Movies and TV

Recreating the Life of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

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The Theory of Everything tells a very personal story about a man most of us only know as a scientific legend: Stephen Hawking.

Sure, The Theory of Everything already has award season buzz, but we’re more interested in the truth behind the love story presented on screen. The filmmakers went to great lengths to condense 25 years of Hawking’s life into a single film (take that, Peter Jackson) with accuracy both to Hawking’s life and his condition. Sure, there’s some cinematic slight of hand to make it all fit into 2 hours of screentime, but it takes less license than you’d expect.

So if you’re interested in finding out more about the man behind the science — and the filmmakers behind the film — check out our interview with producer Lisa Bruce, who gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how The Theory of Everything was made.

Q: What was the draw to making a film about Hawking’s life?
For me, as a woman, I was quite intrigued by the fact that it was one of the few projects I read where the female role was as powerful as the male role, as layered and complex and interesting. That’s a rare thing to find in theatrical film. I also had a really public image of Stephen Hawking. I knew of him like most people did and I wasn’t really tracking his personal life. I knew he was the incredible Einstein of our time. He’s the guy that’s handicapped in the wheelchair with the electronic voice. I knew that he was British and I knew that he had some breakthrough theories in theoretical physics, but that was about it.

I never knew that he fathered three children or that he had this long relationship. I never really visualized him as an able-bodied young man just dating and wandering around campus like the script portrayed. I thought it was really moving to see the long arc of that life and to realize he had struggles that we all have. And Stephen and Jane’s big huge mountain to climb: committing to each other and going through this journey was really moving to me.

Q: Was it a challenge to get the film made as a personal story about Stephen and Jane, rather than a story about the scientist that the public is more aware of?
Anthony [screenwriter Anthony McCarten] and I worked alone and as a team for many years. I read an early draft of The Theory of Everything six years ago. Anthony at that point only had what he called a “shopping agreement” with Jane [Hawking, on whose memoirs the film is based], which was a loose document that allowed him to go out in the world and talk about the project — but he didn’t have the underlying rights to her book. When I came aboard, just because I’d produced a lot of movies, I knew we would need the bona-fide rights to the book. We spent the next three, three and a half years walking her through that process and gaining her trust.

In that time we were able to keep tweaking the script, working on the relationship and the love story of it and balancing it between Jane and Stephen. But then we also went to James Marsh [the film’s director] prior to going out to financiers. So we had the rights and a really good script and a great director by the time we went to Working Title. So it wasn’t that hard at that point. I think if we had gone earlier in the process and maybe just had a script but didn’t have the rights a lot of people might have wanted to skew it more towards Stephen. But I think once they read Anthony’s version and felt the emotion in it, a lot of people really wanted to make that story.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about the process about transforming the original book into the finished film?
It’s an incredibly daunting process. Anthony walked the longest path: about ten years ago he knocked on her [Jane’s] door. He gained trust with her — and many cups of tea and glasses of sherry later, she let him write a draft screenplay.

When I read his early draft, we worked in tandem to keep reshaping it while we got the rights. As filmmakers, we were trying to make a slightly more balanced story. Jane’s memoir is very unflinching, and we needed to bring in a little of Stephen’s perspective. In prep we got to meet with him and he got to read the script. He was involved in prep and gave us some of his artifacts, like the medal of around his neck when meets with the queen, and that’s his thesis you see in the film with the shaky signature.

We were walking that tightrope not just in the script process but all the way through prep and casting and every creative decision that was made. James would tell you the same: he was walking a tightrope to show the messier and the more real parts of their lives as well as the tragic parts. Anthony takes the right amount of license, I think, because he’s trying to condense a 25-year journey into 2 hours. There’s decisions that were made in doing that and I think most of them were trying to balance and honor both of their lives.

Q: What about casting? Was it a particular challenge to get the right people to portray a well-known, real-life figure like Hawking?
It’s really daunting to cast Stephen because you need an actor who’s young enough to play him as a young man, but also has the acting chops, the acting gravitas, the acting experience and talent to be able to carry him all the way into his late 40s — and be able to convey that slow degradation of the body and the voice and the movement.

Eddie [Redmayne] was always on Anthony and I’s shortlist. It was a painfully short list because we wanted the actor to be British for all the obvious reasons, and we needed him to be in that age range, and to have a body frame that would work, and then obviously have the ability. Eddie had the ability which he had evidenced on stage and in film. We put a lot of actors’ faces next to Stephen Hawking’s faces at different stages and we had the added benefit of Eddie actually having features that were like Stephen’s. Working Title had a long history of working with Eddie and couldn’t say anything but great things about him. Eddie’s enthusiasm was just overwhelming. He’d already educated himself on Stephen and he had so much energy and excitement to play it. He’ll tell you that as soon he got the phone call that he was cast he had about one minute of elation and then absolute, total fear. It’s just such a daunting role. Roles like that don’t come along very often in anyone’s lifetime.

I would say casting Jane was equally daunting because it’s such a two-handed story. It’s really both of them all the way through and Jane even more so near the end because Stephen is so debilitated. They both had to work equally as well or you really wouldn’t have a movie. Felicity was also on a very short list for all the same reasons: acting ability and look and age and British. What was interesting to me about Felicity was I’d seen her in Like Crazy and found her performance to be so natural. It felt spontaneous; you never felt like you knew where she was going to go with something and that made a very compelling case for all of us.

