‘Hidden Figures’ is making a much deserved impact during this year’s awards season. In 2013, director Ted Melfi made his breakout film ‘St. Vincent’, a deeply felt personal story from Melfi featuring an excellent comic turn from Bill Murray. Melfi shifts gears in his new film, ‘Hidden Figures’, which sheds lights on the true story of three black female mathematicians working for NASA in 1961 facing bigotry and skepticism from their peers as they successfully calculate flight trajectories for John Glenn’s first mission to the moon. For years their story remained buried until a recent book by author Margot Lee Sheterly unearthed these women’s vital contributions to the space program. You can read below Road to Cinema’s interview with director/co-screenwriter Ted Melfi as he describes what attracted to him to take on the film as well as some essential lessons on directing from actor Bill Murray. Melfi co-wrote the screenplay with screenwriter Allison Schroeder. ‘Hidden Figures’ received a Writers Guild of America nomination for ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ and a ‘Best Picture’ nomination from the Producers Guild of America. The ‘Hidden Figures’ cast is nominated for a Screen Actors Guild ‘Best Ensemble’ award.
Road to Cinema: Coming off ‘St. Vincent’, which was an original screenplay you had developed and a very personal film, what attracted you to the true story behind ‘Hidden Figures’?
Ted Melfi: The first attraction was how deeply I was affected by the story and how I had never heard of these three women. I originally thought it was historical fiction when I got the book proposal. And as I got into it and confirmed that it was all true, I was just floored that NASA had this extraordinary group of women working behind the scenes on math and science putting the men up into space. I thought it was a story that deserved to be told.
Secondly, my mom was a single mom and raised three boys on her own. That story of Katherine being a single mom raising three girls on her own was a representation of my mom and the struggles she went through. And to think that Katherine did all of that work for NASA and was a parent to three girls was just another thing that shocked me.
And now I have two daughters and my daughters are even being told today, “Don’t worry about math, that stuff is for boys.” I thought it was time that we stop pushing that narrative.
Road to Cinema: How do you balance the responsibility of the research and the history behind the story while trying to maintain the emotional honesty of the performances?
Ted Melfi: When you’re telling a true story especially, it’s crucial to get all the facts spot on. Everyone knows that it’s crucial that everything be spot on from a technical standpoint and a historical standpoint. NASA poured over every draft of the script. Dr. Ricky Horn from Morehouse College poured over every aspect of the math and science. I worked very closely with my production designer Wynn Thomas who lived through the civil rights era. We studied documentaries like ‘Eye on the Prize’ and ‘When We Left Earth.’ But at the end of the day, you’re making a movie not a documentary. When you have to dramatize, you dramatize but you try to do everything that it stays within the essence of the truth.
Road to Cinema: Were the actors part of that detailed research process you described?
Ted Melfi: The first thing I did with Taraji was take her to visit Katherine Johnson who was 98 at the time. We sat with Katherine for a couple hours to study how Katherine moves and talks and mostly her elegance. She was one of the most elegant women that I ever met. That was crucial for Taraji’s character development. Octavia and Janelle did not have the benefit of their characters living today. But they dug over the research of Margot Lee Sheterly who wrote the novel. They were able to study the chapters that corresponded to their characters and they went back and studied and put to heart everything those characters went through. All of the actors had sessions with NASA and it was crucial for the development of their characters.
Road to Cinema: What did you learn from your previous film ‘St. Vincent’ that carried over into your work on ‘Hidden Figures’?
Ted Melfi: You learn something everyday. I’ve shot over 100 commercials in addition to ‘St. Vincent’ but what I learned the most from ‘St. Vincent’ are two things that Bill Murray taught me. One is that nothing ever good can happen on a set when there’s stress. We keep the set very, very light and stress free and fun and funny. Because the work is really, really hard and really, really long and that’s critical to our success to keep everything light and alive. And the second thing Bill taught me was that everything always works out. So when you approach each day knowing that it’s going to work out before you shoot a frame, you’re pretty much calm. And somehow it all does work out.