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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

The Aeronauts

by director Tom Harper

Several years ago, whilst I was filming “War & Peace” for the BBC, my friend and cinematographer George Steel mentioned that he had heard a historian on the radio promoting a book about some of the most remarkable of the early balloon flights. He suggested that it would be a great cinematic opportunity to shoot a film entirely set in the sky. So I bought the book, Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes, and immersed myself into the world of 19th century ballooning. One flight in particular caught my attention; in 1862, two men—James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell—went higher in a balloon than anyone had ever been: they rose to 36,000ft (the same as most airliners fly today), nearly perished in the thin air, and returned to earth with discoveries that would lead to the first scientific weather forecasts. To this day, they hold the record for the highest flight without supplementary oxygen. The facts of the flight, and many others, were astonishing, but most of all, I was inspired by the adventurers themselves, who went to such extreme lengths to expand our knowledge of the world.

Unfortunately, whilst culminating in an astonishing achievement, Coxwell and Glaisher barely spoke to each other for most of the journey, and though this helped in their meticulous data collection, it didn't make for especially emotional or dramatic storytelling… However, Holmes’ book contained a wealth of other incredible stories from early ballooning: airborne acrobatics, swarms of butterflies spotted thousands of feet in the air, tragic deaths, daring parachute descents… So writer Jack Thorne and I took the 1862 flight as a starting point, and then wove other true stories into it. Almost every event in the film really happened to someone in a balloon, it just didn’t all happen at the same time.

I wanted the journey into the sky to feel as naturalistic as possible, and as a result we shot some of the flight for real. We built a historically accurate, 100ft netted 19th century balloon, and sent Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones up into the skies above England. Their bravery and willingness to shoot some scenes in the air, and to do so much of their own stunt work throughout the shoot, still amazes me.

Throughout the shoot, the weather was at its most unpredictable: we saw everything from heatwaves to snowstorms to sudden downpours that threatened to swamp the set. Despite all the meteorological advances since the Victorian era, and the numerous weather apps that I consulted obsessively during a shoot, the sky remains uncontrollable. But that wildness brings with it a sense of potential; traveling within it makes you pay attention to every moment, and stay alive to the possibility of change. In that sense, it’s not unlike making a movie. And the act of ballooning contains lessons not just for film-making, but also for life. The weight of your possessions can stop you from flying. Choosing the right travel companion is vital. Bring a coat! Perhaps the most important, though, is this: no matter how diligently you prepare, there will come a time when you have to give yourself up to the wind, not knowing quite where you’ll land.

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