And then when we saw them together… The one thing I don’t think you can cast is chemistry and they just had it. They had the chemistry, they created the chemistry. They had never worked together before but they trained under some of the same people in London and had very high respect for each other, so that helped a lot. If you’re making a love story and don’t have that chemistry on the screen, you don’t really have anything. I think we all felt like “wow, we just won the lotto” when we saw them together.

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Q: How accurately does the film portray Hawking’s condition throughout?
His condition is portrayed incredibly accurately, as accurately as anyone could map out. We collected every bit of footage and all the still photography that existed of Stephen in all the different stages. Stephen, after he was diagnosed, didn’t really go to doctors a lot because he was frustrated by the medical experience. So he didn’t have any one doctor that Eddie could ring up and say “let’s walk through the process.”

What Eddie had to do was go off all the photos and footage that we could find and then he met with a specialist in motor neuron disease. That specialist mapped with him what was happening to Stephen’s body through all the different photos, in all the different stages. Then Eddie made this incredibly detailed roadmap, if you will.

He worked with a choreographer, dance instructor, to get his body and his muscles in shape so he could be in all these different movements and positions at all the different stages in Stephen’s life. He mapped that all out so that we were all able to just go in, as filmmakers, and shoot the emotion of the scene. He was never playing the disease, he was always playing the emotion.

Stephen, when he finally saw the film, said that at times he thought that Eddie was him; he sort of lost track of it. All of his family members have said that. They really were impressed with his smile because it’s so much like Stephen’s smile, which really captivates you when you meet him because he still has facial expression. You really see Stephen in Eddie when he does that.

Q: In the finished product, everything flows smoothly, but it couldn’t have been filmed in sequence — how was the progression of showing Hawking’s condition managed?
For about two weeks of prep, James and Eddie and I were trying to work out a schedule where we actually could shoot in continuity, in order. It just became apparent that it would be impossible because we would have had to go in and out of locations so many times that we would have lost a lot of shooting time. Once we sort of faced the brutal reality… Eddie really did it with that map of Stephen Hawking’s physical arc, the changes in his physical body and the changes in his speech. It was all mapped out.

One day he had to play as many as three different periods in Stephen’s life. On days like that, we would try to shoot the things that were less actor-heavy and would be more visual, like one would be him going across campus as an older Stephen in the electric wheelchair without him having to do a scene with Felicity. We tried to break it up in that sense, but it was mostly Eddie’s map and prep and knowing exactly what he had to be doing at any moment so he could go in and out of these vastly different periods.

Q: Any memories of Stephen on set?
Stephen really does have this electric/rock star persona and presence to him. I remember the first time he came on set, we were filming the scene where Jane and Stephen were at their school’s formal dance. It was outdoors and the scene called for fireworks. It was nighttime when Stephen arrived, and as he crossed the set he was uplit by his computer screen on his wheelchair, so there was this magical glow to him, which was followed immediately by the fireworks. It was quite spectacular.

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Q: What do Stephen and Jane think about the finished product?
We showed it to Jane and Jonathan in a private screening. Jonathan figures quite prominently in the film and they are still married. Jane was involved in more of the script development early on. She’s seen different versions of the script and also she had certain scenes in her mind that we ended up cutting for various reasons. Showing her was daunting because she had a lot of different films in her head when she came to see it. She was very, very moved. The lights came up and her one response to it was “I feel like I’m walking on air.” I think she imagined it to be a little bit smaller and more documentary-like than it is and was surprised by how moved she was by watching someone else play her, which has to be the most surreal experience.

We had a private screening for Stephen and his attendants, his nurses and assistants. The lights came up and he was crying, a nurse was dabbing tears from his eyes. We’d all say that’s the biggest award we’ll get in this whole process. Stephen’s quite honest, in all ways. He will tell you exactly what he thinks, and he recently said it was surprisingly honest about their marriage, which was a big honor.

When he’d seen the film, one of the first things he said to us was “Would you like to use my actual voice?” We had used an approximation of his electronic voice which isn’t very hard to do — it sounds a bit like an answering machine. But Stephen’s actual electronic voice is copywritten, and no one else can actually use it. It has a very specific, slightly odd cadence. There’s no other sound but that, and when you hear it you know that’s Stephen Hawking. So we of course said yes and sent him all the dialog, post-tracheotomy on. He re-recorded it through his synthesizer on his computer. Our editor actually had to re-edit a little bit of the film because the rhythm of the speech was a little different, so she had to pull frames and add frames here and there to adjust for that.

Q: What was the biggest challenge of bringing this story to the big screen?
Early when I was pitching it, some companies said, “Have you thought about finishing the film when they’re still married?” I think people wanted more of a Hollywood, “put it in a box with a bow on it” ending. We never had that intention — we always wanted to be able to show the many layers and even the messiness and the complications. We thought that was what was so inspirational about their love story, that it lasted as long as it did and they had three children and survived an impossible challenge. What was great about Working Title was they never had that concept, they always loved the energy and all the different layers. They supported us from the get-go and helped us improve the script in the same way that James and Anthony and I all wanted. That challenge was sort of resolved when we found Working Title.

I would say that one of the biggest challenges was making a story about such a long span of time. Imitation Game and some other movies coming out cover 2- or 3- or 4-year periods, but we’re a 25-year look at a life. To do that in two hours with people that are still alive and to honor them but also show some darker sides of their lives is quite a tightrope to walk. It’s quite a thin tightrope. I think that James and Anthony really handled that amazingly well in terms of modulating that journey.


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