Hidden Figures — An Interview with the Talented Director

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There are so many great things about the San Diego International Film Festival. This year, it was hanging out with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening at one party. I got to tell him I loved Heaven Can Wait, and tell her I loved The Kids Are All Right. Sometimes, it’s just as interesting meeting unknown filmmakers. I met a few people that had movie shorts, and it was wonderful to hear their enthusiasm.

I was on the radio talking to the director and producers of an interesting indie flick called Dead Draw. Just as I finished up with them, I was asked if I wanted to interview director Theodore Melfi. I was lukewarm on his debut picture St. Vincent, and didn’t even know he had a second movie. The folks at the film festival were treated to a screening and Q&A with him. I was lucky enough to chat with him right before he screened it.

As I walked in, he said “I remember you from St. Vincent.” I laughed and said, “I don’t think so. I didn’t go to any of the press events for that. Maybe you’re mistaking me for Bill Murray. Unfortunately, I’ve been told I look like him.”

As he laughed, I sat down and set up my tape recorder.

JOSH BOARD: Since we just talked about Bill Murray and St. Vincent came up, I have to ask…how did you get such an incredible cast for your first movie? I want bug you with details about Bill Murray and that 800 number of his you have to call [the LA Times did the most amazing story about that if you want to seek it out]. You had Melissa McCarthy…I can’t remember the Russian prostitute…

MELFI: Naomi Watts.

JOSH BOARD: Yeah! And Terrence Howard. How did you get all those guys?

MELFI: Well, once I found Bill, which took me a year…everyone wanted to work with Bill. So it just kind of rolls over. You get Bill Murray, it’s like you got the golden ticket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Melissa wanted to play something different. She’s a dramatic actor at heart.

JOSH BOARD: Ya know, one of the things I said in my review of St. Vincent, was that it’s one of the few times she’d been used right on screen. Sure enough, a number of movies later, she’s not funny, and always over the top. Directors always trying to recreate that Bridesmaids magic and they don’t write her solid material. It was more interesting in St. Vincent seeing her as a working mom, not a one-dimensional character. You actually really care for her in your film.

MELFI: Well, Hollywood does that. They put you in a box as quick as they can. Not just Hollywood, society. They tell you this is what you are. It takes you 20 years to figure out that’s not who you are. She’s done nine years of drama off-Broadway before she touched any comedy. She’s a brilliant actress.

JOSH BOARD: This movie Hidden Figures is interesting, because nobody knows this story. I saw the trailer and wondered why this story hadn’t come out before about these women working for NASA. How did you find out about this?

MELFI: There’s a novelist, Margot Lee Shetterly. She’s African-American. Her father worked at NASA. She grew up as a NASA kid in Virginia. She met Katherine Johnson, and knew these women. She started researching and figuring this out. There was a team of women that worked at NASA that nobody knew about in the 1960s. The ‘east computing group’, with 30 white women, and the ‘west computing group’. They had 22 black women. They did all the math and calculations to back up the space program. The launches, trajectory, orbits, windows, everything. All of it. And they’re completely hidden. Furthermore, the African-American women were in the segregated building; separate water fountains, bathrooms, lunch room. It’s unbelievably fascinating. Shetterly started researching one woman in particular, Katherine Johnson, who’d just won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was the only mathematician John Glenn trusted to run the numbers on his Friendship 7 flight [in 1962, this was the first American to ever orbit the Earth]. Glenn was quoted as saying….get her to run the numbers. If she says they’ll work, it’s good to go. That’s extraordinary. So…she ended up writing the book proposal, and it ended up being brought to me. I was just blown away.

JOSH BOARD: It’s interesting that the movie is being made before the book is even out.

MELFI: It actually came out last week, and it’s a best seller!

JOSH BOARD: Speaking of things coming out last week, did you see the movie Operation Avalanche?

MELFI: No. I haven’t even heard of it.

JOSH BOARD: These young filmmakers make a fake moon landing movie for NASA. It’s a little indie picture. NASA probably doesn’t care for anything that has people talking about the moon landing being fake [astronaut Buzz Aldrin once punched a guy that was harassing him about the moon landing being staged]. Yet I wonder how NASA will feel about your movie. It’s a positive story, but…NASA also had a segregated building. I can see them not liking the light in which they’re shown.

