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A life turned upside down - Making a scene in the sky

In Lucy in the Sky, Natalie Portman plays astronaut Lucy Cola, who becomes increasingly moved by the transcendent experience of seeing her life from space. But back on earth, as her world suddenly feels too small, her connection with reality slowly unravels. Debbie Lincoln reports.

Jon Hamm as Mark and Natalie Portman as Lucy in a scene from

Lucy in the Sky

IN THE Fox Searchlight Pictures movie Lucy in the Sky, Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola who, against some odds, has earned herself a place in the tight-knit boys’ club at NASA. But after realizing her dream of going to space, Lucy’s everyday existence on earth starts to feel stiflingly small. Her life slowly falls apart as she loses touch with reality, and the small, but important things in life.

Best-known for the TV series Fargo and Legion, the film is the feature debut of director Noah Hawley who, along with producers Reese Witherspoon, Bruna Papandrea and John Cameron, tells the story of a woman whose professional success turns her personal life upside-down.

“By 34, Lucy has achieved her every dream and has to find a new dream,” Hawley says. “None of this stuff is easy to navigate. And, you know, she spirals out a bit, which is human.”

“To be an astronaut, you obviously have to be the best of the best — the brightest, the hardest working, the most physically fit, the most mentally capable, the most socially adept,” Portman says. “And then she just kind of falls apart. I think it’s so human to see someone who’s so high-functioning be fallible.”

The three most prominent relationships in Lucy’s life change dramatically after she returns from space. She begins an affair with a colleague, leaves her loyal husband, and then loses her grandmother, the strong maternal figure in her life, played by Ellen Burstyn.

Lucy, played by Natalie Portman, at NASA headquarters in a scene from Lucy in the Sky

Jon Hamm plays Mark Goodwin, the recently divorced astronaut whose friendship with Lucy becomes an affair. “Much more than the story being about a love triangle or a relationship, it’s really more about how we, as human beings — and especially as people that have seen the Earth from a different perspective — have to adapt to that in our daily lives and how difficult that is,” Hamm says. “It’s sort of a philosophical drama.”

Mark’s first-hand experience of space is important to the story, Hawley says. “Jon Hamm’s character is very much on his own journey. He’s about to go back up into space and he has his fears and doubts about it. I mean, how many times can you ride the rocket and survive? So there’s a certain self-destructiveness that he’s going through as well.”

“One of the big challenges was the scale of everything at NASA – the test facilities, the hangars – you just need sheer size” - Jennifer Dunne

Key to telling Lucy’s story was to allow the audience to feel the difference between her two lives – in space and on Earth. As Lucy the character explains: “I was only a couple hundred miles up, but every day I looked down and — well, there it is. All of it. Everyone you know. Everyone you could ever know. On a tiny blue ball. Floating in nothing.”

Hawley employed experimental visual techniques to get that message across on the screen – for example by using aspect ratio as a storytelling device, shrinking the frame when Lucy is on Earth and broadening it when she’s in space.

“That’s some of the fun of this,” Hawley says. “When she’s in space, we’re in our widest aspect ratio. But when she comes down, her world shrinks. And literally we use the screen as a tool. We go down to a smaller aspect ratio, so suddenly she’s in a box. The story’s in a box.”

“Magical realism is what we’re calling it — that the subjective experience that Lucy goes through on her return to Earth is embodied in the filmmaking,” producer John Cameron says.” The techniques and approach that Noah is using give us that visceral feel of what she’s experiencing.”

Hawley adds: “The idea of magical realism is you have to create reality in a way that’s completely realistic and familiar to people. Then when you take these magical turns, these slightly surreal turns, they have real impact.”

Natalie Portman (as Lucy) with Zazie Beetz (as Erin) on location for Lucy in the Sky

Director of photography Polly Morgan and production designer Stefania Cella, were key to getting the look right for the film’s three distinct environments: space, NASA and Lucy’s home life.

“We really talked about the color palette, the feel, textures, the mood of the film,” Morgan says. “Just everything related to Lucy’s journey and how we could represent that in a painterly way.”

They went for distinct color schemes for the three settings: blue and white to denote space; bright red and yellow for NASA; and a more natural look – green and brown – for Lucy’s home life. The setting was 2007, so not a great deal of period work was required.

For NASA and the Johnson Space Center the movie used a combination of locations including the California State university campus at Dominguez Hills, College of the Canyons in Valencia and Burbank Airport. “Because we were trying to match actual locations in Texas and Florida, it took a little bit more scouting than it might usually,” says location manager Jennifer Dunne, who shared location duties with Mandi Dillin. “One of the big challenges was the scale of everything at NASA — the test facilities, the hangars — so even before you get into the aesthetics, and what the director and designer are looking for, you just need sheer size.”

And while Hawley and Cella did visit actual facilities in Washington and Houston to get the right look and feel for these institutions, filming stayed within the Los Angeles Thirty Mile Studio Zone. “Even though we had a lot of research on these NASA training facilities and the Johnson Space Center,” art director Samantha Avila says, “we took a little license and aesthetic liberty in order to create the perspective from Lucy’s eyes.”

“I think it’s so human to see someone who’s so high-functioning be fallible” - Natalie Portman

For the scenes shot at Lucy’s Texas home, the crew was on location for some six weeks. “To have a film crew in a neighborhood for that long can get tiring for anyone,” Dunne says. “Just making sure that the neighbors are happy to have us there is important. And so much of the story took place at the house so that is a pivotal location.”

The owners of the real-life house that the production chose as Lucy’s home had lived there for forty years, and it had never before been used for filming. “We moved them out for the length of time that we were there — and the money we paid them they used to pay off their son’s college loans. So that was exciting for us to know that they were pleased to have us use their place,” Dunne says. “And it’s always nice to find a place that hasn’t been over-shot, and in Los Angeles that can be a challenge. There are so many places around the city that have filmed on a regular basis.”

The house was in Northridge, 25 miles from Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, and a considerable amount of art direction was required to get the right period feel. “It was a California ranch-style house so they had to alter it to make it more like a Texas ranch. The house we were using had quite a lot of wood so we had to cover quite a lot of that to get the look that the director wanted,” Dunne says.

As the neighborhood had not been used for filming before Lucy in the Sky’s visit, the crew took care to communicate regularly with the neighbors, inviting them to join them for food and drinks on a number of occasions. “The fact that the house’s owners knew everyone in the area and had lived there for so long, really worked in our favor,” Dunne says. “You want to leave a location and the people, in the same condition as when you found them, if not better.”

Key production team members were female, something Hawley wanted in order to express properly Lucy’s character and her situation.

“I felt it was very important to have a female cinematographer and to have a female production designer — and to have as many women on the movie as possible to help me explore Lucy’s mindset,” the filmmaker says.

“It’s a female-centric film,” adds producer Cameron. “And it was important for us to staff the film with female creatives for obvious reasons: it’s a different worldview and different experiential level.”


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