"It's very topical": "Hidden Figures" screenwriter on her breakthrough blockbuster

The woman behind the hit talks about writing the movie she was born to make

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 23, 2017 11:59PM (EST)

Hidden Figures   (20th Century Fox)
Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox)

Last weekend in its second week of wide release, the top-grossing film in the nation was "Hidden Figures," the rousing, inspired-by-true-events tale of three pioneering black women who were vital to the American space race of the 1960s. The film has not only garnered near universal praise; it has been a source of inspiration in the midst of a politically bleak period. Schools and communities have been fundraising in order to take girls to see the film and the movie has been garnering heavy Oscar buzz.

The film's wide appeal owes much to its three top-notch leading ladies, as well as its director, Theodore Melfi. But its authentic, intelligent voice comes from screenwriter Allison Schroeder, a woman uniquely qualified to tell the story. Salon recently spoke via telephone to Schroeder — who also recently became the mother of a baby girl — about women's stories and growing up at NASA.

Congratulations on this big weekend; this is a really huge deal. The thing that really strikes me — because I saw the film over the holidays with my daughters in New York City before it went national — was that it was so special being in a theater that was full of people of all different races, of men and women.

[There] were lots of guys there. There were families there. [There] were groups of girlfriends together. It was packed, and the feeling was this is something special that’s happening, getting to watch this together. Then my daughter went to school that week and talked to her teachers. Now tomorrow they're doing a class trip and they're seeing it as a grade.

That's so awesome. That's so cool.

It's really cool! I've been hearing about this kind of thing, where people are taking up collections to send school groups to see this.

But let me backtrack a little, you have NASA in your blood, right? I read that interview that you did with The Hollywood Reporter where you talk about how you grew up with the smell of NASA.

Yeah, the smell of NASA. So I had written this Agatha Christie script. Donna Gigliotti, the producer of "Hidden Figures," and executive and co-producer Renee Witt reached out to my manager and said, "Do you have any female writers who can write a variety of genres?" And he sent her "Agatha" and she loved it. She sent me a few projects, and one of them was the book proposal for "Hidden Figures." I freaked out because she had no idea I'd grown up a NASA baby.

I got on the phone with her and Donna and I said, “You have to hire me for this; I was born to write this." Donna sort of rolled her eyes and was like, "God, these Hollywood types would say anything." I said, “No, no, I grew up at Cape Canaveral. My grandmother was a computer programmer at NASA, my grandfather worked on the Mercury prototype, and I interned there all through high school and then the summer after my freshman year at Stanford I interned. I worked at a missile launch company.”

She was like, “OK that's impressive.” And I said, “No, I literally grew up climbing on the Mercury capsule — hitting all the buttons, trying to launch myself into space.”

She said, “Well do you think you can handle the math?” I said that I had to study a certain amount of math at Stanford for economics degree. She said, “Oh, all right, that sounds pretty good.”

I pitched her a few scenes. I pitched her the end of the movie that you saw with Katherine running the numbers as John Glenn is trying to get up in space. I pitched her the idea of one of the women as a mechanic and to see her legs underneath the engine. You're used to seeing a guy like that, but what would it be like to see heels and pantyhose and a skirt and she's a mechanic and fixing something? Those are some of the scenes that I pitched them, and I got the job.

I love that the film begins with setting up their mechanical aptitude. You set up these are women; you set up these women of color. You set up exactly what that means in this moment in history. It's like you just go from there.

I was on a really tight timeline because this started as an indie film. It was just Donna Gigliotti, Renee Witt, me and the author Margot Lee Shetterly for about a year working on it. I was only given four weeks for research and 12 weeks for writing the first draft. I'm not sure if I hadn't known NASA and known the culture and just knew what the machines would look like, knew what the prototypes looked like, if I could have done it that quickly. I turned in that draft and Donna was like, “OK you've got the math and the science; it’s all here. Now go have fun.” Then I did a few more drafts and that was really enjoyable because I could let go of the fact I did it and make sure that the characters and the drive of the story and everything just fit what needed to happen.

Is that where more of the, like, humor and the playfulness of it came out?

Yeah, that's where I wrote a scene where they got drunk together and kind of reveal their innermost fears. I think the biggest thing is that it's where I was being very rigorous with the timeline and trying to hit things when they happened. Then there's just a point where you have to let that go as a writer and say, "Well, even though her name was actually on the paper, a year before Mary went to the classroom, that's OK. You just need to show it all in the movie. That's where I have fun with Janelle Monae in the white classroom or started playing with their banter and their friendship a lot.

One of the things that makes it really so special is that every year, this time of year, you get these "important" films that feel kind of medicinal. One of the reasons that this really stands out is that it's about such significant things and it's about things that are so, so relevant right now. But it's also such an extremely joyful film. With all the struggle in it and all of the sadness and all of the grief and all of the difficulty in it, there is really joy and real connection. I think that's a big part of why it's clicking with people.

Yes, that was always a part of it. Katherine Johnson's request was that it not be a film just about her but about the other women as well because it was a team effort. I promised the author that it would be an ensemble piece and that's where Dorothy and Mary came in. It was always supposed to be about here is a time in history where people did the right thing.

Good people got the rewards they deserved, and I do think that's so rare. I think the big thing that — it's not just one victory that they get but they get lots of them. There's always a victory and then there's another obstacle, and they overcome that obstacle and the next one, the next one. You get to cheer along with them more than once in the film.