MELFI: We had two NASA consultants, Burt and Bill, that were tremendously supportive of the movie. We just screened it for NASA and all the people there. They’re over the moon.

JOSH BOARD: No pun intended.

MELFI: Or pun intended.

JOSH BOARD: This is the type of movie I can see the White House doing a screening of.

MELFI: They’ve already requested one.

JOSH BOARD: Wow! You must be thrilled.

MELFI: I’ve never met President Obama, so…I’ll see if I could get it pulled off.

JOSH BOARD: What are you talking about? Why wouldn’t it be pulled off?

MELFI: Yeah, that’s true. They requested a screening, so I guess it will. You don’t say no.

JOSH BOARD: I was talking with critic Scott Mantz of Access Hollywood. We didn’t care for Birth of a Nation. We talked about whether critics would be kinder to it because of the last few years of Oscar nominations not having a single African-American. But…the movie just isn’t that good.

MELFI: Yeah, a lot of people say that. I haven’t seen it, but everyone I talk to says it’s not a great movie. If it’s not, it’s not.

JOSH BOARD: And, after seeing Moonlight, and the 30 minutes I’ve seen of Hidden Figures…I think these are the movies that could get some African-American actors nominated for Oscars. Octavia Spencer is great in everything she does, but…I want to ask about Kevin Costner. His look is perfect in this role. He plays great baseball players, undercover cops, or…somebody working for NASA. How did it come about getting him?

MELFI: Oh god, well…his agent got a copy of the script early on and slipped it to him. He thought it was an amazing story, but he didn’t think the script was great. That was the first draft, before I got involved. I rewrote the script from ground one, and got it back to him. He wanted to meet me, and I went to his house. We talked about the script for four hours. He said he’d like to do this, but it has to be better. We had to figure out who this Al Harris character is. We worked close together for a few weeks working on that character. He made the script so beautiful. All the other characters were already there, but we were missing his character. He’s the glue, and he had to be the glue, or this movie wouldn’t work. And when he gives his word on something, he gives his word.

JOSH BOARD: Did anything bother you about him wanting to add more about this character? In a William Goldman book [he’s written many screenplays], he had a problem when he did The Ghost and the Darkness, and Michael Douglas initially gave great advice on this character, but then thought more should be told about this mysterious character. Goldman thinks ultimately, it ruined the entire movie. So, did part of you think….Costner’s going to think this is about him?

MELFI: No. You experience that at times, but it’s a director’s job to keep the movie on track.

JOSH BOARD: Yeah, but you’re a new director. This is only your second film. I’d feel like you might be reluctant to do that.

MELFI: I’ve been doing this long enough. I’ve been directing for 20 years. I’ll be very practical with you. I do commercials. Lots of them. That’s my living. So I don’t need the money. I don’t need the bullshit. I don’t care that much. Not in a bad way, but I’m not desperate. I’m very happy with my house in Van Nuys and thousand dollar mortgage. So I don’t need pressure. I don’t need to make movies that get derailed instantly, because you need the money. I’m very happy with my modest existence.

JOSH BOARD: This movie is obviously going to take off…pun intended. So…will you keep doing movies and commercials, or just films?

MELFI: I’ll keep doing both. Any day on a set is a good day to me. You get to do what you love. You get paid for it. I remember the first time I got paid to write something, I thought…they pay you to write? Yeah, there’s a business in it. I’ve been writing for 30 years for free.

JOSH BOARD: I remember writing a radio show that got syndicated. I got paid $300 to write it. Ray Manzarek of The Doors got paid $3,000 to narrate it. It took me all weekend, and it took him two hours to do his part. And having worked in radio for years, I know all about writing things for free.

MELFI: Right? That’s how it works.

At the screening at the San Diego International Film Festival, I got to see a lot of the movie and listen to his Q&A with the crowd. I was surprised to find out he dropped the opportunity to direct one of the Spider Man movies to take on this project. That tells you how strongly he feels about this subject matter and film.

It won’t be out for awhile, but keep your eyes open.


And, you can still avoid The Birth of a Nation. It’s not a very good film, and director Nate Parker continues to be hounded by criticism of his refusal to apologize for his part in the rape of a student back in his college days.