Depending on your memory for bizarre news stories, it will either be immediately clear to you that the new film Lucy in the Sky is based on a true story or you’ll just think it could be true given the plot. In Lucy in the Sky, the titular character, played by Natalie Portman, goes on a space mission as a NASA astronaut (yes, there’s literally a Lucy in the sky), and when she comes back, she’s changed.
Makes sense, right? Going to space is such a singular experience, and one that so few people have. The idea that someone would return to Earth and start living in a different way is an intriguing idea for a movie on its own, but Lucy in the Sky is based on one particularly fascinating story. According to the film’s production notes it’s "inspired by real events," and the movie has often been referred to as being "loosely based" on the story of former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak.
In February 2007, Nowak drove from Houston, Texas to Orlando, Florida to confront Colleen Shipman, the new girlfriend of Bill Oefelein, with whom she had been having an affair. Nowak wore a wig and trench coat and attacked Shipman while she was in her car outside the Orlando International Airport. Nowak was not able to get into the car, but sprayed pepper spray through the window, as reported by Reuters.
The former astronaut — who had shown up with a BB gun, steel mallet, and knife, among other items — was arrested and ended up being charged with felony attempted kidnapping and burglary and misdemeanor battery, according to ABC News. She had also initially been charged with attempted murder, but, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, this charge was dropped by prosecutors in March 2007.
In November 2009, Nowak accepted a plea deal and pleaded guilty to third-degree felony burglary and misdemeanor battery, reports ABC News. She was sentenced to one year of probation, two days in jail, and 50 hours of community service. Her original charges could have meant life in prison.
One part of the story that got a lot of attention at the time had to do with the rumor that Nowak wore diapers to avoid having to stop on her journey to Orlando. According to ABC News, a detective said she told him that she wore diapers, but later, her lawyer denied it. This part of the story is not included in Lucy in the Sky, which was puzzling for some critics.
But aside from the diaper aspect, director Noah Hawley wanted the movie to differ from Nowak’s true story overall. He told Deadline at the Toronto International Film Festival that the original, straightforward version of the script didn’t appeal to him as much as a new one that brought in "magic realism and the more psychological elements." The director explained, "It became less of a literal telling and more of a fictional examination of the story of an astronaut who goes to space and has this explosive experience and a very hard time kind of re-fitting back into her life when she comes home."
Hawley also noted that he wanted to "take a tabloid story and restore dignity to the human beings involved."
As for Portman and Jon Hamm (who plays the object of Lucy’s focus), they explained to Entertainment Weekly that they didn’t delve too deeply into the people who inspired their characters, because the movie isn’t meant to be specifically about them.
"It’s not a depiction of them," Portman said, "it’s inspired by the idea that someone as high-functioning and as successful as one of the very few people that’s chosen to go to space, the few dozen ever of all time, that they could have such a dramatic breakdown, and what would inspire that existential crisis you face when you come back after seeing the Earth looking so small when you’re away. I read about the [real] story, but it’s not about those particular people."
So, if you’ve seen Lucy in the Sky or plan to see it, now you know why the events differ from Nowak’s story… and why the diapers didn’t make the final cut.
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