Interview: James Marsh and Anthony McCarten | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Interview: James Marsh and Anthony McCarten

Critic Amar Desai had the pleasure of talking to The Theory of Everything Director James Marsh and Writer Anthony McCarten...

How did you guys get started on the film?

AM : In 2004 I read Jane’s autobiography and was inspired by her incredible courage and the beauty in Stephen and Jane’s personal life. I already knew quite a bit about Stephen and was already in awe of him and his achievements and his life, and I thought that if I could marry those two, then we would have a shot at an exceptional film.

So, the first order of business was to go and visit Jane and try and get the rights to her book. I had naively imagined that that would be a very quick procedure and I could probably conduct the whole thing in one afternoon. I’d use my enormous charm (laughs), and she would be only too keen to sign the rights over. But it's very sensitive material, and its undoubtedly quite a scary thing for someone to show up and say ‘I want to make a movie of your life’. They had to grow into the idea, Jane, the children, and then finally Stephen had to grow into the idea also. It was simply one of those projects that couldn't be rushed, and in the end it took eight years for everybody to get to that place where they were ready to say yes.

So were they worried that you were going to 'Hollywoodise' it?

AM: Yeah, to see it depicted at all; she’d written the book and was happy with the book. Was it a good idea to subject that family to such international scrutiny? This is what you’re doing in a way, you’re shining a big searchlight into someone’s really intimate life, and she wanted to know who the team would be, what would be the focus. So I wrote a script for her and for myself that I agreed to show her to win myself trust. She read it and she was encouraged to say ‘Let’s meet again’, so we began a conversation that went on for ages.

How did she find the final product? 

AM: I had made it very clear at the beginning that I wanted script control, and because her autobiography was unflinching I thought the story demanded an unflinching approach, and to her credit, neither she nor Stephen ever asked for any of the more sensitive, delicate material to be changed or taken out. I think it’s a tribute to them, their bravery, their honesty.


Have you received any reactions from the family themselves since they've seen the film?

AM: We have, we’ve had reactions from Stephen and Jane and the children, and they all felt that the world we created was very familiar. Stephen’s phrase was that he was…
JM: …’surprised at the honesty of the depiction of the marriage’, a very generous thing to say.
AM: The children said ‘How did you know that we had that exact tablecloth?’
JM: We looked at lots of photographs, and you go: ‘Why don’t we reproduce the exact environment if you can?’ and we could.
It was a period piece as well, of course. It took place over a long period of time, so that’s even more work.
AM: At its heart it’s an overview of the change in fashions of British society over three decades… I’m being slightly facetious (laughs).

What made you decide to open it at Cambridge?

AM: It’s where they met. It’s a good thing they did meet in Cambridge too because its one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and John’s College opened their doors to us, gave us one week during mid-term… is it mid-term?
JM: Just before the start of the Autumn term… something with a fancy name that I should remember. They all have fancy names.
AM: That location was just gold.

As a director, how did you get on board with the project?

JM: I was presented with the screenplay before we started production.
AM: We asked him, it was the polite way to do it.
JM: I was under the impression that given it was a biography of Stephen Hawking, I wouldn't be the right person to take it on. I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was something altogether different, which was a portrait of a relationship with an equal female voice. That was a deciding factor for me, to have Jane’s character as an equal voice in the film, along with Stephen’s character, Stephen being a public figure with which we have some access to. Jane, her story’s not so well-known. That it’s a love story was surprising too. That is, really, the definition of the film: a portrait of a relationship between two people. When it came to the section where Jonathan comes into the story, a curious, forgiving love triangle where each person has decent intentions towards the other, you know somebody’s going to get hurt in this scenario. I was surprised and delighted by it when I read it, and wanted to do it almost immediately. We got on the phone and were rambling on for about an hour.
AM: Uncharacteristically.
JM: I have an absolute enthusiasm for certain things, so it was a gift when I was given it.
AM: And James was a gift to the production. Once James came on board, this very slow-moving project suddenly had wings. Everybody wanted to make a movie, but James Marsh directed it.

Were there any moments in the film where you consciously changed what happened in reality for the film?

AM: Yeah, I took out the boring bits. That was the guiding principle, keep all the interesting ones. This was some of the work that James and I did with Lisa, the other producer. We’d take this story point and this story point and put them together. Those are the necessary allusions and conflations that you have to make and you should make. Those are good changes. But you’re always in the service of pursuing truth, you’re never not in the process of pursuing an emotional truth: you’re not pursuing literal truth in every instance because at times you do great disservice to the emotional truth if you’re doggedly staying with every fact. So you work out what your theme is and you serve your theme. The theme is time and what it is, the nature of time and what it does to people, the way we change within time, the new people you become, what you could not have anticipated, and then we mess it all up and look backwards in time.


How much of the science did you have to leave out?

