‘Hid­den Fig­ures’ screen­writer had NASA in her blood


NASA has been part of “Hid­den Fig­ures’’ screen­writer Al­li­son Schroeder’s life for as long as she can re­mem­ber. Not only did a child­hood near Cape Canaveral mean that the space pro­gram was an ever-present re­al­ity — fire drills in school were timed so the kids could see the launches and the Chal­lenger ex­plo­sion was one of her ear­li­est mem­o­ries — it’s also in her DNA.

Her grand­fa­ther had up­rooted his fam­ily from Iowa to move to Florida to work on the Mer­cury pro­to­types, and then, al­most by ac­ci­dent, her grand­mother was de­liv­er­ing lunch to him at work one day and saw a sign ad­ver­tis­ing les­sons in a new tech­nol­ogy: Com­put­ers.

“She signed up for classes and ended up work­ing at NASA long af­ter him,’’ Schroeder said re­cently. “She be­came a soft­ware en­gi­neer and a pro­gram­mer and she ended up on the shut­tle mis­sions.’’

Schroeder even par­tic­i­pated in a NASA men­tor­ship pro­gram through­out high school.

None of the pro­duc­ers knew this, how­ever, when Schroeder was sent the pro­posal for Margot Lee Shet­terly’s in-progress book “Hid­den Fig­ures: The Amer­i­can Dream and the Un­told Story of the Black Women Math­e­ma­ti­cians Who Helped Win the Space Race’’ as a pos­si­ble project. Even with her ex­ten­sive back­ground with NASA, it was a story Schroeder hadn’t heard of.

“No­body had!’’ she said. “His­tory is a cer­tain way, but you just change the point of view a lit­tle bit and you dis­cover a whole new side of it.’’

Schroeder hadn’t yet writ­ten a pro­duced fea­ture film, but it was a job she knew she was meant to do. She pitched pro­ducer Donna Gigliotti the end of the film where Katherine John­son (Taraji P. Hen­son) crunches num­bers for the im­mi­nent launch of John Glenn’s Friend­ship 7 mis­sion.

“Donna was like, ‘I don’t un­der­stand any of the math, but that’s ex­cit­ing!’’’ Schroeder laughed. She got the job.

Since its Christ­mas re­lease, “Hid­den Fig­ures’’ has be­come the early feel good hit of the year, as well as a ma­jor awards con­tender with three Os­car nom­i­na­tions, in­clud­ing adapted screen­play (which Schroeder shares with di­rec­tor Theodore Melfi), best sup­port­ing actress (Oc­tavia Spencer) and best pic­ture. The film, which cost only $25 mil­lion to pro­duce, has also made $131.5 mil­lion in North Amer­i­can the­atres, and continues to linger in the top five even in its sev­enth week in the­atres.

Much of the story that made it onto the screen is real, but like all movies based on ac­tual events, Schroeder did take some lib­er­ties. That fi­nal scene that got Schroeder the job, for in­stance, ac­tu­ally took the real John­son a day and a half to do — not a cou­ple of hours.

“But that’s not as ex­cit­ing,’’ Schroeder said. “It was hard enough fig­ur­ing out what to leave out. There were so many in­cred­i­ble women and there are so many in­cred­i­ble mo­ments. It was tricky to nar­row it down to two hours.’’

For the most part, it was about mak­ing ad­just­ments to fit the truth into a nar­ra­tive struc­ture. So she shifted the time­line around some to add dra­matic stakes in some places. And with no tran­script avail­able, she had to write Mary Jack­son’s (Janelle Monae) mov­ing court­room tes­ti­mony pe­ti­tion­ing for ac­cess to a white school that would al­low her ca­reer ad­vance­ment. There were other lit­tle things that were in­vented, too, like hav­ing the women all car­pool to­gether to work.

Noth­ing went that far astray, though.

“Those ti­tle cards at the end are true. We were al­ways build­ing to­ward them. It was fun to get to do that,’’ Schroeder said.

Plus, some­times the truth is just more in­ter­est­ing. As a big fan of the char­ac­ter work of John Hughes, Schroeder was es­pe­cially drawn to the fact that all the women had in­ter­ests and tal­ents out­side of NASA. That, too, re­minded her of her grand­par­ents who would make mag­nif­i­cently dec­o­rated cakes for church events.

“Th­ese peo­ple who ex­cel at mak­ing things, ex­cel at it in all ar­eas of life,’’ Schroeder said. “You want to have a good cake? Get two en­gi­neers to build it.’’


“Hid­den Fig­ures” screen­writer Al­li­son Schroeder at the 22nd an­nual Crit­ics’ Choice Awards in Santa Mon­ica, Calif., last De­cem­ber. NASA has been part of Schroeder’s life for as long as she can re­mem­ber.

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