The Words on the Page

Hidden Figures

July 25, 2017

 

Hidden Figures

by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi based on the book by Margot Shetterly

Shooting Draft - May 2016

Drama, 121 pages

 

"New assignment. The Space Task Group." - Katherine

 

When I saw Hidden Figures last year, I absolutely loved it. I was a bit wary to read the script, but it didn't disappoint. One of the tenants of screenwriting is to show, not to tell, and in this, the screenplay soared, with the only real exception being a page before it even really starts. Centered all by itself following the title page, we're told that this is "Based on a true story." This only makes the contents of the 121 following pages all the more impressive.

 

In terms of showing not telling, Schroeder and Melfi draw us into their world. We first meet Katherine, the protagonist, when she is eight years old, and we see her solve a math problem that seems impossible. Only after seeing this and concluding for ourselves that Katherine is brilliant does the screenplay confirms our suspicions through a description - "The equation behind her dwarfing her in stature." The dialogue further reinforces this as Katherine explains her solution, referring to the complex work as "pretty straight forward." 

 

Katherine never brags about her intelligence or skills, which keeps us on her side. We are prepared for her brilliance, however, as in the two or so pages preceding the equation other characters, through dialogue, are discussing immediately moving Katherine to a gifted high school, on full scholarship, even though she is only in sixth grade. Since it comes from others, we take it as fact, and we are curious to see Katherine prove herself. Furthermore, the discussion includes obstacles and a large decision for Katherine's family, therefore burying the exposition. 

 

By the end of page four, we've jumped ahead thirty years. Katherine is now 38, and we are into the crux of the story. And we're already rooting for her. Show don't tell continues as we meet Dorothy and Mary and are thrown into the underlying issue of the piece - racism. This exchange quickly puts everything into perspective:

 

Dorothy: No crime in a broken down car.

Mary: No crime being Negro either.

 

Tension fills the scene as a white police officer approaches the trio, but everything changes when he learns that these women work for NASA and are helping get the astronauts into space. After he offers them an escort to work, the sequence ends with the trio in the car, and we know exactly who each of them is:

 

Dorothy: Slow down, Mary! You're too close!

Mary: He said to follow him.

Dorothy: Doesn't mean you hit him in the ass!

Katherine: Dear Lord... please... I don't even know where to begin!

Mary: I'll tell you where to begin: three "colored" women are chasing a white police officer down the highway in Hampton, Virginia, 1961. Ladies, that there is a God ordained miracle!

 

Nothing has been spoon-fed. Everything pushes the action forward. Yet we know exactly where we stand. We know what this story is and what it is going to be. And, if you're like me, you can't wait to watch it unfold.

 

Throughout Hidden Figures, screenplay techniques put forth in books are utilized, and they're utilized well. The script exemplifies a well-written, wonderful story, and it was turned into a great movie. Structurally, two things jumped out. First, the slug lines helped keep track of when we were. They used standard denotations like "Day," "Later," and "Continuous" for the most part, but then, to be perfectly clear, used "Another Day." I like this as it highlights that the day has changed, and it is something I will likely start using in my own writing. Second, we see Katherine at two ages. In a similar problem, her mother and oldest daughter are both named Joylette. In the parenthetical next to the character cue (where "V.O." or "O.S." would normally go), Schroeder and Melfi specified "(@8 YEARS OLD)" for the younger version of Katherine and "(10)" to denote that it was her daughter speaking. This initially gave me pause, but I have to admit that it was clear, if not entirely standard.

 

I definitely enjoyed reading Hidden Figures. I kept getting caught up in the story and feel that the structure and techniques used only made it stronger. If the script was longer, I would have kept reading. It had a fast pace and was an easy read.

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Writing for film, television, and the stage is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult - and most rewarding - art forms. The language needs to be visual and evocative as each script must achieve two important tasks...
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