Any writer who sits down to pen a screenplay that’s based on a real life figure always has a harder job in my eyes than someone crafting an original script. When you factor in that the individual is still alive, it’s all the more intense of an obligation. Such as was the case when scribe Anthony McCarten began work on The Theory of Everything, which tells the love story of Jane and Stephen Hawking, both of whom are alive and eventually threw their support behind the project before it got underway.
This week, we got to speak with McCarten about the crazy ride that he and the film are having this awards season. Below you’ll see the highlights. The Theory of Everything is in theaters now (you can read my review here or Clayton’s review here) and stars soon to be Academy Award nominees Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne. Directed by James Marsh, the film is in line to be a major Oscar contender across the board, including for McCarten himself.
On the challenge of starting this project:
Anthony McCarten: You’re right that it was a difficult idea to pursue. I think though that it was sense of the challenge, and it was extremely challenging, to render this famous life in a way that would be gripping. Especially with Stephen, as he loses his faculties, you remove tools from the toolbox, so there was that basic appeal. This came upon me, this desire to tell the story back in 2004. It was at some point in reading Jane’s autobiography that everything I thought I knew about the great Stephen Hawking was just supplanted by everything that I didn’t know. There was just this great and one of a kind love story being revealed to me. I thought that if I could marry that with this extraordinary scientific mind, there’d be something there. (He also talks about meeting Jane and getting her approval for the story rights over the course of many years, but that’s one point that didn’t get recorded)
On the response of the Hawkings to the work:
AM: You know, they never asked me to whitewash anything, which I’m incredibly grateful to them for since there are aspects of their relationship that are quite nontraditional and unorthodox, in their personal life especially. You called it a traditional love story earlier (note: I was mainly referring to the third act, as he is here now) and actually I would argue with that. I think there are even aspects of this love story that are unprecedented.
On meeting Stephen Hawking and the process of getting him on board with the script after Jane:
AM: Well, I don’t think he was wild about the idea at the beginning, for two reasons. One, he was protective of his personal life. And two, he knew that my script was based off of Jane’s autobiography, and what man really wants to have his life story told by his ex wife? I think he had some reservations, but then word came down that he’d meet with us, so I went with the director James Marsh and we had no idea what his response would be. We gave him the script to read and then we would wait while he responded. It takes him about 15 minutes to write out a sentence, so we’d just be there waiting for him to respond. Finally, it turned out that he had just a few reservations about the script, mainly that we had combined characters, like turning his friends into just one friend. We’d explain why we needed to do that go from there. Eventually though, he would come to bestow gifts upon the production, like he offered his medals to the art department, among other things. We were absolutely gobsmacked and delighted, though I don’t think we should have been too surprised, considering the type of man that this is.
What the experience of seeing his work come to fruition in such a big way feels like:
AM: (Laughs) It feels like it’s happening to someone else! You know, you get used to working at a certain level and having a certain audience for your work, but then something like this happens and it explodes, blowing it right open. I’m really not trying to analyze it, I’m just trying to enjoy it!
On seeing Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne act out his script. Also, what it was like on set:
AM: No question, we knew they were going to be very good, but we didn’t know they were going to be spectacular. We got on set and you could really tell immediately, there was just a shared intensity between them. That actually extended to the crew too. There was a real reverence towards the material. It was something sort of church like to it. It wasn’t a jokey set or anything like that.
What’s next for him and if he’s got a passion project he wants to attempt now:
AM: Yeah, I’ve got a couple of passion projects I’m happy to announce. I’m writing a film about Churchill that I’ve wanted to get off the ground for years and it looks like that’s going to happen, hopefully soon, so there might be an announcement before too long. And Mr. George Clooney called me up! I’m working on his next directorial movie. It’s very early days, but it’s very exciting to be working with him. It was a long distance call and his voice kept coming in and out, but I thought it would be too rude to interrupt him, so I probably didn’t come off too well, but it didn’t seem to put him off, so we’re underway on a joint project, which is really really exciting.
Once again, surefire Academy Award nominee The Theory of Everything is in theaters currently, so if you haven’t seen it yet…you should probably get around to it soon. Oscar nominations are coming.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!