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Film Courage

How An Unpublished Author Got A Hollywood Movie Made by HIDDEN FIGURES Author Margot Lee Shetterly

Watch the video on Youtube here — See all of the videos from the 2017 USC Scripter Awards here on Youtube

Margot Lee Shetterly: Hello, my name is Margot Lee Shetterly and I am the author of HIDDEN FIGURES.

Film Courage: How long did it take to write and then sell the book?

Margot Lee Shetterly: All told it took about six years. A little less than six years, actually. I started working on it in December of 2010. I really did about three years of research before I put together a book proposal, finding an agent and then finding a publisher. So I submitted the final draft of this book in July of this year. And the book was published in September, a couple months before the movie came out.

Film Courage: So then how did the movie come about? How was it discovered and who wanted to take it on? I know Theodore Melfi [and Allison Schroeder] did the screenplay (the adaptation).

Margot Lee Shetterly: My literary agent is Mackenzie Brady Watson and some how it landed on the desk of Donna Gigliotti who is the producer of the movie. So Donna called me up and remember this was only a book proposal this time. It was like three years ago and I hadn’t finished the book. She saw the book proposal and she said “We are going to make a movie of this story.” And I thought “Well, geez. I’m still writing the book. It’s not even a book. You want to option my book proposal? I’d never written a book before.” But she believe in that story. She really took a flyer on a first time writer/author and now the rest is history. Everything that she said on this first phone call has come true.

Film Courage: I know HIDDEN FIGURES is a true story that many did not know of before it came out. What movie did you see which had the same type of impact that I’m sure many people will feel once they see the film [HIDDEN FIGURES]?

Margot Lee Shetterly: Wow! That’s a hard question. There are so many movies that are amazing and inspirational. You kind of put me on the spot here.

Film Courage: [Laughs] Sorry!

Margot Lee Shetterly: You know, I’d have to think about it. In general the thing about HIDDEN FIGURES, even though it is a work of non-fiction, it is totally a work of imagination, you know? And I think the thing about movies that you do remember and that do inspire you is that they do spark your imagination and I think that is the reason people are responding so strongly is that they see something in these women that says to them “Wow! I just expanded my imagination of what the world looks like and who I might be.”

Film Courage: And you would hear them [the women working at NASA] speaking to you, in your own way? In your research that you did on them….did you hear their voices?

Margot Lee Shetterly: I did! It’s so funny that you asked that question. I found myself talking to them, having conversations with them and dreaming about them, and thinking about them. I looked at photos of them to see what they looked like at different parts of their life. I listened to their children talk about the gestures. Like Dorothy Vaughan. When she got upset would start putting her finger on the table and everybody knew to back off, you know? And that she was really, like a fearless kind of a woman. I knew all of these different things about them until I felt that they had really come back to life and that they were my friends. And they really were. They become my companions. Of course in the case of Katherine Johnson, she is 98-years-old and she is very much still with us. And I had an incredible privilege to spend time interviewing her and getting to know her life firsthand.

Film Courage: Excellent! Thank you! Best of luck and you look beautiful!

Margot Lee Shetterly: Thank you!



Since 1988, the USC Libraries Scripter Award has honored each year’s best adaptation of the printed word to film. Scripter celebrates writers and writing, collaboration, and the profound results of transforming one artistic medium into another. It stands as an emblem of libraries’ ability to inspire creative and scholarly achievement. In 2016 the USC Libraries inaugurate a new Scripter award, for television adaptation. Nearly 80 shows are eligible, almost as many as feature films, and the Scripter Selection Committee will recognize the vitality of this genre at the awards show.

The USC Libraries actively support the discovery, creation, and preservation of knowledge. We inspire students, collaborate with faculty, and engage researchers from around the world, cultivating an appreciation of the knowledge of the past and its role in informing the scholarship of the future. In so doing, we contribute to the continued success of the University of Southern California. The proceeds from Scripter support the USC Libraries’ services, collections, and programs that inspire and inform the achievements of the university’s faculty, students, and staff.


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