AM: We honour all the major breakthroughs, and in the time period, there are two tent-pole moments in Stephen’s career. One was Hawking Radiation, which he’s justifiably still famous for, and the other was his no boundary model, and I guess we have his thesis work on singularities and the beginning of time. Those are the three big moments. They aren’t the boring bits. The boring bits are laundry, putting gas in the car. We had to suggest the enormous, dull, workload of Jane in very few scenes. We don’t labour it, but she was a Trojan. It's not a great deal of screen time which we focus on this, but a lot of people, especially women, come away saying ‘Oh my God, she must have been a saint to raise three children like that and look after Stephen’ and yet we don’t devote a lot of screen time to that.
JM: Enough, as you say. It goes a long way when it comes to quotidian tasks. It was very important to show some of that because that’s the everyday encounter she had to deal with: three children, a disabled husband, getting around. There’s an interesting moment where they arrive at Stephen’s parents’ cottage, where you see her trying to wrestle the wheelchair down a slope. We hold that for quite a while, which stands for the daily challenge of that.
AM: Another example is Jane initially saying ‘Can you show a lot of our international travel? There were enormous strains on me whenever we had to travel abroad. Its hard enough doing the supermarket but to travel abroad with that whole tribe…’ We couldn’t do that in the movie. We didn’t have the resources. So we distilled that into a moment of her standing beneath a flight of almost infinite stairs in Wales, in the mud, being told by Stephen’s dad ‘You bring up the luggage’. That’s the distillation you try to find. Instead of showing Vienna, Moscow and San Francisco, we have her standing at the bottom of some stairs in Wales, in the mud. That’s emotional truth, is service to emotional truth, but it's not literal. It's an everyday thing.

How did you cast the roles?

JM: It wasn’t a huge process, there’s a generation of great young British actors and actresses and you do think of maybe half a dozen. But Eddie had just done Les Miserables, and Working Title had produced that film, so they were sympathetic to him already. When I met him, he understood almost immediately what the script entailed. He’s a very talented actor anyway, with a nice physical resemblance to the young Stephen Hawking, which was helpful. Once I’d met him, I was pretty sure that he was the one, and I think everyone came on board with that pretty quickly.

Felicity Jones was an actress I’d had my eye on for a while. We met her and we read them together; it was so interesting, immediately, how they worked off each other, it was just exciting to watch that - a dry audition. That gave us quite a lot of confidence, given these choices were the defining choices of the film in a way. If we cast inadequately, the film was going to fall apart on day one. But Eddie did so much, he was scared by the role, daunted by it, which was a very good starting point. Fear makes you work, he knew that on day one he was going to have to do this, so he spent time with a vocal coach and a movement coach, he met people with motor neurone disease and was able to detail his performance very specifically. I think a great achievement is that, if you see it more than once, how detailed what he does is, and how intentional everything he does in the film. More importantly, that was just a foundation for the emotional undercurrent to come through in the performance. To be what it is, that physicality, you have to be there every day just as a given. So it’s a remarkable performance, the details are extraordinary.

I couldn’t tell the difference between them.

JM: Stephen Hawking had the same reaction. He thought he was watching himself, which is an extraordinary thing.

He must have been terrified to take it on, fearing if he got it wrong he would be a laughing-stock.

JM: He knew all that. That made him prepare the way he did and he was his own worst critic. He would often ask for another take when he felt he hadn’t done it quite right, even when I thought ‘You’ve got it, it's there.’ He wanted to do more and make sure it was there. I’ve just been obliged to look at some of the rushes to find some moments where he breaks out of character. I watched them last night and I was again amazed at the physical effort of doing this. You see him cry and be sweating before he’d snap back into the character again. Extraordinary.

There’s a rumour he hurt his back doing it, is that true?

JM: Well he definitely did not. It was uncomfortable every day for him, and he had to reposition some of his muscles to do this and to make something work through his face. It did take a toll. He had an osteopath that he would go to almost every day to straighten himself out. He went through this for nine weeks, whilst the preparation was probably four months, so six months of this. But as we always say, it's not like having the illness, we can always get up and walk away. People who have the illness cannot do that.

Both the lead performances are very physical, did you need to motivate the actors a lot to throw themselves into these roles?

JM: If you cast your actors well and with a certain confidence that they’ll have the talent to do what you want them to do, you’ll get your responses then. They both did separate research and rehearsed more than any film we’d ever done before for two weeks off and on. The rehearsal process was very instrumental to understanding what the actors wanted to do, it also gave them a confidence. The physicality of both performances, Felicity’s is different, its more subtle, it's about moving differently as she’s had children, and as she gets older. It was the actor’s burden, not mine.


You said you were initially inspired by Jane’s autobiography. Had you also read Stephen’s, and did it make it more difficult to be objective about the relationship?

