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Interview: Pharrell Uncovers Hidden Figures and Discusses Why This Film Is Important to Him

Pharrell. Musician. Producer. Singer. Clothes designer. Businessman. We caught up recently in Hollywood to discuss Hidden Figures, the film that tells the story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, three NASA scientists who helped tip the space race in America’s favor.

He speaks with a soft voice, but his passion resonates. Hidden Figures happened for Pharrell because, “there are no coincidences.” He was recording music with a ’60s theme before this project happened, and when he was approached everything lined up. He hails from Virginia, where the story is set. He met Katherine Johnson at an event six years before his work on the film began, not knowing her story, and he had grown up obsessed with NASA.

We talked about his experience working as a movie producer and writing the songs for the film. Have a read below and listen to two tracks from the Hidden Figures soundtrack:

Awards Daily: I can’t say this enough about how we have lived this long and not known about this incredible and inspiring women.

Pharrell: My producing partner, Mimi Valdez took a meeting with Donna Gigliotti who optioned the book from Margot Lee Shetterly and upon talking about the story, Mimi knew I was going to light up like a Christmas tree, and I did. It was because usually when you talk about female protagonists in a film, it’s always a weekend story, or about a girl’s night out, but this was three.

On top of that, this was about three African-America protagonists, and they were scientists, they were mathematicians, and they were engineers, and they were technologically advanced, and that was super interesting to me.

The idea that this involved NASA and space was also appealing to me because those are two things that I’ve always been interested and obsessed with since I was a child. Also, the fact that this happened in the ’60s and where I’m from, Hampton Rose, Virginia. Peter Chernin, Elizabeth Gabler and Donna, the powers that be, saw fit for us all to be a part of it.

AD: What happened next?

Pharell: I immediately went to work as soon as I knew what it was about. I had already had maybe five or six songs that I had been working on since 2014. I didn’t know what I was doing them for. I had even released Freedom, but I was in the middle of doing that, and when the project popped up it became clear why I had been working on 1960s music. It’s weird, but not that weird.

When I told my mom that I got the producing gig, she told me how interesting that was because then she told me that I had met her [Katherine Johnson] six years ago. She  came to one of our events hosted by From One Hand To AnOTHER. The organization tutors students and helps them academically by means of STEM. An African-American astronaut, Leland Melvin brought her to that event, so I met her, but I didn’t know the full extent of her story. So, when I told my mother about the film, she told me how I had met Katherine, and that’s when you just know. There are no accidents, no mistakes, and no coincidences. There is nothing random.

AD: How did the songwriting process come together for this?

Pharell: Victory and Running were songs that were written for the film. My process was to sit there and think about what Katherine was going through, living in a matrix where the physics for women were very different for women than they were for men. The physics for African-American women were twice as hard. It was double discrimination, you had the racial bias, and the gender bias, and that was tough. It was tough trying to figure out what it was like being in the 1960s as an African-American woman, but also at the same time being someone who sees things differently. She sleeps, she sees numbers. She wakes up, she sees numbers. She thinks and feels numbers in ways most of us could never relate to, on top of the double discrimination.

I wondered what it would be like to have to run to the bathroom, a 30- to 45-minute round trip, because segregation didn’t allow for the bathroom to be in the same building that you work in. Your bathroom break was on the other side of the campus. They did have campus bikes, but you have to remember as a woman you couldn’t wear pants or shorts, so there wasn’t much likelihood of riding a bike. What must that have been like for her?

With I See A Victory, imagine all these walls and ceilings were adversity, there are a lot of people that still have adversity in their lives as we speak, but if they were to take a second to pull away from where they are, get to the moon, and look back at where they are right now, they would see how far they’ve come. They’d see how far they’re going to go, and they’d realize that this is just a moment and they can see a victory. That’s what that song is about, and I got the incredible Kim Burrell to sing it. The choir was arranged by Kirk Franklin who also co-wrote the song with me.

AD: How does music scoring compare to creating music for your own albums?

Pharrell: It’s different. It’s like a conversation with your parents is completely different to a conversation with your loved ones. It’s the same you, but a different mode.

AD: You’ve worked with Hans Zimmer before. What is that relationship like?

Pharrell: Hans has the ability to turn an atom into the world musically. His ability to expound never ceases to amaze me. He also knows how to find the poetry in the music so that it parallels what’s happening in the film, not just minute to minute but the hook in the film that makes people love it. He knows how to do that in a score. We were really a trio because we also worked with Benjamin Wallfisch on the score.

AD: What were some challenges for you?

Pharrell: The challenge was just trying and making sure that we did these women justice and that we did those stories justice. It wasn’t a challenge, but it was a beautiful thing to get more African-American string players. It was awesome to actually get that in the string section. There weren’t a lot of challenges, but a lot of responsibility to make sure we honored their stories.

AD: What was it like when you saw the film for the first time?

Pharrell: It was a whoa moment. It still is.

AD: Going back to the music, there were some gospel influences in the songs. Did anything else influence the music?

Pharrell: The ’60s and that place. ’60s gospel. A lot of Southern church music too.

AD: Was there any tune that was hard to write?

Pharrell: I wouldn’t say anything was tough, it was such a pleasure to just service these women.

AD: Let’s talk about the producing side.  You’re producing a film for the first time. What was that like?

Pharrell: It just gave us more access to weigh in on things outside of music. I’m from Virginia so I have access to my parents and their knowledge of the way things were in those days. I have access to friends and family because I’m from there. Mimi was able to weigh in and make sure that we checked the boxes. She is the only African-American woman producer on the project. So that was a good thing.

AD: How involved were you in casting?

Pharrell: That was done before we came on. There were so many talented people working on this.

AD: What was the first album you recall listening to that was a turning point for you?

Pharrell: A Tribe Called Quest. It affects me all the time. It still does. That’s always been my number one.

AD: How does it feel when you see that the songs and the film inspire them?

Pharrell: There’s so much work to do, but I’m happy that anyone can see it. I’m grateful that the film does what it does for people. This whole experience has been wonderful. Three African-American engineers and mathematicians. I don’t know if there’s a greater gift artistically that we could have been given to make a film.

AD: Doesn’t it make you think about the countless other untold stories like this out there?

Pharrell: I know there are so many other talented women out there. Women’s contribution to the evolution of our society and technology has been largely dismissed and erased. It was women that figured out that the stars are made of hydrogen and calculated how far they were based on their colors. That was women. Women have been here as long as we have, and they carry more weight than we do, including some of the chauvinistic men for nine months. Right?

AD: True.

Pharrell: Those guys that say those things, they were in a woman’s stomach for nine months and they forget where they come from, but I don’t. Women have stood by me through thick and thin, they never left my side. The least I can do is help elevate their stories as much as I can

AD: You mentioned your organization, can you tell us about that?

Pharrell: From One Hand to AnOTHER is us, we have summer camps and after school programs, where a band of folks have teachers, college students all come in and help tutor the kids and help them on an academic level. A lot of it is based on STEM, there’s a lot of Science, technology, engineering, and maths. My mom likes to add Art because she feels art is in that equation too.

They work hard at giving kids an alternative, making learning and education fun. Our thing is, if you’re making it fun for kids, they’ll recognize it as education is cool. It is the ultimate tool to surviving as a human being.

Listen to Running and I See A Victory below: