Why Theodore Melfi Chose to Make ‘Hidden Figures’ Over ‘Spider-Man’

The director of America’s No. 1 film explains why a real-life tale of female mathematicians is really a superhero story.
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The director of America’s No. 1 film explains why a real-life tale of female mathematicians is really a superhero story.

The past two weekends have seen Hidden Figures—and not Rogue One—own the No. 1 spot at the box office. It’s a moment of sweet poetic justice that a film celebrating the data entry specialists—and three African-American women, at that—who helped to launch the first (mostly white, male) astronauts into space bested the latest movie in a franchise famous for space battles and cocky pilot protagonists. This doesn’t totally atone for Hollywood’s longtime tendency to focus on brawn over brains, but it was a nice way for the heretofore unknown stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson to make their Hollywood debut.

What accounts for Hidden Figures’ unlikely success? The plot certainly doesn’t hurt. Hidden Figures, which charts the unlikely professional achievements of its three main characters as they are charged with the equally arduous tasks of calculating landing sites and navigating workplace sexism, is a heartwarming tale of determination in the face of systemic adversity—a formula that has recently made upwards of $100 million at the box office for The Help, The Theory of Everything, The Butler, and The King’s Speech.

The script is also a tad more frank about the role of racism in its characters’ lives than most awards-season heartwarmers. In the mold of Selma and Straight Outta Compton, critically acclaimed period pieces about the black experience in America that exceeded expectations at the box office, Hidden Figures shows that, for every baby step that one black woman at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration takes forward in her career, another suffers a setback.“Every time we have a chance to get ahead they move the finish line,” Jackson (Janelle Monaé) notes mid-movie.

But as Hidden Figures writer-director Theodore Melfi (whose only previous feature is 2015’s St. Vincent) told Pacific Standard last week, try as they may, studio executives can’t really predict whether a film will sink or swim. Hidden Figures’ success, he says is “just a testament to a hardworking crew and a hardworking cast that did it for the love of it, and I think that’s what movies should be done for, for the love of it,” he said.

In a conversation at the University of California–Santa Barbara before a campus screening last Thursday, Melfi spoke to some of the ways he sought to make a movie about obscure mathematicians more appealing to a mass audience.We spoke to him about why he thinks Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson are superheroes; how he sought to make the movie “colorless”; and his decision to make this film, which came at the expense of a chance to helm the next Spider-Man.

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You’ve said that you withdrew from being in consideration for Spider-Man to get involved with this movie. Tell me a little bit about what attracted you to this project, and away from a Marvel franchise.

Well, I thought to myself, the world has definitely seen Spider-Man before. More importantly is that, when I read the book proposal, I was just shocked and honored and had a whole bunch of emotions. I have two daughters, my mom is a single mom with three sons, and Katherine [had three children too]. I was touched and affected by the struggle these women had.

Alison Schroeder did a first draft of the script, and I read that. Then I read the book proposal by Margot Lee Shetterly. There were so many things that were in the book proposal that I thought should be in the film. I [also] pumped up the space aspects of it. And then I worked really hard on the female relationships with their home life because I felt like that could be expanded, and so I really expanded Katherine’s home life, and added an engagement scene.

Right, the film is distinct from other genius stories because it’s not just about the workplace achievements, it’s also about support systems. What was behind your decision to add the home and the community context into the story?

Right away I said to myself, “Everyone knows the space race.” Everyone knows what happens to Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom and John Glenn—we’ve seen that story in film and in books. But we don’t know about the mathematicians behind it, and we specifically don’t know about these women at all who have been lost and hidden in the history books. I thought that it was more important that the movie be remembered as a movie about three women in 1960, ’61, and ’62 that did something extraordinary because they were extraordinary. In order for us to know they’re extraordinary, you had to see their home life and the equal weight they gave to their home life as to their job.

Katherine Johnson was a single mother of three girls, and to think that she did what she did as a single mom is staggering—that’s something that [many] couldn’t accomplish today. Dorothy Vaughan told her husband that she wanted to move to Hampton Roads, Virginia, because she got a job offer at NASA, and she took her four kids and moved to Hampton Roads on her own, took her four kids, and left her husband on a farm in Farmville, Virginia, to get a better job and to give her children a better education and a better life. They’re superheroes to me—spending time at home was the obvious and the only choice to make.

One of the women in the film, Katherine Johnson, is still alive. How much interaction did you have with her when you were making the movie, and how did you go about making good on the responsibility of telling a story about a real person?

