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Filmmaker, TV network take small steps to Neil Armstrong biopics

The life of the late astronaut Neil Armstrong is the focus of both a feature film and TV miniseries now in development. (NASA)
September 29, 2014

— The life story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, has taken not one, but two small steps towards landing on both the big and small screens.

A newly-acclaimed director and a television network have each reportedly turned their attention to the late Apollo 11 moonwalker as the inspiration for a feature-length film and TV miniseries, respectively.

Damien Chazelle, who directed the upcoming jazz drama "Whiplash," is in talks to direct "First Man," a biopic about Armstrong for Universal Studios.

Meanwhile, the tv network TNT has dusted off its plans for "One Giant Leap," an almost ten-year-old project to adapt Armstrong's life as a four-hour miniseries.

Neil Armstrong, who died in August 2012 at age 82, was a Naval aviator and NASA research pilot prior to becoming an astronaut in 1962. Three years before he walked on the moon in July 1969, Armstrong commanded the Gemini 8 mission, achieving the world's first-ever docking between two spacecraft.

Penetrating character study

News of Chazelle's interest in directing "First Man," which was first broken by The Hollywood Reporter, comes just a couple of weeks before the limited release of "Whiplash," the filmmaker's new drama. The movie, which stars actors Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons as a young jazz drummer and his mentor, took the top awards at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

"Whiplash" director Damien Chazelle (left) and star J.K. Simmons seen together at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. (Sony Classics)

"Damien Chazelle's new film caused a sensation not just at the Sundance Film Festival, but everywhere it has been previewed," said historian James Hansen, who penned the authorized biography "First Man" on which the Armstrong feature film will be based. "When the rest of us get to see ['Whiplash'] and start to appreciate what a brilliant young filmmaker that Chazelle is, the excitement about how he will handle 'First Man' should really explode."

Universal originally optioned Hansen's "First Man" (Simon & Schuster, 2005) in 2008 after it was briefly considered by Clint Eastwood for Warner Brothers. A screenplay was written but the project stalled until earlier this year, when Chazelle expressed interest in directing. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Josh Singer ("The Fifth Estate") has been tapped to write a new script.

"Space enthusiasts need to know that it is not going to be an "Apollo 13" or a "From the Earth to the Moon," Hansen told "It is going to be sharply-edged, penetrating character study."

Neil Armstrong (right) seen with his authorized biographer James Hansen, author of "First Man," in 2004. (James Hansen)

"I am going to be deeply involved in this film, especially as the screenplay is written, and I will do everything I can to make it an honest story," he added.

Producing "First Man" for Universal will be Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen of Temple Hill Entertainment ("Twilight: New Moon," "The Maze Runner").

Small screen, 'Giant Leap'

Preceding the news about "First Man" by a few days, TNT confirmed to Deadline Hollywood that it was again picking up development of its miniseries about Armstrong.

Al Reinert, who co-wrote the script for Universal Studios' 1995 feature film "Apollo 13," has been attached to TNT's "One Giant Leap," based on the book by the same title by Leon Wagener (Tom Doherty Associates, 2004). Reinart also penned two episodes of Tom Hanks' HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon," including one focusing on Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission, as well as directed the 1989 moon landing documentary "For All Mankind."

EOne Television ("Hell on Wheels" on AMC and "Haven" on SyFy) will produce "One Giant Leap" for TNT.

The only full-body photograph of Neil Armstrong taken outside on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. (NASA)

Target release dates for either "One Giant Leap" or "First Man" are not yet known.

"It has been 45 years since Apollo 11 and it is time for the story — particularly Neil's story — to be presented to the younger generations," Hansen said.

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