We hear a lot of stories about filmmakers struggling for years, sometimes over a decade, to get a film produced. But for Ted Melfi, co-writer and director of Hidden Figures, the planets just seemed to align.
What’s so fascinating about the success of Hidden Figures, written by Ted Melfi and Allison Schroeder, based on the book by Margot Shetterly, is that it’s about all the things Hollywood typically tends to avoid: African-American women, mathematics, racial segregation and sexism. Melfi himself says he was shocked at how easily the project came together.
“Hidden Figures has all the elements they say don’t touch. I think what happened was, when you put all the elements you’re not supposed to touch in one script, it confuses everyone. Maybe it’s reverse psychology,” he says with a laugh.
No only did everyone he asked to work on the film say yes, it happened at nearly light speed.
“Everyone said ‘yes’ so fast, it was really a strange process. I got the book proposal and first draft of the script from [producer] Donna Gigliotti, I read it over the weekend and I said yes on Monday. I gave the script and the book proposal to [producers] Jenno Topping and Peter Chernin, they read it in a night, said yes the next morning. They got that script to Elizabeth Gabler at Fox 2000 on a plane coming back from Nicaragua and by the time she landed, she said yes. Everyone felt so compelled by the three women they said it doesn’t really matter if this movie makes money. This is the reason we all got into this business in the first place.”
It may seem strange to hear that anyone in Hollywood would prioritize telling a great story over earning great box office, but that’s exactly what happened – it is just that powerful of a story. One that was written in the pages of history and didn’t need a lot of fictionalizing according to Melfi, just some strategic condensing.
“What you really have to do is hold on to the essence of the characters and the events they went through. John Glenn’s direct quote is ‘Get the girl to run the numbers, if she says they’re good, I’m ready to go,’ and he’s talking about Katherine Johnson. That’s all fact except it took Katherine three days to do those calculations, but in the film it takes 28 seconds, intercut with John Glenn going to lunch – that’s the dramatic version of the truth.”
Speaking of dramatics, Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), launches an incredibly moving monologue that moved many audience members to tears. Her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), asks her why she takes long breaks throughout the day. What he doesn’t realize is that Katherine is forced to use a “colored only” bathroom half a mile from their office.
Katherine turns, Harrison’s on the floor. Katherine freezes.
Where the hell do you go everyday?
The bathroom, sir.
The bathroom! The damn bathroom!
Yes, sir. The bathroom.
For 40 minutes a day!? What do you do in
there!? We are T-minus zero here. I put
a lot of faith in you.
Katherine can barely speak. She whispers:
There’s no bathroom for me here.
There’s no bathroom? What do you mean
there’s no bathroom for you here?
Katherine can’t take it anymore. Her voice rises.
There’s no bathroom here. There are no
COLORED bathrooms in this building or ANY
building outside the West Campus. Which
is half a mile away! Did you know that?
I have to walk to Timbuktu just to
relieve myself! And I can’t take one of
the handy bikes. Picture that, with my
uniform: skirt below the knees and my
heels. And don’t get me started about
the “simple pearl necklace” I can’t
afford. Lord knows you don’t pay “the
coloreds enough for that. And I work
like a dog day and night, living on
coffee from a coffee pot half of you
don’t want me to touch! So excuse me if
I have to go to the restroom a few times
You can hear a pin drop. Katherine takes her purse, personals and walks off. Leaving everyone’s jaws on the ground.
“That monologue was essentially born out of the frustration of all the colored computers felt at NASA. That exact incident happened to all of them, so we had it come out of Katherine Johnson’s mouth. To us, it’s representing everyone – all the pain, all the frustration that the women felt working there and having to walk to the bathrooms that were half a mile away on that massive campus. Segregation was separate but far from equal. Taraji’s performance was so wonderful. It’s kind of a turning point for her character, once she has that outburst, her trajectory changes. She starts to move in a positive direction.”
Maybe the story is so powerful because as a nation, we had change our trajectory if we wanted to get to outer space.
We asked if Melfi himself has any plans to go into space. He laughed and said, “That’s not going to happen for me. I’m going to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground.”
Hidden Figures is nominated for three Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay and has earned over $130 million at the box office to date.