Hidden Figures: “A Mathematical Juggling Act”
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi on the importance of repetition, ensuring balance in an ensemble piece, and not getting attached to your first draft.
Hidden Figures follows the groundbreaking careers of three real-life African American women who were instrumental in the success of Project Mercury, which put the first Americans in space.
These women are Katherine Goble (later Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson), a mathematical genius who is a widowed single mother; mathematician and aspiring computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer); and aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). These three pioneers achieved far beyond what many believed women or African Americans were capable of in an era when segregation divided the United States and denied opportunities to succeed from people of color.
The Oscar-nominated screenplay for Hidden Figures originated with Allison Schroeder, a USC graduate from the MFA program, who has worked on television writing on 90210, Side Effects, and Miss 2059. She has also written two made-for-TV features, Mean Girls 2 and Ladies’ Man: A Made Movie, but during that time she was also working on several spec scripts, including Agatha, an original screenplay about real-life mystery author Agatha Christie’s disappearance for a short period in 1926.
In 2013, Agatha was purchased by Paramount Pictures. Based on the strength of her spec work, Hidden Figures producers tapped Schroeder to write the screenplay. What they didn’t know when they approached her is that Schroeder’s grandparents worked at NASA during the era Hidden Figures is set in, and a project like Hidden Figures was a dream job for her.
After Schroeder completed her work on the screenplay, Theodore Melfi was hired to direct the film, and also did a rewrite on the script.
Melfi is best known for writing and directing the 2014 film St. Vincent, a heartfelt comedy about an aging foul-mouthed misanthrope (Bill Murray) who unwittingly becomes the babysitter of his next door neighbor’s young son. The script was purchased by Fox and later listed on the 2011 Black List. St. Vincent was an audience favorite and was nominated for two Golden Globes. In addition to Hidden Figures, Melfi also wrote the screenplay for Going in Style, a remake of the 1979 heist comedy, which will be released in April 2017.
Creative Screenwriting interviewed Schroeder and Melfi separately about their work on the Hidden Figures screenplay, finding the right balance with three protagonists, and their individual screenwriting projects.
Allison, the Hidden Figures script originated with you. Can you talk about the origins of the screenplay?
Allison: Producer Donna Gigliotti and executive producer Renee Witt were looking for a female writer for a few projects. They had read my Agatha Christie script and sent me various projects, one of which was the book proposal for Hidden Figures.
I freaked out because I grew up by Cape Canaveral, and my grandmother was a computer programmer there, my grandfather was an engineer on the Mercury capsule, and I interned there for four years. So I was like, “This is everything I want to do right now.”
I called them up, told them all of that, and pitched them a few scenes. They hired me, and I started writing in the fall of 2015.
Margot Lee Shetterly, who is the author of the book, was amazing. She gave me all of her research and her source material. I did a ton of research and writing, and turned in a first draft. There were several drafts, and in April 2016, Donna said “This is it, this is the draft that we need,” and we sent it around town looking for a director and a studio.
Ted, can you talk about how you got involved in this project?
Theodore: I got a book proposal from my agents, and they got the book proposal from Donna Gigliotti. She’s the Academy Award-winning producer of Shakespeare in Love, The Reader, and Silver Linings Playbook.
Donna has a track record of finding great material. It was a fifty-five-page book proposal by Margot Lee Shetterly, who ended up writing the book, and Donna was floored by it. She gave that book proposal and Allison’s script to my agency, and they got that to me on a Friday night. I read them on Saturday and I said, “Please, let me do this!” on Monday.
What did you contribute to the script once you joined the project?
Theodore: I took a page one thought about it in terms of balancing the three women’s home lives with their lives at NASA. I felt like a lot of Allison’s draft was very inside NASA, and I wanted to get out of NASA for a little bit. I dug into the women’s home lives a lot more and then I also dug into the space of it all to make the space bigger and more dramatic. To be crude about it, the script has a female touch and a male touch to it.
The relationship that really drives the film is the camaraderie between the three women. Could you talk about writing that relationship?
