The Math Behind the Mission: Director Ted Melfi on ‘Hidden Figures’

'Hidden Figures' director Ted Melfi tackles the little-known story of the African American women who helped NASA win the Space Race

Hidden Figures tells the real-life stories of three African American women—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson—NASA employees who were directly caught up in America’s Space Race with the Soviets during the Cold War, the civil rights movement at home, and the changing role of women in the workforce. Boxoffice spoke with Ted Melfi, who directed and shares a screenwriting credit on the film, about how this remarkable story finally made it to the big screen.

How did you first encounter this project?

I first heard about it from producer Donna Gigliotti. She has a great nose for finding material and she found this book by Margot Lee Shetterly that was shockingly unheard of. She gave me a copy of the book, I read it on a Friday, and by Monday I said, “I’ve got to be involved with this no matter what.” It is just one of those remarkable stories. The fact that you’ve never heard of the story before, that there were women behind the math and the science for the Mercury space missions, it is just staggering in and of itself—but then to find out that they were a team of African American women is even more staggering, coupled with the fact that they were going through segregation at the time. These women had to work in separate facilities and use separate bathrooms, separate cafeterias, separate everything. It so touched me and inspired me, especially because I have two daughters and I really felt obligated to deal with the sexism and racism cinematically.

You co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder; did structuring the script present any challenges? It’s not very easy to balance three central characters with different story lines who don’t share too many scenes together.

Writing is my first love and I’ve been writing for, I don’t know, 30 years? Since I was a kid. I’m just really driven by story, structure, and how to weave things together. I took the three female story lines and I wrote them out on index cards and wove them together along the way. I had a lot of help from a lot of smart people. My wife, Kimberly Quinn, is a great writer and was very instrumental in helping craft the material. Everyone else over at Fox was very helpful as well, people like Jenno Topping and Donna Gigliotti—lots of female voices throughout the process. They provided a series of checks and balances along the way.

Unfortunately, there continues to be a dearth of roles for minority actors in studio productions. Hidden Figures stands out by not only having three great roles for African American women but also a number of intriguing supporting roles as well. What was the casting process like for the film?

I think we all know this; it’s nothing new: women are underserved in general in the entertainment business, especially in regard to the size and quality of their roles. Women for the longest time were limited to playing the girlfriend, secretary, or wife in the movies. Thank God that’s changing, but it’s particularly hard to see that change with African American roles. Dr. Stacy Smith, a faculty members at the Annenberg School of Media and Communications at USC, she researches this. She studied 290 of the highest-grossing films that had come out over the last couple of years. Of those 290 films, there was not one, not one African American female in any role that had something to do with stature or intellect. Not one. It’s shocking to think about. Casting-wise, what you find is the opposite: there are so many actors that want to play the roles and would be great at it, so you have to be really selective. I had been wanting to work with Taraji P. Henson since I saw her in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I fell in love with her during Benjamin Button, and then to see her in Empire, you go, “How can that possibly be the same person!” She can do anything. When I told her about the script—I didn’t even give her a script, I didn’t have a script yet—I told her about the project on the phone and she just said, “I’m in.” The same thing happened with Octavia Spencer, who I’d been wanting to work with for years as well. Janelle Monae was the only actress of the three principals that we auditioned—we wanted to find a fresh idea for Mary because she was such a firecracker. She came in and read for us and just blew us away. The three of them came together relatively quickly; the rest of the cast took a lot more time.

The film is anchored by those three performances. Would you say you’re an actor’s director, or do you pull a Hitchcock, step behind the camera, and let them work on their own?

I spent many years in acting classes before I became a director. That’s actually where I met my wife, in acting class, but I was studying actors to learn how to talk to them and learn the process and understand what they went through. I wanted to understand what it takes to build a role and build a character, so I would consider myself an actor’s director because I only care about the acting. I think the visual always has to be secondary to the acting. If you put great actors with a great script in a white room, it will be compelling. People will watch it. What they won’t watch is bad acting in the most amazing setting—that’s not compelling. That’s why I lean into the acting more than anything, and that’s where I’m going to stay for the rest of my life, because that’s really all that matters.

Not to take anything away from the visual elements of the film, specifically the production design, which was really able to capture the era. 

We decided to work with Mandy Walker, who is brilliant and has a wonderful eye, as our director of photography, alongside Wynn Thomas, a star of the industry, as our production designer, and Renee Kalfus as our wardrobe stylist. We brainstormed for a long time on what the film would look like, and we decided that the film would have two distinct looks. The look of NASA would be clean, bright, and white—sterile, not warm. It would be a place that looked very modern for its time. The home lodge of the women would be the exact opposite, showing the tremendous warmth, love, and support of their home and church life. Their car became their sanctuary where they could talk and say anything they wanted to. Back in those days, from research and interviewing Katherine Johnson, these women went three places: they went to work, they went home, and they went to church. That was the life of an African American woman in 1960s segregated America. We really wanted to capture those ideas: the warmth and care of the home and the coldness of the work environment. That started to build the film’s visual vocabulary. Then we did hectic research through sources like Gordon Parks photographs, NASA’s brilliant documentary When We Left Earth, NASA, and the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. All these things added to the visual vocabulary of the film.

This film is going to be coming out during what feels like a very divisive time here in the United States, with a new administration entering the White House days after the film’s wide release. It’s hard to deny that there exists a general concern about the future of civil rights and civil liberties in this country. Do you think this film can be an inspiration to audiences entering the theater with those anxieties?

What I would say is, paraphrasing something Octavia Spencer said in London a couple of days ago: In 1961, these women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, didn’t even have the right to vote.” They could not even vote but they still put their heads down, did the work, and achieved great success in helping America achieve its greatest mission at the time: getting a man into space. This country has been through a lot but it knows how to succeed, how to be resilient. I hope that the movie inspires people to put their heads down and do the work as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson did. They did the work, achieved something great, and now we’re honoring them. There was a time in this country when black and white, male and female came together and achieved NASA’s greatest mission. That’s what I hope people get out of it, and I hope it helps with the anxiety of the times.

Daniel Loria

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