m trying to write the next movie, but it’s too early to say what it’ll be about. So there’s stuff in the pipeline, but I’m [also] pretty excited to have a little bit of uncertainty.

First Man is released on 12 October


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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