Allison: Katherine Johnson’s big request in giving us her life rights was that the movie would not just be about her. There was a huge team of women working at NASA and she wanted everyone to receive recognition. We knew from the very beginning that this was going to be about comradeship, friendship, women helping women, and women lifting each other up.
I read all of Margot’s work and saw that it was clearly also about Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson. But it was hard because there were a lot of incredible women, and we had to pick and choose who to follow and what time period to follow. But from the get-go it was about these three women and their intertwining careers and lives.
Theodore: Those relationships were born from an interview I had with the real Katherine Johnson, who was ninety-seven at the time I interviewed her. I said, “Katherine, talk to me about Dorothy Vaughan,” and she just looked at me, smiled, and said, “Miss Vaughan.”
She had such a reverence for her, and told me about how much time they spent together, how they lunched together, and carpooled together. It was the same thing with Mary Jackson.
I pieced together that these three women, being amongst the twenty black women at NASA at the time, were in the same community. They went to the same church, the same barbeques, the same picnics, and the same social events. They had a real bond and were close. In those days, the black community was very close because during segregation all they had was each other.
In the first third of the film there is a lot of tension building within the women, and especially for Katherine Johnson, as a result of segregation and not receiving any respect for her abilities. It builds to this remarkable moment where this seemingly timid woman just explodes. Can you talk about those scenes, and what role they play in the screenplay?
Allison: When I was doing the research, the segregation was so institutionalized that it was part of the set-up. Their West Computing Offices weren’t as nice, and were in a separate part of the building. They only had a few Colored restrooms, and it was such a distance to run to them.
It was about setting up the status quo so that the rest of the movie could be about overcoming it.
I think everyone on the film did an incredible job in underscoring that. Just looking at the production design by Wynn Thomas of the Colored restroom versus the White restroom makes you feel the difference. That was such a huge part of it.
A lot of people have commented that it’s one of their favorite things about the movie. It’s not about firehoses, dogs on chains, and lynchings, or big moments. It’s smaller, everyday discriminations of racism and sexism that these women were dealing with over and over again. That’s what the movie is about, really – persevering from one obstacle to the next.
Theodore: In writing the explosion scene, we wanted her to have an explosion that was simply “I can’t take it any more.” It was just an explosion for her character, but it is also a release for the audience. We wanted the audience to finally understand what all the shots of her running to the bathroom were about and why we were showing that so often.
When you watch the film, you watch those scenes and say, “I think I’ve seen that enough. It’s too much! I could use one less shot of it.” But the truth is, they allow that moment to make sense and give the audience and this character a cathartic release.
In writing it, we wanted this timid mathematician to have her moment where she speaks up for herself, and for all the others who had come before her and will come after her. She simply just can’t take it any more, and that’s the turning point where her boss and the whole Space Task Group understand her and what she’s been going through.
It lightens up a little bit for her after that. She still has to struggle, but it changes the tone in the movie.
So the repetition of the bathroom trip scenes ensured that you could put the audience in her shoes, correct?
Theodore: Correct. Otherwise, if you just do it once, the audience thinks, “Oh, so she has to run to go to the bathroom.” But if you do it three times, and you really torture the character by making it to the point where it’s almost at the point of being overdone, it allows the explosion moment to be the moment that it’s supposed to be. Obviously it worked, because we get a lot of comments about how that scene where she explodes is so powerful, and people say it’s one of the best scenes in the film.
Though Katherine is the true lead, this is a film with three lead characters that each have somewhat separate goals. How did you ensure that you maintained a balance between the women?
Allison: The true events were just so phenomenal, and we knew we had to hit them all. With Mary Jackson, when I read about the courtroom petition that she had to do, I felt like that was her arc. It was always about the support she received to get into the engineer training program, and then having to petition the court so she could attend. I knew the beats to that arc.
What fascinated me about Dorothy was that she saw the coming technology, which I think is really important today as well. Her arc was always going from being in charge of these women, having to work with the white computing pool, and ultimately becoming a programmer. It was all about making sure to hit all these beats in terms of the balance of the story.
Katherine was always going to be our compass through the world.
