Alex Moreland chats with screenwriter Allison Schroeder about Hidden Figures, her upcoming projects, and more…
Congratulations on the various award nominations you’ve received for the film.
Thank you, it’s pretty bananas.
How does it feel that the film has achieved such high levels of acclaim?
It’s incredible, and definitely a little bit unbelievable. I remember writing on my sofa in my little apartment, not too long ago, thinking “Will this movie ever get made?”, and now here we are. So it’s pretty incredible.
I’ve also been struck by the social impact of the film – I’m sure you’ve seen the various charity screenings there have been, to try and inspire young girls – how does that make you feel? The response that it’s having in those terms?
That’s actually probably one of the best parts about this, just watching the response we’re getting from the audience. Really early on, I worked in the Writer’s Guild, and I co-chaired the women’s committee; we worked with Google a lot, and they were so excited about the film, because in ten years they’re going to be short of people to hire, so it was sort of in the hopes that maybe – maybe – this movie could inspire the next generation.
Now when I see little girls dressing up like the lead characters on Instagram, I just about die; it’s the greatest thing.
I understand you have a young daughter yourself – is this the sort of movie you’d like her to grow up watching?
Yes, this is exactly what – I hope she’s very proud of her mother when she sees this! I had her just three months ago, so I was pregnant on set with her, and I had to go to the Women’s Summit while pregnant with her, and then had her two weeks later. It’s been quite the experience of it all hitting at once; I don’t think it’ll ever get bigger than the birth of a child and the birth of the film at the same time!
These are the types of films that I always wanted to see growing up, so I hope that she’s going to be very excited to see them as well.
I’m sure she will be! On another level, the film marks a bit of change since last year’s Oscars season, when there was the #OscarsSoWhite controversy – do you think that Hidden Figures marks the start of a greater change, and we’ll see more movies in this vein going forward?
I hope so. I mean, at the time that that controversy was going on, we were in production on this film, and I remember thinking “Just wait, just wait! We’re coming, this film is coming!”. I think a lot of films have come out since, like Moonlight for instance, and it was happening before the controversy last year, but I hope it continues.
I certainly think that those in the industry will see the success, the box office success, of Hidden Figures, so I hope it makes people rethink their slate, and realise that these movies can do well. I personally want to see more original stories in Hollywood. I love them, and I think the audience love seeing them, so hopefully we keep going.
Can you tell us a little bit about the development of the script? I know you were working from a book [Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly], and co-writing it with the director [Theodore Melfi]?
Yes! So, we were actually writing the screenplay at the same time as Margot, the author, was writing the book – all we had was the book proposal. A few years ago, the producers were looking for a writer, and they read my script on Agatha Christie, actually, and they sent me the book proposal – having no idea that I had grown up near Cape Canaveral in Florida, that my grandmother had worked at NASA, and that my grandfather and I had worked at NASA.
So I got it, and called the producer and said “Please, I have to be a part of this, I was born to write it”, or something equally cheesy, and the producer probably rolled her eyes and thought “Oh, those Hollywood writers will say anything”. But when I told her my background – that I’d studied math a lot in college and so on – that was it, I was hired.
I worked for about a year on the script, and then we sent it around town; Ted Melfi read it, and he loved the story of these women, and said “I have to do this”. So he came on board, and added his take and his spin; luckily our production budget went up, so we could use some more space shots. Then we were in pre-production in December, and off shooting the film a few months later – it was very very fast, and a really wonderful experience.
When writing historical fiction, do you feel a certain responsibility to honour the truth?
Absolutely. I felt this huge responsibility to these women, to get it right and to make something that they would be proud of. Katherine Johnson, who’s the only one still with us, her request was that it not be just about her – that we had some of these other women as well, because it was a team effort. That was something I took to heart, and it’s why you’ve got Mary Jackson [played by Janelle Monae] and Dorothy Vaughn [played by Octavia Spencer] as well, and we get to see all the other women they worked with in the computing pool.
We wanted to focus on the visual there – that it wasn’t just one black woman, there was quite a few of them, and then there were white women as well, segregated in another section. So, it was all part of a conscious effort to do that, and to stay as true as possible. Of course, though, at times there are moments when you need to fictionalise for the sake of the story, like the court scene – Mary actually appealed to the court, she did that, but we don’t have a transcript of what happened; that’s where you have to start doing some of your writing work.
