The LRM Interview with Hidden Figures Director Theodore Melfi

– by Edward Douglas

One of the nicer surprises of the year is Hidden Figures, the inspirational true story of three African-American women working at Langley as “computers” (i.e. mathematical experts) during the early ‘60s helped get the first American into orbit around the earth.

Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a math whiz from an early age whose knowledge of analytical geometry puts her in the coveted position of working with the top scientists and engineers at Langley on the Mercury project. Octavia Spencer is Dorothy Vaughan, who runs the West Computing group where all the colored women work, but who sees the opportunity to advance her place as Langley brings in the first IBM computer. Singer Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, a woman who would make a great engineer at Langley, but she would have to take classes at an all-white school where they don’t even normally accept women students. It also stars Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons as some of the women’s supervisors who either help or hinder their efforts, while Glen Powell plays the now-late John Glenn, that astronaut who first orbited the earth.

Directing the movie is Theodore (Ted) Melfi, who previously directed the Bill Murray comedy St. Vincent, and he’s created quite a well-rounded and entertaining story about three women who helped overcome two major boundaries—being black and being women—to help fulfill Kennedy’s dream of getting a man into space.

LRM sat down with Melfi at the New York junket for his new movie and the interview below: 

LRM: The movie was a nice surprise because I had heard about it but wasn’t really sure what it was until I first saw footage at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). I know you decided to make this movie instead of Spider-Man, but I didn’t know what the tone would be like until I saw that footage, and then you see the movie with an audience and they love it.

Theodore Melfi: It’s nice to see it with an audience. Sometimes press screenings are all reporters or reviewers, but I think for anyone to enjoy a movie you need to see it with people. Not that they’re not people, but you have to see it with a mass of people.

LRM: It’s obviously a great story, so great that it’s surprising it took so long to make a movie about it. Had they been already developing a script when you came on board?

Donna Gigliotti had a 55-page book proposal, that’s how it started, and Margot Lee Shetterly wrote that book proposal and then the novel, and then Donna commissioned a first draft of a screenplay from Allison Schroeder, who wrote the first draft. She wrote the first draft and then that filtered its way through a traditional route through UTA and my agency got it to me on the eve of the Spider-Man decision. I read it and was blown away by it. I think that’s not a shocker that everyone’s blown away by it, right?

LRM: It’s only shocker because this happened in history and the President only gave Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, and her story still hadn’t been told. 

Melfi: There’s a lot of reasons why you don’t know the story. There’s the racism of it all. We suppress those stories. There’s the sexism of it all—we don’t uplift our women. We keep them hidden or behind the scenes, behind the man. We don’t have parades for mathematicians. We celebrate the astronaut, but we don’t celebrate all the scientists and researchers and mathematicians that did the work to put a man in space, and then the last thing is that a lot of this stuff is classified. The entire program was classified for the longest time, especially during the Cold War where there deep fear over Russian spying and Russian hacking which (chuckles) strangely enough is even more relevant today then it was then. So everything was classified, top secret. That whole program, the Mercury missions, were completely classified, and whomever was involved with those missions was classified. They were so classified that the individual astronaut didn’t know who was flying for each mission. It was announced right before the mission—that’s how classified it was. All those things combined to create a story you never heard of. 

LRM: I’m not sure if you’ve seen the movie “Loving” yet but it’s about how mixed marriages were made legal but it takes place in the exact same era of Virginia in the ‘60s, and it’s crazy to think that both these things were going on just 50 years ago and that there were these really smart women who weren’t able to fulfill their potential because they were held back. Are any of the women still alive or have they all passed away?

Katherine Johnson is still alive, she’s 98. I met her twice. I researched and interviewed her twice.

LRM: What was that like and what were some of the things you wanted to know from her? Was there a lot that hadn’t been covered in the research done for the book?

