The Telegraph gives us this wonderful new article about the making of The Theory of Everything.
They made an extraordinary couple. The astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, one of the most fascinating men of our time, a genius whose startling theories about black holes and relativity made him a worldwide celebrity, along with his personal circumstances: being confined to a wheelchair, having lost almost all his bodily functions while his great brain remains active and alert. And his wife Jane (née Wilde), who steadfastly looked after his immense physical needs and raised a family, experiencing the stress and exhaustion of being a devoted carer while his fame grew apace; she lived with him for 25 years before they finally parted.
None of this seems obvious material for a film that is profoundly romantic. Yet The Theory of Everything, based on Jane’s memoir of her life with Hawking, is precisely that. It is also surprisingly moving. Eric Fellner, a co-chairman of Working Title, the British company that produced it, describes it fondly as ‘a giant weepie’. And even in jest, he has a point.
The film’s story traces their relationship from the time they met as Cambridge students; Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) is reading science, Jane (Felicity Jones) arts. A cosmologist, he has resolved to find ‘a simple, eloquent explanation’ for the universe. They fall in love; there’s a giddy scene at a sumptuous May Ball where they dance beneath the stars. But then, aged 21, he is diagnosed with ALS, a form of motor neurone disease, and given two years to live.
Successive scenes chart his horrifying decline: spilling things, falling over frequently, walking with sticks, becoming wheelchair-bound, and relying on a voice synthesiser to communicate. But crucially, Jane’s tireless support and care allow him to continue exploring theoretical physics, breaking new ground and becoming globally famous.
‘Getting Stephen’s changing physicality right was very hard,’ Redmayne, 32, recalls. ‘But managing the fear and responsibility of playing him and doing justice to him was tough too.’
The film opened in the US last month to strong reviews. Bookies are already suggesting the British actors in both leading roles can anticipate a trip to the Oscars: Redmayne has a real chance of bringing home a statuette for his virtuoso performance as Hawking, while Felicity Jones, 31, is among the front-runners for best actress. A best picture nomination is on the cards too.
It is an unlikely success story, and a coup for its director James Marsh, himself a surprising presence behind the cameras. Although he has made a couple of features, including the IRA thriller Shadow Dancer in 2012, Marsh is best known as one of Britain’s most accomplished makers of documentary films: he won an Oscar for the stylish Man on Wire (2008), which traced the exploits of the high-wire walker Philippe Petit – and followed it with another documentary, the absorbing Project Nim (2011), about a chimpanzee raised as a human by a New York family. The Theory of Everything represents quite a departure from his usual territory.
‘I’ve surprised myself,’ Marsh says. ‘When I was sent the script I was assuming it was a biography of Stephen Hawking, and I thought I was the wrong person to do it. I felt a documentary was the right way to go, but one had already been done. But it wasn’t a biography at all. It’s a portrait of the relationship between Stephen and Jane. It was her perspective and her strong female voice that drew me to the film. It felt different. I was surprised by how much I liked it, and its focus. Of course, they had all kinds of obstacles and difficult circumstances I haven’t experienced. But at the same time I felt: can you do a grown-up story about a marriage? Which is an unusual thing.’
He is telling me this in the cosy lounge of a hotel in New York on Thanksgiving Day. To escape from the media frenzy and relentless schedules of awards season, Marsh decided to throw himself into work, and has just finished directing an episode of a new TV crime series for HBO (helpfully titled Crime), starring Riz Ahmed and John Turturro.
It is not only his cv that makes Marsh a less than obvious director to tackle such an emotional story head-on. Self-contained and confident, he is a fast talker, articulate and analytical about filmmaking. At one stage he admits, ‘I can be prickly and difficult on set.’
Redmayne recognised Marsh’s documentary roots in the way he directed his actors. ‘To convey time passing, he’d shoot 10 or 15 minutes of documentary-style footage, with Felicity and me improvising. That idea of trying to capture the minutiae of those lives was important. So he would allow us the freedom to play. Yet his documentary background also meant he has a forensic eye for detail. He’d see what my hand was doing, what my feet were doing, and capture that.’
