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‘Hidden Figures’ Filmmaker Ted Melfi Added Something Extraordinary To The Equation

Deadline logo Deadline 1/6/2017 Anita Busch
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EXCLUSIVE:Hidden Figures, the Chernin Entertainment/20th Century Fox film that goes wide today, is a story that took 55 years to be told. Coming off last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, this year could turn into Oscar so Right with director Ted Melfi and Allison Schroeder’s film adaptation of the Margot Lee Shetterly book. The film has already received a WGA adapted screenplay nomination for the screenwriters, but it’s been Melfi as director who led the charge, determined to shine the right light on the unsung heroes of the NASA Space Task Group: the women, specifically African American women, who were responsible for helping launch John Glenn into the history books as the first man to orbit Earth.

Melfi, who made his feature debut with 2014’s St. Vincent, has not only given balance to the heartfelt, personal stories of these women, but the screenplay was (surprisingly) technically accurate. So accurate in fact that the film was praised by head NASA administrator Charles Bolden, who then helped all involved set up separate screenings for both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

This came about in a couple of ways: Schroeder’s parents and grandparents both worked for NASA and while in high school she interned in its science and math program and in college worked at a missile launch company (so she knew the ropes), while Melfi himself did something really kind of extraordinary. He immersed himself in understanding the real problem NASA was facing back in 1961 and 1962, and then actually learned the math himself. He said he needed to know the distinction between different kinds of orbits and how math played into it. He said he also wanted to have the technical language down pat.

Before writing of a word of the shooting script, he took a tour of the Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, explored the buildings and wind tunnels where the story actually took place … and then Melfi took a trip to Newport News, VA to see 97-year-old Katherine Johnson on whom the film is based.

In putting it all together to make the book adaptation cinematic, the filmmaker would find himself sitting across from Johnson (portrayed in the movie by Taraji P. Henson), now 98. The mathematical genius told him of how she had to leave the building to use the black-only bathroom, of not being allowed in with male staff despite the fact her work was crucial to Glenn’s orbit, of how she fought mightily to get into those meetings, and of encountering her eventual husband-to-be Jim at church one day. All of it was incorporated into the film.

“She walked me through what it was like every day at NASA,” said Melfi. “She was swept up immediately into the Space Task Group because she was so brilliant at math. Every draft of the script I finished, I would then send it to NASA historians, Dr. Bill Berry and Bert Ulrich, and they would pore over it. Sometimes, I got nine pages of notes back. We would go through scene by scene and talk about the historical accuracy, first and foremost, and then the technical accuracy, and then accuracy of the math.”

“I literally had to learn what the actual problem was and what the math was that was needed to take a capsule that was going to travel sub-orbital [used for Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom] and then go orbital for John Glenn. I felt that if I didn’t know it, I couldn’t explain it to the audience and it would feel fake. So, I had to learn the difference between parabolic orbit and elliptical orbit and also understand the math behind it.”

He said he wanted moviegoers to understand how hard the problem was for NASA to solve. One sub-orbit shoots the astronauts into space and the capsule comes down in a triangle-like trajectory. To have a rocket shoot up and not come back down, but instead circumnavigate the globe, required new math, one that the mind of Katherine Johnson was able to think through.

“I wrote that scene when Jim Parsons describes what those differences are between the two orbits and what math they didn’t have — that was the true problem at NASA at the time and what took everyone’s efforts to try to figure it out,” Melfi said. He took a full month to write that one scene. “I had to understand it fully to write it,” he said.

Afterwards, the filmmaker was praised by the NASA historians, who told Melfi “that is best description of what we did and what we do that we’ve ever seen in layman’s terms.” That was evidenced also by Bolden and his enthusiasm for the film. Because of the level of accuracy, he wanted all his employees involved in the space program to see it.

Melfi also took painstaking measures with the story of Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughn (a role that should get Octavia Spencer an Oscar nom). Although NASA’s Space Task Group was very large, Melfi and Schroeder concentrated on only a few stories. Jackson’s story came from NASA’s historical archive. She was not allowed to enter the engineering training program because they said she didn’t have the credentials, despite the fact she had the same credentials as other male engineers who worked there.

The result? “Katherine Johnson (who saw the film with her two daughters) was in tears afterwards and said, ‘Thank you for depicting my family just as I remember it,’ ” said Melfi. “I built scenes around entire lines that they would tell me.” Like? “When Jim Johnson said to Katherine, ‘I know that marrying you includes marrying your daughters as well.’ ” Katherine and her husband Jim have been married 57 years.

Archival information was used in other ways too, like when Glenn (played by Glen Powell) uttered the line, “Get the girl to run the numbers.” That’s a direct quote. (The former astronaut never got to see the film before his death). Even a scene where the IBM computer is delivered and can’t fit through the door is true.

“Accuracy was so important in the making of this picture,” said Melfi, who wanted to learn as much as he could about the NASA Space Task Group and how they worked.

Beyond the praise it has received from NASA, Hidden Figures received two SAG nominations this year — for best ensemble and for Spencer in a supporting role– as well as two Golden Globe noms for Spencer and the pic’s original score by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch. Besides the WGA nomination, it also received an Art Directors Guild nomination, a Humanitis nomination, and was voted best ensemble cast from the National Board of Review. The film was produced by Donna Gigliotti.

Hidden Figures made $1.2M in previews last night, expands to 2,471 theaters today after playing at 25 sites since Christmas Day. It then expands again after that, up to about 3,000 locales.

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