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DO THE MATH - An Amazing True Story Plus A Dedicated Team Adds Up To "Hidden Figures"

Posted By Justine Neubarth, Tuesday, December 13, 2016

In one of the opening scenes of Fox 2000’s feature Hidden Figures, the camera floats above NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) lying on her back and fixing a car on a rural stretch of Virginia road. Even from its first moments, the film, which centers on the true story of three female African American mathematicians at NASA Langley Research Center during the 1960s, embraces women doing hard and sometimes unglamorous work. And it’s this hard work and persistence that Donna Gigliotti—one of Hidden Figures’ producers alongside fellow PGA members Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and Ted Melfi (as well as non-member Pharell Williams)—sees as both the movie’s central lesson and something that she has embodied in her own career.

Gigliotti, producer of Shakespeare in Love, The Reader and Silver Linings Playbook, discovered the story in the form of a book proposal that landed on her desk in March of 2014. The author, Margot Lee Shetterly, was in the process of writing a nonfiction account of the black female mathematicians at the NASA program in Hampton, Virginia, whose calculations were integral to the space race and John Glenn’s 1962 orbit around the Earth. “I kind of couldn’t get over the fact that this was a true story and I didn’t know anything about it,” Gigliotti shares. “I thought well, this is a movie.” The book, titled Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, was released in September; the movie will be released on Christmas Day.

From left, producer Donna Gigliotti, Chernin Entertainment exec
Ivana Lombardy, i Am Other exec Mimi Valdez

Hidden Figures follows the trio of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), all members of the mostly female pool of human “computers” that NASA used for technical calculations during the space race. A math prodigy and scientific pioneer, Johnson was asked personally by John Glenn to double-check his landing numbers before his launch. Kevin Costner joins the cast as the director of the NASA Space Task Group; Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst also co-star.

The film proved a natural fit for Gigliotti, who professes an affinity for strong female characters. As a woman who’s fought for success in a male-dominated field, she found plenty in Hidden Figures to relate to. “A scene that I like tremendously is when Taraji Henson says, ‘I need to be in that room,’ and Jim Parsons says, ‘There’s no protocol for a woman being in the room,’ and Taraji replies, ‘Well, there’s no protocol for sending a man into space, either.’ Those are words that could have come right out of my mouth. Because as a woman in any business, I think making your voice heard is the biggest challenge.”

After reading the 55-page proposal, Gigliotti bought the rights and was on the hunt for a script when she met a young writer named Allison Schroeder. In their initial meeting, Schroeder declared that she “was born to write this script.”

“Now, I have been in the movie business a long time,” smiles Gigliotti. “And when people say that, you kind of roll your eyes at them.” Then Schroeder revealed that her mother, grandmother, and father had all worked at NASA, and Schroeder herself had interned there during summers while studying math and engineering in college. At that point, Gigliotti admits, “She kind of had me.” Once Schroeder had signed on, she and Shetterly—who was in the process of writing the book and is herself the daughter of a NASA Langley scientist—began their exchange of research and ideas.

Gigliotti then partnered up with director Theodore Melfi, who brought with him producers Jenno Topping and Peter Chernin at Fox 2000. Topping and Chernin, who had previously produced Melfi’s theatrical feature debut St. Vincent, were eager to work with him again. “The more you think about it”, says Topping, “the more [this film] makes sense for Ted in terms of his general interest and his oeuvre. He’s a humanist if nothing else.” When Melfi took himself out of the running for the next Spider Man film so that he could make Hidden Figures, Gigliotti was sold. “That kind of commitment and enthusiasm for a project is not something that comes along every day, and you have to acknowledge that that is a very potent motivator, when someone wants to make a movie at that level.”

Pharrell Williams, who joined the project as a producer alongside business partner Mimi Valdes, grew up just a few miles outside of Hampton, Virginia and is a self-professed NASA enthusiast. When he heard about the project, he pursued it “doggedly,” Gigliotti reports. While on a visit to New York, Williams invited Gigliotti to his suite in the Crosby Street Hotel and played her some ‘60s-inspired tracks that he had been working on. When he discovered that he didn’t have a recording of one song he had written, “I sat on the couch and he sang the song to me,” recounts Gigliotti. And so, with a private concert from Pharrell, the final members of the producing team fell into place.

Naturally, Williams took on responsibility for the film’s soundtrack, and brought Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch on for help with the score. “The real, the big huge love affair that nobody knows about on this film is that Pharrell is in love with Hans Zimmer and Hans Zimmer is in love with Pharrell,” laughs Gigliotti. “You’ve never seen two guys riff on one another in the way that they do.”

Also key to his involvement was Williams’ history of advocating for STEM education. Women are rarely portrayed as being employed in STEM fields in popular media; a 2012 study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that across family films and prime time shows, there was only one female mathematician in over 10,000 characters. “So,” says Melfi, “here we are with a movie that has social and educational relevance for the entertainment industry.”

