Bringing The Theory of Everything to life was rife with physical hurdles. More than a hundred locations on a 45-day shoot, including a week in Cambridge, meant the film couldn’t be shot in sequence. The decision had huge implications for stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who were tasked with portraying different parts of a 25-year time span of their real-life counterparts, Stephen and Jane Hawking, often in the course of the same day. Director James Marsh, who started in docs, was working on a scale larger than he was accustomed to. For producers Anthony McCarten and Lisa Bruce, one of the biggest challenges was expressing the scope of so many parts of the Hawkings’ relationship in such a finite amount of space. The result of the combined obstacles overcome? One of the strongest best picture contenders of the season with a Golden Globe best drama nomination already under its belt.
Anthony, you read Jane Hawking’s memoir in 2004 and started on the script. When did your involvement include producing?
Anthony McCarten: From the outset, I guess. The first producer-like obligation was to secure the rights to the book. I tried to do that in 2004 and continued to do it for the next eight years. Jane and her family had to grow into the idea, and it was simply something that couldn’t be rushed. It was eventually getting Jane to agree—I guess it was in about 2006—to give me a shopping agreement, which gave me exclusive rights to at least shop the idea around. I still didn’t have the underlying rights, but it allowed me to try and put a team together. So then it took me knocking on a lot of doors trying to find finances on my own. That was a lot harder than I thought it would be. There seemed to be a consensus that physics and disability were hardly the stuff of big box office. And the marketing blinded people, I thought, to the potential in the story. I just had to keep the faith and keep knocking. In 2009, my agent connected me with Lisa Bruce, who is also a client of my agent, and we joined forces.
Lisa Bruce: As a female producer, you read so many scripts where the female characters are just not as interesting, or their storylines aren’t as compelling as the males’, and they certainly aren’t as complicated in terms of the writing. I thought Anthony had gone quite far with that. Together, Anthony and I teased up the love story, which allowed Jane’s role to be even more played up.
What were the larger challenges?
McCarten: To Jane’s credit, she never tried to soften the story even when I added equal measures of Stephen’s perspective so that it was a balanced portrait… She wanted her caretaker’s story to be told and I guaranteed her that that was a large part of my interest as well. I had to find an original, tangential approach to dealing with a famous life and I can’t think of a precedent where you do that through the partner…. This is a writer question, but finding that balance is really one of the big challenges—to do it succinctly, in a scene, two scenes, and really tell that story without laboring it. As producers, we had to make those kind of decisions all through the script—how can we best spend the money to make that story point as concisely as possible given that we had so many story points and something like 105 locations?
Bruce: Just dealing with the sequence thing—James begged for it, along with Eddie, and we all sort of thought, “Is there any way we can shoot in sequence?” Because of all the movies you would want to do this with, because of the arc for both characters, for Felicity and Eddie—it’s a 25-year span they cover—you sort of dream of it. We really played with it for about two solid weeks of prep. It’s just that physically and budget-wise it becomes such a strain… So what we did do was shoot in sequence as much as we could within blocks of time. On the rare day when Eddie and Felicity would play three periods of life (in one day), we did bits that were more visual and less acting-heavy.
James Marsh said the May Ball seen was the hardest for him to shoot because of its scale. Was it from your end as well?
McCarten: It’s a tough day at the office when you show up and there’s 500 people waiting for direction from you. And, of course, it was the occasion where the real Stephen and Jane both showed up on set. That was Eddie and Felicity performing under the watchful eyes of both of them, their real-life models.
Bruce: It was the six days that Cambridge could give us, so the scene just landed in the very beginning of our shoot. People were still learning each other’s names. There was so much pressure on James, it was almost unfair really, but there was no other way for us to do it because Jane and Stephen live in Cambridge… The other thing that I would say was the biggest challenge was making a movie about people who are still alive. There certainly are things that Jane and Stephen would have rather not been in the film. Including the messiness of their (divorce and remarriages) made the tightrope even thinner for all of us to walk on, but I think it makes for a much more rewarding, more interesting, complex movie.
Lisa Bruce & Anthony McCarten photographed by J.R. Mankoff