Noah Hawley, Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm Discuss the Existential Crisis at the Center of ‘Lucy in the Sky’
You might say that writer, filmmaker, showrunner, and novelist Noah Hawley, the creative mastermind behind the Coen Brothers-inspired, FX anthology series “Fargo,” as well as mutant headtrip, psychodrama “Legion” — two of the boldest shows on television — has had a modicum of success over the past few years. Creatively speaking, Noah Hawely is simply on a tear. Considering all his accomplishments across TV as an evolving medium, it’s no surprise that for his big screen debut, “Lucy in the Sky,” Hawley’s ultimate goal was to shape a movie-going experience that could not be replicated at home, sitting in your living room.
The film, inspired by the true story of astronaut Lisa Nowak’s downward spiral into existential despair, and the crimes she committed following her return to Earth, was also a passion project for lead star Natalie Portman — who had to drop out of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” after becoming pregnant. While based on a scandalous true crime case, most of the real-life figures are renamed in the film, including her co-star Jon Hamm’s character — who is based on the astronaut that Lisa (Lucy in the movie) started an extramarital affair with, after the pair accomplished one of the greatest feats in all of humanity together; taking a spacewalk and seeing the earth as but a pale blue dot. Portman, Hamm and Hawley recently sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss their new film and all the challenges that came with conceiving a mature, original and thought provoking time at the movies — something that’s increasingly rare for studio productions these days.
While the scale of the picture was an appealing creative sandbox for Hawley to play in, as a filmmaker more than anything else, the director saw “Lucy in the Sky” as an opportunity to use film as a canvas to capture one woman’s subjective experience. “This story starts in space and there’s some scope to it,” Hawley said. “There’s an underwater training sequence — it feels like a big movie, but really it’s a drama; it’s about a woman having an existential crisis.”
“And what happens when you have this experience that makes you feel more alive than ever and have more meaning than ever.” Portman added. “But part of that experience is realizing how small we are and how meaningless we — and perhaps everything we care about in the universe — are.”
The script’s specific storytelling approach is what peaked Jon Hamm’s interest in the film. “It’s not just this story of a woman on the verge, or this kind of love triangle. It’s not as basic as that. It was way deeper and way more intellectual to me,” said the former “Mad Men” star. “And when Natalie came on, I was like, ‘Oh my god, all of these things are coalescing into this project that is becoming greater than the sum of its parts.’ Everywhere I looked there was somebody whose work I really respected and enjoyed, and I just thought, this is a really good opportunity to do something interesting and fun, and there’s just not that many opportunities to do those things in Hollywood at the studio level anymore. It’s just become about the big moves, and those movies are awesome and fun too, but they’re not necessarily for adults, or people who want to sit and talk about a film after. It’s more of a quick consumption, fast food kind of situation, rather than sitting with a meal. This was an opportunity to do what I wanted to do, which was to sit and indulge in it for a while.”
For both Hamm and Portman, Hawley’s vision for “Lucy in the Sky,” was so alluring precisely because it felt like such a departure from other similar artistic projects. “I really appreciated that they didn’t give me a child back on Earth,” Portman said. “A lot of times, when it’s a female astronaut, that’s the drama, because the only drama a woman could possibly have would be thinking about her child. To have a woman whose main emotional drama was having an existential crisis, I thought was kind of radical, and was very meaningful. I’m not trying to be critical of those movies, I sometimes love those movies, I just thought it was unusual… [‘Lucy’] is really about this existential crisis.”
Portman discussed how the central romance between her and Hamm’s character illuminates both Lucy’s demons as well as her intimate cycle of confusion. “The relationship that she has with Jon’s character is very much about [her crisis]. He’s positing that nothing really matters; let’s just do whatever the hell we want — which is so tempting to subscribe to — and she’s fighting for meaning… and even though all signs are pointing to: nothing matters, [Lucy] wants something to matter, very badly. It’s a very human thing which we can all relate to.” Hamm chimed in, “a very important part of the relationship between these two characters is them sussing each other out in order to figure out what each of them wants and needs within the relationship, and it reaches the point where it goes from theoretical to real; and then it gets real real, real fast, as relationships want to do sometimes.”
In order to capture the mounting interpersonal and existential pressure, Hawley took an expressly unique approach to shooting the movie, shifting between different aspect ratios to encapsulate the subjective trauma Lucy is experiencing. “[The film] was designed to simulate her feelings,” Hawley said. “Now, I’m also a playful filmmaker, so I can’t say there aren’t playful elements in it as well — there’s one bit where the box shifts and then shifts again… but it is designed to be a tool and not a gimmick.”
The formal approach Hawley takes, the aesthetic onslaught of the film, represents the cascading mental state of Lucy’s personal crisis. “I think what was so accurate about how Noah guided me and my character through her spiral is that it’s not any one thing… It’s not as simple as, ‘Oh, there’s the childhood trauma, let’s draw a line to this behavior as an adult.’ There are many things that factor into it. There’s how her family was when she was growing up. It’s also the sleep deprivation. It’s returning from space and seeing things differently. It’s this issue at work that feels like gender based discrimination and unfairness. It’s the man that’s treating her badly. It’s her grandma, who has been her support, dying. Every person is a unique constellation of issues — to put it in space terms; we are each a unique point of specificity and our behavior is a result of all those complicated things.”
Capturing one woman’s shifting perspective was always Hawley’s endgame. “I get to make all the stories that I want for the small screen,” Hawley explained, “and so in thinking about making a movie for movie theaters — which is still where some people see movies — I wanted to think about a theatrical experience that you could only have in the movies.” But the first-time filmmaker also saw “Lucy” as, “a continuation of the work that I’ve been doing in my career, in trying to tell stories about strong and complicated women, often with flaws.” Hawley further elaborated on the creative kernel for his debut feature. “What started to excite me about [‘Lucy’] was this idea to make a subjective film which puts you in her head, seeing the world through her eyes. When she’s in space everything looks enormous and when she comes to earth everything looks smaller, and we can have that experience in the theater — the sound can work to our advantage. I always like to think about what we take for granted, and one of the things we take for granted is the screen itself.”
“Lucy in the Sky,” opens Oct. 4 in theaters nationwide.