Melfi: It was just confirming a lot of stuff and getting some stuff verbatim and how she talked and her mannerisms and who she was as a human. I was basically trying to figure out her inner fortitude and her spirit. As you’re working on a script, you try to understand who the character was, because I guess to me, that was the most important thing. Who they were and what their fabric was made of? I was really interested in seeing what made her tick, and I’d just ask her questions. I remember asking her, “What was it like to experience racism and sexism in the work place?” And she looked at me like I was crazy. She said, “What? No, we didn’t have any of that. I just did my work. I just put my head down and did my work and everyone was so nice to me.” And I realized right then and there that was her fortitude, that’s what got her through, because she didn’t look left or right. She literally did the work and did it so well that she made her skin color disappear and she became a mathematician, and that’s all she was seen as, as a brilliant mathematician. So to me, that was a great example of how your ability transcends everything.

LRM: Were some of the other characters like the ones played by Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons, were they amalgams of other people or were they actual people in the program?

Yeah, Kevin was an amalgamation of a couple people. We didn’t have the life rights to that particular character. In real life, he would have been Jim Webb, maybe? Jim Webb was the head of NASA at the time, or there were some other people, like the director of the Space Task Group in the space program. So we just had to create our own character and he was an amalgamation of a couple characters, but he is the spirit of those characters combined. Those characters only cared about one thing—getting a man into space. It was irrelevant. They would use women, men, anyone who could do the work, they would use them, and that’s what Kevin represented.

LRM: I’ve done a lot of reading about the space race and there are so many stories out there, but to tell the story from this perspective makes it interesting. Let’s talk about Taraji. She’s obviously a great actress whose work I was aware of well before “Empire” but was that a hard decision or was she your first choice?

Melfi: She was my first choice. I’ve been trying to work with her for years. I just think she can do anything. I fell in love with her work after seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I was so moved by her work in that movie, and I loved that movie and I loved her role in it, and then to watch her do Hustle and Flow and then Empire, playing Cookie on Empire, I said, “She can do anything” and I’ve just been a huge fan of hers. She was the first call we made to play Katherine.  

LRM: And she had a chance to meet Katherine as well?

Yeah, she came up there with me once. We were in Georgia in pre-production, and her and I went up to meet Katherine in Virginia, and she just studied her and talked to her. We spent a couple hours just soaking her in.

LRM: I’m jumping ahead a bit but has Katherine seen the movie yet? 

Melfi: She has. We rented a theater in her town about a month ago, and we brought her children there to watch the movie in a private screening, and they were all crying. They loved it.

LRM: It also must be weird to see your life on screen like that.

I can imagine. The thing that talked to them the most was that she said, “Thank you for portraying our family so honestly and so accurately. The family you created on screen is how we remember our family, which is the greatest compliment ever. 

LRM: I like the domestic stuff and seeing their home life, because it adds something to the story.

Melfi: Yeah, you know the Space Race. I mean, we do, but anyone over 40 has a general idea what the Space Race was and over 60 knows it exactly. They grew up on it, so you know the Space Race. I wanted to dig into the women. You don’t know them, you don’t know their stories and you don’t know their kids and their families and their lives and their struggles. That’s what the movie is ultimately about 

LRM: I know which movie she did first, but you’re the second director this year to use singer Janelle Monae in an acting role, and she’s getting a lot of attention for both movies, but especially this one. What made you think she could carry 33% of the movie like she does and what made you think of her?

We had a hard time finding Mary. We had Octavia and we had Taraji already, and so we had the opportunity to take a chance on someone, ‘cause Octavia and Taraji were enough for the studio in terms of having the classical names. Janelle Monae walked in and auditioned and just killed it, and then we called her back again and she killed it. We called her back again and she killed it. She kept fighting for the role like Mary fights for her position in the all-white school. She just has the spirit of Mary. She has the same fight as Mary. 

LRM: She wasn’t one of those cases where she was the first person you saw and then had to see all these other people for going with her, is it?

Melfi: No.

LRM: Oh, okay, because I hear so many stories about that happening.

I know, it wasn’t that. We had been all over the map. 

LRM: I wanted to ask about rebuilding Langley and creating that environment. The fact it was all classified and the fact you couldn’t just walk into Langley, so how did you figure out what the design would be.

Melfi: Well, NASA—Dr. Bill Barry and Burt Albrich, the archivists at NSA—Bill Barry is their chief historian, so they were instrumental in giving us every single piece of research and photo journal we needed. They gave us capsule information. They gave us schematics on the capsules themselves, all that stuff is now declassified, and they gave us photos of the insides of Langley. Photos of the insides of the Space Task Group, Mission Control, Mission Command, all those things are photo research, and then we went to Langley, and we toured it, too. So we got to go through it, through the wind tunnels, all those things, soak it in, take pictures. So it was a combination of research and personal tours, and just conversation. There’s a lot of research in there.

LRM: I can imagine. When you have so much stuff from history you’re trying to recreate and make it feel authentic.  I was also impressed with how you were able to handle math and science in a way that doesn’t leave audiences with their eyes glazed. I was actually able to follow some of it with the little geometry I know. Were you testing this out to make sure you didn’t lose people?

I wanted enough math to make you understand how hard it was and how complicated it was, because even the math we used. Like John Glenn, that’s John Glenn’s direct quote: “Get the girl to run the numbers. If she says they’re good, I’m good to go” so that’s his direct quote. People think that this is all fictionalized. 

LRM: Well, that’s the thing whenever you see a movie based on real events, you assume that stuff is being made up to make a better movie. 

Melfi: Yeah, that’s an exact direct quote. He requested Katherine Johnson to confirm those numbers. What’s not true is that it took her three days. That’s the stuff that’s dramatized, because you cannot do that in a movie, so we want enough math to let you know that it was really hard and how smart and genius she was, but not enough to make you glaze over and fall asleep and wish you never paid for a ticket. (chuckles) 

LRM: You also never let the movie get too dark about the violence and racism that was going on in those times? There was obviously much worse racism going on around the country then what they experience at Langley.  Was that intentional to keep it focused on their achievements?

No, it wasn’t intentional to focus on the positive. It was intentional to focus on the truth. Virginia was very middle class and very peaceful, and there were no protests there in Virginia, so to stage a protest or a sit-in or to falsify the truth just for the sake of adding… what? Edge to the movie, would be an inaccuracy. There were no sit-ins, no bus sit-ins or boycotts, no protests, no civil rights events at all in 1961 in 1962 in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Period. This was middle class black culture, middle class white culture, and so what you did have was the systemic racism, the unconscious bias. You had the segregation, you had segregated water fountains and libraries and buses, but that’s how people lived, so that’s the racism I wanted to show and focus on because that’s what it is there.

LRM: One of my favorite scenes is when Kevin Costner takes a hammer and knocks down the “Colored Women Only” sign, so is that something that happened?

Melfi:  Well, look. When the boss found out she was going to the bathroom that far away, he had to desegregate it. Now we dramatize it with the boss breaking down the sign. I don’t know who broke down the sign, but the sign was broken. The sign came down. At some point in the movie, you have to pick who does that action.

LRM: You mentioned NASA’s involvement but they must love this movie, since it does show great things that NASA got to in the day, and maybe it’ll get more people interested back in space travel, which has quietly been disappearing.

Melfi: I think it’s making a comeback with hope for Mars travel. 

LRM: Have you done a screening for NASA scientists yet?

We have. We did one at Langley and we’re doing one tomorrow at Cape Canaveral.

LRM: You’re going ot talk with them afterwards? 

Melfi:  We see them all the time. They’re here on the press junket. We spend a lot of time with them.

Hidden Figures will come out in select cities on Christmas Day but then will have a nationwide release on January 6.

Featured, Film, Interviews, LRM Exclusives Hidden Figures, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner, Theodore Melfi, LRM Interview, Janelle Monae