Interview / New Release

Interview: Allison Schroeder on Hidden Figures

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Sam Clements talks to screenwriter Allison Schroeder about her new film, Hidden Figures. Now on general release at Picturehouse Cinemas.

c4g51ptucaa42ptAllison Schroeder is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. Hidden Figures draws on her personal history: she grew up in Florida near NASA, where both of her grandparents worked as engineers on the Mercury and Apollo missions, and later interned at NASA for many years. Schroeder also has a musical pilot in development at Universal Cable, and a feature, Agatha, in development at Paramount. Her other credits include the musical Side Effects, 90210 and Mean Girls 2.She is the Co-Chair of the WGA Women’s Committee and serves on the WGA Diversity Advisory Board.

When Schroeder was in 8th grade, she was selected for NASA’s NURTURE programme, attending special sessions at Cape Canaveral and learning a variety of things from programming to how the shuttle worked.

She later attended Stanford, majoring in Economics, which was also heavy in mathematics. Although she is now devoted to her career as a writer, she’s still involved in the field of maths – most recently breaking out the latest WGA statistics on hiring for women and minorities into a variety of user-friendly charts and graphs.

First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk to us! I watched Hidden Figures the other night and I had such a great time. It’s so nice to see not only a true story like this on screen, but such an entertaining and upbeat one too.

That was definitely the mission, to give everyone a little bit of hope right now!

I just came back from London for the BAFTAs and I actually went to a movie theatre showing previews of Hidden Figures and asked the ushers, “How is the film doing?” They said it’s been selling out and I was like, “Oh that’s good!”

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I still find that all incredibly exciting to see the posters up in cinemas. I’m a massive dork about it all – I actually posed next to an advert and took a picture. But I’m really pleased to hear it’s doing well and I know it’s also being shown to STEM students in the UK. That’s one of the best things about this film, seeing the inspiration it’s giving to people of a younger generation.

I’ve seen so much posted on social media about this movie from young people. That must be really rewarding to see.

It is! I’ve seen little girls dressing up as the characters, playing the video game, taking pictures by the poster. It’s incredible. It’s changed my view on writing now. I think we underestimate our younger audiences. They get it. They’re watching the movie and they seem to love it. I want to write more for them.

Is it these reactions in particular that spur you on and encourage you as a writer?

Yes, this one is out there and it’s fun to watch the audience reactions but I feel like I want to do more, I need to do more. We need more films like this and there are more of these stories to be told. It’s charged me up to keep going and hopefully I’ll get to make more movies!

Going back to the very start of the process for Hidden Figures, how long have these stories been with you?

y648The producer Donna Gigliotti optioned Margot Lee Shetterly’s book proposal in 2014 and they started to look for writers. She had actually read a script I wrote about Agatha Christie, so she knew I could do a strong female protagonist and a period piece, but they had no idea I had this NASA background. Donna always claims that when I called them I said, “I’m born to write this!” I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but I told them that I grew up by NASA in Florida and that my grandparents both worked there, and that I also worked there for a bit. In fact, I grew up playing on the Mercury space capsule and I knew the buildings and all that stuff, so I think that convinced her to hire me! So I was able to draw on my own experiences as a woman working at NASA. Margot Lee Shetterly gave me her source material and her interviews from her book – it was incredible working with her. Off I went!

I had one month for research then three months to write the first draft. After that I went back and forth with the producers for a few months working on new drafts and then we had a script to send out to the world. Shortly after that, our director Ted Melfi (St. Vincent) read it and came on board. Fox 2000 agreed to finance it, then we did a little more development and went straight into pre-production. It was incredibly fast. We shot it last year and it came out last year (in the USA).

It must have been a total blur…

It was! People hear that timeline in Hollywood and I think they want to throttle us all. They say, “That’s the fastest development process we’ve ever heard.” I think it’s a testament to the story: people read it and say, “How can this be true? How have I not heard about this before?” Everyone who signed on at the beginning said, “We have to make this!”

I remember early on people used to say, “OK, you guys are going a little too far with that scene where John Glenn asks her to run those numbers” – thinking we were asking people to suspend their disbelief – but I was like, “Oh no, that actually happened. He really asked her to run those numbers.” That’s incredibly shocking to learn that’s true!

