New Zealand-born screenwriter Anthony McCarten has spent the better part of the last decade trying to bring his passion project The Theory of Everything to the big screen. The film, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, brings to life the inspiration and romance of Stephen Hawking’s life with Jane Wilde-Hawking as chronicled in her book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, and is the subject of mounting early Oscar buzz.
McCarten took the time to speak with us all way from Europe to shed some light on the long road from inception to screen, and what the talented writer has next on his agenda.
What was the initial spark that made you want to tackle this project?
The initial spark was reading Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time in 1988, but at that point it was a spark in the dark because I never presumed I would be in a position to have a role in telling that story or making a movie of it. So I guess the real moment was in 2004, reading Jane Hawking’s memoir and realizing behind the incredible story of Stephen overcoming or refusing to be silenced by his disease, and the enormity of his ideas in physics, there was also a one of kind love story of perseverance and determination on the part of two people. So I thought this would be a very interesting way to approach a famous life and give equal weight to the cared and also the [caregiver].
Did you feel extra pressure since you had to adapt Jane’s book rather than create a screenplay that came solely from you?
Yeah, you have to serve the facts but realize they’re not movies, and no real life conforms to a classic three-act structure or a five-act structure even. So you have to somehow stay true to the story and yet make it interesting. So that’s where it’s a fusion of being a historian and also dramatist. You have to come up with a happy balance between the two.
There are heavy scientific theories and ideas present in the film. How much of the actual science of the film did you clearly grasp? Did you have someone help you to properly portray them?
Yeah, there are. Extremely. They’re quite opaque. They’re very hard to unpack them when you read them for the first time. So I then went to secondary texts and looked at other metaphors other writers came up with to explain these ideas. They even were insufficient to my needs, because what I wanted to do with the science in the film was give almost distillations that a parent could use to pass on to their children so they could be of practical use.
So I decided I would never have physicists explaining the physics, it would always be someone else – a layperson doing their best to describe these theories and using very ordinary metaphors, literally what’s on the table in front of them to explain these really esoteric concepts. In that respect I’m really pleased with the result because people are not mystified by the science – at the least they can grasp them and remember them.
Were the visual cues, such as Stephen’s inspiration while look at the swirling coffee, described in your screenplay or choices by the director?
Yeah, that idea of the coffee I have to admit comes from James [Marsh, director]. We were looking for something in there that added to the idea of the clock winding back, but that one was his. But the others: the peas and potatoes and all of that stuff, the froth on the pint of beer – things like that were all in the script.
Besides Jane’s book and your knowledge of Stephen’s book, how deep did your research go to make the film as authentic as possible?
I did a lot of secondary reading. I wanted to understand not only the physics, but ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] and what that was really like – the various stages of those incremental losses of physical power and also how it must have felt to him. That’s the work of it, the imagination comes into it. So there was a lot of research on ALS and the physics and in terms of the third aspect of the story, which is the love story, well much had to be inferred, but always within the tolerances of history and what was known and what Jane had revealed in her book.
Well, humor is very much a part of Stephen’s character. You see that when you meet him today. So I knew that humor would have to be a recurrent theme and one of the reasons I think he was able to continue [to be] so indomitable. But finding balance between all three, when I presented my original concept to Jane Hawking in 2004 I described it as a triple helix of these three threads: one was the physics, one was the ALS, and one was the love story. It was the joy and the challenge of this writing process to find a happy balance between the three.
Did you have anything in your final screenplay that you were proud of but didn’t make the final cut of the film?
Yeah, we had to cut some scenes. There was a sequence in Rome where Stephen presents a concept which doesn’t require God to feature in the equation, and he presented it in front of Pope John Paul II. That would have been a great thing [laughs], very enjoyable to have shot. That would have been great in the movie, but we had to make some decisions.
We didn’t have infinite money and we wanted to make sure the actors had enough time to prepare for this thing. One of things we really wanted was to give the actors enough time to do the preparatory work that would be required to really make this journey believable. I think we made the right decision. It’s always a tough call, but time is the thing. It’s the most valuable commodity in filmmaking and it happens to be the most expensive. But if you cut corners on preparation you can almost ruin the entire project. I think it was wise. Anyways, one day we will publish the script and we’ll have the Vatican scene in there for anyone that is interested.
Were you nervous or excited going into seeing the finished film for the first time? And what was your reaction afterwards?
Ah, interesting question. I’m one of the producers as well, so I saw early cuts of the film when it was three and a half hours long. When everything was in there. It was almost like stuff we didn’t even shoot was in there. So I saw the film in a very raw state and I saw it get lean and mean and gain in emotional power as the themes were focused more.
When I finally saw the cut that we have now that is just over two hours, it was a tremendous sense of satisfaction and pride to be honest. It had been a long time. It had been ten years since conceiving it in a railway car going to Cambridge to see Jane, and to see all the excellent work that everyone had done from the cinematography, to James’s direction, to stellar work by Eddie and Felicity and all the cast and everybody involved. I just thought, “Wow, does this really have my name on it somewhere?” Really gratifying.
There’s quite a bit of Oscar buzz around The Theory of Everything. Do you get caught up in that, or do try to stay away from those expectations?
I’ve got a couple of buddies that have been through this before and their council was wise. They said basically, “Log off. You know it will get to you if you start to buy into it all.” Just get on with what you’re doing next and any attention that comes the film’s way and makes people go and see it, that’s a great thing. So the Oscar buzz is very flattering, but it’s something I’m definitely trying not to follow.
This has obviously been a passion project for you. How do you follow-up what has essentially been a life’s work?
Well, I’ve got a number of things. George Clooney has asked me to write his next project and no one says no to George. It’s all been announced. The working title is called Hack Attack. So I’m really excited about that project and I’m going to sink my teeth into that for the foreseeable future.
The Theory of Everything is in theaters now.