'The Theory of Everything' director on filming a movie with Stephen Hawking on set

James Marsh discusses meeting (and filming) Hawking

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Back in 2008, director James Marsh turned Philippe Petit's fairly illegal and totally death-defying tightrope walk between the Twin Towers into the absolutely magical documentary Man on Wire. His latest film, The Theory of Everything, opens today, and it too is meant to be a magical tale, following Stephen Hawking across more than twenty years of his life.

The film deals with marriage, disease, and the universe — not a small scope, by any means — and when we catch up with Marsh in New York City, he's eager to talk about how it all fits in. We sat down together in midtown to talk about what it was like having Hawking on set, how Marsh's experience in documentaries worked its way into The Theory of Everything, and why Stephen isn't strictly its main character.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Did you speak with Hawking?

When you say "speak with," it's sort of this very interesting and strange protocol where you say something and you can wait up to 15 minutes to get a reply to that. And that reply, Stephen speaks in very measured four, five, six words, he's very limited. But, by God, he makes himself clear that way.

We showed him a script. He knew that as a public figure we could do what we wanted anyway, even if he hated the idea of doing it. But he didn't object to the script — he wasn't wildly enthusiastic about the idea of doing it, but he didn't object to it. I think there's also something about: there has been so much about Stephen, documentaries and awards and honors, and I think he recognized that [his ex-wife] Jane had a right to tell her story. And he got that for sure.

"Oh my God, here's the person we're making it about. He's here."

He then came to set when we were filming the May Ball and witnessed that night shoot that we did. He was impressed, I think, by the scale of what we were doing. He was the center of attention for a while as we were filming. It was great to have him there. It raised the stakes for all of us. Oh my God, here's the person we're making it about. He's here. We're doing this very complicated, choreographed set piece with lots of light changes and characters moving here and there and everywhere and blah blah blah, and now Stephen is there to add another sort of, not complication, but another pressure on the actors, in particular. I think he enjoyed that night of shooting. Then we showed him the film when it was done, and his reaction was quite positive. It was "broadly true" was his takeaway, which I'll take.

That's the goal, right?

Certainly, in terms of any biographical film. That's as good as you're gonna get in terms of reaction, because you're not dealing with specific, detailed things from life. You're dealing with broad strokes.

When you go into a biographical film, are there specific goals: is it truth of the character, is it the events that matter?

It's the way the events shape the character, like any story. So that's what you're looking for: where things change for the characters, where events change them, where their own choices change their destinies in certain ways. It's true of any documentary film that you plot to people making choices. I always know that a choice or an action you can be sure about; an opinion you don't know about.

Documentaries, there's a rule. What anyone says about their opinions or ideas, I'm not interested in that. What would you do? What was your choice? What was your decision? And that's very true of dramatic filmmaking, almost by definition.

So in that kind of story, Stephen's story, we know they chose to separate. There's a failure at the end of this story. A failure of relationship, but most relationships fail one way or another. Either from death or through failure, if you like. Those are certainties, how people acted. What they did is what you're after in biographical films.

I'm curious how the approach differs when you're telling the story of someone who we know about versus someone who we don't know about, like you did in Man on Wire.

I guess the obvious difference is that in Man on Wire, I had the real person to represent himself. When I first encountered that story, [the only thought I had about a dramatized version] was that, if you're a documentary filmmaker, it would be crazy. It would be so counterintuitive to all the things that Philippe [Petit] offers in telling his own story. We embraced that. I allowed him to literally dramatize his own story on camera standing up, running around the room, doing all that stuff. So that's a big difference.

The first duty with a film, as you say, about a public figure, an iconic presence in the culture, is to make sure that facsimile you create feels convincing. It's going to be different — clearly, he's an actor representing a real person — but that actor has to in every respect get at some truth that we can recognize so that we can make that connection. So that's quite a big difference, really, that Eddie [Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking] had to convince me, convince the camera, and then convince you, that you can just buy into this, that you can go with this. … Charlie and Felicity in particular [were a big part of that] because they did these intimate scenes together, and at some point we were just observing. They would so become the characters that it felt more like a documentary than actors.

Some of it, also, we shot some 16mm footage of just playful documentary sort of stuff that I was getting going in the garden or when we had a chance to at the beach. The actors gave me that free, basically. That wasn't scripted. … The kids would just be kids playing with Stephen and Jane, as I saw it. Those moments, I'm really proud of. There's something very innocent and pure because I free the actors. I say, "Do what you want, just do it in character," and it was a joy to film that stuff.

