Hollywood needs more Theodore Melfis. It would make the film industry a much better place. The quality of his work is so high. His screenplays are witty, important, and moving. His directorial ability brings stories to life in the most beautiful and gripping way. And perhaps most importantly, he knows how to assemble a crew. Melfi insists teamwork is the key to the success of his films, like his current hit Hidden Figures. Melfi is one of the few directors I’ve talked to who actively works to have an inclusive set with diverse collaborators both in front of the camera and behind it. What he has to say about representation is imperative for all creatives to read and apply to their projects. In this interview, Melfi discusses learning on the job, working stress-free, and why diversity is the key to telling a compelling story.
When did you realize you wanted to be a screenwriter and director?
Oh God, I don’t even know if I’ve realized that yet. I would say I started writing when I was eight in my dad’s newspaper. I had my own column. I always wanted to be a writer; I wanted to do that my whole life. When I moved out to Los Angeles in 1995 out of college, I was writing all the time and started producing. While I was producing, I was on set watching other people direct thinking, if they can do it I bet I can figure it out. [Theodore laughs] Then I started directing and fell in love with it.
You were someone who learned on sets rather in a filmmaking program. What were major things you learned on the job that helped set you up for success?
Well, you know I started out doing a lot of spec work: spec commercials, spec films, spec music videos. In the spec world, what I did was I’d rent a truck, take that truck and load up equipment—all my grip equipment and camera equipment—by myself, and drive to set. I’d shoot all weekend, load it back up, and then drop it off. I learned every single piece of equipment on a film set, I learned every single person’s job on a film set, and it gave me a deep, deep respect for every single craftsman who touches a film. I gained an appreciation for what they do and an appreciation of the craft itself—the process itself. That’s why I don’t take a “Film By” credit in anything that I do because it’s a team effort 100%. I’m just happy to be a guy who gets the honor of leading the team—but that’s all it is. It’s a full team effort.
What did your early directorial jobs, like on commercials, teach you about running a set?
What they taught me was that nothing works well under stress…I learned very quickly that stress doesn’t create a good experience or good environment. I chose to create a very light, fun set where people can laugh and enjoy the day even through the stress. That’s the best energy you can create for a set: the actors are loose, no one freaks out. You just get through the day with such joy.
Can you talk about finding your voice as a writer and director? Do you feel like you’ve developed your own sensibilities?
I approach the jobs completely differently, obviously. So as a writer my main objective is to write to the audience. What does the audience feel? What am I telling the audience? What do I want the audience to walk away feeling? My whole focus while writing is about the audience and telling the story in a way that I think will have an effect on them and not myself. I’m never writing for myself, I’m writing for them because ultimately the script’s not for me it’s for the audience.
In terms of directing, my approach is very simple. I put myself away and honor the script. The script is the boss. It tells me how to shoot it, how to direct it, what the tone is, what the work up is—the script tells me everything. Every single thing. I don’t put myself before the script, I put myself behind it. That said, I don’t think that if you watch St. Vincent and watch Hidden Figures, you’d say, “I think that’s the same director.” I don’t know if you’d say that…They’re stylistically very different.
St. Vincent was the first feature film you both wrote and directed. I absolutely love the movie. What were things you learned from that process that you tried to improve upon going into Hidden Figures?
I felt a lot of stress on St. Vincent because it was the first bigger film I had done. I had certainly done a bunch of films before that, but it was the first bigger film with that level of power that I had done. I was very stressed out—it’s scary that responsibility. I learned that everything always works out. Bill [Murray] told me that. Everything works out. I kind of breathed through Hidden Figures in terms of my personal well-being and mental state. I knew that things would just work out…
That’s awesome that you could have that outlook because you guys had such a quick turn around. You shot the film in March, right?
Yeah we shot in March and didn’t end till May. May 15th is when we stopped and then we had our first screening in July. The Golden Globes screener of the completed film went out in October.
That’s insanely efficient for a film! Was it the studio’s choice to move that quickly or do you prefer to work that way?
It was both. Yeah, I prefer that. I don’t think any filmmaker would not prefer that. You want to get it done. You want to get it out there. You spend so much time on it, the sooner [we] get it out there, the better for me, for my life, to move on. I always have so many ideas in my mind and I want to move on to something else. People are on a film for years. I don’t want to live my life thinking about one thing. Who does? So there was that.
Also, when the studio saw the dailies and we had our first test screening in LA…They were like, “We want this for Christmas.” That cut out eight weeks of post-[production].
Well, like you said, it all works out!
It all works out. And even when it doesn’t work out, it works out [Ted laughs].
For Hidden Figures, you very consciously incorporated humor into what many would not expect to be a funny script. How does humor enhance the audience’s emotional experience of the film?
I don’t think you can approach any story without humor. I find life hilarious. I mean, look at our election. Life is hilarious. You can either cry about it or you can laugh about it. I think having humor in a story like this that’s already a very hard story with racism, sexism, and misogyny, allows people to laugh in the face of it—allows the audience to open up to the emotion of it. It helps get the message out.
Obviously diversity in Hollywood is a big issue not only in front of the camera, but also behind the scenes. Can you talk a little bit about how you’re helping women, women of color, and other underrepresented voices get opportunities on your crews?
Yeah! I’m hiring that way. 35% of our crew was female—unheard of. We had a female DP [Director of Photography, Mandy Walker]. 3% of the world’s DPs are female; we had a female DP. We had a black production designer [Wynn Thomas], a black casting director [Victoria Thomas], everything we did points to inclusion. You can’t make a movie anymore—with a cast or a crew—without [representation]. If you’re not doing that, you’re not being honest and true. It’s essential to be supportive of diversity and inclusion…If the individual—the person in the position to say “yes” or “no” to something—doesn’t do it individually, nothing happens.
Hidden Figures Trailer
What’s your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Write. Write all the time. The only path for me is writing. Stories drive the medium. Stories will always win. What will not win all the time is a pretty piece of film or something flashy. That’s all fine and dandy, but story cuts through all the bullshit. ♦