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Interview: James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking, and More

Marsh discusses the Hawkings’ story, Redmayne’s perseverance, and Theory of Everything’s surprise Oscar buzz.




Interview: James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking, and More
Photo: Focus Features

Based on Jane Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, The Theory of Everything traces Jane and Stephen Hawking’s relationship from early cricket-sweatered flirtations at Cambridge and Stephen’s ALS diagnosis at 21 to the ups and downs of their marriage and his career. Experienced in both narrative and documentary features, director James Marsh approached the script with an intense drive to authentically capture—with the strength of two great actors, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and a wealth of archival footage and information at his disposal—their unique love story. Marsh, no stranger to character studies, previously profiled Philippe Petit and his 1974 World Trade Center high-wire stunt in the Oscar-winning Man on Wire and the chimpanzee selected for an experiment in simian sign language in Project Nim. His previous film, Shadow Dancer, was a tense exploration of the toll of the Troubles on an Irish family’s life, anchored by a fierce performance by Andrea Riseborough. In the midst of night shoots for an upcoming project, the filmmaker sat down to discuss the unravelling of Jane and Stephen Hawking’s story, Redmayne’s perseverance, and the film’s surprise of Oscars buzz—or, as he calls it, the “autumn festival awards thing.”

What drew you to Stephen Hawking and this angle of his story?

I was sent the screenplay with the idea that I was going to be reading the biography of Stephen Hawking, and already it felt like something I wouldn’t do very well, or even wanted to do. But I was surprised upon reading it. This wasn’t a biopic of Stephen Hawking at all. It was actually a portrait of a relationship, a love story, if you like, in these very interesting, unusual circumstances. That intrigued me. It’s a true story, a broadly true one, and it couldn’t be done as a documentary. You couldn’t explore a marriage as a documentary unless you were there observing it for years on end. So this felt like an unusual example of a true story better done dramatically. And I liked the complexity at the heart of the middle of the story, between this love triangle that evolves as Jonathan [played by Charlie Cox] comes into Stephen and Jane’s marriage. This is all very intriguing stuff, but I was really surprised by it too. I became passionately obsessed with it, and quite quickly.

I gather it took roughly three years for the producers to negotiate with Jane Hawking. When did you come along on the project?

I came along as that process was coming to a satisfactory conclusion. So Anthony McCarten [The Theory of Everything’s producer and screenwriter] sent me the script with his producer Lisa Bruce, and that was sort of running its course. It was looking promising. I became very quickly involved because I wanted to do the film so passionately. And then the next stage, of course, was casting. The biggest defining moment of our production, to cast the two leads—well, I’d say we cast well. If you liked the film or not, I think the acting is pretty impeccable. It has to be. Nothing would work about the film if either performance was phony or unbelievable. I was very keen on Eddie, who’s part of this unusually great generation of actors. Firstly, there was his physical resemblance to the young Stephen Hawking. And his performance was all about the details. Every single posture in the film was understood beforehand by him. He had this sort of handwritten chart that he created, like a fetish, of what Stephen could and couldn’t do. They’re the same kind of type in a way: an English type.

Also, that sort of effervescent quality.

Absolutely. They had that, and we were hopeful that you could buy into that. The other thing about Eddie is that, while he’s worked on film, his best work has probably been on stage. He’s not a familiar, established leading man. He hadn’t done something of this weight before. That felt to me like an advantage. First, because he didn’t have any baggage. As a screen actor, it wasn’t like he had played lots of roles where he acquired, as some actors do quite quickly, a kind of persona on screen. But the most important aspect in all of this was that I saw this great potential in him. He was the first and only actor I met for the role, because once I’d met him, I just knew it was going to be him. I kind of had to wait and bide my time to make the case for him. I wasn’t sure going into that meeting, but that meeting was a long, interesting, intense discussion. He got the work. He understood how much work this would entail, how much time he’d need to put into it. He was just passionate about it in a way that got us completely convinced. There were moments in his preparation when he was deeply despondent and insecure and felt things weren’t working and it wasn’t coming together. But I also had this amazing confidence that he could do this. And part of my job was to transmit that to him.

