‘Lucy in the Sky’ Director Noah Hawley on Life in Space and His Directorial Debut

If you’ve been paying attention to the noise around peak TV these last several years, then you probably already know the name Noah Hawley. He’s the author, screenwriter, and director most famous for two of the decade’s most surprising and unorthodox TV shows, Fargo and Legion. He took chances with those FX shows, and now he’s taken a leap with his feature directorial debut, Lucy in the Sky, which is huge in scope and ambition.

There’s a trippiness to the movie that’s not far off from Legion. The story, which is based on true events, is told through the eyes of an astronaut (Natalie Portman) struggling to cope with reality after a life-altering trip to space. Naturally, very little feels normal or conventional in the depiction due to her warped perspective. Hawley makes some bold choices behind the camera, especially with the movie’s wide range of aspect ratios.

In anticipation of the release of Lucy in the Sky, the filmmaker sat down with us to discuss his vision for the movie, the B-52s, and testing audiences’ capacity for empathy.

How’s it been talking about your first movie?

It’s a bit intense, I think. It’s always clarifying, you know, because it makes you think about your choices and clarifying them. That’s true in the prep stage, as well, and the script stage and all along the way of going, “Why am I doing this? Why is this moment important? What are we trying to say?” Certainly, it helps after the fact to have the finished movie, and to really know what you’ve done, and to be able to have that conversation.

It’s a very overwhelming experience, like what Lucy is experiencing. In the writing and visuals, how’d you want to express what was going on internally?

It’s interesting because they’re very different, a script and a film. To really make a film that works as cinema, the words themselves are kind of beside the point on some level. You have to write a story and a film that works scene-by-scene on the page, but when you go to adapt it and finally make it into a film, what I got most excited about was all the visual elements that came to me during prep. The wallpaper element of it, which was not in the original script, and a lot of elements where you realize, “Oh, I need less dialogue because I’m really conveying what I need to convey both through Natalie’s performance and through the magical realism and visuals.” What’s most exciting is, you didn’t just take the scenes as written and put people in a room and put some cameras up and film exactly what was in the script. It was a really interactive process the whole way.

Which major scenes did you cut dialogue from?

There was a lot overall. There was a whole classroom scene where she was invited to talk to these kids about the experience of going up into space. When she arrives there they’re showing a film about the butterfly and transition from caterpillar to butterfly, and all of it felt like we were hitting it too hard. You want those visual metaphors to stay metaphorical, not to become so overt. You have to be aware of redundancy. It’s clear from the bowling alley scene how she feels about her return, and less is more.

With this movie and Legion and Fargo, I feel like your work has a lot of what you love and are obsessed with, like in this case, maybe butterflies and the B-52s. When you look at the movie now, do you see elements you’ve always had an interest in?

Well, who doesn’t like the B-52s? They’re such a unicorn of a group. What I loved about the use of that song, that song is playing in her head. The energy of it coming in, like, here we go and get your stuff [for the roadtrip]. It might be a little weird for the audience, but in her head, she’s like, cue the music, the good-time music. The music, lyrically, happens to have a double-meaning for us. You know, it should never feel like you’re putting your favorite stuff into a story, and it really has to be the right pieces of the story. But I love being open to, especially with music, pieces from every period that might not be the expected choice but end up being the perfect choice.

What about the cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”? When you were working on the script, did you know it had to be in the movie?

Yeah, the song is in the movie before the title was on the movie. It was always in that place. You know, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is kind of an existential song that has this really uplifting quality to it. I thought of Lisa Hannigan immediately, who did a song for me for Fargo and Legion. Jeff Russo, the composer, did the music for it, and what I talked to him about, the song, as it’s recorded by The Beatles, it’s very dreamy and then there’s a moment where the drums come in, it becomes more a rock song, and then it goes back to being dreamy. A lot of the music, for me, was about tension and release. What that beat does is releases the tension and gets you into it. Instead of drums, there’s this uplifting guitar that still manages to keep you in the mood of it. Every detail is critical.

What were the critical details you learned from your research about the mindset of an astronaut?

Probably the most critical story was the Michael Collins story that’s in the film. You know, he dropped Neil and Buzz on the moon, and then when he circled the moon and was on the dark side of the planet, he had this moment where he realized he’s the only living thing there. He had never felt so alone and wept about it, and then when he saw the sun, he wept some more. Of course, because he’s a dude when Neil and Buzz got back he didn’t go, “Guys, guess what just happened to me?” Nor did Neil and Buzz go, “Holy shit. We were just on the moon.” They were just dudes about it. You know that those feelings had to go somewhere.

There were other stories that I had heard like that, where the experiences being related were either so near-death and awe-inspiring, yet how they were told were so matter-of-fact. You know those feelings are in there, and they’re having to deal with them. If you put people in pressure in some ways, when they come home and they don’t fit in, there is a point where even the strongest will break.

What about positive experiences in space? Did you come across astronauts that just loved it?

I think most are very well-balanced people able to comprehend and process the emotion over time. Certainly, the movie isn’t trying to say every astronaut inside is a hot mess. You know, I think there’s enough of a range of experiences. Some astronauts go up to space and come back as fervent environmentalists because they’ve seen the planet and how fragile it is. People are really changed by that experience. You know, there was the astronaut twin Scott Kelly, who was up there for over a year, and when he came back, literally his DNA had changed. The experience of going into space literally changes people, and I wanted to show that.

Like some of the episodes you’ve directed of Legion, it looks like you have no limitations for how you’ll move the camera through environments. Do you just think the sky’s the limit with a camera?