AM: Stephen hadn't written an autobiography. He was on record as saying that he didn’t seek any investigation of his personal life. He wanted the focus to be on his work and on his science. He was a bit of a closed-door in that regard, but fortunately there’s a lot in the public domain about him, there are secondary texts you can look at and I did so to understand the science. We brought in a physicist as well, who’d been an ex-student of Stephen’s to help shine a light on it. As James said earlier, we wanted a fifty percent weighting on each of them. Jane’s book had given a lot of insight into Stephen’s feelings at different times, especially when he got the diagnosis. He hasn’t said a lot about what that was like, to be a young guy with your life in front of you, and then be told you have two years to live, and they were going to be miserable.

Jane showed the depths to which he sunk, in a way that he didn’t, so that was very instructive. In terms of building Stephen’s character from a writer’s perspective, in terms of what Eddie did, there were a few things I knew about him. I knew he had to have a great sense of humour, a witty mischievousness, and you knew that when you meet him. He’s an artist, and when you read his book, you can’t be unaware of that. He’s undercelebrated as a writer of prose. There’s something of a witty, Oscar Wilde maverick about him that was really a touchstone for me. Of course, Stephen would never define himself as anything like that, he would see himself as a sober man of science or something. This guy who wants to be on ‘The Simpsons’ and then wants to freely float in zero gravity and now wants to be in a James Bond movie…

JM: He’s a showman. The way he has to write is to be very pithy, because he doesn’t have the same resources we do, and that’s true of his speech as well as his writing. A Brief History Of Time is very well written in a very simple way, because he has to, each word is an agony to produce.

AM: It’s lyrical. The last page of A Brief History Of Time is something F. Scott Fitzgerald would be pleased with. Some of the prose in that last phrase: ‘Who are we? Why are we here? When we know this, it will be the triumph of human reason, for then we will know the mind of God.’ To me that’s almost up there with the final lines of The Great Gatsby.

JM: It sounds biblical, funnily enough.

AM: A secular Bible, yeah.

There’s a lot of discussion in the film about God. Is that in Jane’s book itself or did you add it?

AM: Not a lot, but it was clear that he vacillates between agnostic and atheist whilst she’s always held a very firm line of being a god-fearing churchgoing high Anglican. There obviously was dispute there, and Stephen, in his mischievous way, I imagined, taunted her over the years, and it was a vexation to her spirit. We tried to bring a bit of that in there and follow that. There’s a kind of resolution in the end. For all that Stephen says, that we don’t need God, he would muddle with the equations, now lately he doesn’t believe there is a God at all, yet the last word in his great book is ‘God’. Which is a kind of acknowledgement that we might not need him for the equations, but somehow the poem needs it. Somehow our language needs it. We need that word in our vocabulary, otherwise there is an absence. And what do you fill that void with? Even the great scientists need to use that word in the end.

JM: Einstein was the same, of course.

AM: They do. They get to the end, its like being at the edge of a galaxy, the beyond. That is the imponderable, and ultimately the unknowable. What are you going to give the name? ‘The void’ is a very resonant term, and yet ‘God’ seems to chime with us. It’s a soul, and he had recourse to use it. She goes ‘Yes!’ in the end. ‘Gotcha!’

Do you have any tips for young people who want to become directors or screenwriters?

AM: Don’t do it. It’s a bitch.
JM: We’re lucky that we have employable credentials these days, we’ve spent enough time not working. There’s an element of luck in all of this, certainly in my career. You can’t manufacture luck. The main thing is to be curious about the world, and that’s a good starting point for any creative endeavour.
AM: Everybody I know who’s worked in the creative realm and has been successful would have done it without any reward. They would have done it in the absence of money, or fame or success. You have to do it. That’s what marks out all the people I know, it’s a necessity to do what you do. That disposition, if you’re born with that kind of curse, it seems to be the prerequisite. The people who go out and think ‘I want to be rich, and therefore I want to be a film director’.
JM: Don’t do that. Also, any good idea you have comes from hard work. There’s no reservoir of inspirational genius you have there. You usually work, work, work, work, and then you come across an idea that’s worth having. The other thing one should do is to study great works of screenplays and movies. That’s how I began to understand how to make films, by looking at people’s work and ripping it off.

Did you see the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Stephen Hawking’s life?

JM: No, I haven’t, I deliberately did not see that. It wouldn’t have been helpful to me to have seen another filmmaker’s version of that story. Indeed, with any other scientific movie or disability movie, I just avoid them. It’s not useful when it comes to making your own personal take on the material. You should not be looking at other people’s work.

Were there any films that were an inspiration?

JM: There were many, but not obvious ones. I looked at a film called The Servant with Benoît Delhomme, the cinematographer, and that shoots interior space in a very interesting way. It’s a Dirk Bogarde film, and a very very different film from ours, but it had a really interesting use of sets. James Fox plays a servant who begins to take over Bogarde's life and his physical space. Its got a great use of interior space. I looked at Brief Encounter too because it’s a yearning British love story, and that felt like an interesting emotional take. It’s a film that makes you weep. That was one film that was quite strongly connected to an idea that I did look at. We looked at the work of Kieslowski, for lighting, the Three Colours trilogy was something we looked at together with the cinematographer.

Amar Desai



24th December 2014 at 9:00 am