And then, we knew Dorothy Vaughn saw the coming technology, and learned to programme, and John Glenn really did ask for Katherine to work the numbers. So, we knew all of their trajectories, and stayed very true to those key moments.
Have you had an opportunity to speak with Katherine, during the development or after the film’s release?
Katherine is very old, so I would send all of my questions through Margot at the time, and that was great because she already had a relationship with Katherine, and then she could get back to me. Now, she’s seen the movie, and she’s been a bit more involved, and it’s great to learn that she was quite happy with the film.
Moving back to your own career then – how does one go from studying maths and working at NASA to being a screenwriter?
I kind of always say that it was this way: my father was an engineer, and my mother an English teacher, so I was always doing both things while I was growing up – and I loved it. Along with doing maths and sciences, I was doing drama and dance and I was writing very young – I wrote a lot of science-fiction stories for competitions starting in seventh grade. At Stanford, I was a double major in Economics and Math, and also in Film and Writing.
I spent two years in finance after graduating, and it wasn’t great for me. I remember we were doing a mock trial, and everyone came in with their exhibits and their spreadsheets – and I came in and I’d made a movie. My boss sort of looked at me and said “Oh for God’s sake Allison, go to film school”. I had saved enough money that I was finally able to, so I went to film school for writing and directing.
Do you find that the screenwriter, if you’ll forgive this terrible joke, is often a bit of a hidden figure themselves? Do you feel that the role of the screenwriter is given enough credit, in terms of the development of movies?
No, of course not! [Laughs] Writers are often forgotten, and often overlooked. I think that if they’re a writer-director there’s perhaps a little more light shines upon them, but it is sort of the blueprint for the entire production team, and the director. Without the script, the movie wouldn’t exist.
I tease my fellow nominees that they all get to wear tuxes, but I have to come up with these dresses and sit in hair and makeup for hours for these events – which I love, and I’m so excited when I get to the red carpet, but then it’s sad because very few people want to talk to me! And you think “But I tried so hard to look nice for you!”, and I’ve got all my questions prepared, so it’s a little bit… you know.
But I think people are starting to respond to writers. So, yeah – sometimes we get overlooked, but that’s just part of the job.
Would you ever be interested in directing yourself? You said that part of your film degree course was linked to directing?
Yes, yes – I’m absolutely going to direct. That’s always been part of the plan, to write my way into directing. When I graduated from film school, I just watched too many of my friends bankrupt themselves doing these small films and even when the films did get into festivals, it didn’t really lead to much – so I decided that my strategy would be to write, and write something big enough to get noticed, and get to direct the next thing. So, let’s see what happens in the next year!
On that note, can you tell us a little bit about any projects you might be working on now? I understand you’re working on a musical series?
Of course! I do, I do. I’ve got a big musical background, and I did a musical for television a few years ago; I sold a pilot to Universal, and it’s very exciting. It’s all about the inspiration behind what it takes to write a song, and how it all comes together. That’ll see a lot of original music, which I’m very excited about.
I’m also doing another period piece with a female protagonist, so I’m going out right now and I’m reading a lot of books, and we’ll see what form that project will end up being.
Can you tell us a little bit more about that project, or is it all secret at the minute?
It’s a little bit secret, but I can tell you that it’s again a part of history where we don’t see women a lot. I think the thing that I learned with Hidden Figures was the importance of really couching it in the history of the time; this will take place in the 1920s, when women in the states were just getting the right to vote, but also were reeling from the loss of so many young men in World War One, and what the ramifications of that were on the families back at home, and how that changed the daughters. I’m hoping that a lot of what I’ve learned in writing Hidden Figures will translate to this film as well, but I’m just gonna keep writing very strong female protagonists, and also men who are not at all intimated by that.
I can’t wait to see it! On a final note, then – what do you think it the most important message for an audience member to take away from your work?
I think the most important message is that if we come together, despite our differences of race or gender or religion, that we can do extraordinary things, that we can achieve our goals together. I think that’s the most important thing right now: a little bit of hope. We’ve been in bad times before, and people come together, and dreams can come true. It may be cheesy, but I do think we all need a little bit of an uplifting story, with a little bit of a victory at the end for our main characters.
Thank you very much Allison, this has been great!