After Melfi undertook rewrites of portions of the screenplay (he and Schroeder are credited as co-writers), principal photography took place over 43 days in Atlanta. The city was chosen for both the tax incentives it offers, as well as for a few unique locations, including the last remaining full-size wind tunnel on the East Coast and the National Archives building. Given the film’s themes, Gigliotti was particularly sensitive to making sure there was as much gender and ethnic diversity as possible among the crew. “On average, on major motion pictures, approximately 12-15% of the crew is women,” she notes. “On our picture, I am happy to report it was 33% … Women gaffers? They exist. You just have to go and hire them.” 

producer and director Ted Melfi (center) on the set of Hudden Figures with cast members Octavia Spencer (left)
and Taraji P. Henson.

In its depiction of a segregated workplace, Melfi said he wanted to focus on “a different kind of racism that I think is more prevalent today: the everyday slights and the everyday unconscious biases that individuals grapple with.” On top of that, he adds, “The second most important thing to me was to get their home lives right, because we so rarely get to experience in cinema, middle-class African-American lifestyles and households in the 60s.”

But make no mistake, this film is also very much about space travel, culminating in John Glenn’s nail-biting launch in the Friendship 7. And in fact, the biggest difficulty of making the film proved to be “juggling three storylines, thousands of extras and the space race.” Gigliotti, Melfi confirms, was essential to making all of the gears turn. “Donna lived on set. She was the first champion of this movie … and is one of the best producers I’ve ever worked with.”

That support also included making sure that Shetterly provided her counsel during prep and filming. One of the first things Gigliotti asked of Shetterly was that she make all of her research available. Says Melfi, “I spent a lot of time with Margot. She took us on a tour of NASA-Langley when we first met … We kind of fed each other. It just kind of worked that way. She was writing, full-steam ahead, and we were actually shooting.”

The math of the story is incredibly complex, based in PhD-level orbital trajectory calculations. Even though much of it might be incomprehensible to the average viewer, Melfi and Gigliotti were attentive to the calculations seen on-screen and their accuracy. While Gigliotti says she is not a math person (“I went to Sarah Lawrence,” she cracks. “I don’t even know if they have math classes at Sarah Lawrence, in all honesty.”), she and the production team brought on Dr. Rudy Horne of Morehouse College to tutor the cast and crew on set. “Taraji P. Henson, she should be nominated for an Academy Award just because what she is doing on the chalkboard,” says Gigliotti. “Everything that she is doing, she is doing accurately.” Melfi agrees, laughing, “I got way too deep. I know more math now than I ever want to know.”

 Ted Melfi chats with fellow producer Pharrell Williams on the set.

Now that the final mix is complete and the film is set to be released, Gigliotti gets to participate in one of her favorite parts of producing: watching other people watch the film. “The truth is,” she professes with rueful humor, “for producers, you’re blamed if it doesn’t work, and if it does work, everybody else is the genius. So you got to take it where you can get it, and where you can get “it”—the affirmation of the work—is by actually watching audiences respond to the film.” She has already had the privilege of screening the film for the now 98-year-old (and “sharp as a tack”) Katherine Johnson.

“So we’re in Hampton, Virginia,” Gigliotti recounts. “Elizabeth [Adler, of Fox 2000] and I are in the back; Katherine Johnson is in front of us with her two daughters. And Taraji is up on the big screen playing Katherine Johnson. It was a little nerve-wracking, because you really hope that you’ve done a good job. But we did get a big thumbs up from both of her daughters and Katherine.”

Gigliotti estimates that from the moment she read the option to the release of the film, it will be have been two and a half years, which is “mind-boggling. In Hollywood terms, that is lightning speed.” She, Topping and Melfi all agree that there was a real and rare eagerness to get the film done as quickly as possible. “God, this was kind of one of the easiest [films] I’ve ever done,” Topping concurs. “They’re all horrible and this one wasn’t. It was a very happy set, a happy experience. And a great outcome, which is certainly amazing and refreshing.”

The timeliness of the story had a lot to do with it, according to Gigliotti. “I said to Margot originally—because I’d never heard this story and because what’s going on in the world and in the country¬—this is so special. It’s like you’ve captured lightning in a bottle. And anybody who read that script or the book felt exactly the same way: that the time was right. In the words of Martin Luther King, there was the ‘fierce urgency of now.’”

And of course, Hidden Figures is a true American story, one that’s perhaps particularly trenchant in our current moment. Says Melfi, “In my mind, the film is incredibly relevant to what we’re experiencing today. Here we have a time in the nation’s history where black and white, male and female put a man into space. The mission trumped all of the nonsense, trumped all of the racial inequality and the gender inequality. There’s a line in the movie, Kevin Costner says it: ‘We all get there together or we don’t get there at all.’”

Gigliotti echoes that sentiment. “It’s a movie, ultimately, about these women’s contribution to something in American history that was formative in the nation. The entire country—no matter your gender, your race, Democrat, Republican¬—the entire country was about America, and it was about America getting a man in orbital space. Maybe we need to be reminded, as a country, that we can be like that.”

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