I tell Marsh he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who might get teary about a film. He protests mildly – ‘I find films incredibly emotional. That’s the power of the medium’ – and he cites a handful of titles, including, unexpectedly, Brief Encounter. ‘I actually watched it before I made The Theory of Everything,’ he says. ‘It’s dated in some ways, but it affected me a lot. So yes, I get emotional about films, but I’ve often shied away from it in my own work. I tend to feel more confident with negative emotions: dread, fear and anxiety in particular. It has been nice to work with a different emotional palette.’
He has certainly done that. Hawking has an apparently simple line in The Theory of Everything – ‘Look at what we made’ – which is both perfectly placed and heartbreaking. And there’s a brilliant sequence in which time reverses itself, and Hawking and Jane go back towards a healthier, happier past. ‘It was a bold thing to do,’ Marsh says, ‘all to do with black holes and what happens to time – but also giving these characters back what had been taken away from them.’
It is no secret that the Hawkings’ separation, and Stephen’s subsequent marriage to his nurse, Elaine Mason, involved anger and bitterness. (Hawking and Jane are on more amicable terms now.) There is a love triangle in the film, with the appearance of kindly Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox), a church organist whom Jane met while singing in the choir. He offered to help the Hawkings with their domestic chores, and Stephen, reluctantly at first, came to accept him. But Jane and Jonathan gradually fell in love and later married.
Marsh feels this sequence is crucial. ‘When I read the script, this was the part that made me want to do it. I felt this was an unusual triangle of people with the best intentions. The hurt wasn’t malicious. It was just because of the situation. My idea was that Stephen had to like and connect with Jonathan first, so the audience understands each character has their reasons here. Without that, I don’t think the film would have worked.’
Jones’s entrance might have signalled a descent into melodrama, but Marsh insists, ‘The script takes the story away from anything too sentimental. In every scene [Hawking’s condition] is a little bit worse. It’s always there, happening as if in slow motion across the whole film. It’s very tragic. And that’s the foreground story.’
It seems almost banal that a film about a great man, famed for his intellectual explorations of time and its essence, should itself take a long time to come to fruition. Yet it is true. The Theory of Everything first hatched as an idea in the head of its screenwriter, New Zealand-born Anthony McCarten, a whole decade ago.
‘I was in awe of Stephen Hawking and his ideas,’ McCarten says. ‘The dramatist in me knew there would be another movie about him. I never imagined having a function in telling the story.’
Nor, in 2004, did anyone else. That year Benedict Cumberbatch had already starred as Hawking in a BBC film about his breakthroughs in cosmology and theoretical physics. Twelve years before, A Brief History of Time, Errol Morris’s documentary based on Hawking’s global bestseller, featured the man himself, sitting inert in his wheelchair on a film set and speaking through his voice synthesiser, blue-screen images of the cosmos whirling behind him. ‘I’d seen those films, but for me they’d missed the crown jewels – the story of this couple and what happened to them, everything they’d lost in their lives,’ McCarten says. ‘Nobody had been near the terrain I wanted to explore.’
It was in 2004 that McCarten read Jane Hawking’s 1999 autobiography, Music to Move the Stars. ‘I felt I had to insinuate myself with her,’ he says. ‘I got on the train to Cambridge, went to Jane’s house and knocked on the door, essentially a stranger. She was gracious enough to let me in.
‘I pitched her a triple-headed idea – the horror of what ALS does to a body; the physics and Stephen’s extraordinary breakthrough; and the third, this unprecedented love story.’
Jane Hawking also remembers McCarten’s visit. ‘I was resistant; he was persistent. I think I was rather run down at the time, and didn’t want a film based on my story. But he went all around Hollywood, trying to whip up interest.’
He also did something else, recommending Jane’s memoir to a friend who was setting up Alma Books, a small London publishing house. Jane was persuaded to streamline and rework her book, which Alma then published under a new title, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen.
