Theodore Melfi Q&A: ‘Hidden Figures’ director
Theodore Melfi spent part of Christmas Day watching his new film “Hidden Figures” with a paying audience. “I was shocked that the theater was packed,” he readily admits. And he was pleased with the response to a pivotal scene in the film: “People were in tears and then applauded.” His crowd pleaser tells the true story of three unsung heroes of the NASA space program: mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), whose contributions were all the more impressive because they were black women working in the South during the Jim Crow era. Watch our complete interview with the Oscar contender above.
Melfi, along with Allison Schroeder, just reaped a Writers Guild nomination for adapting Margot Lee Shetterly‘s book of the same name. As with most of us, he knew nothing of the achievements of these women. “I was floored when my agent gave me the proposal.” He explains that the process moved exceptionally quickly by Hollywood standards. “I came to the project in July of last year and began doing my work on the script and by December we had a draft we liked, by January we were in pre-production and by March we were shooting.”
“Hidden Figures,” which opens wide on Jan. 6, has earned an impressive 94% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes. The cast was honored by the National Board of Review and contends for Best Ensemble at the upcoming SAG Awards. As Melfi recalls, “We didn’t do a screen test with the three of them together. I just had a gut feeling. I’ve tried to work with Taraji before and I knew Octavia’s spirit and thought they would work well together.” Melfi sings the praises of screen newcomer Monae, a Grammy-winning musician. “She came in to audition and I saw that she was this giving soul. By the end of the shoot they were sisters.”
Because the studio had only had rights to the lives of the three women, Melfi had to get creative. “Their stories were already a lot to juggle and we had to deal with the space race as well so we created this composite character, played by Kevin Costner, who is the director of NASA Langley.” Was he intimidated about working with this Oscar-winning director? “It was a huge blessing to have him on the set, in terms of spirit and giving to the film. He came a week earlier and blocked out his scenes to understand his character.”
Melfi also heartily welcomed the contributions of Pharrell Williams. “He is my guardian angel. He not only composed the music, wrote songs and brought in Hans Zimmer but he helped me with the editing and keeping me on track.” Part of that process involved finding the right tone for the film. “What makes the heightened dramatic moments stand out is because you also have some light in it.”