- Monday, Oct. 31, 2016
Making a remarkable feature directorial debut at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival with the critically acclaimed tug-at-the-heartstrings comedy St. Vincent, Ted Melfi found himself sought after for other long-form opportunities. He even recalled being one of two directors in the running for the next Spider-Man movie and was awaiting an answer when another proposal came his way based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.” “Hidden Figures” introduces us to three African-American female mathematicians who were integral to the success of NASA, serving as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, a stunning achievement that captured the nation’s imagination and turned around the Space Race.
“I was captivated by the story and knew immediately I had to take it on,” affirmed Melfi. “I have two daughters who are in a world where girls are still told they can’t do math or science. I had to commit to this project [instead of possibly getting to helm the Spider-Man movie].”
On the surface the movie titled Hidden Figures would appear to be quite a departure from St. Vincent. But there are more similarities in the two films that one might imagine. “I do a lot of writing for the studios,” said Melfi who penned the original screenplay for St. Vincent and the adapted screenplay for Hidden Figures (also working from a first adapted screenplay penned by Allison Schroeder).”I have a track record of being able to take something and infuse heart and comedy into it, making it more palatable and engaging. Hidden Figures is serious subject matter that could go very dark in tone. I was able to make the story more entertaining with a bunch of laughs and tears.”
Melfi returned to the Toronto Film Festival this year where a sneak peak of some 30 minutes from Hidden Figures (Twentieth Century Fox) was screened and well received. In the film the groundbreaking NASA mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are portrayed, respectively, by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae.
For Melfi, the biggest challenge that Hidden Figures posed to him as a director was “how to pull off a story about the Space Race and civil rights with the money we had; a $25 million budget does not buy a lot of CG. Thankfully we figured out early on how to incorporate stock footage of the real Space Race to help tell our story.”
The prime challenge as a writer, said Melfi, “was balancing three personal storylines about African-Americans within the white walls of NASA.”
To meet those and other challenges of Hidden Figures, Melfi recruited notable collaborators, among them cinematographer Mandy Walker, editor Peter Teschner and production designer Wynn Thomas.
“I had never met Mandy before but her work in Australia, particularly on the feature Tracks, is so stunning,” assessed Melfi. “She has a great sense of composition. I didn’t hire her because she was female but I felt that having a female voice in shooting a movie all about females was an added benefit. She brought a lot to the movie.”
Melfi had teamed with editor Teschner before on St. Vincent. “Peter has a great sense of story and character. He really helped me shape St. Vincent,” shared Melfi. “Peter picks an actor performance consistently that I’m in agreement with, which is very rare otherwise. Our tastes are so aligned.”
Hidden Figures marked Melfi’s first time working with production designer Thomas. “I love his work on the Spike Lee movies and A Beautiful Mind,” shared Melfi. “He is one of the most elegant humans I’ve ever met. He’s a passionate creator and a civil rights historian. His understanding of civil rights and the significance of this story brought a great deal to Hidden Figures.”
Prior to St. Vincent, Melfi as a director was best known for his work in commercials and short films, the latter including Roshambo which won best comedy honors at the Malibu Film Festival. He broke into the ad arena on the strength of a number of inspired spec spots, including MTV’s porn film spoof “Pizza Guy,” which helped him earn inclusion into SHOOT’s 2004 New Directors Showcase. Melfi’s body of work in commercials spans such brands as FedEx, McDonald’s and Intel.
For the latter he recently directed a package of spots for agency mcgarrybowen featuring Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory). It’s the second Intel campaign directed by Melfi, the first also starring Parsons. And based on that initial collaboration, Melfi cast Parsons in a supporting role in Hidden Figures.
“Without commercials, I wouldn’t be anywhere in terms of style, technique and function,” said Melfi, noting that his short-form experience has been invaluable in his successful diversification into feature film directing.
Melfi’s spotmaking exploits are done through production house brother, which he teamed with executive producer Rich Carter to launch in 2014.
Regarding how St. Vincent and now Hidden Figures may impact his commercial directing career, Melfi observed. “These films show the advertising world what I can do. I’m known as a comedy director in commercials and perhaps I can now also be perceived in terms of what I can do in terms of heart and nuance, getting actor performances and being able to make things better than how they appear on the page.”
Meanwhile brother is bringing into its fold other directors who live in the commercial and feature/TV worlds, including Shana Feste (with feature credit such as Country Strong and Endless Love), James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross, the Netflix series House of Cards, Showtime’s Billions) and Maurice Marable (an episode of HBO’s Veep). Marable is also diversifying into features via brother, slated to direct an undisclosed project based on a Melfi-penned script. Carter is an exec producer on the movie which is being produced by brother and Melfi’s Golden Light Films.