Directed by Noah Hawley (Legion, Fargo) from a screenplay by Brian C. Brown and Elliott DiGuiseppi and Hawley, Lucy in the Sky follows astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman), a woman whose determination and drive took her to space, and she’s so deeply moved by the life-changing experience that her own reality starts to slowly unravel. Inspired by real events, the film explores how the vastness of space can bring a sense of wonder and awe while the enormity of it can also make your everyday existence feel small and insignificant.
During a conference at the film’s Los Angeles press day, co-stars Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm (who plays Mark Goodwin, the recently divorced astronaut whose flirtation with Lucy becomes an affair) joined filmmaker Noah Hawley to talk about why they wanted to tell this particular story, understanding this woman and her existential crisis, deciding where to include the “Lucy in the Sky” cover, approaching the design of the film, memorable moments during the shoot, the coolest thing about being an astronaut, and what makes this a feminist story.
Question: Noah, this is your first feature film. After so much great TV work, why was this the perfect film debut for you?
NOAH HAWLEY: Well, that’s yet to be seen, I suppose. I get to make all of the stories that I want, for the small screen. And so, in thinking about making a movie for a movie theater, which is still where some people see movies, I wanted to think about what would be an experience that you could only have in the movies. There’s something about this story, that starts in space, it’s got the scope to it, and it has an underwater training sequence, that feels like a big film, but it’s really a drama about a woman having an existential crisis. And what started to excite me about it was this idea of making a subjective film, where you’re in her head and seeing the world through her eyes. And so, when she’s in space, everything looks enormous, and when she comes to earth, everything gets smaller, and we can have that experience in the theaters. The sound can work to our advantage. So, I always like to think about what we take for granted, as storytellers, and one of the things that we take for granted is this screen itself.
Natalie, what unlocked your understanding of Lucy, a woman who has had experiences that are so different from anything that any of us that have ever gone through or will ever go through? What was key to understanding her, for you?
NATALIE PORTMAN: It was really this existential crisis, that Noah and I talked about a lot. What happens when you have this experience, that makes you feel more alive than ever and have more meaning than ever, but part of that experience is really realizing how small we are and how meaningless, perhaps, everything we care about is, in the universe? This relationship that she has with Jon [Hamm]’s character is very much about that, where he’s positing this [feeling of], nothing really matters, let’s just do whatever the hell we want, which is so tempting to go into, and she’s fighting for meaning. She’s feeling, “It does matter. I do care. I am feeling something big. And even though all signs point to nothing matters, I want something to matter very badly.” It’s the most human thing, that we can all relate to, even if none of us can actually claim to have been in space.
Given the fact that movies rarely, if ever, shoot in chronological order, and this is the story of a woman who really goes through this perfectly calibrated descent, how did you make sure that you were always pitching it, at the right level, for when it was edited together?
PORTMAN: That was definitely tricky because it is so specific, and Noah really built it in a way where the pressure just keeps mounting and mounting and mounting, until this tightly wound spring explodes. The grandmother is sick, and then she passes, and then she splits with her husband, and then she finds out about the cheating, and then she has the problems at work. It’s in small little increments, so it was a conversation throughout.
HAWLEY: It was interesting because the character, on paper, is theoretical, and then, once Natalie and I started working together, there were moments that clearly needed to be changed. There’s a moment in the pick-up truck- where they kiss for the first time, and in the script, the character said, “Sorry, I don’t know why I did that.” But once I got to know Lucy, I was like, “Oh, she wouldn’t apologize for anything.” It was fascinating to really see the character come alive, and to adjust the script, accordingly.
Jon, there’s a great scene in the movie between you and Natalie, in the back of a pick-up truck. Was that more than one day of filming?
JON HAMM: No, it was a day. Well, it was kind of two days ‘cause there was a bit of it that wasn’t used. There’s a whole other, different part of it that you’ll see on the DVD release. Do we still have those? Are those things, anymore? No, it was delightful. It’s a very important part of the relationship between these two characters, which is just them sussing each other out and figuring out what each of them wants and means to one another. And then, it’s the tipping point in the relationship, where it goes from theoretical to real, and it gets very real, real fast, as happens sometimes.
How was the experience of working on this with Natalie Portman?
HAMM: Terrible. Just awful. I don’t like her. No. Obviously, I’m kidding. Natalie and I have known one another, for some time. I think the first time we met was on SNL.