Theodore: I went back to the old school drawing board by using notecards. I put every character’s scenes on notecards and said, “This is their trajectory. This where they start, here’s where they end, and here’s what’s in the middle.”
I weighted Katherine slightly heavier because she is the true lead, and then Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson were basically the same, although Dorothy has a few more scenes.
I then made cards for the NASA timeline and all the launches. I put them on a huge wall, and I started shuffling until I felt like everybody was getting their screentime at the right time, their stories were building at the right time, their stories were building co-currently, and their stories were building along with NASA’s story building.
Serendipitously enough, it was kind of a mathematical juggling act.
As with all movies based on true events, it’s impossible to get every interesting detail in the film. Were there any aspects of these women’s stories that you wanted to tell, but didn’t or wouldn’t work in the screenplay?
Allison: Oh, definitely. There was Christine Darden, who was the next generation, who is an amazing scientist. There was no way to fit her into the film because she wasn’t at NASA yet. There was also a white woman who was a divorcee single mom, so she was ostracized in her own way. She befriended them, and that was a really special friendship. But there wasn’t room for it in the final film.
Also, their childhoods – Katherine and Dorothy went to college very young and had incredible accolades there, and Katherine was one of the first women to go to a desegregated graduate school program. There was a lot that we could not include, so thank God for the book. [Laughs]
Honestly, you rely a certain amount on others. When I first pitched some of my ideas to Donna, she laughed and said, “Whoa, that’s forty years of history. Do you know how many vintage cars I’d have to get? We don’t have the budget, kiddo!”
That made it very clear that it would be all about John Glenn’s mission, because you can’t do better than him saying “Have the girl run the numbers,” which is what actually happened. It was very clear that that was our Act III. Once I realized that, the rest was building everything towards it.
The hardest thing is that I was very attached to the truth in the first draft. But there comes a point when you just have to say, “Look, what’s important is their accomplishments.” It’s OK to change dates to fit them in.
Ted, how is your approach to writing an adapted screenplay like Hidden Figures different from writing an original screenplay like St. Vincent?
Theodore: I approached Hidden Figures like an original screenplay. The only real difference is that I had a trove of true nuggets to use, including historical research and archives. You know the NASA story, the launches, the dates, the characters, and who they were. The audience doesn’t know the three women, and to be honest I didn’t know the three women that well either. I know them as well as one could know them from research.
I approached it by taking something I knew to be true and built a scene around it. For example, when Colonel Jim Johnson asks Katherine to marry him at the dinner table, her real children told me that when he asked her he said, “I know marrying you includes marrying your girls as well.” So I built the scene around that direct quote knowing that was the line the scene would crescendo on.
That being the basis of the scene, I then said to myself, “Well, if they remember he said that surely the girls were around when he said it.” Then I added the girls and Katherine’s mother to the scene because it’s a family unit.
That’s how that scene was born – a little historic with a true line, and then the dramatization of it.
Speaking of St. Vincent, how did you develop the character Vincent MacKenna in your screenplay?
Theodore: That character was based on my wife’s father Paul Quinn. Paul was a war veteran who was not a good man – he was a real bastard for most of his life. He stopped talking to my wife when she was nine. Cut to her turning thirty, and she goes to a weekend seminar called The Landmark Forum. One of the assignments is get complete with all the people in your life, call them, and apologize or take responsibility for your part of the equation.
My wife tracks down an address and sends her father a letter not thinking anything of it. It’s just to clear her mind and heart. Two weeks later the phone rings, and it’s her father. He says, “Kim, it’s your dad.” She starts to cry, and they went on to have the most remarkable, re-discovered father-daughter relationship ever for the last ten years of his life to the point where they were inseparable. All was forgiven and they moved on.
That’s Vincent Mackenna. We wanted Vincent to get the lesson about understanding his value through the eyes of a child, though one who was much younger than my wife.
You told USA Today an incredible story about getting Bill Murray’s notes on the St. Vincent script while driving around in a limo in Southern California. Would it be fair to say that it was one of the most memorable writing experiences in your career?