Well, you never want anything to be a gimmick, right? Ultimately, the goal is to convey the story, but also to create a feeling in the audience. For me, it’s always about the effect of the camera moving within the story. There was an element I did in the pilot of Legion where Dan’s being interrogated by Hamish Linklater’s character and everything sort of shifts, the veil has come off and everything is spinning for him. We shot the scene with this camera that was moving on a dolly, and I had them put a zoom lens on and have them do this sort of dolly shot, where as we get closer, we’re zooming out a bit, and then as we get further away, we’re zooming in just a little bit. What you get from that is an effect, right? You don’t know what’s happening, and in fact, the image isn’t really changing, but something’s weird about it. It seems to be moving in some way you’re not used to, and that was simply an instinct on the day to create an experience for the audience to go, “Something is off about this moment.” Had I gone to film school, they probably would’ve said, “Well, first thing is, don’t do that.”

For me, it’s always about the effect that’s created, not necessarily, “What else can we do?” That’s why when directors would come in on Legion I would say, “Okay, that shot, I understand why you’re doing it, but this shot looks like you want to play with a toy.”

You got to do your own version of a parking garage scene where you know something bad is about to happen. It’s a big scene for Lucy, so how’d you want to handle it?

I think we wanted to stay subjective. The whole movie had been about Natalie, and she’s in every scene of it. At that moment, we see her following Jon Hamm‘s character, and then she disappears. Now, we don’t know where she is, but we also know she’s at the point of her journey where she’s the least clear. She’s seeing reality with a very skewed sense, so we began to play with the focus of the film. Those shots become increasingly blurry, in a way, until there’s the moment her niece calls her, blurry, and then the reverse where everything is clear, because she’s seeing herself through her niece’s eyes. She’s realizing the horror of, “What have I done? What is going on?” To be able to convey visually without having to say it. Now, do I know if everyone in the audience is going to understand what’s happening? No, but I think that moment of clarity is literal.

You and Natalie Portman have talked about how you never wanted the movie to have any Fatal Attraction elements, and it’s not that kind of movie, but you’ve also said even in editing, that took work. For you, what were decisions made and discussions had to ensure it never stepped over that line?

Well, a lot of it was really being clear this isn’t a story about a woman falling apart because she’s too emotional about a man. The affair is a symptom of her larger existential crisis. The things that push her to her brink and to drive to San Diego to confront him, it’s more about how she was undermined by the email he wrote, on some level, saying, “Our girl is going through a rough time. Maybe a break would do her good.” That’s so undermining to her. So, I think that was important in avoiding that “crazed ex-lover story” that’s so damaging.

There’s also the fact that if I’ve told you the story right, then you’re on her side and with her this whole way through. Even if she’s making choices you don’t want her to make, you understand why she’s making them. It was really important when she confronts Zazie [Beetz] at the end of the movie, and she sounds incoherent to Zazie, [but] it’s not incoherent to us. Everything she’s saying is based on something we’ve seen. “Sometimes there are wasps” sounds crazy, but we’ve seen the wasps. In that way, she’s never reduced to a crazy lady. It’s a tragedy about a woman who was an American hero and had a break, both due to choices she made and things that happened to her, where choices were taken from her she couldn’t handle.

I thought it was ironic when, at the Toronto Film Festival, you said people don’t like stories about people cheating on their spouses since Jon Hamm was standing next to you and people loved watching Mad Men and Don Draper.

That’s the double standard, right? He can cheat all day long and we’re like, he’s so dreamy, but when she cheats, it’s a different cultural judgment. I know people instinctually don’t like people who cheat on their spouses, so that has to be calibrated, right? In the original script, I read she had children, but I thought, she can’t have children. Even I can’t root for her if she cheats on her kids. I needed the niece, the mentor role, and to feel that. It’s different when it’s a niece, though, because you don’t have the same obligations. You know, a lot of the choices had to be calibrated on how, instinctually, I know certain audiences are going to feel about things. I can’t afford a moment where you’re like, “I’m out.”

On Fargo, you test the limits of empathy. Writing on that show for as long as you have, what have you learned about how much empathy an audience is willing to have for certain actions?

It’s interesting. This movie is very much Natalie’s movie, but I tend to be an ensemble writer. What’s great about Fargo is that it starts out as about four movies with so many moving pieces on a collision course. I’m able to build empathy for everyone, hopefully. In season two when you have Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, who are basically decent people in over their head, and you begin to send these gangs after them, you think, “Whoever they send, I’m rooting for Jessie and Kirsten.” You know, the kid with cerebral palsy trying to prove himself as a man shows up, and you’re like, “Well, I don’t want anything to happen to him.” Suddenly, you have a conflicting feeling about the violence. I never want the violence to feel like entertainment. I want the audience to think, “Oh, I thought I wanted this, but now it doesn’t make me feel good.” I think there’s too much violence represented on screen meant to be inspiring, uplifting, or cool. The Coen Brothers, in the way they represent violence in the movie, it’s always shocking and a little too graphic, know what I mean? You’re like Steve Buscemi, like, “Whoa daddy.” It’s a bit too much, you know?

You’ve been so prolific these past few years, which made me wonder, what does a bad day of writing look like for you?

[Laughs] A bad day of writing is a day I need to write but can’t write, because there are too many other things I have to do, and that’s frustrating. You know, on some level, the act of writing has to be what inspires you to write. There’s no muse we get to wait for, and when you’re on a show, you’re like, “When can I write?” And you’re told, “You have a break between 4 and 6,” and that’s when you have to write or rewrite something. If you are a fast writer or a great first draft writer, those qualities really help, certainly in television. For me, because I have so much output, I require a lot of input, right? The best days for me start with input, maybe going to breakfast and reading something where you go, “Oh, that’s an interesting idea.” The moment you think something is an interesting idea your mind starts to work. It’s hard to just sit down and go, “Okay, now I need ideas.” You need something that kicks it off, really.

Jack Giroux: Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.