New film focuses on Stephen Hawking's life: A Q&A with director James Marsh

Posted by Eric Betz
on Thursday, October 23, 2014

Focus Features will release a new movie about the life of Stephen Hawking titled The Theory of Everything on November 7, 2014. // Courtesy image
Then 32-year-old Stephen Hawking’s debilitating motor neuron disease was already rapidly advancing when his wife, Jane, found him tangled in his pajamas one day unable to move. He told her that he’d had an idea. It would become Hawking radiation.

Director James Marsh says he relied on Newton’s-apple-type moments like this to help humanize science in his new film, The Theory of Everything. Along the way, he had help from theoretical physicist consultants who double-checked the equations, as well as the Hawkings themselves.

The result is an impressively honest and scientifically accurate look at love, cosmology, and the messy human condition.

Focus Features releases the film November 7. It stars Eddie Redmayne (Les Misérables) as a young Hawking and Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) as the cosmologist’s first wife, Jane. From its debut, veteran movie critics were already calling Redmayne’s performance in becoming Hawking Oscar-worthy. Jones’ work is equally impressive.

The screenplay is based on Jane’s memoir and has Hawking’s blessing as being “broadly true.” However, in a recent interview with Astronomy, Marsh says Hawking told him he would have liked to see more science. For a major motion picture, the film actually has a surprising amount of science and valiantly tackles some tough topics.

Marsh, already an Academy Award winner for Man on Wire, says Theory is not a biopic or film about science, but a portrait of an ailing marriage. The director says he first tuned into the clash of scientific research and human irrationality when he made Project Nim, a documentary about a chimp raised by researchers in a human family.

“There becomes disputes, affairs, complications that were entirely emotional — nothing to do with the science,” Marsh says of his previous work. “And the scientists were desperately trying to keep everything cold and dispassionate, but you can’t do it because you’re dealing with people.”

That documentary fed directly into making The Theory of Everything.

Instead of glazing over the dirty details as some popular science biopics have, Theory shatters the love conquers all cliché and focuses on two ordinary humans caught in extraordinary circumstances. Astronomy had the chance to speak with Marsh in September, not long after Theory made its world premiere.

Eric Betz: I want to talk a bit about how you decided to make a movie about Hawking because I think the public perception of scientists is typically that they’re cold and particularly less human than the rest of society. Hawking’s condition and his need to use a voice simulator makes it even more difficult for him. How’d you know that there was such a profoundly human story beneath what, to many unfamiliar with Hawking’s life, could seem like a dry story of math and physics?

James Marsh: If you contextualize the film, it’s not a biography of Stephen Hawking; it’s really a portrait of a marriage, and at the heart, it’s more of a love story than a science story. But the science of course is a very interesting perspective that the film has to engage with. So when I came to the screenplay, which was sent to me by the writer, I knew it was about Stephen Hawking and I wasn’t that interested, thinking, ‘Well, its quite a well-known story. How will I respond to it.’ But I was very interested by the perspective, which is really what it’s like to fall in love with and marry someone both with Stephen’s scientific ambitions and then achievements, and indeed his gradually deteriorating illness. And that’s at the heart of my interest in the film. The science and the other stuff that comes with that I tried to deal with in a way that’s hopefully user friendly for the layman, but I was intrigued by the perspective that Jane Hawking’s memoir opened up living with Stephen. 

EB: Hawking is obviously a well-known scientist, but I doubt many could describe Hawking radiation. How did you decide what science to include and what to leave out?

JM: When I thought about the project, my mind floated quickly to that image of Isaac Newton and the apple hitting him on the head and thinking, ‘What a great visual metaphor that is for an idea.’… The other great anecdote I remember is Archimedes jumping in the bath and water spilling out. In other words, we do know anecdotally that scientists do indeed — as I do as a filmmaker — have ideas in the most unlikely situations. That’s a good way to approach it in a visual medium. A feature film, a drama film, isn’t really the best medium for discussing the finer points of Stephen’s scientific work. You just can’t. It’s an abstract and theoretical world he’s working in, which involves mathematics that are way beyond most people’s understanding, let alone mine, so what you’re looking for are ways that can bring an audience to understand sort of the minimum, if you like, of his ideas. What was really remarkable was that I took a tour around Cambridge with Jane, Stephen’s [ex-]wife, that was largely about the impediments that she would find when she was going around with their three children and a wheelchair. But then she took me to the first house where they lived when they were married, and she said, "Well, I just wrote in my book about when I found Stephen in his pajamas and he couldn’t get them on properly, and he said, ‘Well, I had an idea.’" And I said, "Great, we can work with this," and that idea was Hawking radiation, which is one of the principal ideas that Stephen put into the world that we had to reckon with.

… Now, Stephen Hawking, when he saw the film, wanted more science in. That was a very understandable reaction. He liked the film. He accepted the film, which does involve his personal life in very intimate ways, but he said it was broadly true but he did want more science.

EB: At the end of the film, you mention that A Brief History of Time has sold 10 million copies — I don’t know how many of the people who bought it actually read it — but that’s still an impressive feat for such a complex subject. Why do you think that book sold like it did, and did it have an impact on society?

JM: I think it must have. It was published in 1989, and it was a very good Christmas present to buy people. I think the title allowed us to think we could understand what was being laid out, and having read the book in preparation for the film, I found I couldn’t comprehend all of it, but I definitely followed the historical argument that made the first couple of chapters through to more difficult stuff as the book progresses. It obviously had an impact. The book popularizes an aspect of science that we’re all fascinating by, which is the nature of time itself and the nature of the universe itself. Does time have a beginning? Does time have an end? Those are sort of the inevitable questions of our existence. And I think that’s one of the great things about the film for me is I look at the stars differently now. I look at the sky differently. I look at disabled people differently. It’s a lovely thing about making films in my sort of career is that you find each one rips at your understanding of the world and the people in it. That’s certainly true here. And I think going back to your specific question, even if half of those people read the book, that’s still a major number of people to read a work of quite interesting populist, but still complicated science. Also Stephen wrote it when he didn’t have his voice anymore. It was something he needed to do for himself, I think, so it had a big impact on the culture generally, and probably for the people who read it, it had an interesting way of refreshing their ideas about the nature of our existence on this small little planet in the middle of nowhere.

EB: Knowing some of Hawking’s story, one question I had before seeing the film was how you would possibly deal with the divorce mucking up a particularly good love story. But I thought the result was incredibly honest and beautiful. The film about John Nash, A Beautiful Mind, did choose to omit some of the unsavory facets of his life. Did you know from the start that you wanted to tell the whole story?

JM: We embrace all that, and the mantra of the story is that love has its limits. Jane and Stephen’s divorce, that has it’s part in the film; we show Jane’s increasing emotional dependence on another person who becomes very helpful and she finds him attractive, but he’s helping her so that’s all in the film. We don’t give too much of that away because actually that’s the story of the film. What we don’t know about Stephen perhaps is that develops and that the marriage does indeed come under enormous pressure from his success. From his illness, from many areas, that would be enough without those pressures. Many marriages run their course without those pressures. So that is all part of our story but not shown in the trailer. We want people to discover that. 

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