Ahead of the London premiere of their new film The Theory of Everything early December, filmmaker James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten sat down with The Edge for a chat about exactly what it was about the project that got them so excited.
So how did you guys get started on this film?
Anthony: In 2004, I read Jane’s autobiography and was inspired by this incredible courage and beauty in the personal life between Stephen and Jane. I already knew quite a bit about Stephen in his achievements, his life and I thought if I could marry those two then we would have a shot at an exceptional film. The first order of business was to go and visit Jane to try and get the rights to her book. I had naively imagined that that would be a very quick procedure and that I could probably conduct this whole thing in one afternoon, with enormous charm [laughs]. But it’s very sensitive material and 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 and then the children, and finally Stephen – it was simply one of those projects that couldn’t be rushed. In the end, it took eight years for everybody to get to that place where they were ready to say yes.
Were they worried that you would ‘Hollywoodize’ it?
Anthony: Yeah, or did they even want it depicted at all? She [Jane] had written the book and she was happy with it; was it a good idea to subject that family to such international scrutiny? Which is what you’re doing in a way, you’re shining a big searchlight into someone’s really intimate life. She wanted to know who the team would be, what would be the focus. So I wrote a script for her; well, I wrote a script for myself, but I agreed to show her to win her trust and she read it, and she was encouraged enough to say “Let’s meet again.” We then began a conversation that went on for eight years.
How was she involved with the final product?
Anthony: I had made it very clear in the beginning that I wanted script control, and that because her autobiography had been unflinching I thought that the story demanded an unflinching approach. And to her credit, she nor Stephen ever asked for any of the sensitive, more delicate material to be changed or taken out. I think that’s a tribute to their bravery and their honesty.
Have you had any reactions from the family themselves since they’ve seen the film?
Anthony: We’ve had reactions from Stephen, Jane, and the children: they all felt that the world we created was very familiar. Stephen’s phrase was –
James: He was surprised with the honest depiction of the marriage. Which was a very generous thing to say.
Anthony: The children wanted to know how we knew that they had that exact tablecloth.
James: We looked at lots of photographs and we thought, why not reproduce that exact environment if you can and we could, so we did.
What about you James, as a director, how did you get on board with the project?
James: Well, I was shown the screenplay by Anthony and his producer before it was set up as a production.
Anthony: We asked him, we thought that would be the polite way to do it. [laughs]
James: I was under the impression by then that it was a biography of Stephen Hawking which I wasn’t entirely sure I would be the right person to take that on. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was something altogether different: it was a portrait of a relationship with an equal female voice and that was a deciding matter for me, to have Jane’s character as an equal voice. Jane’s story is not so well known, and the fact that it was a love story was quite surprising too. That really is the definition of the film: it’s a portrait of a relationship between two people. I was surprised and delighted by it when I read it, and wanted to do it almost immediately, it was a real gift.
Anthony: And James was a gift for the film. Once James came on board, this very slow moving project suddenly had wings.
Were there any moments in the film where you consciously changed what happened in reality for the sake of the film?
Anthony: Yeah, I took out the boring bits. [laughs]There is the guiding principle. We would combine two scenes and story points sometimes, that’s just the necessary elisions and inflations that you have to make and you should make, those are good changes. But you’re in the service of the truth; you’re never not in a service of pursuing an emotional truth. You’re not serving literal truth in every instance, because sometimes you do great disservice to the emotional truth if you’re just doggedly staying with every fact. So you work out what your theme is, and you serve your theme. The theme for us was time, and the nature of it; what it is and what time does to people, and the way we change within time. The new people you become that you could not have anticipated The boring bits are just things like the laundry. [laughs]We had to suggest the enormous, dull workload of Jane in very few scenes. We don’t labour it, but she was a trojan. I don’t know how little screen-time we’ve got on her, but it’s a great deal. And people, especially women, come away from the movie saying “Oh my god, she must’ve been a saint” to raise three children and look after Stephen, and yet we don’t devote a lot of screen-time to that.
James: It’s enough though, I mean as you say a little goes a long way. It was very important to show some of the daily burdens because that was the life that she had to everyday encounter and deal with, with three children and a disabled husband. Getting around and how difficult that would be.
Something that seemed quite key to the film was finding the right people to portray Stephen and Jane, how did you go about casting the roles?
James: Yeah, I mean it wasn’t a huge process. There’s a certain generation of great British actors and actresses that you can pick from and then you think of maybe half a dozen. But Eddie had just done Les Misérables. When I met him he understood almost immediately what the script entailed. He’s a very talented actor anyway and has a nice resemblance to the young Stephen Hawking which was helpful. I was pretty sure that he was the one and everyone came on board with that pretty quickly. Felicity Jones is an actress I’d had my eye on for a while. I thought she was really interesting in Like Crazy, so I met her then we read them together, Felicity and Eddie, to see how that would be. It was so interesting immediately, how they worked off of each other together, it was just exciting to watch that. That gave us quite a lot of confidence. These choices were the defining choices of the film in a way; if we got these wrong or we cast inadequately then the film was just going to fall apart on day one. Eddie was scared by the role, he was daunted by it, which was a very good starting point because I was to make the film, and fear makes you work. He spent a lot of time with a vocal coach and a movement coach, met people with motor neurone disease and was able to detail his performance very specifically, and that’s a great achievement. If you see it [the film]more than once, you’ll see how detailed his performance is, and how intentional everything he does is in the film. But more importantly, that was just the foundation for the emotion of the character to come through. It’s a remarkable performance and the details are extraordinary.
Anthony: In terms of building Stephen’s character from a writer’s perspective alongside what Eddie did was down to the few things that I knew about him. I knew that he had to have a great sense of humour; a witty mischievousness and you feel that when you meet him. He’s also an artist, and if you read his book you can’t be unaware of that. He’s under-celebrated as a writer of prose, he’s a beautiful writer of prose and so there’s something about the witty Oscar Wilde-type maverick about him that was really a touchstone for me. Stephen himself probably wouldn’t define himself as that, he’d see himself as a sober man of science or something, but this guy who wants to be on The Simpsons and now wants to be in a James Bond movie [laughs].
James: He’s a showman! The way he has to write, he has to be very pithy because he doesn’t have the same resources that we have.
Were there any films that served as inspirations for this one?
James: There were many, but not the most obvious ones. I looked at a film called The Servant with our cinematographer and that shoots interior space in a very interesting way. It’s a very different film from ours, but it had a very interesting use of sets. Brief Encounter was a film I looked at too, because it’s a sort of yearning British love-story, and that felt like an interesting emotional take on things. It’s a film that makes you weep as well. That’s a film that’s quite strongly connected to the world that I looked at.
The Theory of Everything (2014), directed by James Marsh, is released in UK cinemas on 1st January by Universal Pictures, Certificate 12A.
Note: This was a roundtable interview so please be aware that not all questions listed were asked personally by The Edge.