An interview with James Marsh, director of “The Theory of Everything”

Screen

Light. One simple word expresses the intersection of so much human interest. After all, we can’t survive without it. What is the enduring pursuit of the sciences is also the favourite motif of the arts, because it is intrinsic to both; light is where cinephiles and physicists can find common ground. You might even argue that science and art – two spheres we often think of as separate – are brought into harmony via this simple shared necessity.

 

I am starting with light, because light pervades The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s directorial rendition illuminating the romance between celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde (played here by equally phenomenal actors Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones), the literature student he falls in love with while researching his thesis at Cambridge in 1963. The film is a triumph because it grows into something more than a romance – a heartrendingly magnificent victory of the evolution of love over seemingly insurmountable odds, it earned tears from even the most seasoned journalists at the press screening. Even for committed cinema aficionados, it is still relatively rare to find a film with which you acutely feel yourself falling in love. But The Theory of Everything thrives on the emotion – bright, hopeful, unexpectedly luminous; it reminds you that human life is not meant to be lived alone.

 

 

The physics lab: Marsh onset.
The physics lab: Marsh onset.

 

James Marsh is the film’s director, and the poor man now subjected to my seemingly endless list of questions. As the man at the helm of such a mesmerising and meticulous project, you’d perhaps expect a degree of formidability from Marsh. But this is not so: he is very bright-eyed and engaging, and a generous interviewee – even at 9AM on the morning of the film’s premiere. And so, we talk light.

 

Light is the connective tissue of this film; as much the brush it paints with as the dialogue it speaks. Intrinsic to physics, it inevitably underwrites the nature of Stephen Hawking’s scientific pursuits – which we glean as much from Jane’s explanations of Stephen’s work to their nonacademic friends, as we do through the impassioned conversations between Stephen and his mentor, Prof. Sciama (David Thewlis). Did Marsh consciously take this approach: trying to make the science accessible to general audiences,  without letting it overtake the romance of the story?

 

“Well, we did our best to,” he tells me ( “we” refers predominantly to screenwriter Anthony McCarten, for whom the script has been nearly a decade-long project, and who is responsible for adapting Jane Hawking’s original memoir for this film). “We wanted to illuminate his career, of course, because that is his greatest achievement. His work is groundbreaking. But this film is also about Jane; and Jane is not a scientist, she is like us – she’s not a physicist, and sort of lacks that refinement [to communicate in academic diction], so she could translate Stephen’s ideas into a layman’s terms. It felt very natural to her character to communicate those ideas into a more “user-friendly package”, if you like – and at the same time, you see her commitment to his work, how she’s personally passionate about it too.”

 

Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking.
Felicity Jones as Jane Wilde and Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking.

 

He also points out that film is probably “not the right medium to explore those ideas [from physics] at a truly academic level”, which is a fair point; people expecting detailed explorations of Hawking’s theories in the script will be somewhat disappointed. I won’t give away spoilers, but it becomes apparent throughout The Theory of Everything that the project’s purpose isn’t to streamline Hawking to either his genius or his courage alone, but to demonstrate the importance and endurance of love in a life constantly engaged with obstacles. “I think one of the great things about [Stephen and Jane], and therefore what we could translate best to the screen, was this romance, this very resilient love they have. His career and scientific work are sort of submitted [in the film] to an emotional world that you can be much more sure about as a dramatist and filmmaker than science, which can be very hard to access in dramatic film. So we kept them to a level we could communicate – the level that I, as a nonscientist, understand, basically.”

 

Film, too, has its own language of light, and The Theory of Everything is a spectacle of it, with sublime aesthetics – it does not apologise for its how it celebrates starlight, or renders the screen in glittering blues and glowing gold. Nor should it: the end result is hauntingly resonant. You get the sense, watching the film, that the production was purposefully sensitive to how it used the medium. “We wanted to discreetly glimpse aspects of Stephen’s scientific work in that world we find the characters in. Obviously we did talk a lot about light when we made the film – how it needed to be central as a metaphor and motif because it was, and is, a subject of great importance and passion in physics. But we also wanted to make the film gorgeous,” Marsh says. “It couldn’t be grim and depressing to look at; that would never have made sense, because these people [Stephen and Jane] have always looked at the world and seen it for the wonder it can be.” Hence the constellation-splattered, firework-strewn night sky above the Cambridge May Ball, where Stephen and Jane first fall in love and the glowing illumination of their kiss on the bridge, or the warm lens through which we see Stephen and Jane playing with their children at the beach. Where the occasional cold light in the film is heartbreaking (some scenes around Stephen’s diagnosis are especially poignant), an optimistic warmth dominates. “We were intent on making the film positive and joyous to be hold,” he explains.

