Director James Marsh on Stephen Hawking and the Scientist as Hero

The Theory of Everything isn’t a movie about theoretical physics, but it’s not not a movie about theoretical physics.

On some level, it seems impossible to dramatize Stephen Hawking’s life on the big screen. For much of his life, the theoretical physicist has suffered from motor neuron disease, which has confined him to a wheelchair and halting his motion and speech. His scientific ideas are complex and don’t necessarily lend themselves movies that aren’t directed by Errol Morris. But British director James Marsh proved up to the task in The Theory of Everything, which chronicles Hawking’s marriage to Jane Wilde from the sixties to the mid-nineties. The film, in theaters now, features a mind-blowing performance from Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and a subtle, affecting turn by Felicity Jones.

The film was both the latest and the most extreme example of what appears to be a new genre of movie: the genius nerd biopic. Other examples include The Imitation Game, The Social Network, The Zero Theorem and half of Interstellar. The proto-example would be 2001’s A Beautiful Mind. With Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs flick due out, well, eventually, the trend doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere so, in this spirit of inquiry, Maxim spoke to Marsh about visually translating the work of men misunderstood in their own time.

When you came onto this movie, how familiar were you with Stephen Hawking’s life and work?

I was familiar with his life to a certain extent, although I wasn’t really aware of his early life, which is where the screenplay starts. I had a general sense of an extraordinary man with great scientific achievements who had this ability to overcome. And in the U.K. he’s a big public figure and has been that way for a long time. So I came to it with that broad knowledge but no specific knowledge about the story the screenplay was addressing, which was a useful thing in a way.

Did you communicate with Stephen or Jane when you began working on the film?

Yes. I met with Jane several times. She spent some time with me in Cambridge, where she still lives, and was able to give me a very interesting tour of Cambridge. She single-handedly made Cambridge into a more disabled-friendly environment. In the late sixties, we weren’t so sensitive and she was able to point out how difficult it was to get Stephen from A to B, with kids in tow as well. It was very useful to understand her daily burdens. We had much more limited contact with Stephen. We showed him the screenplay. We really wanted to get his approval, rather than his input or active involvement. He was fine with the idea of the film. And then when the film was almost done I went to show it to him, which was a terrifying experience, as you can imagine.

You wait quite a long time for his reaction because of the way he communicates. That was even more nerve-wracking. But in fact he was very generous about the film. In his words, it was “broadly true.” And that’s not bad.

How do you successfully make a scientist into a leading man?

At first glance, I think a dramatic film isn’t the best place to engage in the complexity of his ideas. What you want to try and do is simplify them so we can all have some sense of what his scientific inquiries were. And they were focused on black holes in his early part of his career. So we try and visualize that. One of the aspect of Jane’s tour of Cambridge was that she took me to the house where they were living when they were first married. One of his first major breakthroughs as a scientist was to discover the radiation leak from a black hole. She showed me the bedroom where he announced this in his pajamas. He just had an idea. We had it like that in the film and I think some reviewers felt that it was an elaborate fantasy of ours, but, in fact, it was true. I always remembered Isaac Newton being hit on the head with an apple and having ideas about gravity – that felt like the level at which I could offer some of Stephen’s ideas. Simple, visual ideas.

How much of a challenge is it to have your leading man also confined to a wheelchair and unable to move for much of the movie?

You have to embrace it. And the burden of that fell on Eddie Redmayne; how to dramatize a progressive illness over the timeline of a story where that illness is constantly mutating for the worse. My job was to supervise that, to make sure it was the right kind of progression and the details were right. A relationship is about communication and as the film progresses Eddie had to really embrace that and show with very minimal gestures what Stephen is thinking and feeling. He did it extraordinarily well. At a certain point the communication does break down for that couple and his voice becomes a commentary on that. You can see that thematically.

The Imitation Game is also in theaters and it’s also the story of a brilliant thinker. Is there a reason we’re interested in this sort of story right now?

Well, I haven’t seen The Imitation Game so I can’t speak to it in any sort of detail with any confidence. But I think both these life stories are about scientific achievement, but they’re also about the human cost of it and the relationships around it. That’s a very promising area for dramatic inquiry: the human aspects of great scientific discovery and scientific thinking. It’s hard to bring that to screen in a way that’s true to the complexity of those ideas, but at the same time the human drama around them, in both instances, is very compelling. That may be one reason. But it might be a coincidence that two films come out around the same time dealing with brilliant British thinkers.

Does making a romantic movie help to humanize an almost superhuman person and his superhuman life?

There are many stories to be told about Stephen’s life – it’s an extraordinary life. And this isn’t really the biopic of Stephen Hawking. It’s a portrait of a relationship of marriage. And therefore you have two protagonists, two points of view. Two equal people in the film, Stephen’s character and Jane’s character. That’s what drew me to the screenplay. 

Photos by Focus Features