Emmy award winner Noah Hawley is, by his own admission, “fine with failure.” Best known to most audiences for his television hits “Fargo” and “Legion,” the author-turned-showrunner-and-filmmaker struck out plenty before finding his stride with his pair of FX television series (his first novel was rejected by ten publishers before an eleventh one took it on, his early TV shows “The Unusuals” and “My Generation” were canceled before even completing a first full season). His latest jump, however, might prove to be another lesson in perseverance over success.
For his feature directorial debut, Hawley opted to make a film that is, in many ways, about failure itself. The reviews haven’t been kind.
Loosely based on the real-life story of disgraced former astronaut Lisa Nowak, who made headlines when she was arrested in 2007 for the attempted kidnapping of her ex-lover’s new girlfriend (the ex was also an astronaut, which only added another layer of nuttiness to the story), “Lucy in the Sky” follows Natalie Portman as astronaut Lucy Cola, freshly returned from space and with a new (and often off-kilter) perspective on the world around her.
Despite the fact-based origin of the material, the film is hardly a dramatic recreation of the real-life incidents involving Nowak and operates as a much more internal journey for Lucy, even as she partakes in some of the weirder elements of Nowak’s apparent mental break.
“There’s nothing more exhilarating than taking a huge creative risk and you walk on set and you go, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen? This can only go well, right?,'” Hawley said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I get to tell a lot of stories for the small screen, and if I was going to tell one for the big screen, [I thought], ‘Why? What is it? What is it about the movie theater experience? Can the movie theater itself be a tool that I use to help increase the impact of the story?’ When I started to think about it that way, that got exciting, this psychological sort of magic realism journey of really bringing you inside of her eyes.”
One way Hawley attempts to bring his audience inside Lucy’s addled mind: constantly changing aspect ratios, from widescreen shots to capture the full glory of space to a cramped square-ish 4:3 shape when Lucy is caught up in decidedly more Earth-bound sequences. The frame contracts and cuts throughout the film, mostly for emotional effect, occasionally for less identifiable objectives. “It is an unorthodox approach,” Hawley admitted. “It will bump some people and, if you resist it, you will notice it and it will take you out of the movie. Automatically, it’s not a movie for everybody. But I’d rather make something great for somebody than something good for everybody.”
The film was shot over a year ago, and rumors of reshoots persisted for months (Hawley later clarified that they only shot a single day of additional photography). Even after releasing the film’s first trailer in June, distributor Fox Searchlight declined to announce a release date. Two months later, the studio announced that the film would enter the awards season fray with an October release. Days later, the Toronto International Film Festival selected the film for its buzzy Special Presentations lineup, giving “Lucy in the Sky” the kind of enviable rollout plan any contender would be happy to have.
Hawley, however, continued to tweak the film even after it was ostensibly locked. Two days before its premiere, he was still dropping in frames to the final cut to add emotional heft to certain sequences. “We hadn’t staked out the territory beforehand, because I think so much of a movie like this is about the calibration, it’s about the final film,” he said. “I think we ended up in the best possible place, which is to release early, and it meant some scrambling on our part. Where you put it really can sculpt the audience’s experience.”
Initial audience experiences were not positive. The film received mostly negative reviews after its TIFF premiere (IndieWire’s David Ehrlich wrote in his review that the film is a “dull, sanitized dramatization of history’s tawdriest astronaut scandal”) and seemed destined to enter awards season as, at best, an also-ran. “Lucy in the Sky” currently has a 28 percent “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Hawley is very aware of how critics are receiving his film.
“We all want to be liked, but I’m okay with not being liked, as long as I feel like I get a fair chance with people,” he said. “I guess what I would say is, there’s two kinds of movies that people usually make out of a story like this, right? One is the dark comedy, the ‘I, Tonya.’ And the other is the thriller [about] the unhinged person. I didn’t make either of those movies, I made a magical realism astronaut movie. A lot of people are going to come into the theater thinking they’re seeing one or the other of those two movies. It’s going to take them a minute to realize what you’re seeing is neither of those movies. I certainly know when I go out to see a movie that has been sold to me as one thing, but is really something else, that’s never a movie you’re going to love.”
While Hawley said he and Searchlight have worked hard to educate people about the film in the lead up to its theatrical release, the filmmaker believes that TIFF audiences weren’t yet keyed into what to expect from his debut. “I feel like at Toronto, a lot of people saw that film thinking it was going to be one of those two movies and it turned out to be something else,” he said. “I think this movie is a movie that everyone’s going to have their own unique experience of. It’s less a commercial product and more something that it feels like you could relate to on a much more personal level.”
