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Just a year after The Theory of Everything made a rather dramatic splashdown in Toronto, another biopic about a renowned scientific mind who would triumph over immense odds in British academia is hoping to do the same.
Set a good half century earlier, The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian mathematics genius who would rise from poverty to earn a position at Cambridge University’s esteemed Trinity College and put his name on a series of groundbreaking theories that still play an important role in modern day scientific research. His life was tragically cut short through illness and he died in 1920 at just 32.
Although director Matthew Brown says The Theory of Everything and The Man Who Knew Infinity are “very different films,” (with his being “much smaller”) he’s optimistic that the success of The Theory of Everything will help open up more opportunities for Infinity.
“I hope it awakens audiences that there are these incredible stories in this world of science to be told, and that they’re human stories,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “In that sense, if someone liked Theory of Everything and like the human story and were intrigued by it… maybe our story is actually a little more focused on the work, but there’s also a very human story at the center of it.”
But despite Infinity landing some 12 months after The Theory of Everything, it transpires that the The Man Who Knew Infinity’s production was a far longer journey.
“It’s about 10 years in the making for me, it’s just unbelievable to be speaking to someone who has actually seen the film, it blows my mind,” says Brown, whose only previous feature as director was the 2000 rom-com Ropewalk.
Having read the 1991 biography of the same name by Robert Kanigel, he went to Ed Pressman, who loved the project and brought on board fellow producers Sofia Sondervan and then Jim Young.
“But this must have been 8-9 years ago,” Brown says.
Brown explains that he had trouble finding financing due to the story, calling it one of the “most difficult films you can try to make.”
“First of all, it’s a period piece. Secondly, it’s about a mathematician, an Indian mathematician at the turn of the century,” Brown says. “There’s an Indian as the lead. And there’s not much of a love story apart from his wife being left behind [in India].”
That’s not to say potential backers didn’t try to amend the story to fit their preferences.
Brown explains: “One asked: ‘Why don’t you make him fall in love with one of the white nurses?’ I could do that, but then I couldn’t really live with myself.”
But when new Singapore/Australia-based banner Xeitgest and its co-founder and Infinity producer Joe Thomas came on board just a few years ago, the wheels on the film finally started moving forward at pace. Along the way, Brown admits that his main concern wasn’t the likes of The Theory of Everything stealing the scientific limelight (“it wasn’t really on my radar”) but other biopics about Ramanujan.
“At one point there were three or four competing projects,” he says. “I realized that it was in the zeitgeist. We were all just hoping that ours would be the first.”
One of the other projects that didn’t get made was being led by Stephen Fry, who Brown then invited to the join his cast.
“I knew how passionate Stephen was and I knew his film wasn’t getting made, so I reached out to him and asked if he would play a role in our film. He was so kind and generous, and so passionate about the story, that he said yes. It was so gracious of him, and then he had to fly all the way to Chennai to do it!”
For the lead, Brown turned to Dev Patel, the Slumdog Millionaire star who has since made a name for himself with projects like Chappie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and HBO’s The Newsroom.
“Ramanujan was a sort of large, awkward fellow, and Dev is all arms and legs, in a different way,” Brown says. “One of the very important things to me was that he had a lighter side to him. He’s tormented through so much of the film that you needed to see the more human, almost childlike side quality, and Dev has such a great quality with that.”
Patel would also work with Brown on the script for over a year, telling THR that he was “proud of it, because I helped bring it to screen a lot more that the other stuff that I’ve done.”
“He’s been a real partner with me on this film, I would have been lost without Dev,” adds Brown, who praises the whole team that helped bring his passion project to light after 10 years (twice as long as Ramanujan actually spent at Cambridge).
“We made this film under such constraints,” Brown says. “We didn’t get to do 10 takes, everyone had to be on their A-game. And they really did. They really took a huge chance with me as an unknown director, and they really brought it.”
The Man Who Knew Infinity has its world premiere in Toronto on Sept. 17.
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