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Director Theodore Melfi Shines Spotlight on His ‘Hidden Figures’ Production Crew

Hidden Figures
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Theodore Melfi directed Fox’s “Hidden Figures,” a fact-based film about three genius black women at NASA in 1961. He says he was “blown away” by his lead actors, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, as well as Kevin Costner, who plays the space project manager. Melfi was equally enthused about his artisan team, which filmed in the Atlanta area on a fast schedule, making the piece look sharp and fast-moving.

Wynn Thomas Production designer

We started with a field trip to NASA, went on a tour, took a lot of photos — these are government buildings and not much has changed. Wynn also did droves of research with two NASA historians, Dr. Bill Barry and Bert Ulrich, who opened up their archives. They sent us hundreds of pictures, plus we got schematics of the actual space capsules and even the parking lots of Mission Command. Morehouse College serves as the exterior of NASA, with those light-coffee-colored brick buildings, and the interiors are pieced together from four or five other locations. Wynn really went to town on the Space Task Force offices, including Kevin’s office. Everything was practical and authentic: the desks, phones, adding machines, including the blackboards and the ladders. That was our climax, creatively and financially. And some of our locations were historic: The house where Dorothy [Spencer] lives is actually a famous civil rights house, where Martin Luther King Jr. met with Ralph Abernathy.

Mandy Walker Cinematographer

Mandy Walker’s eye is second to none. We decided early in the script stage we wanted two looks: NASA would be sterile, clean, and cold, so we went with whites, grays, and silvers, with a few touches of warmth, like in Kevin’s office. But generally the mood at NASA was all about the work. We wanted a sharp contrast with the women, particularly their home life. For that, we picked locations that were welcoming. We wanted to oversaturate, so Mandy lit them with incredible color and warmth.

Renee Ehrlich Kalfus Costume designer

Renee is fantastic at mixing and matching: We didn’t have the budget to build all the costumes, so we built some and rented some. We wanted the women to be feminine and beautiful, classy and sophisticated, but humble. Katherine Johnson [Henson’s character] and Dorothy in real life actually made their own clothes. Renee really focused on making the women inspirational and aspirational, and everything was authentic, down to the girdles and pointed bras. At that time, the official uniform for men at NASA was a white shirt and black tie. So for us, the color in those scenes was provided by the women’s wardrobe.

Peter Teschner Editor

Peter started working a week before we began filming; he works very fast and was there with us in Atlanta. He was about a week behind us in assembling the pieces, and almost right after we finished, he had a first cut. I started writing on the script [co-credited with Allison Schroeder] on Labor Day 2015. We started shooting in March, and had it ready for Christmas. That’s fast. We loved cutting the scene where Taraji comes in and explodes. She has all the dialogue, but Kevin’s emotions are very touching when he looks at her, because his empathy is transparent. For him, it’s all reactions to her, and that was fun to work with. Peter and I also kept coming back to the court scene, where Mary [Monáe] petitions the judge to attend an all-white high school. I think we cut that scene at least 20 different ways. We kept massaging it. And Janelle gave us a wide range of things to work with. We ended up very happy with it.

Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell WilliamsHans Zimmer Music

Hans and Ben are classically trained, and Pharrell is outside the box. When you combine those, the result is a really interesting score. Each did some of their own composing, then they would get together and meld it all. There’s a scene where Dorothy tells Vivian [Kirsten Dunst] she’s not going to accept the assignment, and then she walks across campus. Pharrell played a driving bass beat he’d been working on, and Hans said, “Let’s put that here, in the walking.” Then Ben chimed in with a classical element, playing a violin chord. And it all started working. That’s how the music was born: inspiration from one person to another.