Noah Hawley is not interested in making things easy for you. His razor-sharp adaptation of the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” for TV and three mind-bending seasons of “Legion” have been meaty, thoughtful explorations of mental illness and the nature of evil. Now, in his debut feature film, “Lucy in the Sky,” he’s homed in on a brilliant astronaut who loses her moorings back home. Hawley sat with The Envelope at New York’s SoHo House to talk about “Lucy,” the male gaze — and a startlingly personal essay the usually private writer-director shared on Medium just a few days earlier.
There’s a lot going on in “Lucy,” but the thing that rocks her world is when her boss says she’s “too emotional” to go back up in space. That’s going to spark some discussions.
It’s interesting. She’s not the only one struggling with the experience of being in space, but she’s the only one who gets dinged for it. We don’t normally have movies in which that kind of institutional bias plays a role in the fate of our characters. For a lot of people there are biases that keep them from being the heroes that can save the day no matter what. The trick was to calibrate it in such a way that the movie recognizes it, that she recognizes it, but it’s not a polemic.
The week “Lucy” opened, you posted an essay on Medium, “On Raising Sons,” in which you talked about what your mother, feminist writer Louise Armstrong, taught you about women. Is that a coincidence?
It’s hard for me to say. I do feel as an American citizen and human being, and a father in this world — I’m troubled by what I see as a simultaneous call for increased accountability and a backlash against that. It’s a very male response to say, “How dare you try to hold me to account?” I just wanted to talk about what it was like for me to be raised by a feminist writer. Before I came of age as a sexual being, I was involved in conversations about gender and politics and pornography. To know how to talk about pornography before you ever see a pornographic image is helpful for children to know how to interpret those things.
To demystify it?
Yeah. And I’m thinking a lot about it now because I’ve made a film. I’m a male director who’s made a film about a woman’s story. So I’ve been talking a lot about gender and it felt like a good time to do it. But I was careful not to mention the movie — it’s not a marketing ploy. It just felt important.
A lot of men have acted blindsided by the whole #MeToo discussion going on — do you feel the way you were raised helped you be a bit more woke, before anyone called it that?
Definitely. I’ve been a witness to the way in which men try to silence women and invalidate their stories my whole life. I have a lot of conversations about “Lucy,” in which I think, well, [director] James Gray made a movie about Brad Pitt going to space and having an existential crisis [“Ad Astra”]. You might think it’s a good movie or a bad movie, but you never question that it’s a valid story to tell. And there’s a lot of pushback on telling “Lucy.” You know, is it empowering for women? Why would you tell a story about this woman who ruins everything? What’s inspiring to me is that she did the most human thing, which is that she ruined everything and had to figure out how to live with that afterward.
How much of what you learned on “Legion” — story-wise or technically speaking — did you bring to your feature debut?
I was very aware in making this movie about a woman who has an affair that there is a male gaze. That’s what the language of cinema tends to be, looking at women engaged romantically. It’s very exterior, objectifying. Certainly on “Legion” there were love scenes I filmed that I instinctively did what everyone does and only later realized: That wasn’t Rachel’s experience. It was us looking at her. So how could I tell the story from Lucy’s point of view, in which it is a story about her pleasure? It’s about the emotion of it, not the act of it.
A few years ago, you and I were talking about “Fargo,” and you said you were intrigued by the wilderness that resides inside everyone, even heroes, and that the big question was: What is an individual capable of? Do you see that theme continuing in your work?
I think the history of the world is often a war between our animal nature and people who really believe that might makes right. I do think of that as a theme. I mean, if we solve it I’ll stop writing about it. But I think we’re struggling with it more today than ever before. I really think civilization is a choice.