Photo by Mark Seliger. For Pharrell Williams, the most rewarding part about being a producer and co-composer on Hidden Figures isn’t that the film beat Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to top last week’s box office, it’s that the story about three African-American women who helped NASA launch John Glenn into space in the 1960s is finally being told. “A lot of people walk away [from the film] saying, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t know that story. That should be part of textbook history.’ To us, that’s the special sauce right there,” he says.
By “us,” Williams means himself and Mimi Valdes, who serves as chief creative office of his production company i am OTHER and who brought the 20th Century Fox project to Williams’ attention. For the Virginia native, that the story took place close to where he grew up, involved the space program — a secret passion of his — and shed light on these three progressive women made it all systems go. Plus, as his mom reminded him after he had signed on to produce, Williams met one of the protagonists, Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), years earlier at an event for his education initiative. “I was like, ‘Wow, it was serendipitous,’” he says.
“What I love about it also is that it shows another side of Pharrell,” says Joel Klaiman, exec VP/GM at Columbia Records. Williams records for Columbia, and the label also released the Hidden Figures soundtrack. “He’s had such success as a writer, music producer, now film producer, social influencer, designer — the list goes on. This is just another piece of art to add to his incredible collection of success.”
Williams, who navigates between the worlds of music and film with ease, began talks with Fox in early 2016, and from the start, he hoped to be involved both in production and the music. “We were so interested in mak[ing] sure that this got done right, I think that [to the] powers that be it looked like we could be an asset and we tried everything that we could to honor that notion and honor the opportunity.” Since opening Dec. 25, the film has grossed more than $32 million and is slated to be No. 1 at the box office again this weekend.
Williams’ move into film production — he previously served as executive producer on the 2015 feature Dope — wasn’t part of some grand design as much as a natural progression. “I never said, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’” he says. “I’m more of a perfunctory person. Once you start doing something, if it’s meant for you, the roads will lead you on that path.”
The Voice coach, 43, also wrote the songs for Hidden Figures, including Oscar contenders “I See A Victory” and “Runnin’,” as well as co-wrote the movie’s Golden Globes-nominated jazzy score with Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch (Zimmer removed himself from the score for Oscar consideration, since the Academy doesn’t allow more than two composers). Now that the film has opened wide and topped the box office, Klaiman says, “We’re trying to make people aware there’s a great signature soundtrack that goes with it.” The soundtrack came out Dec. 9.
Hidden Figures’ success comes nearly seven years after Williams stepped into the movie world. His inspiration was Jack Johnson, who wrote the music for 2006’s Curious George. Williams was so enamored by what he heard Johnson do with the film that he wanted to try. He co-scored Despicable Me with composer Heitor Pereira, as well as wrote four songs for the film. That led to 2013’s Despicable Me 2, which included his Oscar-nominated No. 1 smash “Happy.” He worked with Zimmer and a number of other composers on the music for 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and wrote “It’s On Again,” performed by Alicia Keys and Kendrick Lamar.
Movie work allows Williams to show a different side of his talent. “Scoring is incredibly complex, which is why I won’t do it on my own,” he says, “but there’s a freedom in it. You’re bound to what is needed for the scene and what the director wants, [but] you’re not bound because you’re able to make the choices as to what that is going to sound like. That could be anything. It could be a washboard or it could be a harp. It’s really up to you, and that’s a cool feeling.”
Wallfisch praises Williams’ ability to bring in all the musical elements on Hidden Figures. “Our starting point was Pharrell’s incredible songs for the movie — the bass lines, the chord progressions, the rhythmic intensity — building the score from that place meant there could be a real dance between the score and the songs throughout the movie, a synergy,” he says. “From there we found ourselves drawing on gospel music, Miles Davis-inspired trumpet lines and, of course, the incredible depth of storytelling that comes form Herbie Hancock’s piano playing and the mainly African-American female orchestra we were lucky enough to have perform our score.”
Zimmer, whom Williams refers to as a “big brother,” appreciates Williams for his talent and passion. “We’re both so committed to trying to fight for equal rights for people, so there’s a fellow warrior,” he says. “He fights with his charm and his heart. Those are his weapons.” Next, Williams serves as a producer on Roxanne Roxanne, a biopic about rapper Roxanne Shante, which premieres at Sundance.
He has some other projects lined up, but coyly added, “We’ll talk about them when they’re closer to the surface.” He assures that they all fall into the sweet spot for him and Valdes. “We choose projects based on stories being unique or at least a unique point of view and when they’re sticky; you can’t get them out of your head.” Just like one of his songs.