“It’s changed my life in very, very dramatic ways,” Melfi recently told IndieWire. “I don’t see myself ever doing a film that doesn’t represent the world today, in terms of the cast and in terms of the crew. I won’t touch anything that’s about four white guys with wigs. Ever.”
Melfi surely speaks from a place of privilege — not just as a white male director in an industry that still favors them, but as the director of a film now nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture — but it’s a promise that was already in action on the set of “Hidden Figures.” The film featured both a female cinematographer (Mandy Walker) and a female screenwriter (newly minted nominee Allison Schroeder), along with a crew that was 35% female.
But Melfi maintains that’s still not enough, and he’s ready to do more. His next film (which he will also be making with Fox 2000, who produced “Hidden Figures”) is entitled “Fruit Loops,” and is set in a mental institution and has already drawn comparisons to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Melfi said he intended the film to have a diverse cast and crew.
He’s also trying not to get hung up on further awards possibilities. A long-time producer who edged into filmmaking through a series of creative shorts and last directed the Bill Murray vehicle “St. Vincent,” “Hidden Figures” is only Melfi’s second feature. And it seems like the awards newbie is still trying to wrap his head around the possibilities for “Hidden Figures.”
“I don’t think anyone makes a movie thinking, ‘We’re going to be a contender,'” Melfi said. “We came out very, very late, we were the last movie of all these movies to come out. We didn’t do any festivals, we didn’t do any runs like that, we didn’t even screen the movie for the first time until November. We had no anticipation that it would ever be recognized the way it has been.”
Although “Hidden Figures” didn’t take the traditional festival route, the studio hosted a special event during September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Melfi and his cast debuted a series of unfinished scenes to a large audience.
“I was petrified of that,” Melfi admitted. “‘You mean, you’re going to show 25 minutes of unfinished footage? To a film festival audience and press?’ That could have gone either way.”
As Pharrell’s producing partner Mimi Valdes told us last fall, “This is an outside-of-the-box movie. The marketing has to be different.”
As terrifying as the prospect was for Melfi and his cast, they’ve all acknowledged that the door-busting TIFF event — which included a teary-eyed Q&A with its leading ladies and a musical performance by producer Pharrell — changed the trajectory of the film just in time for the kickoff of awards season.
“We were all just emotional basket cases,” Octavia Spencer told IndieWire late last year. “It was a beautiful confluence of events for us. When we saw that 20 minutes, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I want to see everything.’ Seeing it all together, it just was so evocative of so many emotions. I think I went from 0 to 100 to 0 and all over the place, sobbing. Taraji and I are sitting next to each other, holding each other.”
“Hidden Figures” proved to be a crowdpleaser early on, pulling in stellar reviews (it’s currently sitting at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes), a rare A+ CinemaScore and an opening weekend so massive that it actually beat out “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” for the top spot at the box office (the film has now made over $120 million, making it the highest-earning Best Picture nominee of the year).
Awards and nominations weren’t hard to come by either, but with the film’s recent and somewhat unexpected SAG win for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, “Hidden Figures” has become a bonafide contender.
“It was a beautiful moment,” Melfi said of the SAG win. “We were shocked. I’m sure it looked that way.”
For Melfi, being recognized by a group of actors was particularly moving and satisfying. The film beat out other heavy hitters for its win, including “Fences,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight.” Over the past decade, six of that award’s winners have gone on to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
“The SAG Awards was completely out of body for everyone,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt that kind of happiness since my daughter was born.”
Made on a budget of just $25 million, the film has already earned back nearly five times its cost, and shows no signs of slowing down, which is quite the turn of fortune for a relatively low budget studio production.
“No one got paid,” Melfi said. “Kevin Costner shared a trailer. Kevin Costner doesn’t share trailers. Jim Parsons flew himself out to our set a few times. Everyone performed at that level and gave that level and bet on themselves. They bet on the film.”
The box office receipts point an expansive audience for the film.”The experience is colorless for the audience,” Melfi said.
Audiences are certainly not in short supply when it comes to “Hidden Figures,” but the film has also managed to snag viewers through some untraditional means. Thanks to a growing movement that has seen both regular people and those involved with its production buying out theaters in order to screen the film to needy audiences — Melfi and his cast are adamant about the film getting in front of students of all ages — plenty of people who might not have been able to afford a movie ticket have been able to see the film.
Many of the film’s cast members have bought out entire theatrical screenings for audiences (Melfi and his wife have also contributed), and when schools and groups have asked for funds to buy tickets, they’ve been rewarded with an outpouring of donations. (Just this morning, the Virginia Film Office announced a community initiative to send Richmond students to see the film.)
Melfi himself has even gone grassroots, and has hooked up eager benefactors with needy groups. The day we spoke, a group of inner city Los Angeles students were on their way to see the film, thanks to a generous donation from a fan who had reached out to Melfi on Twitter and asked to be connected with a group hoping to see the film.
“It’s no longer a film,” he said. “It’s a mission.”
“Hidden Figures” is currently in theaters everywhere.