“The Theory of Everything” is a film about the life and loves of Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist and cosmologist who wrote “A Brief History of Time.”
Hawking, played in the film by British actor Eddie Redmayne, was diagnosed with a form of Lou Gehrig’s disease just as he was finishing college and falling in love with his first wife, Jane, played in the film by Felicity Jones.
The film was directed by James Marsh, best known as director of the Oscar-winning documentary, "Man On Wire," and written by Anthony McCarten, based on Jane Hawking's memoir, "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen."
We caught up with Marsh at the Toronto Film Festival to talk about how he chose Redmayne for the role of Hawking and what it was like to screen the film for the famous physicist.
On Hawking seeing himself being portrayed:
We showed the film to Stephen just as it was being finished up, and I was incredibly nervous about that. It's a film about his personal life; it's not a biopic of Stephen Hawking, it's really a portrait of his marriage. But his reaction was really interesting: I think he was definitely moved by the film, and he said to us afterward that he felt it was broadly true, which — given the nature of the subject matter and given our focus in the film — that's a really nice thing to hear.
On the back of that screening he offered us his voice to use, because at that point in the process we were using a voice we created ourselves, so the voice you hear in the film is in fact Stephen's signature electronic voice, which made a very big difference, to me in how the film actually felt. It was the last thing we did on the film, creatively, was to add Stephen's voice, so that felt like an endorsement in the form of a gift, in a way.
On how the film will give audiences insight into Hawking's personal life:
When I read the script, that was the great discovery I made. I had an idea of Stephen's career, his achievements, his book, and the fact that he was a public figure with a devastating illness. So when I read the script, I found out so much I didn't know about his personal life, and it felt to me to be a very interesting perspective to focus on. And it gave you some insight into his scientific career. But ... it's a very interesting and complex emotional story, and there are other parties that come into this marriage and it gets really quite complicated.
On how his experience working in documentaries informed the shooting of this film:
I think you've landed on exactly how I did it. We sort of create this idea of home movies, or archive film, that actually signified time-jumps instead of putting up a timecard saying, Four years later. I wanted to create this intimate view on Stephen's family life, and Jane's family life, and the children that come along in those sequences, so we shot those very freely, like a documentary. I staged things and just let them happen over 15-to-20 minutes of observational filmmaking, so that definitely comes from a documentary background where you know the archive has a certain power to it.
Those are shot on 16mm film, and we didn't expose them correctly, so there's a kind of an intimate feeling you get of family interactions in a very natural way. Before we shot the film, I brought this family together and we spent days being a family together — playing with the kids, jumping on Eddie's wheelchair and taking it for a ride. And that all helped the kids be very natural in these sequences. There's something about that that helps the film have a verisimilitude about it, too, hopefully.
On choosing Eddie Redmayne to play Hawking:
There's a great generation of young British actors out there, and it's delightful for me as a British filmmaker to know that. But Eddie was someone that we fixed on really quite early on. I was just blown away by his passion to do this, but also by his sense of responsibility to the role and what it would entail. He was very scared, and rightly so, but we used that fear to do the work we needed to do, and he then put in months and months and months of incredibly detailed physical preparation on a daily basis. And I was privy to a lot of that. He met people with [Motor Neuron Disease], he worked with a series of voice and movement coaches, every single day, for months and months and months.
Also he has a nice physical resemblance to the young Stephen Hawking: they're both tall and wiry characters with the same kind of coloring, and that was just helpful as a bonus. It was Eddie's talent that I was after, and my job really was to support his preparation, and to give him confidence. I truly believed he could do this, but he didn't always think he could, and he would have days where he was defeated by what he was doing. I had to really support him and make him believe what I believed, which is that he could absolutely do this. And, you know, Eddie's performance is so physically difficult and demanding, but in fact that's just the starting point — it's the emotional life of the character that he's actually after.