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Noah Hawley, director of the film Lucy in the Sky, at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, on Sept. 12, 2019, in Toronto.

VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

Premiering a film at the Toronto International Film Festival is not entirely dissimilar to taking a voyage to outer space. There are the limitless possibilities, the thrill of momentarily being in the world’s (or a certain part of the world’s) spotlight and the crushing disappointment of coming back down to Earth. Perhaps Noah Hawley anticipated such an analogy while presenting his directorial debut, the NASA-set drama Lucy in the Sky, to TIFF audiences last month.

Just before the Natalie Portman-starring film made its world premiere at the Winter Garden Theatre on Sept. 11, Hawley told the Toronto audience, rather resignedly, that “we work just as hard on the bad ones as we work on the good ones. And we don’t know, until they come out, like, which one is it?” Unfortunately, the answer was not what Hawley, or any filmmaker, might’ve wanted to hear, with a tepid audience response and critics immediately flooding Twitter with slams, singling out the love-triangle-gone-wrong drama for its thin characters, uneven tone and arbitrary visuals (Hawley switches the aspect ratio of the film – that is, the size of the image audiences see on the screen – about half a dozen times).

The morning after Lucy in the Sky’s debut, though, Hawley seemed more confident in his vision – or at least honest about the challenges he faced while making his feature debut at the same time he was overseeing two small-screen productions, FX’s Legion and Fargo. Here, the filmmaker talks with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about NASA and nerves.

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You sounded fairly nervous in your opening remarks. Were you worried about the reaction the film might receive?

Whenever you do anything for the first time, there’s going to be a healthy amount of exhilaration that comes with it. Any time you share something that you made for you with other people, you never know, maybe they’ll hate it? But it was exhilarating to sit in that theatre and feel the audience be with [Natalie’s character] that whole time, and to listen to the Q&A afterward, and hear that they connected with her. For a movie about a character who makes choices that you don’t want her to make, it’s critical that they don’t give up on her. We’ve all watched movies where you check out – like, don’t go in that basement! You went there, so I’m out of this movie now. We can’t afford that in this film. I don’t need you to agree with her choices, but if I do my job right, then you’ll understand why she’s making them. Does that make sense?

I think so, though the choices Lucy makes is something I want to talk about. There’s a feminist-first message here – about how women have to work a million times harder than men for respect in the workplace – but there’s also that very fine balance of making sure it’s not just a “women are crazy" movie.

The last thing that I was interested in was making a movie about a woman who falls apart because she’s too emotional over a man. That’s not what this story is – the affair that Lucy has with [Jon Hamm’s character] is a symptom of her larger search for meaning, and to recapture a feeling that she had up there in space. Ultimately, her drive across the country and the violence that comes out of it is fuelled more by his undermining her than any romantic relationship that they had. For a woman who has never met a problem she can’t solve, she has now been put in a position where she can’t solve it. When you take someone who’s never failed before and introduce this huge dramatic failure, people are going to go a little crazy. She’s a problem-solver, and now she’s on a mission to solve that problem. It’s not rational, but it’s her plan and she’s going to solve it.

At the beginning of the film, Lucy has been to outer space and experienced something that few other people ever will, and now she has to come back down to Earth. Making a film is a new and relatively privileged experience, too – do you feel like you’re just now coming back down to reality from it?

It’s a new experience dressed as an old experience. The logistics of, “there’s a camera, there’s an actor,” those are familiar to me. But I’ve never made anything that you could watch in one sitting before, so that’s a unique experience. With a 10-hour story, if there are pieces that don’t fit, you can move them around with more leeway and you have more space to explore things thematically and explore more points of view. There were more scenes that featured Jon and [Zazie Beetz’s] characters that ultimately detoured the film in a way that we couldn’t afford to do, and that was a lesson for me. And just the calibration of this journey that Lucy goes on, making sure that the audience goes with her and comes out the other side with her … I always walk on set and tell myself, this can only go well. Because the worst thing that happens is you fail horribly. And that’s exciting, too.

There’s that visual balance as well. What was the idea behind using so many different aspect ratios?

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What’s exciting to me about the film is that there’s a cinematic element to its thematic element. I get to tell a lot of stories for the small screen, so if I’m going to tell a story for the movie theatre, what is it about the movie theatre experience that I can explore? It’s communal, that’s one thing. But it has this giant rectangle on it, and everybody takes the rectangle for granted. To recreate the experience of coming back to Earth, what it feels like for Lucy, we can shrink the screen so it feels for her as it does for us. It’s more playful than that, too, but it became part of my way of putting you into her shoes.

How many ratios did you end up using?

I don't know the number, it's five or six probably. It's all a way of putting you into her head.

Lucy in the Sky opens Oct. 11

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This interview has been condensed and edited

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