Already known as a TV show creator who can run multiple writers’ rooms in the same building in a given season, somewhere along the way Fargo Primetime Emmy winner Noah Hawley decided to tackle his feature directorial debut, the female astronaut pic Lucy in the Sky ne Pale Blue Dot, which makes it world premiere tomorrow night at TIFF.
“It’s all a blur, but I went from Fargo season 3 to Legion season 2 and then we made the movie last summer,” says the multi-tasker who is about to go into production on season 4 of Fargo next month starring Chris Rock, in a story that is set in 1950 Kansas City, 29 years before season 2.
Lucy in the Sky tells the story of Lucy Cola, a type A, high-achieving astronaut, who after returning to Earth, feels a disconnect on terra firma, specifically her marriage. She ultimately strays to a fellow astronaut, Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm) who, like her, also had a spiritual experience in outer space. But he’s not to be trusted and is eventually the catalyst for Lucy’s demise. The pic is loosely based on true story of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak. who made headlines in 2007 for the attempted murder of Cathleen Shipman, whom she suspected of having won the heart of her colleague, Navy Commander William Ofelein.
The original spec script came to Hawley back in February 2017, as exclusively reported by Deadline, with Reese Witherspoon starring and producing with her former Pacific Standard partner Bruna Papandrea. Natalie Portman would eventually takeover the role of Lucy Cola. Lucy in the Sky opens theatrically on Oct. 4. Below is our conversation with Hawley:
With everything you have going on with TV, what made you drop everything to shoot the tragic-heroic story of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak?
Noah Hawley: Well, it came to me through Fox Searchlight and I had read the original spec script which was very much based on the real story. I wasn’t terribly interested in a literal telling of the story, and so it kind of fell off my radar. Then (producer, and attached star) Reese Witherspoon (producer) and Bruna Papandrea brought in another writer, John-Henry Butterworth who did a draft that began to introduce the magic realism and the more psychological elements and it became less of a literal telling and more of a fictional examination of the story of an astronaut who goes to space and has this explosive experience and a very hard time kind of re-fitting back into her life when she comes home.
You know, what was appealing to me was a couple of things. One, we didn’t really see any drama that started in space where you get that 20,000-foot view of life on earth in a way that really allows us to look at human behavior from that distance, and B), you know what I really found myself compelled by was the idea that you know you could take a tabloid story and restore dignity to the human beings involved because obviously that’s what a tabloid story is, it’s a story of human beings who have failed, who have made mistakes, and they end up becoming something of a joke, but you know that’s a very unfortunate way to look at the lives of people that don’t go well.
It’s the story of a woman who was having an existential crisis and who makes mistakes and derails for life, but she does it because she has this feeling that there must be something more to life than the kind of myopic blinders on –go to school, marry the nicest guy you can find, chase-your-dream path– that she’s been on. But it’s just not something she can really articulate and so she ends up having an affair because that feeling that she gets from the relationship of somebody new feels like that feeling of excitement that she faced when she was up there, but it’s not that ultimately, and ultimately this isn’t a movie about an affair, this is a movie about a woman having an existential crisis.
There’s a great moment when Lucy advises astronaut Mark Goodwin’s (Jon Hamm) next female protégé Erin (Zazie Beetz) ‘Us women, we have to stick together!’ As the #MeToo movement heated up, how did that impact the development of the movie?
NH: It was definitely something that I wanted to explore in the story. I don’t know if you saw that Saturday Night Live routine recently, which was a stand-up of the real news story about the two women who went up to space, but there was only a suit for one of them.
You know, it was a really kind of horrifyingly pointless problem and you know it’s not my goal to kind of mask the mistakes that she makes to apologize for the mistakes that she makes by focusing on her gender. I simply wanted to examine that element when it comes into the story and how she might be judged differently in her crisis than Jon Hamm would be were he to be going through the same kind of process.
When the project was first announced, Reese Witherspoon was originally cast in the lead role. How did Natalie Portman takeover?
NH: I think it was all about timing with Reese because you know in the period of time in which I was developing the film, Big Little Lies was coming out and obviously it was a huge success and there was a big pull to do another season of that and then also Reese had landed the show with Jennifer Anniston on Apple, and so she basically just was unavailable. I know that this movie was a big priority for her and she remained 100 percent committed to producing it and making sure it hit screen. I thought about Natalie and approached her for it and she read it and it was not a complicated process. She loved it and wanted to do it and off we went.
Where did you shoot the movie?
NH: We filmed in Los Angeles or Houston, which as someone who lives in Austin, Texas seemed a bit ridiculous to me, but the nice people of Los Angeles were happy to give us a tax break and LA ended up working out really well so I have no complaints.
The other element about the film that’s fascinating is how you continually adjust the aspect ratio.
