Theodore Melfi’s “,” the untold historical drama about African-American math genius Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and her two NASA colleagues (Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe), is starting to garner crafts recognition, with production designer Wynn Thomas nabbing a period Art Directors Guild nomination this week.
“Fortunately, there was a lot of research to draw upon for what the offices looked like at the Langley NASA facility,” Thomas told IndieWire. But he was able to bring more imagination to the Space Task Group, which was reconfigured for the movie, which was shot in Atlanta.
Instead of a dull, rectangular-shaped office, the African-American designer made it a place of wonder. “And I wanted Katherine Johnson and the audience to feel they were entering a very special place where something fantastic was going on,” he said. “So we ended up using the Morehouse College buildings for the exterior of NASA and there was a student center that was a round, circular building, and that influenced the design for the Space Task Group.
“That gave me more freedom to design it and made it more interesting to look at,” he said. “Fifty percent of the movie takes place on that set. And from a conception point of view, there are a lot of circular shapes there, with a globe in the center of the room and it’s the shape of the earth. I will plant those seeds in the design and some audience members will perceive that and some will not.”
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For Mandy Walker (“Truth”), the Australian cinematographer who shot anamorphically on 35mm film, it was an opportunity to emulate the Kodachrome look of the early ’60s. “We wanted the texture and color and we pushed it further in the DI,” she told IndieWire.
The iconic image of Johnson working in the all-male, all-white Space Task Group was “a jewel in a sea of white.” For flashbacks of Johnson breaking the color barrier as a math prodigy in West Virginia, Walker used 16mm and went for a sepia look.
“We also made sure that we could use the low depth of field focus to create layers to draw your attention to certain parts of the frame,” Walker said. “We did foreground, mid-ground, background so it looked more three-dimensional. We did that with color as well. We wanted to feel texture and the grain gives you that.”
In keeping with the conservative dress code at NASA in the early ’60s as well as segregation of women from men, costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus went with a disciplined, professional look. “But we got to dig deeper with the women during their home life, which was a lot more colorful,” she told IndieWire.
Indeed, Johnson wore more striking colors as she gained confidence and prestige; Vaughan was a supervisor who dressed elegantly, and Jackson was the younger free-spirit, who was more forward-thinking with her Bohemian fashion. “It was accurate but not a slave to the period and breathes some life into the story,” Ehrlich Kalfus said.
As a producer, Pharrell Williams was responsible for the score and reached out to “Despicable Me” collaborator Hans Zimmer for expertise, and he recommended that they also enlist classically-trained composer Benjamin Wallfisch. The result was a score that, among other things, reflected the African-American experience of the ’60s.
“We thought, here’s a rare opportunity to analyze the matrix of the 1960s and these were African-American women so let’s put that in our score,” Williams told IndieWire. “So right then and there, the physics are different. For me, I like to experiment with chord progressions and how they make you feel emotionally and I took a lot of pride in the ascending and descending moments and I tried to bring as much soul to it as I could.”
Williams also wanted to be inclusive about inviting African-American women from across the country to participate in the recording of the orchestral score and even invited jazz great Herbie Hancock to play piano.
For Zimmer, though, it was about turning the usual Aaron Copland-based score (“The Right Stuff” or “Apollo 13”) on its head. “We didn’t want to discard it completely, but fill in that extra bit of information that was left out of the harmonic structure up until that time,” he told IndieWire. “But without being too obvious and making it about the music of the ’60s with gospel choir and jazz. But it was like a guilty pleasure when you saw the first American up in space and heard a woman singing.”
For Wallfisch, the theme of aspiration as part of the fabric of the score was unique because of the participation of African-American female musicians. “There was just something different,” he told IndieWire. “Each musician understood in her heart what they were playing about and what the music was trying to say. And that added another emotional layer of directness.”