It’s been a busy month for Allison Schroeder. She was nominated for a Critics Choice Award and, oh, she took time out two weeks ago to give birth to a baby girl. So she’s basking in the glow of motherhood as well as the warmth of love for Hidden Figures. We met to talk about how her newborn will grow up in a world where she will know about Katherine Johnson (after the 1960s math genius languished five decades in relative obscurity), and how great it is that girls today will at last be aware of these great women of NASA who helped America put man into space. Schroder is grateful — and she’s proud to be partly responsible.
We talked recently about her nominations, becoming a new mom, and we talked about how Schroeder herself actually worked for NASA. Surprisingly, Hidden Figures took swift fast-track to the screen, “[Producer] Donna Gigliotti knew she wanted to get this made as soon as possible,” Schroeder says of the accelerated writing process.
Here’s what she had to say about writing Hidden Figures and why she believes the film will resonate with audiences.
Awards Daily: It’s crazy that this story is unheard of.
Allison Schroeder: I know! Isn’t it insane?
AD: How did you come across this story?
AS: Donna Gigliotti had optioned the proposal for Margot Lee Shetterly and her executive was looking for a writer, and she knew my manager, called him up, and asked if he had any female writers who could tackle something in math and science. He told her, “I have a woman that worked for NASA for four years.” — and that was me. We hopped on the phone, and Donna swears I said something cheesy like, “I was born to write this,” which I may have done, I’m not sure.
I grew up by Cape Canaveral and my grandparents worked at NASA. Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn really paved the way for my grandmother, because she was a software engineer. When I was in high school I was recruited and worked there all four years in high school, and then I came back and worked after. I told the producers all this and then I pitched them a few scenes, and that was all it took, and I was hired to write the film.
AD: What made you want to tell this story?
AS: I always want to write stories about strong kick-ass women. You hear this story and you think: this is a story that needs to be told, and I can immediately see it in my head. It’s not one you say no to. Jump on and hope they hire you.
AD: Was it a long writing process?
AS: We were on a really tight schedule because Donna knew she wanted to get this made as soon as possible. Margo was writing the book at the same time as I was writing the screenplay and she gave me all of her research. I had four weeks for research, twelve weeks for first draft and once I got the notes, it was eight weeks for the rewrite. It was very fast. I started in October 2015 and I turned it in Spring 2015, and it was out to the world, and by December they were in pre-production.
AD: That’s really fast. Usually, you hear stories like this that take so long to come to fruition.
AS: I know. Last year, the script went out around town early summer, Ted signed on [director Theodore Melfi]. Fox came on and it was so fast, and it’s just a testament to the fact that everyone believed in the story and thought, “How do we not know this story?”
AD: Then you got this incredible cast. What was your reaction that they were going to be on board?
AS: Octavia was one of the first to show interest, and that was so exciting to hear that she had read it. When I was writing this, actresses talk about how there aren’t enough multi-dimensional roles for them to sink their teeth into, I was wishing I would watch actresses read this because I think they’re going to think, “Finally, here’s something to challenge me.” When we actually get the response of all these amazing actors signing up for the roles, it was perfect. It was such a special ensemble.
AD: It’s perfect. Did you get to meet with Katherine Johnson?
AS: I never got to meet her in person. She just sent her message and quest to me. She told me that she didn’t want the movie to be just her. She said there was a team of women, and a group of them that contributed. From day one, it was always an ensemble movie and always about these three women and their journey. That has never changed. Their arcs have always remained the same. Dorothy was always going to see this new technology and adapt to it. Mary was always going to petition the courts and we knew Katherine’s story. That was important to me because it was a love story to feminism. We’re not used to seeing three women who are not knocking each other down, but lifting each other up. That was her big note to me.
Donna asked me about some scenes, and one was with the thirty women in the hallway, and she asked me if I needed it. I said, “Yes because it wasn’t just the three of them, it was much bigger.” That was Katherine’s request, and I hope we honored that.
AD: I thought it had screened for her?
AS: It did.
AD: What surprised you about these women?
AS: It surprised me about how much their white bosses supported them, and that’s not something we hear a lot. It’s also refreshing to hear that this is a true story and people did the right thing. These women were very vocal about them not being very special. They were just showing up for their jobs, and NASA was an incredibly inclusive place. So to come across people who were so humble and were uplifted by their peers was unusual.
As I read it, I realized that much hasn’t changed in terms of women being overlooked in math and science. And the sexism. There’s a scene where Mary shows up to class, and the teacher says he doesn’t know how to teach a woman, and that actually happened to me. I showed up for my economics class and the teacher said that to me. The more I read about them, the more I realized this is still a struggle that’s happening and it’s going to resonate.
AD: I saw the film the Monday after the election, and it totally put the spring back in my step. It was powerful and inspiring. Why is it resonating?
AS: Honestly? It has a happy ending. With audiences, we sometimes forget to have a happy ending sometimes. I think it’s fresh and new, and when you find it’s true, it gives you hope. It gives you hope that it’s not the worst of humanity and that history will repeat itself in this case which would be a good thing. When there is this common bad, that sometimes people unite. I am such a sucker for a happy ending, and they’re necessary to remind us of the good. If we’re always seen the bad, it’s upholding those things. If you see people doing the right thing over and over again. I think it reinforces those values even more.
AD: It gives us hope.
AS: It does. No one is a pure villain in this film. I didn’t want any arch-nemesis. It’s oblivious. It’s eyes closed, and then open. It’s learning to speak up for yourself. They’re not obstacles we’re used to seeing on film, but it doesn’t mean they’re any less valid. In truth, they’re probably closer to reality. I didn’t want anyone to be purely evil, and that makes the film watchable.
AD: I think that’s what was nice to see on screen. It never got to that.
AS: I wonder how much audiences are waiting for that scene, and that was an active choice.
AD: I thought Jim Parsons was going to be that, or Kevin’s character, and when it doesn’t happen it’s great.
AS: The irony is, we stuck to the truth. These negative things didn’t happen to these women, and we didn’t need to fictionalize it.
The bathroom angle was one line I had read about, how these women laughed at her. I’m not sure if a male writer would have caught that. I thought: women are in pantyhose and heels in Virginia. And I thought it’s a problem, but it’s enough that she had to go through that.
AD: It’s a feel-good film, and wonderful to see these wonderful people on screen.
Hidden Figures is on limited release on Christmas Day