NH: My goal was to make a movie that was subjective, in other words the experience of watching the movie was as close to the experience of being her as I could give you. One of the first thoughts that I had about it is the reduction of scale when she comes back from space, in other words it’s a full screen experience when she’s up there in space and she’s energized and feels alive in a way she’s never felt alive before and then the moment she lands back on earth everything feels smaller, and so the screen closes down to what is a 4×3 box and that became the beginning of the cinematic approach to the film, which ended up involving a lot of different aspect ratios and the screen sort of expanding and contracting to try to simulate the feeling of being her so visually and also through the sound design.
There’s a moment in which you know toward the end of the film where she commits to a path that will ultimately lead to her ruin but in her mind as someone who has never met a problem she can’t solve, but who has been put into a no-win scenario, she goes a bit nuts and she commits to this path of confronting the people she thinks have wronged her and it takes her on the road. In her mind there’s an exhilaration to it and that’s what re-expands the screen in the 15 or 20 minutes of the film.
This is a movie about change, a movie about transformation. She starts as one thing and she ends as something else and the process of getting there, of transformation can often be painful and feel destructive and there’s a moment in the movie where she says ‘Why would God make something that has to destroy itself in order to fly?’ which is a reference to the butterfly, which if you know the real story of how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, you know, it builds this chrysalis and then the caterpillar liquefies. It’s not like it grows wings. It literally becomes a liquid from which it grows into a completely different organism and that idea of such a violent process to create something so beautiful certainly is a metaphor for us in the film.
The original title of the film was Pale Blue Dot. How did it change-up to Lucy in the Sky?
NH: The title Pale Blue Dot was in the original script and we reached production with the idea that it would be called that but the reality is that Carl Sagan estate actually has trademarked that and we had conversations with Carl’s widow and her feeling was that the phrase is so meaningful to so many people, she didn’t want to tie it to just this one thing, which I certainly respected. In the interim when I came to this project, the name Lucy Cola was my addition to it.
There’s something, you know, very American about the name: She’s literally her own soft drink, Lucy Cola, and I wanted her to feel larger than life and she does. I mean, Natalie’s performance of course is the real headline of this movie and the transformation that she goes through and the sort of bravado and assuredness and the charm and the swagger that she carries through this film and then the kind of degradation of her character as she begins to degrade when she loses control. It really is such a remarkable performance that Natalie gave.
How did you prepare Natalie Portman for her role as an astronaut?
NH: I remember sending her a couple of articles that I’d read. One was about a man who went to the Antarctic three times. The first time he tried to recreate Shackleton’s journey, but he ended up going back two more times and he ended up actually dying on the third, the third visit, and then the other article was about a Norwegian man I believe who was solo kayaking the Atlantic Ocean and he kept going back: He would kayak across the ocean and he would come back and time would lapse and he would just get restless.
There was something for both of those men about being in that peril, that living moment by moment by your wits and your strength. Once they’ve done it, they couldn’t not do it again and I thought that level of kind of extreme human addiction to a feeling you know was very relevant. You know, Natalie of course did some training, but mostly for me it’s not a space adventure movie, it’s a human drama about the aftermath. You know, it’s like Cast Away.
I always thought that the most interesting part of that movie was what would happen when he came back, but that’s actually the shortest part of the movie so you know I think there is something to that. We talked a lot about the scene from The Hurt Locker where Jeremy Renner has to pick out cereal in the supermarket after defusing bombs in Iraq and that feeling of the adrenaline leaving your body and that feeling that rushes in to replace it. It’s a profound sense of loss.
In regards to Jon Hamm’s character, the idea for me is that much like soldiers who come back from war, you know, the only person who really understands what you’ve been through as an astronaut is another astronaut, and so when Lucy comes home, her husband doesn’t really understand her.
Any updates on Doctor Doom since the last time you spoke with us? You wrote a script, but needed to follow up with Marvel.
NH: Nothing’s really changed, mostly because I’m still on a break. The film is playing Toronto and then we get ready to shoot Fargo season 4 in October. There’s no news there yet. Cat’s Cradle is still in the works as are some other projects that I’m not writing that I’m producing at FX and I’m also thinking what the next movie would be. It would be nice to film, to make another film maybe at the end of next year or at the beginning of the following year. I’m trying not to multitask as manically this year.
NH: Buried Bodies is something that we set up at Fox Searchlight based on a famous sort of lawyer’s dilemma story and we had a script written. It’s not really something at this moment that I’m thinking about directing. I know that we are looking at directors for it now but it’s definitely something that I’d like to produce for Searchlight.
Sony took the rights to your novel Before the Fall about a mysterious plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard and its survivors, which you were to adapt. Any update on that particular project?
NH: Like many things it’s a bit cold right now simply because they’re waiting for me to focus on it, you know. It may be the next film I make. I have been having meetings from time to time with actors about it and I’m looking for the right partners there and I think Sony remains excited about doing it. You know, I’m just a victim of my own success in that I have a lot of dance partners who are waiting for me to become free so that I can make all the things that I’ve committed to.