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How did you manage the scientific aspects?

Not brilliantly, I think. The best I could. We'd actually written some elements of what we ended up showing, versions of them. I either had to take them and translate them to imagery, and so the simple principle was: if I got it, I thought you would. Therefore, I could put on screen things that I understood. If I didn't get it, I thought I couldn't pretend I did. I was assuming the audience was as smart as I am — or as dumb as I am, if you like.

I'm not a physicist. I'm not a scientist. I am a reasonably intelligent person. Most people in the world are reasonably intelligent too. That's about the level of it, so I wanted to make it into simple, unpretentious visual images as best I could. I didn't want to be pretentious with it. I didn't want to be overly sort of mathematical about it. I didn't want equations.

So there's just this baseline level of the science that people need to understand?

In the film there is, to understand the nature of Stephen's thinking. The idea the film presumes in a way is that the mind is not shackled the way the body is, that his mind is free. In some respects, almost more free, bizarrely and perversely, to think abstractly because he's free. If you put it that way — that's an awful way of putting it, you know what I mean? He can't do anything for himself. All he can do is think.

And so I think he's in his own version of that idea. He's able to think, and so it's very important in the film to show where those thoughts go and how important they are to the field he's working in, theoretical physics. What we couldn't do is show the means by which these discoveries were made. It's mathematical. It's all mathematics. Which I don't understand and never will understand.

It's not very visual either.

It's not very visual. There's no emotion in an equation, for me. There probably is for some people. I'm sure it's very exciting and emotional but not, I think, for most people because they don't understand them. And the point is also, we're dealing with a realm of human knowledge where it really is only an elite few who does understand it. And that's not us, not most of us. You can't make a film for that elite and exclude the rest of us, because you're excluding myself too, I guess.

The source material primarily comes from Jane.

It does, it comes from her second memoir. There are two memoirs: one is a revised version of the other, and the first memoir is really quite sharp and abrasive, sort of written, I suspect, in the aftermath of the breakup of the relationship with Stephen. The second memoir has the benefit more of hindsight. It's more forgiving and more measured, and that's the one I think [Anthony McCarten, the film's screenwriter] used primarily as the source material in the script.

"The film gives them both equal time because they're both equally strong characters."

So it comes from Jane's point of view. In fact, that's one of the reasons why I was surprised when I first read this script and wanted to do it. I felt there was an equality, a point of view there. One person happens to be famous — a famous disabled person, a famous physicist — one is someone we don't know anything about. The film gives them both equal time because they're both equally strong characters.

It's about a relationship. That's the heart of the story. It's not a biography of Stephen by any means. It's a portrait of two characters in this relationship, and I think it's very well written on that level. Felicity has an equal role to play as Eddie does in the actual screen time that they have.

It occurred to me how critical her character is since she ultimately ends up carrying a lot of the emotional weight for both of them, since he's limited in the ability to express himself.

And she has to speak for him, feed him. That was definitely a big appeal to Felicity as well, to play someone from a different era who's very strong, a sort of pre-feminist era, if you like. Jane is pursuing her own academic career, and yet she has to submit herself to her husband's circumstances and achievements, not always willingly, and that tension's in the film too.

The film, in some sense, puts Jane in the background because of her relationship to Hawking, and yet she needs to express this incredible strength from behind all of these events. How is it that you make her come to the forefront when she is quite literally and physically outside?

Exactly. First, you give her a point of view. I always think if you are with a character on their own in any film then you are sort of giving the audience a privileged view of that character. You see Jane on her own a lot in the film, or more so than you think. So that's one given from the screenplay. And I added one or two moments more of observing Jane on her own. Also, you're dealing with Jane's dilemmas, her choice to stay with Stephen is the defining choice of the story and probably of her life, as well. She says, "I will marry someone who I expect to die within two years." That doesn't happen, and life becomes more complicated because of that.

She's empowered by the screenplay and empowered by Felicity Jones, by this amazing performance she gives. You can invest in her character and her dilemmas as much as you can Stephen's. I think they're equally apparent.

People are going into this thinking this is the Stephen Hawking story.

It's not a Stephen Hawking biopic. It's actually a portrait of a marriage with two people in it. It's one of those easy to make misunderstandings that the film isn't about his life and birth to now or his scientific career or his disabilities. It's about his relationship. That's really its focus. That's the terms under which you should try to understand it.

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