Margot and I also talked about the fact that we didn't want it to go too dark because it was Hampton, Virginia, not Montgomery, Alabama. It was a different type of civil rights struggle. Nothing too dark ever happened to these women, and so we didn't want to manufacture any of that. We didn't want to throw [in] a lynching or dark alleyway scene because it didn't happen to them. The sexism and the racism they faced is what you see in the movie, and we wanted to stay very truthful with their actual lives.

The tone is set right from the beginning with the white cop giving them an escort to work. You can bring your family to this and have it open up this other conversations.

Right, and that was always a conscious choice. It's the racism and the sexism we're still dealing with today, and so it's very topical.

Yes, and having that Kevin Costner figure there, John Glenn there, and showing that side of it. I think it's a big part of why men come to see it. It's not a movie that presents itself adversarially. It's really about yes, these struggles happen, and yes, you see it with the Kirsten Dunst character or with the other characters. But it's really also about people coming together for something bigger and finding allies, and that's really an important part of it. Were you surprised by the response?

I've always been a bit hopeful about this because every time we tell people this story, people are like, How can that be? How can we not know that? How can that be true? And everybody's super drawn into it. I had high hopes that a certain crowd would go to it. I don't think I ever thought about high schools or kids going to it, and that's been probably the best part. There was an email forwarded to me from a first-grade teacher, and she said she was teaching them civil rights for MLK weekend, and a little first-grader stood up and he said, "I can explain segregation" and proceeded to explain all the scenes from "Hidden Figures." And I died because that's everything.

I do think from the get-go, even when we were really small, this felt very special and that we were doing something different. I write in my pajamas on my sofa surrounded by my cats. It's a bit isolating. And I would just hear all these actresses say, "There aren't any juicy roles for me, where I'm complicated and layered and I'm not just a girlfriend or a mother." As I was typing, I was like, It's coming; it's coming ladies! I'm working on it! I was hyper aware that what we were doing was incredibly different. I am very relieved that it's done so well. I hope it changes the game.

If it does well, then maybe this door can be cracked just a little bit, a little bit further open. Seeing the headlines about the weekend box office and seeing it really presented in terms of  look at what the top two films of the weekend were. Look what they were, look at what these [say] about who goes to see movies, about what the hunger is out there and what kinds of stories people are willing to come and pay their money to see in a big way.

Here's a movie with three black women in starring roles, that's about women's issues, that's about race, that's about all the things we're still dealing with right now, like women in STEM. And people are coming out in droves to see it, saying, "I want to take my kids to see it. I want to take classes to see it. We want to raise money so people can come see this film." It's more than just a movie; then it becomes an event.

It's an event; it's a destination. It's a conversation. It's definitely the type of women I've been longing to see on the screen, and I’ve been writing them. I’ve been writing characters like this for years, and either they just wouldn't see the light of day, they wouldn’t get bought or they would[n't] get made or they’d get changed in the development process.

These women's stories and what they achieved, and what they achieved while raising families, while working within these systems that were just out to bring them down, out to hold them back, is incredible. Do you feel that part of the draw now is that the moment is so parallel?

I do think that. The conversation about diversity in Hollywood is huge, and then you parallel it with what's going on politically in our country. I was brought on the project in 2015. I don't think I could have ever foreseen where [things] would be when it was released. 

I love that little kids in the theaters are just horrified. They're like, "What do you mean she can't use that bathroom? That is ridiculous!" They can't believe that it's true. I think even there are older people that are watching and being like, "Is that really the way it was?" It's incredibly important, and it's actually changed the way I'm going to go about writing in the future. 

The whole trajectory that you have with Katherine's character is that her experience becomes this opportunity to really educate this group. Then she gets to have this showstopping speech. When you were writing it, were you thinking, “This one's going to bring down the house?” When I saw it, people were just going nuts, when her hair’s all wet and she speaks up. It's all just so incredibly acted, too.

Yes, she did amazing.

The film is about something that's so much more pervasive, when racism and sexism are just the air that you breathe, when it's just the water you drank. You're not thinking about it and questioning it because it's just the way things are. In this story, you let people have their humanity. It's not a black and white film, and it's not a good guys and bad guys one. That's different from what's going on in other stories and other moments in history and for other characters, and you present it in such a pure way. I think that's a big part of why it just clicks so deeply with people because it really is like a film you can bring the family to.

I think a broader audience is really amazing. If there's no need for curse words or darkness, why go there? Why not make it PG? With these women, they were such ladies. They always needed to be ladylike in the script, and so that was a big part of it. The same with their bosses — their bosses in real life weren't these villains; they were kind of oblivious men, which is honestly how the bathroom storyline came to be. I was reading all of Margot's research because she hadn't written the book yet, and I just read about their dress code, which was crazy.

Then I read that Mary Jackson actually talked about these women kind of laughing at her when she needed the bathroom and learning hers was on the other side of campus. I thought, "Could you imagine as a woman in heels and pantyhose and skirts, and the Virginia summer and the dead winter, having to do that?" I transposed it to Katherine and I thought a man would never notice that — not that he's evil.

It's not that he's bad. It's just that a guy would not think about that. That's sort of exactly the point of the movie — is that we need wake up and we need to look at our neighbors, and we need to see how we can help each other rather than being so myopic and focused on ourselves. I think there's a lot of negativity, and there's a lot of hatred out there, and people are dying for a happy ending and for hope — for role models for who do we want to and also hope that we can come through a dark, divisive time for the better.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Allison Schroeder Hidden Figures