The Stephen Hawking bio-pic, The Theory of Everything, based on ex-wife Jane Hawking’s book, will be released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital next week, so writer/producer Anthony McCarten took time out to give us the scoop of how he got to tell the life story of the smartest man on Earth.
What led you to Jane Hawking’s book in the first place? Was it just curiosity?
No, it was not. I had been thinking since 1989, when Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988) had come out, that this man and his ideas and the object lessons of his life would make an incredible movie. Someone was going to make it but almost certainly it would not be me. But the writer in me was going, ‘Ah, to be able to write for that voice and that character.’
Did you know much about his life prior to reading Jane Hawking’s book?
Everyone knew about Stephen Hawking. [He] was the heir to Albert Einstein and was iconographic. Einstein had this crazy hair. That was our image of scientists but here was a guy in a wheelchair who almost could not use a single voluntary muscle, speaking through a computer voice…writing at four words a minute and yet being considered the brightest guy on the planet. I thought, ‘My God, imagine writing a domestic scene? What would his marriage be like? What was breakfast like with the kids going off to school? How do the kids talk to you? How do you navigate all of that?’
Had you found much information on those domestic matters beforehand?
No, Stephen Hawking was on record as saying he did not really welcome any investigation of his private life. He said, ‘I want the focus to be on the science, not on my disability. Nothing interests me less than my disability. I am interested in big ideas,’ and so forth. That was his absolute right. But Jane Hawking opened a door on all that and only Jane could have done that.
When you were reading the book, was there a specific moment when you saw something that you knew would make it work as a screenplay?
Yeah, there was a certain point when Jane and Stephen Hawking’s lives were so unorthodox that they had to come up with some really unorthodox solutions. I am referring to the fact that they took in a friend who would help them, Jonathan Hellyer Jones, and their relationship triangulated. And there was an enormous forgiveness and understanding, mutually, between all three, where they were all straining themselves to make sure that no one got hurt.
It was a unit under enormous pressure, which was coming from outside in terms of fame, and it was coming from the practical demands on Jane, and also Stephen not welcoming outside help. It was round that area of the book that I thought, ‘I have to get these rights,’ because if I could take what I thought was incredibly brave and original thinking on the emotional front and fuse it with the incredible story of Stephen Hawking’s science and his fight with the ALS, we would have something really enormous.
Did you ever doubt the assertion that Stephen Hawking was okay with the Jonathan Hellyer Jones –Jane Hawking relationship when they were still together?
No, the way that Jane Hawking rendered every detail of that relationship in that book was unflinching, and I just trusted the voice. And everything about Jane’s personality that I perceived in the prose was borne out when I met her. She is not an exaggerator. If anything, she underestimates.
There are very few quotes in the whole book. It threw a pressure on me because I had to invent 95% of the dialogue and 50% of that had to come from the brightest guy on the planet. When she did quote something that happened, I believed it. Categorically. Stephen Hawking has seen the movie and he said that it is a surprisingly truthful depiction of his marriage.
Before filming began. I thought it was incumbent upon me, and the entire project, that we got Stephen Hawking’s blessing. I do not think that he was wild about the idea of the movie. He did not want an enquiry of his personal life and he knew that it was based on his ex-wife’s autobiography, and what man wants his story told by his ex-wife? But it is a mark of his intellectual honesty and bravery that he never asked for anything to be changed or taken out. Neither did Jane.
Having got to know Jane Hawking quite well, what did you particularly admire about Felicity Jones’ portrayal?
Felicity Jones walked a tightrope of conveying at the same time great fragility but enormous strength. Jane Hawking is someone who has a porcelain quality to her. She speaks very quietly and softly and it is very easy to underestimate her but she is a pocket battleship and an absolute dynamo. That quality is a tough thing to play and Felicity Jones really nailed that.
You are an experienced filmmaker, so did you ever think that the rug might get pulled from under your feet on this movie? It often happens…
Once we were with Working Title there was never a question, but in the years preceding that, we knocked on a whole lot of doors and people had crazy ideas, and strange casting ideas. Some people just wanted to do the first two romantic years at Cambridge and forget all about the wheelchair stuff because they said that nobody wants to see wheelchairs and computer voices.
We ask a lot of the audience, of their empathy and their switching of allegiances. Not every love story takes this unorthodox path. Yet the success of the movie and the actors and the performance and James Marsh’s (Director) work, is a tribute to the fact that in spite of the unorthodox nature of the love story, people say it has a happy ending.
The Theory of Everything will be released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital on 11 June 2015.
This is an edited version of the complete interview.