What was your big piece of advice to him in approaching this?

Perseverance. Eddie has that already embedded in his character. Also to take it slowly. It’s not going to happen every day. So often it’s two steps forward and one step back during this process. I would say, “Anything you need from me or anybody else in this production, let me know. I’m here.” We had regular meetings, regular conversations, to see what he was up to, as I was doing other parts of the preparation. And my job really was to support the lonely work he was doing, what only he could do, and to also give him the confidence that he could do this. I always believed he could do it, without question, and it proved true. When we came to shoot the film, he had it all down. Every single detail, every single disability moment extraordinarily internalized, across the 20-year timeline of the story.

Speaking on authenticity, how much of a role did your documentary background play in the process of making this film?

I like to research things. I enjoy that part of the process where you’re kind of dancing around a subject, finding out more and more about it. You can read a lot about Stephen’s life, about Jane’s life, about cosmology, about ALS. There’s lots of things to discover, and they lead to ideas and breakthroughs and clarities you need to bring to the screenplay. I’ve done lots and lots of research. And in this case, we had archive film and photographs of many aspects of Stephen’s life that we could reproduce. Why wouldn’t we? If we knew what his home looked like, why wouldn’t we replicate it as accurately as possible? I think the best endorsement of that is when Stephen’s children, who saw the film recently, said it felt like they were literally seeing their own house. “That’s the mini we had.” The car they had in the film. And you’re also looking for truthful behavior, which I’ve learned to recognize from my experience with extreme behaviors, extreme pathologies, and extreme personalities that I’ve met in the course of my films. So I have a good filter for what feels real in terms of behavior. In the film itself, there are some pure documentary sequences where the actors improvised 16mm camerawork. We got the actors to be a family, and they become roughage, if you like, in the film. They help you structure the time and the timelines and the time leaps in the story.

Considering the portrayal of Jane’s situation, loving someone with an illness and through all that complication, did you draw on mostly interactions with Jane or something more personal?

Felicity met Jane and caught aspects of the way she moves, the way she walks. Jane is a dancer, and likes to dance a lot. She also has a very particular voice as well, which Felicity gets so perfect in the film. Meeting Jane was very important in terms of ensuring that the script felt truthful to her experience. As the film is based on her memoir, it was really sourced on her account, her perspective of the marriage. It was very useful to go with her to Cambridge and see the subjective world that she lived in with Stephen, and to understand it from a disabled person’s point of view. “That building was terrible. We could never get into that building because of having to wrestle with those stairs.” That was in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, when there wasn’t so much awareness about disability and help for disabled people, so that was helpful to know, as every day was just a momentous struggle to go from point A to point B. And also, you always draw upon your own experiences. You just naturally do that, your own experiences with illness, death, or whatever else.

How are you feeling with the Oscar buzz, especially since you’ve been through the cycle before to great success?

That whole experience with Man on Wire was so surprising because that’s not really on anyone’s mind when they make a documentary. This may sound naïve, but I had no idea that this film was going to go on this autumn festival awards thing. And to be honest with you, it’s nothing to do with me. I make a film as best I can. I don’t make it for those reasons. Those aren’t calculations I can begin to make as I make a film. I really can’t do that. It would be counterproductive to do that. It doesn’t cross my mind. Once I finish a film, I put it in front of an audience and it has its own life, and where that life takes it is beyond my influence or control. All I would say is that I’m enormously proud of all aspects of the filmmaking, the collaborations I had with Eddie and Felicity, with Charlie Cox and all of the other actors, with Benoit Delhomme, my cinematographer, with Jóhann Jóhannsson [the film’s composer], with my editor Jinx Godfrey, and so on. It was a big collaboration, and if the film has an interesting life beyond my role, then of course I’m happy about it. I would be particularly happy for the actors who gave everything every day for the film.

Correction: November 12, 2014
An earlier version of this article mentioned that Marsh was working on night shoots for Hold on to Me, starring Robert Pattinson and Carey Mulligan. Marsh, though, did not specify what project he was working on exactly.

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