Theodore: Oh, yeah. It will always be the most remarkable writing experience of my career. Well, who knows what could happen. But I’ll never forget him pulling that dog-eared script out of his camel-colored leather bag. It had pencil scratches all over it. He just went through it with me and then when he hit a monologue with a check mark next to it, he said, “You see that? That one’s good.”
You also wrote the screenplay for the remake of the heist film Going in Style, which is coming out later this year. Can you talk about writing that screenplay?
Theodore: That was a lot of fun, and was one of my favorite writing assignments. Donald De Line and Andrew Haas over as De Line Pictures said they wanted to remake it, and sent me the movie.
I had never seen the original movie with George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg, which was such a great film. I watched it and said, “You know what, they would never make that movie today.” They asked why, and I said, “Because two of the guys die and one goes to jail.”
In this modern era, and even for me, I don’t want to see a movie where my heroes whom I’ve been fighting for and rooting for for two hours die or go to jail. I want to see them get ahead, and it’s perfect for them to get ahead these days because everyone hates banks now. So let’s have them put the perfect heist together, rob a bank, get away with it, and go off into the sunset.
They said, “Yes, let’s do that,” and that’s how that script was born. I’m really happy with the film. The director, Zach Braff, did a great job.
Allison, you’ve had various jobs in the film industry. How did that lead you to screenwriting?
Allison: My father was an engineer and my mother was an English teacher, so I was always doing math, science, writing, and theater. I had both sides covered. Even when I was at Stanford, I was a double major in Economics and Writing and Theater. I spent two years in finance and then decided that I was prepared to be a starving artist. I had saved enough for grad school, and I applied for USC Film School. I got my Masters there in Directing and also did a lot of writing classes.
I had started writing in theater, and as an undergrad I wrote three musicals, a play, and a lot of short stories. At USC, I learned how to do screenwriting. Then I was set out into the world and I could not get a job, as many of us can’t! [Laughs]
Actually, I tutored math to pay my bills until I finally got a job as a PA on Pineapple Express, and then I started working my way up.
Most of your produced writing has been for television. What is your writing process when writing a screenplay solo as opposed to working in a writer’s room?
Allison: I was actually only on staff for 90210. With everything else that I’ve done for television I was the only writer, or it was pilot development, which means I was also the only writer. I also did a lot of spec work during that time in features, so I was doing a lot of feature writing, and I sold my Agatha Christie spec to Paramount.
Mean Girls 2 and MTV’s Made movie were features – they were made-for-TV features, but they were still just features me. So, I’m pretty used to writing in my pajamas with my feet on the sofa.
Much of that work was original screenplays that involve modern-day teen protagonists. How was writing this adapted screenplay about three professional women in the early 1960s different?
Allison: People would look at me and they’d see a scrawny blonde girl and say, “OK, she can write about a prom.” But I was so desperate to write everything else.
In my spare time I wrote a period piece about the Manhattan Project, I wrote a 1980s Stand By Me, and my Agatha Christie script is obviously set in the 1920s. So much of my spec work was more like Hidden Figures, it just took someone finally taking a chance on me to pay me to write what I’ve been wanting to write!
I had done quite a few period pieces before Hidden Figures, and Agatha is also based on real-life events because it’s based on when she went missing for ten days. I created this entire adventure she went on using historical events along with researching all of her books. That was great practice and I think it was one of the reasons why Donna Gigliotti hired me. She saw that I could write a strong woman in a story set in the past against all of the limitations a woman had back then.
You mentioned your Agatha screenplay, which helped put you on the map when it sold. Can you talk about how that affected your career and your other projects?
Allison: I’m so grateful that it sold, because it opened the door for me to get called on for other projects. It’s another script about a very strong, powerful woman in history and how she saves the world. That one is more fictionalized, but it’s definitely one that I love.
The projects that I’m working on now include a feature about a young girl that’s based right after World War I, and I have a mini-series about the women of history that I’m dying to do. Honestly, they’re all just about kick-ass female protagonists who I hope defy the stereotypes.
Featured image: Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson in Hidden Figures. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation