For Donna Gigliotti, like the rest of the collaborators who eventually boarded the project, was an undeniable proposition. The true story of three black women employed at NASA’s segregated facility in Virginia in the 1960s, whose mathematic and technical talents were integral to the early days of the space race, Hidden Figures rights a wrong with a history that has largely overlooked their importance. And, as Gigliotti explains, it celebrates the tenaciousness necessary to survive in a work environment dominated by white men, under a system of institutionalized racial oppression that stacked the odds against them.
A year after an Oscars hashtag inspired a debate about representation on screen, during which the tide of progress has felt, at times, like it might be waning, Hidden Figures is an essential tonic. It’s an optimistic movie, not just in terms of the story it tells, but for the industry itself; a gathering of deeply passionate individuals determined to persevere even as, per Gigliotti, the prospect on the page didn’t seem to suit the narrow checkboxes favored by feature film financiers.
How does this story come across your desk?
I have this company called Levantine Films, and I started it about two and a half years ago. The company is designed to develop and finance material, so in the course of developing I’m always on the lookout for books, manuscripts, plays. And because I live in New York, it’s terrific because publishing is here and theatre is here. This book proposal came through to us, it was 55 pages. It was called Hidden Figures and it was written by a woman that I had never heard of called Margot Shetterly. It had just been bought by William Marl. I read the 55 pages and I put it down and I wondered how it was possible that nobody had ever heard this story. I figured it was just me, and I was undereducated, so I called 10 people that I think are smarter than I am, and it was true: nobody has ever heard of this story. It’s amazing.
It was funny because I was going to do ADR work with Whoopi Goldberg, having just read this book proposal, and after the ADR session, I said, “Do me a favor. Just read this in the car on the way home.” And she did, and I still have those emails from her; they’re phenomenal. Everything is in capital letters: “YOU MUST MAKE THIS MOVIE.” And the funny part was, “I MUST BE IN IT.” I thought, I love you, but you’re 61 years-old, and nobody in the movie is above the age of 45. It didn’t work out, but she said, “You’ll be my hero if you make this; it’s unbelievable that I didn’t know anything about these women.”
At that point I was thinking I couldn’t ignore it. If there’s a hallmark for the kinds of movies I make it’s that there’s always a strong woman at the center of everything. That’s true of Shakespeare in Love, and it’s Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, and it’s Kate Winslet in The Reader. In this, you have three superheroes, so I had to option it.
I got on the phone with Margo Shetterly. She didn’t really have any exposure to Hollywood, and I think she was very suspect of this woman calling her up saying, “I’m going to get this movie made.” But she believed me, and here we are.
When was that?
I actually looked at the option agreement the other day, it is dated March 2014. Obviously I wanted to go and commission a screenplay, and there were a variety of people that presented pitches. But Allison Schroeder said to me, “I was born to write this screenplay.” I said, “Fine, tell me why.” She said, “I went to Stanford where I studied math and engineering.” OK, so right there she had a leg up. Then she said, “My mother, my father and my grandmother all worked for NASA. And I interned there for four summers when I was in college.” At that point I had to sit up straighter and think maybe she was the right person.
She loved doing her research. She is very, very smart. And when I optioned it, I said to Margot, “Will you make all your research available to us?” She said yes, so I got the two of them together and facts and figures were flying back and forth between them. When Allison sent her first draft, the script made me cry within the first 20 pages. I was on a night shoot, so I thought I must have been really tired and emotional. But that wasn’t the case; everyone that read that script wept.
She had a little more work to do, and then I put it out to agencies to find a director and young Mr. [Theodore] Melfi raised his hand. He was very persuasive about why he wanted to do it. And Pharrell Williams… he was like a dog with a bone. He would not let go. This guy would call me and sing to me. I met with him in New York and he said, “This is the kind of music that I’m thinking about,” and he sat down and sang me an entire song.
And then Octavia Spencer came in to see me and she said, “I’ll do anything to be in this movie, and I don’t know which part I want because they’re all fantastic. I don’t know if I should play Mary or Dorothy.” You just have to love that.
This was July 2015. Ted’s last movie had been made by Peter Chernin, and he asked to show him the script. So we did, and Peter and Jenno [Topping] kind of went nuts for it. They said, “We only deal with Fox, can we show it to Elizabeth Gabler?” I said, “Sure, why not.” At that point we had two other studios interested in it, and so it was kind of exciting. But I thought it was right for Fox and for Elizabeth. I knew what the budget should be and I knew how we wanted to release it. I said, “This is what I’m looking for on this film. I want it to be greenlit, I want it to be released in December of 2016, and I want it to go wide in January.” She was as good as her word, and we made the movie.
We prepped in January, we shot in Atlanta and we wrapped in May.
What has inspired that level of fervor in everybody, do you think?
I can make a suggestion. Part of it is the environment we’re living in. The picture was greenlit before OscarsSoWhite, so there’s no correlation there. But the fact that existed, and the Black Lives Matter movement, and everything that has gone on in the country over the last few years, all of that is important.
When you see real people’s lives depicted on screen, and those people have done remarkable work and have not been recognized for it, you get to the end and you’re hit by the cumulative effect of seeing these people get their due. That’s the emotional response that people have to it, and everyone can relate.
The other aspect is that when John Glenn went up into orbital space, that was the last time this country was completely and utterly united. We had an enemy, which was Russia, and they were ready to bomb us and to spy on us. The entire country overcame issues of gender, race and ethnicity to follow this story. When it was announced on the radio that there was a problem with his third orbit, traffic around Cape Canaveral stopped. People got out of their cars, in the middle of the road, and got down on the ground to pray for his safe return.
Glenn was such a hero after coming back from space that John F. Kennedy called up the head of NASA and said, “Under no circumstances are you ever to send John Glenn into space again.” Glenn didn’t know this at the time and he came back saying, “That was fun, I want to go up again.” But he didn’t return to space until he was 72 years old. The reason Kennedy said this was that Glenn was such a hero that, if something had happened to him in space, and he should be harmed or die, it would have been a disaster for the country.
So it’s those two things. It’s recognition for those women and what they did, and it’s the idea of America in a very specific kind of unity that I think we all long for.
One of these women, Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson in the movie, is still alive.
She’s 98 years old, and a little deaf in one ear, but she’s still playing Bridge twice a week. The one person she jumps for is the President of the United States. I was talking to her not long ago. The one person she will do anything for is Barack Obama. Who, by the way, calls her quite often. Her daughter said, “The White House; they’re always in touch with my mother. If the President says, ‘Katherine, can you come here,’ she’s always, like, ‘Yup.’” It’s sort of a pain in the ass, because she’s in a wheelchair and can only walk a little bit, but for Barack… They call him Barack. Barack calls and Katherine’s there.
When you hear a story like that you think there must be some good karma in the world. It was so interesting to talk to Katherine, because when you try and engage her on racism it’s not an easy thing to do. She was going to do her job and it didn’t matter what was in her way. She didn’t talk about racism or sexism. She said, “I had a job to do and I knew I was the best person to do it, so I did it.”
Has she seen the film?
Yes, I took it down to Hampton, Virginia, which is not an easy place to get to, let me tell you. We rented out an AMC theater and we brought the DCP down for her. She and her two daughters came in and watched the movie, and I was watching her watch Taraji P. Henson play her. I was pretty sure we were OK when I heard sniffling from that row. They liked it.
You talked about movements like OscarsSoWhite, and there can be no denying that this industry is under increasing pressure to address its many representation crises. Your filmography speaks for itself when it comes to projects in which women play strong roles. So where do you stand on the progress being made? Are you at all optimistic that, at the financing level, there’s any more appetite for more diverse stories?
In a word, no. The Academy took a lot of flack for the Oscars this year, and I have to say, as a member of the Academy for nearly 25 years, while it’s very white, male-dominated, I really don’t think that’s the problem. I think it’s an employment issue. Until women and people of color are in high-ranking positions in the room, I don’t think anything is going to change.
The only way to do it is you have to go and do what I just did. And I’m going to tell you something: I’m not special. Everybody in the world saw the proposal for Hidden Figures. Nobody paid attention to it except me. Because why would they? Who in their right mind would think that developing a movie about three black mathematicians working at NASA in 1962 would be an easy proposition? It’s women, it’s a period piece, they’re African American. There’s a million reasons why you wouldn’t do it.
So what it takes are individuals, to take it into their own hands. And this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to make movies like this, and I will do it in such a way that they become attractive in terms of the whole package, so that nobody can deny them. That’s the only way at this point.
What I do, ultimately, think is that the younger generation of executives are coming up now and maybe they will have an influence. To me, the hope is that independent producers go out and they’re on the forefront of this. If they’re smart about it, and the way that you put the package together and the budget level, then you can make it appealing to the studios and they’ll sign on.
But in the immortal words of Jeffrey Katzenberg, “It’s not called show art, it’s called showbusiness.” You think about the ’60s and ’70s, and guys like Bob Altman and early Scorsese, those guys were artists and we’ve lost some of that because the business has become such a business. I remember a time when the weekend grosses were not reported in news. You had to go with Variety on a Tuesday when they had the chart. Now it’s, “Moana makes such-and-such, biggest two-day opening of an animated picture, blah blah, before Thanksgiving.” It has nothing to do with Moana being a lovely film with a good story. Nobody cares about the art or the content. Yet that is so stupid, because content is the thing. What the story is, and how it empowers people to want to see the movie.