Noah Hawley may be the first director who has ever had to narrow his focus to do a movie set in outer space.
Hawley, 52, has long established himself in more expansive mediums. As a television creator, he is known for the Emmy-winning anthology series “Fargo,” adapted loosely from the Coen brothers’ darkly comic movie, and for “Legion,” a dense, surrealistic series based on an X-Men antihero, both for FX. As a novelist, he has written five books, the latest of which, “Before the Fall” (2016), has been optioned for the big screen by Sony Pictures.
With the premiere last weekend of “Lucy in the Sky,” Hawley added feature-film director to his résumé, just in time to start shooting Season 4 of “Fargo” in Chicago about two weeks later. (The series is the subject of his forthcoming book, “Fargo: This Is a True Story,” due Oct. 29, a compendium of scripts, interviews and other ephemera from the show.)
“Lucy” tells the story of Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman), an astronaut who returns from space to find that her suburban married life has lost its flavor. An existential crisis prompts an affair with a rakish older astronaut (Jon Hamm), which prompts a different kind of crisis — involving duct tape and a gun. The story is loosely based on the life of Lisa Marie Nowak, an astronaut who in 2007 was arrested in Orlando wearing a trench coat, wig and diaper after driving more than 950 miles to assault a romantic rival.
Over lunch last week in Manhattan’s West Village, Hawley talked about those projects and what it’s like to hang out with the Coen brothers when you’ve adapted one of their movies. Following are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Did you find making a feature film constraining after all those TV series and novels?
Well, that was the challenge — I don’t have formal training in any of it. I didn’t go to school to learn how to be a novelist. I didn’t go to school to learn how to do television or make a movie. [He was a musician before he started writing fiction.] So for me it’s always an experiment. Also, every time I go to a new story or medium I think, “What am I taking for granted?” And for me, with the movie, it was the movie theater itself.
Is that why you played with the aspect ratio, for example?
Everyone thinks you want the biggest picture possible and the loudest sound possible. But this seemed like a real opportunity to explore this woman’s existential crisis, her psychological decline, in a way that was really experiential: So for example, when she’s in space, everything looks enormous, and the entire screen is filled with the image. When she comes to earth and everything feels small, the image shrinks down and the sound has a similar dynamic.
What about the limitations of time? With 10 hours, you can have entire episodes that are digressions or back story. Did you learn anything specific by being forced to go shorter?
It was interesting because my instinct at the script stage was to expand the story more to make sure that Jon Hamm’s point of view was really represented, and Zazie Beetz’s. [She plays another astronaut.] Then to get into the editing room and sculpt that two-hour experience and realize that there’s room for some but not all of it. If you’re away from her story for too long, it stops being a positive.
And yet, it’s still really critical. For example, there’s footage of Jon’s character alone at night. He’s drinking and he’s watching and rewatching the Challenger explosion. You see that he’s wrestling with some things, too. And you need to see that so you don’t think Natalie’s character is a crazy person. She’s having a hard time processing being back, and he is, too.
Going into it, did you have friends — other feature directors — you consulted? Are you still friends with the Coens?
We have a very interesting relationship. I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me. I keep in touch with them, and when I come to New York, if they’re around, we’ll have a breakfast of varying degrees of awkwardness. It must be so strange for them, where every few years they see all these “Fargo” ads. But they’re so understated that I’m not even sure a filmmaking conversation with them is something they would be interested in having.
Much of your work exhibits a real fascination with suburbia: I wonder if you agree, and if you have a sense of where that fascination comes from?
No, I guess I don’t think about it that way. I grew up in the West Village, which has the word village in the name. For me, it really functioned that way — I can count the number of times I remember going above 14th Street. I did move to Connecticut when I was 15 or 16, the exact moment you don’t want to move out of the city, right when everything is about to get interesting. That was not my favorite place, just in terms of going through adolescence and all of a sudden being in suburbia in the height of the Reagan era.
Well suburbia feels a little alien in your work. I imagine it must have felt that way when you were suddenly plunked down there.
Yeah, I think it did. The things that seemed important to kids were so different. There was this vanilla-ness to it that was alien to me, to which I didn’t fit in. Already, as a kid growing up with, let’s say, an artistic sensibility, I felt a bit outside to begin with. I mean, I went to Sarah Lawrence College afterward, somewhat as a reaction to the jock.
So how do you go to the suburbs without being a tourist? How do you depict tragic characters like Lucy without falling into the trap of condescension?
Everywhere you go people are the same. It’s a simplistic way of looking at it, but human drives don’t really vary. The older I get, as an artist, the more I find myself concerned with human dignity and with the story as an empathy delivery device. I’ve always been an ensemble storyteller and like to look at stories from multiple points of view. What that does is create empathy. Certainly, in “Fargo,” or in stories where you know violence is coming, I never want that violence to be entertainment. The possibilities for really humanizing that violence and its consequences expand as you sympathize with multiple characters.
What about with “Lucy”?
Obviously it’s inspired by a tabloid story, right? What is a tabloid story if not a story about human beings with dignity who made mistakes, ruin everything, and were reduced to a punch line — when their punishment was already severe. Lucy’s character loses the things she loves the most and she has to figure out how to build a life afterward that’s not the life she ever wanted. That’s punishment enough, and that’s a redemptive story.
Natalie and I were very clear about not [reducing] her to a joke or some “Fatal Attraction” villain. She makes mistakes, as we all do — that, in and of itself, should be interesting. It was very important to me not to make a movie about a woman who falls apart because she’s too emotional about a man. We don’t need that movie. Right? Brad Pitt gets to go to space in this very interior film, but people never question whether he has the right to examine his own life onscreen.
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