There are few films that feel as needed today as Hidden Figures, which tells the inspiring true story of three African-American women – Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who worked for NASA in the 1960’s and overcame gender and racial bigotry to help America win the space race against the Soviet Union.
DIY spoke to the film’s director Theodore Melfi about how the film depicts racism, which bit of acting drew applause from the crew, and much more.
It’s been a couple years since your directorial debut with St Vincent. What did you learn from that experience that you took into making Hidden Figures?
I learned some practical things. I learned to take a nap at lunch [laughs]. I learned how to pace myself and I learned to do the research, and to make sure pre-production is as intense and specific and inclusive… just to make sure you thought of every single thing in pre-production. That’s where the movie is made. Once you get to shooting there’s no time to stop.
This movie isn’t just female-driven on the screen – there’s plenty of females behind it too. You co-wrote the movie with Allison Schroeder, and Mandy Walker is your cinematographer. How important is it to have those ladies in those positions with a story like this?
It’s important to have women involved in every aspect of the process. It’s important to have women involved in everything in the world – without women we don’t exist. I’m a feminist, we have two daughters, my wife is my production partner and my writing partner. Everything I do goes through both the eyes of a man and a woman. I think it’s tremendously valuable to have every perspective you can and every eye you can on a film project because all those voices matter.
Obviously race and racism play a big part of this movie. What was the process in deciding how much of that to feature on screen and how explicit to make it?
When you talk about the 1960’s in this country, if you do not include the Civil Rights movement and systemic racism then you’re telling a lie. It’s just not accurate. But also the movie is not about the Civil Rights movement – the movie is about the space race and the women who helped achieve success in the space race. So I wanted to touch on it and show that it was there and existed and it was their backyard, but I wanted to do it in different ways. We’ve all seen people being hosed down, and we’ve all seen lynchings and slavery and that kind of racism depicted on film. What we haven’t seen is the racism that’s prevalent in this movie – the institutional racism, the office place racism, the not promoting someone, the keeping them shut out of doors, the segregated coffee pot, the segregated bathrooms in the workplace… this is the subtle, everyday unconscious bias that was experienced then and it’s still experienced today.
I think this movie is going to stand the test of time, but in many ways Hidden Figures is a perfect film for the world we’re living in right now. Was there a moment – either actually making the film, or in the post-production process – when you realised the impact this movie might have?
No. I don’t even realise that today. I just felt a deep sense of responsibility to the story and to the women and I just focused on that because if I thought past that I would be so anxious I wouldn’t be able to continue. I just stayed focused on what I knew to be true which was that I loved the story, I had to tell it and I wanted to be part of it. I felt like a servant to the story, to the script, and to the film, and if it has a lasting impact and helps people live their lives or see a different way or inspires them to be something or do something greater, then that’s a gift.
I love that you included scenes of Katherine and the other ladies just hanging out. It’s not necessary for the thrust of the movie, but you get a real feel for their friendship and sisterhood.
Back in those days a black person could go to church, they could go to work, or they could be at home. They were scared to go anywhere else, so they were a very insular community. They were very dependent on each other and very close. So I thought it was very important to see how close the woman were and how their lives were intertwined and how they went to birthday parties together and how they carpooled together. All those things were very important to me because that was what was true.
Unfortunately two of the three women this film focuses on have left us, but Katherine Johnson is still alive. Was there any particular scene from the film you were excited or nervous to show them?
The scariest scene to show her was the scene where her character (played by Taraji P. Henson) yells at Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) about the coloured bathrooms and about the coloured coffee pot. She’s run in the rain to the bathroom 20 minutes each way, and then she screams because she can’t take it anymore. I was scared to show that to Katherine because she’s so elegant and reserved that I thought she would say we took her life and her struggle too far. But she actually loved it, and she was excited by it, and she cried through the movie, and she was mostly touched tremendously by how we portrayed her family life. She says: “That is the family we remember.”
That was definitely one of the more powerful moments of the film for me. Do you remember any more emotionally challenging scenes you had to shoot?
That was a very emotionally challenging scene to shoot. I remember the entire crew was crying, and the entire space task group with the men there… when Taraji was done they all applauded. Another touching scene to shoot was the scene with Janelle Monae in the courtroom, where she has to fight and plead her case to the judge… we were all very touched and inspired by that scene and there were a lot of tears on set. Breaking down the coloured bathroom sign was a very affecting scene for the whole crew.
I know you took yourself out of the running to direct a Spider-Man film because of Hidden Figures. Can you still see yourself doing a film in the superhero genre and are there any other heroes you’re interested in?
As long as I can find some social value in what I’m doing I’ll continue to do it and when I can’t find it I’ll just write. So if I can find it in a superhero movie of course I’d consider it. Who wouldn’t! I grew up reading all kinds of comic books – I love Superman just as much as Spider-Man.
Obviously you and the actresses deserve a lot of the credit for this movie. But I was wondering, for you, who is the hidden figure who worked on this movie who is maybe not getting his/her due?
That would be my wife, Kimberly Quinn. She’s a co-producer on the film and she goes through every script and every line and challenges everything and helps me write and create. She helps me in every decision from casting to wardrobe to everything you could imagine. She’s also deeply involved with editorial, and she sees the first cut before the studio sees the first cut. If it can get by her, it’s good enough to be in the movie.
Hidden Figures is released in UK Cinemas on 24th February 2017.