James Marsh is best known for his award-winning documentaries–Man on Wire, the story of Philippe Petit’s daredevil tightrope walk between the Twin Towers; and Project Nim, about an academic experiment in which a chimp is raised by a family on the Upper West Side. They are films that rely on raw, factual footage and much painstaking labor both in terms of research and filming. As Marsh says, “With documentaries, there’s no real time frame. You feel like you’re never quite finished. As a director you still want to re-cut or re-shoot things. Project Nim took me nearly three years.”
Marsh’s latest project was a much more efficient affair, production-wise. The Theory of Everything, the story of the relationship between cosmologist and A Brief History of Time author Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane, is a dramatic feature that Marsh shot in about 10 months. It is a lush, poetic piece that allowed Marsh to play with cinematography and visual abstraction in a way that doesn’t apply to documentary filmmaking. Still, the research and prep that went into making the film–which stars Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane–was in many ways no different than the process Marsh goes through with his docs. There were reams of archival photographs and family films that Marsh and Redmayne pored over in order to capture the emotional spirit and physical disability of Hawking, who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease while he was a budding intellectual at Cambridge.
“We were looking for clues,” Marsh says. “Clues about what people wear, what the house that Stephen and Jane lived in looked like. In Stephen’s case, looking for how Eddie could inhabit his disability across 20 years. That became his great burden–to understand that and internalize that.”
Marsh went on to map out for Co.Create just how he pieced together the puzzle of the Hawkings and their marriage, using the limited resources he had at his disposal. Although the film is based on Jane’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, Marsh only met with her a handful of times at her home in Cambridge. His interactions with Stephen were even more limited. And so he dove into everything else that was available–old photographs and documents; documentary films about Hawking; and Hawking’s seminal work, in order to solve his mystery.
“Obviously, Jane’s book was a great starting point to understanding the bigger point, and to see what you’re leaving out,” Marsh says. “Then I went to A Brief History of Time, which he wrote for us, for a general readership. If you apply yourself you really can absorb a lot of his ideas distilled in quite an accessible way.
“I also looked at Errol Morris’s documentary film, A Brief History of Time, which I found extraordinarily useful. Stephen’s in that film and you can see where his disability is at that point. When I saw that film, I was kind of relieved that he’d done the film, which some people accuse me of not doing, which is a film about science and Stephen’s biography. It’s a great film, a great documentary, but the film I’ve made is a very different proposition and should be approached that way. It’s not a biography of Stephen. It’s really trying to understand something equally kind of of difficult and ineffable which is how people relate to each other given the kind of obstacles and reversals of fortunes you find in marriage. And that had its own equally interesting mystery.”
The collection of archival photographs of the Hawkings was perhaps Marsh’s greatest gift when it came to recreating the icon on film, particularly the photographs of the scholar as a young student.
“There was one key photograph that we found–there are not many of Stephen when he was a young man. It’s one where he’s the coxswain of a boat–you see that in the film. And there’s a moment after a race when a group of Cambridge students are all drinking. Stephen is really making an exhibition of himself in that shot. That gave us a clue to the endless mischief of the character and the humor of the character.
“Eddie caught a gesture from that photograph that he used on the carousel as we were shooting the May Ball scene and Stephen is standing up in a proud way with his arm hanging out. That was directly from that photograph.
“The second photograph we looked at that was really, really useful was a wedding photograph. There were all kinds of clues in that photograph. For instance, the way Stephen’s hands were holding his walking stick–Eddie got that straight away and used that throughout that part of the film. And also the fact that he had two sticks told us something about where he was at with his disability at that point. He’s using two sticks on his wedding day. He must have absolutely needed them, because you put your best foot forward on your wedding day and Stephen was using two sticks there. And also his body is arched over a little bit, and yet still he’s smiling.
“In almost every archive and piece of film we found, he’s smiling. And that kind of gave us an idea that Stephen’s sort of self-irony, if you like, about his condition is always there. So that gave Eddie an idea to use a smile more often than perhaps another character would.”
Although Stephen Hawking gave Marsh and his team his blessing to make the film, Marsh says he “wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about it” and was not involved in the making of the movie. Hawking did visit the set once, however, and Marsh showed him the film when it was completed “in case there were things he really objected to.” The director says the meetings were very informative in terms of understanding the man he was recreating on film.
“It’s such an unusual encounter because of the nature of how he communicates and how difficult it is to have a conversation,” says Marsh. (Hawking lost the ability to speak and communicates through a speech synthesizer.) “You say something and you have to wait quite a long time to get an answer. There’s no real protocol for this. So you sort of babble on as you wait for an answer.
“But you know you’re in the presence of someone who’s extraordinarily intelligent. Also someone who’s very mischievous and witty. Most of the things he will say to you are sort of wry observations or witticisms. So I think we got that right in the film. We don’t wallow in the sadness of it all, we try to pick up on characters and how they dealt with it all with great fortitude and humor.”