EXCLUSIVE: Eddie Redmayne looked a bit misty eyed as he emerged from the MOMA screening room after the rousing applause that followed a teary-eyed New York premiere of The Theory Of Everything from Focus Features. Redmayne’s reaction is understandable, given the outsized performances he and Felicity Jones turned in as physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane. Redmayne’s portrayal humanizes that iconic image of the genius frozen in a ruined body, and the Like Crazy star Jones shines as the strong-willed woman who fell in love with Hawking when he was an awkward but able-bodied college student, and refused to allow his brilliance to dim even after his motor skills failed.
Redmayne’s reaction mirrored that of Hawking himself when he saw the film; no matter how far The Theory Of Everything goes in the Oscar race — I think it will go far — screenwriter/producer and flame-keeper Anthony McCarten cannot imagine the Hawking moment being eclipsed. “There have already been a number of contenders for the big moment, but Stephen having a tear wiped from his cheek by his nurse after the lights came up during a screening for him, that is hard to beat,” McCarten told me. “There was 10 years spent waiting for that.”
As too often happens with these year-end gems, The Theory Of Everything is no overnight success. It has been 16 years since McCarten was moved by Hawking’s publication of the groundbreaking 1998 book A Brief History Of Time. It is a full decade since he approached Jane Hawking after publication of her memoir, Traveling To Infinity: My Life With Stephen, which McCarten recognized as an empathetic access point to the Hawking story that wasn’t present in the physicist’s science-heavy text.
“I became interested in Stephen Hawking’s ideas, and the man, back when he exploded on the scene with his book, but it wasn’t until I read Jane’s autobiography that I realized there was a similarly extraordinary story in the private lives of Jane and Stephen,” he said. “I thought if I could marry that delicate and unorthodox story with the spectacular science, I had a shot at something.” When he first inquired about Hawking, McCarten was rebuffed.
“He was a world icon already, and it was early in my career and he was on record he didn’t want the focus to be on his private life,” McCarten said. “I was clearly told, don’t knock, no one will answer.” Jane’s book gave him the guts to knock, literally. “There was this incredibly challenging personal story that the world didn’t know,” McCarten said. “Everyone recognizes the guy, but most people think he’s American, because that is the computer voice you hear. Nobody realizes he was married twice and has three children. So I turned myself into a crazy person and headed down to Cambridge and knocked on her door. I presented myself as a stranger and asked her to let me in so I could tell her how I would write this movie.” Her response? “To my eternal gratitude, she invited me in, and she let me talk.”
His pitch: “There would be a love story, and a story of science breakthroughs of Stephen, enabled by Jane and her care of him, and also the physical decline,” McCarten told me at the after party Monday night. “She was encouraged enough to say, ‘Well, go away and write the script and we’ll talk.’ What I needed was an option on her book.” He didn’t get that until much later, and wrote three drafts on spec to win her faith. “She was encouraged by the script, but she wanted to know that this delicate personal material would be handled by people with sufficient sensitivity so a movie of high pedigree would be made of it. I had to try to open those doors, and there was a surprising lack of interest, for the longest time.”
Given Hawking is the Mick Jagger of the egghead set, that seems surprising. McCarten said the appeal did not extend to the check-writing set.
“It’s always my impulse that it’s better to deal with a famous figure tangentially, through a satellite character, and The King’s Speech is a perfect example,” McCarten said. “Instead of taking history straight on, you do it through a character like a speech coach. I thought there was a strong access point through Jane and I was just as interested in her story, and I could not believe that someone else hadn’t put that together. But nobody bit. You start to draw conclusions, like…doesn’t anyone want to make grownup films anymore? I got the feeling people were thinking, ah, it’s about wheelchairs, who wants to see that? People don’t need complex reasons to reject a script. The response to the script was astonishing, people thought it was good, but when it got to the ones who finance? It didn’t make sense to the numbers people, the ones writing the checks.”
That changed when Jane Hawking signed the option papers and McCarten and producer Lisa Bruce set sights on a high-caliber director. They found one in James Marsh, whose Philippe Petit documentary Man On Wire won the Oscar. The Hawkings’ love story became a movie after Bruce sent the script to Working Title principal Eric Fellner. “He replied in 11 hours and said we’ve all read it, come for a meeting. We were off to the races from there.” Fellner and partner Tim Bevan took advantage of their strong relationship with Redmayne, with whom they’d just made Les Miserables. “Eddie was on my short list from the beginning, and Working Title loved working with him, but it came down to James talking to Eddie. When James reported back, he found Eddie’s passion was off the charts. We became guided by Eddie’s passion.’
McCarten said both subjects approved of the finished product, so much so that Hawking himself recorded the computer-voiced dialogue that is the physicist’s trademark. “99% of the dialogue was invented because I wasn’t there, and it always felt challenging, taking poetic license and trying to write dialogue for a genius when I am something far less than one,” McCarten said. “Then to hear his verdict, that the movie was broadly true, that was a huge relief. The version he saw had our approximation of his voice, and we’d spent a bit of time and money trying to get the music of that and we couldn’t. When he watched it, he offered his own voice and it really does give the movie a lift. It feels like Stephen Hawking is performing in the movie. I could never have anticipated that but it was extremely generous on his part.”
Just like Best Picture winner The King’s Speech — screenwriter David Seidler waited 28 years in abiding by the Queen Mother’s wish that she die before the movie get made — it seems like these challenging plunges into history gestate and that the best ones come together with timing dictated by some incredibly patient movie god who ensures the right version of the film happens when it is ready. McCarten only believes that to a point: “It would have been advantageous on my nervous system for this to have happened years earlier. There are good and bad things about a long fuse. No doubt it allowed for meditation and script tinkering, but the trouble is, you believe all along you have a script that is ready to go, and you want to believe we are in an industry where a good script gets made. But that’s not always the case. Seeing the movie we’ve got, it was worth the wait.”
McCarten always had a fallback, one he’s still interested in pursuing if he runs into fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson on the Oscar circuit, where the latter will likely find himself for his trilogy finale The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies. McCarten tells me he made what he considers a strong acting debut in the 1992 Jackson-directed Brain Dead.
“Man, I was brilliant, I did zombies damn good and I was very convincing,” he said. “Peter gave me a foreground role in a zombie attack and while there was a whole mass of us attacking, I was the first to try to get in this house, and I had my arm properly guillotined off by a sliding window. I’m anxious to reprise that part of my career, so send a clear signal to Peter. I am ready to get back in that goop and the shredded clothes.”
Actually, McCarten will now need both arms, he’ll have a lot of typing to do; the buzz on Theory Of Everything is already helping his cause. “The phone is ringing again,” he said. He said he has completed a script that has interest from a studio, and another project is percolating. He wouldn’t be specific but it sounded like the former would follow a faster track toward production than The Theory Of Everything and that McCarten won’t have to cut off an arm to get another job.