Director Theodore Melfi on Why He Dropped ‘Spider-Man’ to Board ‘Hidden Figures’

AMPAS presents: Hidden Figures Modern Figures:
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NASA scientists landed in Hollywood on Wednesday evening for a special panel held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Science and Technology Council.

The panel, titled “Hidden Figures/ Modern Figures: A Journey of Breakthroughs in Cinema and Space Travel,” featured the filmmakers behind the 2016 film “Hidden Figures” as well as NASA scientists, who joined to discuss math, science, and diversity in the context of the cinematic exploration of space.

During the discussion with the filmmakers, the film’s director and producer Theodore Melfi explained how he withdrew being in consideration for the 2017 iteration of “Spider-Man” to get on board with “Hidden Figures.” Days after reading the script, the concept of which he called “the most incredible thing he’d ever heard,” Melfi made a no-brainer decision: “I told them to get me out of ‘Spider-Man.'”

On tackling racism in the film, Melfi explained that he wanted to deliver a fresh perspective on “the little things” that cinema had not previously touched on thoroughly. “We’ve all seen so many movies that surround racism, or deal with slavery,” he said. “But I had never seen a movie where it dealt with the everyday slights of racism, the things that still happen today.”

Following the conversation with the filmmakers, three “modern figures” took the stage: Tracy Drain, Powtawche Valerino, and Jennifer Trosper; key leaders at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who shared highlights of their work, and how they’ve drawn inspiration from the female pioneers portrayed in the film.

Also in attendance at the panel were “Hidden Figures” editor Peter Teschner, cinematographer Mandy Walker, and NASA chief historian Dr. Bill Barry. The panel was moderated by former Deluxe Entertainment executive Beverly J. Wood.

(Pictured: Tracy Drain and Theodore Melfi.)