Allison Schroeder: We Have Liftoff
Unless you’ve been living under a rock that doesn’t have WiFi access, you know all about Hidden Figures. The movie chronicles the true story of three African-American women whose math and science badass-ery played a huge role in getting the U.S. ahead in the space race during the 1960s. Based on the book written by Margot Lee Shetterly,, the screenplay was written by Allison Schroeder, who received an Oscar nomination for her work. When we came across the opportunity to interview Schroeder, we jumped at the chance. Here’s our chat, edited for clarity and brevity.
You worked at NASA, you were born in Cape Canaveral, you started out learning binary coding. How on earth did you get into film writing? What switched that for you?
I did two years in finance, but my heart wasn’t in it. One time we were doing a mock trial, and we had to come up with all these exhibits. I made an animated movie. And everyone, including my bosses, were like, “go to film school!” So I applied to get my MFA.
What were the early years of your life as a writer like?
A.S.: It took me about six months to get a production assistant job, which is the lowest rung of the ladder on a film set. I was broke. I would go to dinner with friends and they would pick expensive restaurants. I remember one time all I could afford to order was a baked potato — and it was $20. I was terrified!
Some of my really close friends, when they wanted to go out would say, "We're paying, we're paying, it's fine. Just take us to the red carpet."
And you made it. But it took some perseverance. Is it true that at one point you had 44 pitches in a row that weren’t picked up?
A.S.: Yes! For instance, I pitched the same thriller 18 different times. Everybody said "no.” There were also a lot of close calls, where they would get behind it, and then they pulled out at the last minute.
You’ve mentioned the idea of unconscious bias in past interviews. Did that play into that period where you just weren't getting any work, besides the close calls?
A.S.: Yes, definitely. I think it was daunting to people to think of me as the boss of a TV show. I actually come from a finance background, so I think I’d be pretty good at running the budget.
I remember in film school I was really good at mixing sound and so I thought that maybe that's how I would earn income when I was struggling to be a writer. My professor was like, "Women don't work in sound." And I was like, how are these sentences being said to me?
Does being co-chair of the Women’s Committee of the Writer’s Guild give you a platform to deal with those types of issues?
A.S.: Absolutely. One of the things that’s heard around town is that there just are no women to hire. So one of our goals has been inviting executives and showrunners to events, and then they can't say that anymore because they're surrounded by 30, 40 female writers.
The second thing is creating a community and an outreach. We truly try to bulk up the committee and get more and more members to join it, so that it feels like a real force of nature.
The LUNA family is really passionate about film. We have a traveling film festival called LUNAFEST that’s been going on for 16 years. Why is something like that important?
A.S.: It goes back to community. We need to support each other and we need to have our work put out there, it's hard to get work out there.
It's really important to have these steps, talking to an audience, getting active with people, because you end up walking away invigorated.
It's really important that women talk about the obstacles they're facing. At the same time, you really have to try to focus on the solution. Let's figure out how to fix it.
OK, final question. You said in an interview that you are such a “math geek" that you have a favorite calculus variable? Do you maybe have a favorite math joke?
A.S.: Other than the calculator one that spells BOOBLESS. [laughs] You remember that one?
Oh! I remember…God, this is so dorky…it’s not a joke, but I was directing a film in film school about Einstein’s twin paradox, and the character was supposed to be really into it. I told the actor, “this is supposed to be something you really love. What was your favorite scientific paradox, like, in high school?”
And the entire cast and crew stopped and were like, “Only you had a favorite paradox.”
[laughs] So dorky!