It’s certainly been personal for Hawley. While the real story the film is based on is packed with salacious bits — including the oft-reported but likely untrue detail that Nowak wore a diaper during her days-long trip to confront her former lover and his new partner, an omission Hawley has gamely discussed in nearly every other interview, repetitive as it surely has been for him — Hawley wanted to strip down the original script from Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi to more emotional beats.
“What was critical to me was to create a journey for the audience that they would go on with her and not stand outside of and judge her,” he said. “I really had no intention of making a movie about a woman who falls apart because she’s too emotional about a man. I don’t want to tell that story, so the bear at the center of this story has to be a symptom of a larger existential crisis. It becomes a slippery slope toward decisions that are less and less healthy, and ultimately toward a moment in which for the first time in her life, she fails. I’ve failed early and often. So failure to me is not that big a deal, but for her, it’s catastrophic.”
When the film hits theaters this week, it will — oddly enough — go up against another prestige picture that follows an unstable person who makes questionable decisions during a fraught time in their life. While Hawley has yet to see Todd Phillips’ Joaquin Phoenix-starring “Joker,” he’s tuned into the similarities in their stories. He’s also compelled by where the similarities stop, both on screen and off.
“They’re both movies about characters who have a psychological decline that ends in violence, but he gets to be Joker with a capital J and she’s just supposed to be a joke,” Hawley said. “Obviously that movie is part of a larger comic book universe at a moment in which comic book movies are the currency, so it is going to be looked at in a very different light. Often, as a filmmaker I think about, [how] it’s not just the power of one image, it’s the power of two images side by side. The power of these two movies coming out simultaneously, and the one that’s going to earn $155 million the first weekend…” Hawley trailed off.
He added, “I think that we need more thoughtful movies about the problems that people have on this earth and have less violence in them. That’s probably a pretty good solution.”
There’s also the gender expectations at play. In a recent post on Medium, Hawley opened up about how he’s trying to raise his sons “as we face a wave of angry young men resentful of rejection, forcing their will on the world in spasms of violence.” In “Lucy in the Sky,” Portman’s character is often referred to as “too emotional” by her male superiors. And while that evaluation isn’t entirely off-base — this is, after all, a film about the decline of a woman’s mental state after an extreme experience — Hawley would like more people to consider the way women are portrayed on screen and seen in the real world.
“I don’t want to say that the movie is a gender test, but I do find there’s something interesting in the reactions,” the filmmaker said. “I know just from the experience of showing it to people that there are a lot of women who come up to me and say, ‘You made this movie for me.’ And I say, ‘Yes, I did.’ The movie has a sort of soft institutional bias in it as a storyline.”
That’s not an easy sell, but Hawley hopes it’s one that might have legs in the long run. “I guess my feeling is, now that we’ve entered the streaming universe, this movie is going to live for a long time,” Hawley said. “I’m playing the long game with it, and opening box office really isn’t the relevant metric for me personally. I do think history is full of movies that were not critical successes that, over time, became redefined as hugely successful creative endeavors. It’s one of those time-will-tell scenarios.”
The filmmaker has yet to line up a sophomore feature, and is instead focused on getting back to work on the fourth season of “Fargo,” set to start production in mere days. Asked if he thinks he’ll make another movie, Hawley paused for a moment before answering. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I mean, if I’m allowed. … I feel really good about what I’ve learned, and I’m interested in the next movie or the next show being something less experimental. It has to be a character-driven empathy delivery device that is thematically interesting and idea-driven and visual. If I can check those boxes, I feel like people will know that it’s me.”
It might not look like “Lucy in the Sky” or “Legion,” but Hawley doesn’t seem shy about taking another new risk. If he’s allowed, that is.
“‘Fargo’ was the first thing that I’d done that I felt like nobody was standing in the way of me executing my vision to the fullest,” Hawley said. “It was the thing that I thought was my best work, and it was the thing that I was told was my best work. And it was a show that everyone thought was a terrible idea. … I really only need these stories to do well enough that I get to do it again, that I get to keep doing what I love doing. Not everything’s going to be for everybody, but, I guarantee you, when I look back, this will be the best first movie I ever made.”
“Lucy in the Sky” is in theaters today.