When you’re dealing with someone who’s alive, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to get it right because they’re going to see it, and you owe it to them. And especially someone who is virtually unknown, you owe them even more, because they are now going to be known only through what you did—Katherine Johnson might now forever be known through her portrayal in Hidden Figures, because no one knows the real Katherine Johnson.

The first thing I did after I said I wanted to do the film is [take] a trip to Hampton Roads, Virginia, and I met her [Katherine]. She was 97 at the time, and I interviewed her, and spent a few hours with her and her family and just immersed myself in their world, and who she is, and how she lives her life.

You pay copious attention to every line. I got a line from her family, her children told me Jim Johnson said when he was marrying her, “I know marrying you includes marrying your girls as well.” So you take the one line you know to be true and you make a scene out of it. That one line became the engagement scene.

Then about eight weeks ago, we rented a theater in Hampton Roads, Virginia, for Katherine and we brought her there in her wheelchair with two of her children, her daughters, and she watched the movie. They all were crying and Katherine said, “Thank you for showing my life and my family just the way I remember it.” That’s the greatest compliment you can get.

The movie’s not entirely about racism and sexism, but those elements are present, even in subtle ways. As a white male writer and director on this film, how did you navigate telling a story about the black female experience?

I always find that anyone with a heart can tell a story about anything. As a white man, I have the same heartbeat as everyone else, I bleed the same color as everyone else, I pee the same color as everyone else, as Kevin Costner says [in the film], and that’s how I live my life. So to me it was not a “black movie,” it was not a “white movie,” it was a movie about three women. And I was raised by a single mom so I really connected to it and I understand it, and I understand the human experience because of the life I’ve lived.

Of course, I had to do my own work and my own research. I must have watched Eyes on the Prize—the civil rights documentary—a dozen times. And I surrounded myself with people who experienced it firsthand like my production designer Wynn Thomas, who grew up in the civil rights era as a black man and kept us on track the entire time, and Renee Kalfus, our costume designer, who grew up in the civil rights era. There’s a NASA documentary called When We Left Earth, which really details the entire Mercury missions.

It was a matter of being honest to the story, and being colorless about the story. We’re No. 1 at the box office [right now] and 65 percent of our audience is white. Because it’s not a “black movie.” It’s defying the label that everyone wants to put on it—it’s a movie about three women.

The film opens with a police officer treating these three women with immediate suspicion. One can’t help but think, watching that scene, about contemporary headlines about police misconduct. Were you consciously engaging with present news items as you were writing the film?

No, we wrote and shot the film long before the first in [a recent] string of police shootings. I didn’t really even realize fully what we had done until the first test screening in Los Angeles in August of 2016, after the whole string of things that had happened in Minnesota. It was a preview screening—we tested it with a predominantly African-American audience the first time. And when that scene came on, I felt the energy of the theater just—you could hear a pin drop.

You don’t really get the impact of anything until you show a scene with an audience. You sit in a room and you cut, and you think, and you just do your best with your tastes, with what you like, in telling a story, what affects you, and once you show it to an audience it’s a whole different ball of wax.

And in the current theater context, something that stuck out to me was this backdrop of paranoia over Russian spying.

Isn’t it nuts? That’s part of the reason we don’t know about the story. We were so paranoid about Russian interception that we classified that entire [space] program, including the women [involved]. Mercury astronauts didn’t even know who was going to fly until right before they were going to fly, that’s how classified it was.

Are there lessons that you hope viewers take away from this now that we are in the context that we are in?

There are a lot of lessons. I think the big-picture lesson is that there was a time in this country’s history where black and white, male and female, got together, worked hand in hand, and achieved the country’s greatest mission. Together, we put a human being into space and around the globe. And I think the lesson is that, if we did it in 1961 or ’62, we can do it again and get past this racial divide and heal. This election cycle’s been awfully divisive and nasty, but, through it all, America is beautiful and resilient — always has been great, always will be great.

As you mentioned earlier, this film was No. 1 at the box office last weekend, surpassing Rogue One. Did the studio have any expectation of this being a big box-office hit?

No, I don’t think anyone knows anything anymore. I think we try to know things, but we don’t know what’s going to affect an audience and what’s going to catch on and what’s not going to catch on. We did the movie at a very low price, which I was insistent upon and so was the studio. I don’t believe a movie should cost $100 million. I personally believe that, if you can feed a nation with your film budget, you might want to reconsider and feed that nation. So $25 million is what the film cost, but it looks a lot more than that; it’s just a testament to a hardworking crew and a hardworking cast that did it for the love of it, and I think that’s what movies should be done for, for the love of it, and if it’s a success, everyone will be rewarded—isn’t that how life works anyway?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.