 

Redmayne as Hawking in the initial wake of his diagnosis.
Redmayne gives a moving performance as Hawking in the initial aftermath of his diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease.

 

 

That Marsh was surrounded by a talented team of collaborators to help him bring the project to fruition is obvious: every frame is meticulously conceived. Marsh commends two of his team in particular: “the cinematographer, Benoit Delhomme, and the editor of the film Jinx Godfrey, whom I’ve worked with for many years – those two were very important.” Aligned with the efforts of, amongst others, production designer John Paul Kelly and costume designer Steven Noble (whose work is, as ever, inspired – he’s a favourite of mine for good reasons, and the 1960s wardrobe in particular is phenomenal), The Theory of Everything comes across as a labour of love and, crucially, sensitivity on the part of a very talented professional crew. “In a feature film, as opposed to in a smaller project like a documentary,” (Marsh’s background is in documentaries – he won an Oscar in 2008 for Man on Wire) “you have a huge network of support around you – you show up in the morning, and there’s a hundred people to help you”. The result, with The Theory of Everything, is something that blazes.

 

Jones in a costume designed by Stephen Noble.
Jones in a costume designed by Steven Noble.

 

***

 

As we chat, it is the day of The Theory of Everything’s UK premiere. The press embargo will soon be lifted, and critics will tell you that The Theory of Everything stands a good chance of being the second of Marsh’s Academy Award projects. It is his second feature film; Shadow Dancer was the runaway dark horse of British filmmaking in 2012, a raw and tense examination of the bitter divisions in 1990s Northern Ireland. Tonally, it is very different to the gilded, cerebral The Theory of Everything – a grainy analogue lens into a fraught social world which befits its subject matter.

 

But as I’ve mentioned, a large part of Marsh’s directorial experience lies in documentary filmmaking – he’s used to translating the lives of extraordinary individuals onto the screen. I want to know if the process is much different in a feature film. Marsh considers this. “It is quite similar in some respects,” he muses. “with any kind of life story, even as it pertains to a portrait of two people as opposed to one, you’re looking for your ‘in’ and ‘out’ – in the case of a documentary, that’s most likely when they’re born and when they die. In The Theory of Everything, we’re focusing mostly on Stephen’s young life, when he’s a student at Cambridge through to the end of his first marriage – about twenty years. So in a feature film like this, narrowing your focus makes it clearer. But the actual approach is similar in both features and documentaries – you’re just looking for a dramatic arc, something you can extract from real life to tell a story: a beginning, middle and end.

 

“You start looking for things from the outset to inspire you,” Marsh says: “looking through archives, photos, raw materials and resources, to give you a sense of real life. It helps you get your bearings.” He also mentions how set and production design was crucial – the crew painstakingly recreated the home Stephen and Jane lived in. All of this made the whole experience of filmmaking more sensitive to the reality it was portraying, he tells me. “It felt like a really expressive way of punctuating the more traditional narrative qualities of the story.”

 

*****

 

If The Theory of Everything burns, then nowhere does it burn brightest but in the commitment of the two lead actors to their roles. Redmayne and Jones are relatively young, not quite household names, yet the film demonstrates that both are formidably gifted – and, perhaps even more important, consistently respectful in their work.

 

Stephen Hawking was diagnosed in 1963 with Motor Neurone Disease; it ought to have been terminal. He was predicated to live only two more years at diagnosis – and he continues to defy that expectation to this day. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University and the world renown author of A Brief History of Time, one of the most successful “popular science” books in publishing history.  MND is a progressive illness, and has taken its toll on Hawking’s body over the years, resulting in almost complete paralysis and loss of motor function; while a tracheotomy in the 1980s means Hawking speaks with an electronic vocaliser machine. Playing him on screen, and avoiding insulting the extraordinary life he’s led with a poor performance, inevitably requires a thoughtfulness and dynamism that might intimidate some actors enough to put them off the role.

 

Redmayne as Hawking.
Redmayne as Hawking.

