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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

The Theory of Everything

by director James Marsh

I somewhat reluctantly picked up the script for The Theory of Everything. I was expecting a biopic of the disabled, brilliant British physicist, Stephen Hawking, told in broad, uplifting strokes, as a great mind triumphs over disability. I knew that I wouldn't be the right person to bring that story to life—but I try and read at least 25 pages of any script that I am sent and so I reckoned I would be done with this one in about 30 minutes. It is now 18 months later and I am finally done with it.

We haven't made a biographical film about Stephen Hawking—the script that Anthony McCarten wrote and sent to me was the portrait of a relationship, a marriage between two strong, single-minded people, one of whom happened to be a genius suffering from an appalling, debilitating illness. This was a love story in a very strange and intriguing environment. And like the script, the film gives equal voice to both partners—who supported each other and inflicted hurts on each other during a long, complicated relationship.

The most significant choice I made in the film, like in every other, was in the casting of actors, though the stakes felt much higher this time around. Stephen is an iconic presence in our culture, and most of us have a pretty good idea of what he looks like—and the obvious fact that he doesn't really look like most of us. If the performance struck one bum note anywhere in the film, the film itself wouldn't survive it. So I met Eddie Redmayne, whom I knew had an abundance of talent but had never carried a film of this weight before. During the meeting, he drank a lot more beer than I was expecting—and I saw not only a burning passion to play Stephen but also the right amount of trepidation, which would account for the beer.

It took months and months of preparation, but Eddie became Stephen Hawking across 25 years of inexorable physical decline. On any given day as we filmed, he might be an able-bodied young student, a newly married man struggling with two walking sticks, or a middle-aged man slumped mutely in a wheel chair, barely able to move a finger. The best compliment I can pay him is via Stephen Hawking himself who declared that at some points in the film he thought he was watching himself. He was so taken with Eddie's performance that he offered us the use of his signature electronic voice—so the voice you hear in the movie is his.

This is all well and good but if the other party in this complex love story wasn't able to dance exquisitely in step with Eddie and capture an equal sympathy from an audience very much inclined to sympathize with his character, the film wouldn't work either. Felicity Jones did her own intensive preparation—understanding what it entailed to care for someone in Stephen's condition and the frustrations that come with it. As Eddie mastered the physicality of the role, so did Felicity, uncannily in tune with her partner's body and what it could and couldn't do.

Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme and I wanted to make a visually beautiful film around these performances—using a rich, intense palette of colours and light, taking our cue from Stephen's own good humour and Jane's warmth and optimism in the face of their tribulations. Contriving a gritty and dour realism to convey a disability would have been too obvious and too phony in that context—suiting neither the characters nor the world they lived in.

We have also tried to shine some of our light on to Stephen's scientific ideas—inspired by Isaac Newton and his apple and Archimedes and his bath tub as much as the daunting mathematical language of theoretical physics. The science is at my level of understanding—in the hope that I am as smart (or as dumb) as you are. So I ask forgiveness if I underestimated you—and can only point you in the direction of Errol Morris's excellent film A Brief History of Time for further enlightenment. And yet the biggest mystery in our film lies not in the scientific realm but in the inexplicable workings of the human heart. No Theory of Everything for that.