Interview: Theodore Melfi on Hidden Figures
Turning from his first feature film, St. Vincent, a comedy starring Bill Murray as an alcoholic who forms a bond with a boy, to a major motion picture about black women who broke NASA’s color barrier to do calculations for the manned space program, Hollywood screenwriter and director Theodore Melfi makes an important transition with Hidden Figures, which First Lady Michelle Obama screened last week at the White House.
Having recently seen Fox’s Hidden Figures, which debuts in movie theaters on Christmas Day and expands in January, I wanted to ask about the story, script, score, meaning and production. I spoke with Melfi, whom I had interviewed in Los Angeles in 2014 (read my interview with him about St. Vincent here), in an exclusive interview by telephone on the day he attended the White House screening as the First Lady’s guest.
This is an edited transcript (with minor spoilers).
Scott Holleran: What was the hardest scene to shoot?
Theodore Melfi: Taraji [P. Henson, who portrays Katherine Johnson] blowing up at Kevin Costner’s character—because of the subject matter and it was the last two days of the shoot—day 41—and we were all so close and really happy and cohesive. So, to do that scene there was emotionally draining. Everyone there, all the white guys, and half the crew was crying. We did seven or eight takes. I was trying to contain her for longer as Taraji sometimes came in with all the energy.
Scott Holleran: Which scene differs most from your script and why?
Theodore Melfi: Any scene with the three women having fun with each other. Half the stuff at the barbecue was made up because they were having such fun. The banter over [Mahershala Ali’s character] was improvised. So was the scene at the beginning of the movie—with them chasing the cop car. I just let them go.
Scott Holleran: Is your movie about racism or exceptionalism?
Theodore Melfi: Exceptionalism. The movie’s [about] a meritocracy. NASA was one of the first places for merit in government work and it’s an actual place which was seen as progressive. It’s still seen that way today in terms of [inclusive] hires.
Scott Holleran: Did someone named Al Harrison, played in the picture by Kevin Costner, break down that barrier?
Theodore Melfi: I don’t know because he’s a composite character. When [Katherine’s] supervisor found out about the [fact of her having to run a distance to the race-segregated toilet] he did have it removed.
Scott Holleran: What is the womens’ and families’ estimate of the film?
Theodore Melfi: Katherine Johnson and her family are over the moon. She’s 98 years old and we screened it in her hometown of Hampton, Virginia. She came with her two daughters and they were crying. Afterwards, the family said that what they’re most grateful for is the treatment of her husband [played in the movie by Mahershala Ali], the family and kids and how they were sharing rooms. Also, those are direct quotes from him at the dinner table scene.
Scott Holleran: Have you seen 2016’s other movie involving racism in Virginia, Loving?
Theodore Melfi: Not yet. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Scott Holleran: What did the other credited screenwriter, Allison Schroeder, add to the screenplay?
Theodore Melfi: Allison wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Then, I got my own pass and did my own thing with it. She had a movie that followed the women outside of NASA—there were a couple of Tupperware parties—and I wanted to balance it.
Scott Holleran: Why did you make John Glenn, who was 40, younger?
Theodore Melfi: It was his spirit. We tried guys that age and we couldn’t get that boyish spirit.
Scott Holleran: Your first two feature movies depict the physicality of the individual’s struggle to achieve. Why?
Theodore Melfi: I do this thing called 50 questions that [my wife] Kim gave me. She got them from Larry Moss—this great acting teacher—and I answer these 50 questions for each character. I answer as if I’m the character. Then, I give that to each actor and I see how each actor feels about the character’s posture and [and physical movements, mannerisms, etc.] and I get into that. Then, I keep that posture and the way they walk [in the film]—like I told Janelle [Monae, who portrays Mary Jackson]; you kind of bounce and lead with your face. But Taraji [as Katherine] leads with her mind, so there’s a pressure on her shoulders which kinda pulls her down. Octavia Spencer [as Dorothy Vaughan] leads with her heart. [In St. Vincent], Bill Murray drags. The actor does the work. You don’t talk about it—it’s ingrained—and you’re free to let it go. Taraji P. Henson came up with the idea of running [to the bathroom] in high heels and that’s how she had to run. [Composer] Pharrell Williams wrote the song [“Runnin'”] after reading the script. He wrote that song before we started shooting.