PORTMAN: Jon’s a regular there. He’s very lucky. He’s invited on, all the time. It’s the coolest thing, ever.
HAMM: Whatever. So are you. So, we had known one another and had almost worked together on a couple of things, here and there. So, to get the opportunity to do so was a real pleasure.
PORTMAN: The feeling is mutual.
Jon, how exciting was it for you to show off your perfect bowling form, in this movie?
HAMM: Especially since I was up for Kingpin, and I didn’t get it. No. There was so much that attracted me to this project, starting with the script, which was so good and so interesting. It’s not just this story of a woman on the verge, or this love triangle. It’s not as basic as that. It’s was way deeper and more intellectual, to me. When I first had heard about it, Reese [Witherspoon] was attached to it, and she had to fall out because of a Big Little Lies 2, Bigger Littler Lies. And then, when Natalie became attached to it, I was like, “Oh, that’s even better! Great! Awesome!” And then, there was Noah. All of these things were coalescing into this project that I felt was becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Everywhere I looked, there was somebody whose work I really respected and enjoyed, so I thought, “Well, this is an opportunity to really do something interesting and fun.” There’s just not that many opportunities to do those things, in Hollywood, at a studio level, really anymore. Those movies are awesome and fun, too, but they’re not necessarily for adults, or for people that want to sit and think and talk about a film afterwards. It’s more of a quick consumption, and a fast food situation, rather than sitting with it. I thought, “This is an opportunity to do the thing that I like to do, which is to sit and indulge in it for awhile.” I was very pleased to be asked to do this. And I crushed the bowling. It was pretty rad.
Noah, how did you decide where the “Lucy in the Sky” cover would show up in the movie, and did you have a hand in helping to pick the artist?
HAWLEY: Yes, I’d worked with Lisa Hannigan before. She’d done some work for me, on Fargo and Legion. She just has this otherworldly voice and interpretation of a song. And then, I felt like that song always existed in that place. To marry it to this magical, infinite zoom of her moving through space and time, it was just meant to evoke, who among us hasn’t had a crisis where we can’t remember how we got to the hospital? We were so caught up in, is she gonna be okay? What’s going to happen? How am I gonna fix this? The drive to the hospital never prints in your memory. And so, my goal with the whole film was to create an evocative sense of what it’s like to be her, that is not necessarily literal, but really makes you feel the feeling that she had.
Natalie, do you think there’s a different sensibility, when men go into space, than when women go into space as?
PORTMAN: One thing I really appreciated about this film is that, I feel like, a lot of times, when it’s a female astronaut, they give her a child back on earth, and that’s the drama because the only drama that a woman could possibly have would be thinking about her child while she’s away. So, to have a woman whose main emotional drama is having an existential crisis, I thought was kind of radical and was very meaningful to me. I love those movies, and I’m not trying to be critical, but I just thought it was very unusual.
Did you do any research into mental illness, when it came to this character?
PORTMAN: That’s absolutely a piece of it, but what’s so accurate about it is that it’s not one thing, and I think that’s true for most human behavior. It’s not as simple as, “Oh, there’s a childhood trauma. Let’s draw a line to this behavior, as an adult.” There are many things. There’s how her family was when she grew up, sleep deprivation, the return from space and seeing things differently, the issue at work with feeling gender-based discrimination and unfairness, a man who’s treating her badly, and her grandmother, who’s been her support, dying. Every person is a unique constellation of issues, to put it in space terms. We are each unique points of specificities, and our behavior is a result of all of those complicated things. It’s not one input. So, yes, that was absolutely an element, but there is no one central element. It’s just a collection.
Noah, how did you approach the design of this film?
HAWLEY: A lot of it was designed before we were shooting, but then there were definitely moments in the editing room. There’s a specific moment, in the center of the film, where she realizes that that Jon’s character may actually be involved with another woman, also, and our central box closes down even farther, and all of that was designed to simulate her feelings and the pressure that she was under. Now, I’m also a playful filmmaker, so I can’t say there weren’t playful elements in it, as well. There’s certainly one where the box shifts, and then shifts again. I never tried to use it as an earnest tool, but it is designed to be a tool and not a gimmick. Obviously, in a perfect world, you may notice it the first time and the second time, but then you stop noticing. If you resist it, as a technique and you’re outside of it, it may interrupt your enjoyment of the film, but if you can go with it and immerse yourself, I think it heightens the experience.
As you went through this, did you have a memorable moment, from throughout the process?
HAWLEY: There were so many things. What I loved about the film is that there’s one scene that’s a sunrise, and another scene that’s a sunset. There’s something really magical about shooting under those constraints. You can’t rewind the sun. So, we shot elements of the sunrise scene on one evening, at sunset. And then, after we had shot all night, we put Natalie and Dan [Stevens] on the roof and we shot the scene to connect it to the sunrise. Those moments that actually feel like you’re connected to the earth really felt special to me.
PORTMAN: The bees were really one of the most magical experiences of my life. Afterwards, I was like, “Thank you, Noah. Thank you. Thank you so much for this experience.” That was so cool, to just be in the middle of it and holding them so close.
HAWLEY: I did tell Natalie that I wasn’t gonna cut until she smiled.
PORTMAN: So, that was really amazing. And Dan also brought his telescope, every time we shot night shoots, so between takes, we could go look. Sometimes the international space station would pass right over, and we could set it. Those were very magical moments.
HAMM: It’s just a brief shot in the film, but there’s the scene where Natalie and I are talking on the roof of what was meant to be a space building in Houston, but we shot it in Downtown L.A. And L.A. is an amazing place when you get a little bit elevated because there aren’t that many tall buildings, so you can really see forever. I believe it was around sunset, and the light was amazing and it was gorgeous, and we were sitting on this weird parking garage roof, or something, and we could see all the way, forever. You get those kinds of things, every now and again, when you shoot, where you’re like, “Oh, isn’t this nice?” And it just feels good.
HAMM: It sounds like the coolest thing in the world, having spoken to and met several astronauts. My thing is all of the math and the skill set that you need, but I would relish the opportunity to go into space and see that. Part of the central thrust of the narrative arc of the film is how intoxicating that is, how unique it is, and how few people get to see it. I would take that opportunity, in a heartbeat.
PORTMAN: I agree, completely. I was lucky enough to visit NASA and talk to some astronauts there, during my tour, who had been on the space station. They described how, physically, it was so hard to come back. They said it was like burning rubber on their sneakers ‘cause it’s hard to pick up your feet after being in no gravity. And then, of course, there’s a whole protocol for psychological well-being because it is really shocking, for everybody, to go there and back. There’s also quite a lot of vetting that they do with potential astronauts, for their social and emotional well-being. Even being up there, it’s really hard to be with this small group of people, in a confined space for an extended periods of time, and in sometimes very stressful conditions, so you have to be pretty stable to even get the opportunity to go, which makes it even more remarkable that someone could have such an extreme unravelling upon their return.
Would you consider this movie to be a part of the feminist wave in Hollywood right now?
PORTMAN: I think that every movie that is about a woman, as a complex human being with her own very specific intentions, flaws and strains, and is just showing a complete humanity is feminist, so yes. I think the more different kinds of representations of women, the more complicated they are, and the more they are agents of their own narrative, that’s part of allowing women to be all different kinds of things. Not allowing, but showing women how they are, which is a vast, infinite array of possibility.
HAWLEY: For me, it’s not a fad. It’s a continuation of the work that I’ve been doing, since I started my career, trying to tell stories about strong, complicated women, often with flaws. Hopefully, you will see more of those films because those stories are ever more important to tell.
Natalie, this character is similar to your character in Black Swan, in the sense that she’s in a competitive field, and what that does to women and how it affects their mental stability. What does this movie add to that conversation about women in the workforce and with that competition?
PORTMAN: Unlike the ballet world, the astronaut space world is a more of a situation where women are one-at-a-time players, which is how it is in a lot of positions of power. Women get a seat at the table, and when you’re one of a kind, you can be otherized. You’re the one woman in the room. But if there’s more than one, you have to pay attention to someone’s personality. You have to actually pay attention to some characteristics about the person and their humanity to describe them. If you’re talking about them, you can’t just be like, “Oh, the girl.” There’s a very specific thing about being the one in the workplace that is a very different situation. The other thing that’s interesting about women’s work is that there tends to usually either be one, or it’ s a women’s field, like ballet, nursing, or teaching. That’s why the equal pay conversation is super complicated. There are whole occupations that are only women, or are majority women, and those tend to be lower paid occupations. It’s a long conversation that I could go on about, all day.
Lucy in the Sky opens in theaters on October 4th.