How did you work with Ted Melfi when he came on board at director?

He came on board and he just got it. He knew he wanted to maintain it as an ensemble piece, and a story of victory, perseverance and hard work. There was a point when I was thinking, “Things will change, they’ll never let us keep this bathroom scene,” even though it’s all true (for example) with the bathrooms being so far away and all of the running between them. But Ted came in and said that we’re not only going to keep this in, we’re going to make it an even bigger part of the story and there’ll be even more running! And off we went! He was just as excited about the film as the rest of us.

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It’s attracted a really impressive cast to play this ensemble. It’s rare to see so many excellent actors in one film…

It’s incredible, isn’t it? I remember reading interviews with actresses saying, “Oh there are just no intricate and complex roles for us” and I was there writing this script thinking, “It’s coming ladies!” I was so excited for actresses to get hold of this and read it. Octavia Spencer was one of the first to read it, early in development, before Fox were even involved. I heard that she loved it and I actually danced around the living room in my pyjamas – all of a sudden it felt real!

Octavia thought it was a fictional story, so when she heard it was true she said the same thing we all did: How do we not know about this? She was the first to sign on, and then we got Taraji on board. Once we had those two, it opened the door to casting someone a bit more unexpected as the character Mary Jackson. Janelle Monae came in and auditioned for the role and just killed it, so we had our three ladies and everything else fell into place with Jim Parsons, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and the rest of the cast.

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How involved are you in casting?

As a writer in feature films, it depends but we’re not usually very involved. As a writer in television, you’re a lot more involved. In features, you usually have to sit back and hand your baby over to other then watch them bring it to life. But on something like this, the cast and crew were incredible. There wasn’t anything to worry about!
When I turned up on set, our production designer Wynn Thomas had done such a good job bringing it to life. It was like walking back in time. And our costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus made them all look so fierce! I loved watching them work together.
It’s so collaborative, it reminds me of my past theatre days. You hear that the actors have ideas that might make it better. There could be moments of improvisation, for example. When it all works, it can be so great. Sometimes it doesn’t – it’s actually really hard to make a good film – because so many things need to fall into place. But when it does work it can be really powerful, and that’s what I felt on Hidden Figures.
I remember every department, even the most jaded Grip, was so excited about this film. You felt like you were doing something good for the world and that was so unexpected. Everyone was so proud to work on a film like this. Hopefully we can make more!

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What was it like coming into the edit and seeing the footage come together?

It was incredible to see the final thing. The first time I watched it, we had a temp track over the top, but the final music really transformed it. We had an anthem for these women! There was a bit of a musical theatre aspect to it with the “Runnin’” song, which really narrates what’s going on. When you first hear the music it feels really upbeat and positive, but then when you hear the lyrics you hear the struggle. I’ve heard audiences laugh when they first see Taraji’s character running between the buildings, but then they stop and realise it’s not funny. It’s something that’s forced on her. It’s an integral part of the movie and I think it works really well. I love how we got to use the theme throughout the film and bring it back at the end.

Speaking of running, there was a lot of running on set! Taraji jokes that she didn’t really think about it much when she first read the script. She thought there might be one day of running but then it turned out to be days and days of her running in these high heels. I felt so sorry for her!

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So here we are. We had the BAFTAs last weekend and Hidden Figures is very much in contention for the Oscars at the end of the month. What’s it like being part of awards season like this?

It’s definitely gained steam over the past few weeks. A lot of people hadn’t seen it last year when the conversation started but now it’s opened and has actually done quite well at the box office in the USA. I think we’re an underdog and maybe we’ll surprise people like we did at the SAG Awards. It’s so surreal to be in the middle of all of this. It’s a dream and it’s so exciting to see people seeing the film! I’ve actually had people come up to me and say it’s one of their favourites in the awards conversation. They always feel naughty or sound so guilty, like they should like one of the more typically serious or darker awards contenders. There’s nothing wrong with a happy ending and leaving the theatre feeling good! I’m just pleased audiences are enjoying Hidden Figures.

Hidden Figures is out now. 

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