Scott Holleran: What would Bill Murray’s character from St. Vincent say about these three mathematically inclined NASA women?
Theodore Melfi: That he wishes they could do his taxes.
Scott Holleran: Who is your favorite astronaut?
Theodore Melfi: John Glenn because, even before he came to NASA, he was a Marine, he broke the land speed record and he was helping minorities and getting welfare off the ground. He was always the type to look you in the eye. He’s the best that this country can be.
Scott Holleran: Is Kirsten Dunst’s character a villain?
Theodore Melfi: Her character is ignorant. That’s what the movie is for me. The movie is summed up in Octavia Spencer’s response to Dunst’s character: “…and I know you probably believe that.” That, to me, is the core of racism; people don’t even know how they treat blacks, gays, women, [and anyone they consider different]—because, if they did, most good people couldn’t sleep any more. [Kirsten Dunst’s character] Vivian Mitchell just doesn’t know that black people shouldn’t use a different water fountain because of her upbringing. So I don’t know whether she’s a villain. Not seeing is as bad as not doing something about [injustice] and, at some point, everyone is complicit. The same goes for Kevin Costner’s character. Yes, he does the right thing, but he should have known about [Katherine’s working conditions]. Necessity is the mother of breaking down that bathroom sign.
Scott Holleran: What is the single most admirable quality of these women and why?
Theodore Melfi: Fortitude. Because it shows an example for today to not [only] look left and right and backwards—you don’t get there—you have to go forward.
Scott Holleran: Is there a scene you would change?
Theodore Melfi: Yeah. I would probably change the scene when Mary [Janelle Monae’s character] comes into the capsule room to see [NASA’s] Karl Zielinski. I would recast that actor.
Theodore Melfi: I took Taraji to meet the real Katherine Johnson. I sat with her and pointed to her elegance, her quietness and her posture—and Taraji P. Henson just absorbed it all because when you’re sitting with Katherine Johnson, you’re sitting with royalty. I kept reminding her with inflection or mannerism to resist the urge to lash out or jolt. It was a more reserved time.
Scott Holleran: Had you seen her in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?
Theodore Melfi: Yes. That’s where I fell in love with her. That’s who she really is.
Scott Holleran: Janelle Monae’s appearing in another 2016 movie. Have you seen her in Moonlight?
Theodore Melfi: I haven’t. My screener’s at home [in Los Angeles]. Tonight, we’re going to the White House [for a screening of Hidden Figures]. Apparently, Michelle Obama saw the movie and loved it, so she wanted to show it.
Theodore Melfi: I did. What it did for me is show that she’s one of the best actors in the world. It also made me rediscover Kevin. He’s just a great actor.
Scott Holleran: You’ve depicted the unit cohesion these women accomplished at NASA. Were you aware of the need to portray similarities as well as differences?
Theodore Melfi: That is the original message of the script and the writing—it was, ‘let’s all get to the peak together or we don’t get there at all’—and they are extremely proud of their work and NASA. These women are extremely patriotic and they love America, so it was very important to me not to make NASA a bad guy—they were complicit in the times but they got out and made the change—and it’s almost biblical, like Jesus on the cross saying ‘forgive them for they know not what they do.” The movie opens on Christmas Day.
Scott Holleran: What advice do you have for a director making a racially-themed movie?
Theodore Melfi: Be honest. We’ve seen the brutality of [the] civil rights [struggle] and slavery but I was being honest and true about what happened in Hampton, Virginia. There was unconscious bias and systemic racism—not getting promotions and equal pay—and they had segregation. I would say just be as honest as you can without being slick in either direction. There’s a lot of footage of the protest scene with [the menacing] dogs, so I had to resist the urge to be too exciting. You have to work hard to be objective and subtle.
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