 

Eddie Redmayne may not yet have reached the “A-list” heights of veteran silver-screen actors such as Hugh Jackman or Robert de Niro (he’s worked with both; in 2012 in Les Miserables and 2006 in The Good Shepherd, his breakout feature role), but he’s on his way, and his performance in The Theory of Everything is a revelation. He deserves every Oscar rumour so far. Obviously given the nature of Stephen’s condition, the spatial and physical demands of the role are huge – but so are the mental and emotional ones. Did Marsh know he wanted Redmayne from the outset? It appears so. “Of course we’re blessed with a generation of very good young British actors,” he says (one is immediately reminded of Redmayne’s contemporary British screen darling, Benedict Cumberbatch, who also played the celebrated physicist in 2004’s eponymous biopic, Hawking). “But personally I was very keen on Eddie from the start. He’s got a strong physical resemblance to the young Stephen Hawking, and that’s obviously helpful; and he’s also a very talented actor, and that’s helpful too; but  really, I was most convinced by Eddie’s stage work. His acting onstage has always been incredibly impressive – and theatre performance requires a lot of rehearsal, and you’re acting in real time every day, so you have to know a script very well. Having that on his CV attracted me to the idea of him playing the role.” Marsh also stresses the importance of a chemistry between director and actor as much as between actors themselves. “When I met with Eddie we got along very well personally, there was an immediate kind of trust between us.”

 

Still, the role entailed a lot of hard work – something that Marsh intimates Redmayne initially found daunting. Luckily, Stephen Hawking himself was very generous with the film, talking to Redmayne before it went into production; and as Hawking’s condition is now very different to what it was during the 1960-70s, Redmayne also spent considerable time figuring out aspects of his physical performance – specifcally how to represent the different stages of Hawking’s condition – through working with choreographer Alex Reynolds. “The actor has a duty to understand the life of the person he’s playing, which in Stephen’s case obviously involves understanding the physicality of this progressive disability,” says Marsh. “And Eddie invested himself so much into realising that. He did that in a very careful way – he created a plot, a handwritten chart of every scene as to what he could and couldn’t do physically; that was immensely helpful to all of us.”

 

Of course, Redmayne couldn’t have successfully performed this film alone – Jane’s experience of their life together is just as vital to The Theory of Everything as Stephen’s; and Felicity Jones brings to the screen an emotional stamina and capacity for nuance that is all her own. I read somewhere recently that films that celebrate the genius of individual men too readily do it at the expense of turning their wives or girlfriends into 2-dimensional “help-meet” types. The Theory of Everything respectfully avoids this trap, and Jones’s performance of a complex woman whose ability to love transcends all strain and heartbreak is ethereally powerful. Was Jones, like Redmayne, always the main contender for the role? “Actually, we cast Eddie first, and then brought in Jane to cast opposite him,” Marsh tells me. “When we had them reading against each other, that’s when we saw something very exciting – this pairing of two young, ambitious, talented actors. I think that showed through – they brought out the best in one another.”

 

Jones as Jane Wilde, in one of her most demanding scenes.
Jones as Jane Wilde, in one of her most demanding scenes.

 

He is full of high praise for the rest of the cast, too, who were required to also perform as real-life individuals. Charlie Cox stands out for his turn as gentle choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones. And Marsh gives particular praise to established actors David Thewlis and Maxine Peake: “Maxine plays Stephen Hawking’s second wife – she has a lot of resemblance to the real Elaine, and she represents something very different to Jane in the latter part of Stephen’s life. David Thewlis doesn’t look an awful lot like the real Professor Sciama [Hawking’s mentor in the early days of his career], but obviously he’s a very fine actor. Their roles had a lot more space for interpretation than the leads, which requires its own kind of discipline, and they played with that admirably.”

 

*****

 

To conclude our interview, I tell James Marsh I hope The Theory of Everything wins some awards. He tells me humbly that he hopes it does too. But although I’m sure it will, I think it probably matters very little whether or not the film wins Oscars or Golden Globes. It has has already achieved so many things: it is beautifully resonant, hopeful, and tributes real love in a way the cinema screen sometimes forgets it can capture. The Theory of Everything is a vision of luminosity, and – much like Hawking’s scientific endeavours – in conceding that we can never account for everything in life, it wins a dazzling amount.

 

*The Theory Of Everything is released in the UK on New Year’s Day (Jan 1).