How 'Theory of Everything' Screenwriter (Finally) Convinced Stephen Hawking's Ex-Wife to Let Him Adapt Her Memoir
After 10 years of revisions, Anthony McCarten's adaptation of Jane Hawking's memoir is hitting the big screen, with not-first-choice actor Eddie Redmayne delivering a performance that for now has some saying "frontrunner"
This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In screenwriting, as in astrophysics, inspiration sometimes comes in an epiphany.
"It was one of those eureka moments," recalls New Zealand screenwriter Anthony McCarten of the exact instant, 10 years ago, when he decided to write The Theory of Everything. He'd been reading Jane Hawking's memoir about her three-decade marriage to Stephen Hawking, Music to Move the Stars (later reprinted in the U.S. as Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen), when suddenly it hit him. "I can't tell you the page number at which I decided I had to insinuate myself in the lives of these people," he says. "But I thought, 'If you don't do this, you will always regret it.' "
So he bought a train ticket from London to Cambridge, where Jane Hawking was living, and showed up at her doorstep unannounced. He described for her the film he wanted to make of her memoir. He told her how, back when he was a young playwright in the late 1980s (before he started writing small, prize-winning movies such as Show of Hands and Death of a Superhero), he had read and reread Stephen's A Brief History of Time, hoping the book might help him someday "leave this planet with at least a little understanding of how it all came to be." In short, he laid it on thicker than the gravity field of a black hole.
Jane politely declined to sell him the option to her book. And kept declining, no matter how many times he came back to her, year after year.
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But in filmmaking, as in astrophysics, when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force, the results can be surprising. And in a cosmic-scale demonstration of the awesome power of stick-to-itiveness, McCarten's adaptation of Jane's memoir finally arrived in theaters Nov. 7 amid a flurry of Oscar buzz. Eddie Redmayne, the 32-year-old British actor who stars as the world's most famous living astrophysicist (and ALS sufferer; for decades, Stephen, now 72, has been able to communicate only with the help of a synthesized voice generated by a computer on his wheelchair), is a frontrunner for best actor. Felicity Jones, 31, who plays Jane, his long-suffering wife (they divorced in 1995), is being discussed as a likely best actress nominee. James Marsh, a filmmaker best known for documentaries (including the Oscar-winning Man on Wire) has a shot at best director. And, of course, McCarten himself, the man who spent the better part of a decade laboring to bring Jane's story to the screen — battling her reluctance and answering her concerns with billions and billions (or at least dozens and dozens) of spec script revisions before she finally agreed to allow the movie to be made — is a contender for a best adapted screenplay nod.
"If you'd told me at the beginning that it would take this long," says McCarten, "I'd have been very discouraged. Looking back, though, the film has found the right constellation of people."
Jane Hawking, who hasn't given any interviews about the filming of her memoir — isn't herself an astrophysicist (she's got a Ph.D. in medieval Spanish poetry). But McCarten spent a lot of time and effort making sure the science was absolutely spot-on in the spec scripts he sent her during his campaign to convince her to let him film her story. He forwarded copies to a former student of Stephen's, a professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College in London, to make sure there were no mistakes in the egghead jargon. McCarten's background studying poetry in college turned out to be helpful in constructing some of the film's scientific metaphors — a swirl of cream in coffee to illustrate a black hole, or peas and potatoes to demonstrate the difference between quantum mechanics and general relativity theory. But Jane found other problems. In one early draft, she objected to the music being played during the party scene where she and Stephen first met in 1963. McCarten had the Rolling Stones' "Time Is On My Side" on the turntable. Jane pointed out that the song wouldn't be released until the following year.
Eventually, though, after exchanging notes and revisions for eight years, her resistance began to soften. "It wasn't like she was making sure the script was the one she wanted," says McCarten. "It was more like she was growing into a place where she was comfortable with anyone making a film about her."
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Once Jane was on board, selling the script to a studio took all of one day. McCarten already had a producer interested in the project, Lisa Bruce (who made the Hilary Swank malaria drama Mary and Martha, which aired in 2013 on HBO and the BBC), and, in 2012, Bruce sent McCarten's pages to Eric Fellner, co-chairman of Working Title, the company behind such Oscar-friendly biographical fare as Frost/Nixon and Rush. In less time than it takes to fly from L.A. to London, they had an offer. "It took eight years to get an 11-hour response," notes Bruce wryly. Finding the right director had taken a little longer, but Marsh had two qualifications that made him a good choice. His talent as a documentarian would come in handy on a film in which the complexities of astrophysics needed to be translated for an audience without doctorate degrees, but he also had experience directing a drama with a strong female lead (2012's Shadow Dancer). "It's a very different perspective than the one you often have of Stephen," explains Marsh of why he was attracted to McCarten's script. "It's a wife's point of view, a woman's perspective. That was something I felt confident about as a filmmaker."
That left only one last challenge: finding the right actors to play Stephen and Jane. Redmayne, it turns out, was not Working Title's first choice. They didn't think the little-known star (whose biggest credit was Les Miserables) would be the right fit to play the greatest scientific mega-genius since Albert Einstein. But then, remembers Fellner, Redmayne's agent at CAA, Josh Lieberman, called and "beat me into submission." Fellner had Marsh give Redmayne a call to get his opinion of the actor, and that sealed the deal. "I think we bonded over our fear, really," says Redmayne of their conversation. "We realized that we were going to be jumping off a cliff and would quite like to do it together."
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For Redmayne, that cliff dive involved not just his character's 30 years of aging through the film but also the withering of his body and posture as Stephen's disease took its course (production designer John Paul Kelly helped by building bigger and bigger wheelchairs so that the 5-foot-11 actor would appear to shrink in them). He worked with a dance instructor to teach him how to replicate ("inhabit" is the word Redmayne prefers) Hawking's movements. "I'd spend weeks in front of the mirror — hoping nobody was behind me — trying to isolate muscles that I hadn't used before," he says. Felicity Jones had it slightly easier, though Redmayne did throw her some curves during her audition. Instead of reading his own dialogue, he fed his character's words into the voice notes app on his smartphone and answered Jones' lines with his phone's synthesized voice. "All of Stephen's communication is what he can do facially, the specifics of the words he chooses and when he presses play," explains Redmayne.
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Filming on the $15 million production began in September 2013 in Cambridge, England, with the scene set at the May Ball, where Stephen and Jane dance, have their first kiss and fall in love. It involved 250 extras in period costume, a carousel, elaborate lighting on strings designed by cinematographer Benoit Delhomme and fireworks (the producers had budgeted only three takes' worth). As if the atmosphere wasn't tense enough during the shooting of that first scene, Stephen Hawking decided to visit the set. "It was dark and beautiful, and then Stephen arrived, silhouetted in his chair," describes Redmayne of that moment. "He was spotlit by his screen [on his wheelchair computer], and on cue, the fireworks went off. It was the greatest entrance I have ever seen in my life."