McCarten wrote a draft script for Jane’s approval, and recalls she even agreed to passages that truthfully depicted the Hawkings’ marriage as rocky in its latter years. ‘To her credit,’ he says, ‘she was good about not softening parts of the story.’
Still, no one in Hollywood cared that much. ‘For five years I was the only producer on this film,’ McCarten says. Only when he joined forces with an American co-producer, Lisa Bruce, and she persuaded a slightly reluctant Eric Fellner to read it, did things start to happen.
‘When Lisa called I was sceptical,’ Fellner says.
‘I knew about the Hawking documentary and the BBC movie. But I sat down and read it and was captivated. It gave me enormous amounts of information I didn’t know about. And it was a very compelling love story, which I wasn’t expecting at all.’
When Fellner agreed to get the film made, Jane Hawking was thoroughly appeased. ‘That was an offer that was too good to be true. To have one’s memoir produced by Working Title – a British film company rather than a Hollywood studio, which I didn’t think I could have stood.’
Before shooting started Jane took Marsh on a guided tour of Cambridge – ‘the places she’s lived’ – and she pointed out all the impediments for getting around in a wheelchair.
Hawking, Marsh reports, was more measured in his response. ‘He understood straight away this was a movie, not a documentary, and he accepted that. I can’t say he was wildly enthusiastic but he said he wouldn’t object or stand in our way.
‘He came on set for the May Ball shooting, which raised the stakes for us all. We gave him champagne. He saw the scale of it and that we were serious about it. When he watched the film his first response was that it was broadly true to him. He also knows his life will generate stories.’
Casting had been crucial – playing Hawking credibly would be a test beyond most actors. Redmayne was already highly regarded by Working Title, for which he had received good notices in Les Misérables. Marsh says now, ‘I wanted Eddie on the shortlist, and once I met him I knew I wanted him to do it. There was something about the way he talked about it, something in his eyes. He understood what it was going to take in terms of preparation. By the end of the first day’s shooting I knew it was going to work. On that day Eddie did three versions of Stephen – as an able-bodied student, walking on two sticks and lastly in a wheelchair. And day two was the May Ball, a huge expensive set piece, the biggest in the film.’
‘That first day was trial by fire,’ Redmayne says. ‘It was terrifying, but at the end of the day I’d learnt that James had faith in me, even when I didn’t have faith in myself.’
Felicity Jones was widely praised last year for her portrayal of Charles Dickens’s mistress, Nelly Ternan, in The Invisible Woman, but Marsh had already been impressed by her in the college-student romance Like Crazy (2011).
‘Both Felicity and Eddie have a slight resemblance to their characters in their young years,’ Marsh says. ‘I had them read [the script] together, and it went so well it was very reassuring.’
Redmayne has said he could not have played the role of Hawking without Jones’s support. ‘She had to do so much of the heavy lifting. The nuance and subtlety in her work is quite extraordinary.’
Fellner agrees. ‘I hope Felicity gets as much credit as possible for this. Hers looks like the easy part, the less showy part. But she’s dynamite.’
The two lead actors, having secured their roles, went off to research their characters’ background. Both met ALS patients and their carers, observing those symbiotic relationships at first hand. Redmayne spent time with Hawking, and Jones rather more with Jane.
‘Felicity played me so well,’ Jane says. ‘She came here for dinner with us several times, and she was very sweet and nice. But I wasn’t aware quite how closely she was observing me. We’re about the same height and build, so visually she’s a good match. But I didn’t realise she was going to pick up my speech patterns and mannerisms. When I finally saw her on screen I thought, that’s me! It was quite a shocking moment.’
And so, after a long decade, The Theory of Everything is finally complete. For her part, Jane is pleased the film took so long to get made. ‘I don’t think it would have seen the light of day a few years ago. I had to be happy with it, and so did Stephen. But now our lives have settled we can look at our past with equanimity and satisfaction.’