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The National Student meets The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten

18th December 2014

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What is it like to write the life story of Stephen Hawking – a man whose discoveries have rewritten the history of time, but whose own voice all but gave up on him before he’d even left university?

It is the unsaid moments in The Theory of Everything, both from Hawking (in a probable career-defining turn from Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) that say more than the words themselves. The challenge for screenwriter Anthony McCarten, then, is palpable.

“It was clear that we’d have to find alternative channels of communication,” Anthony says, “and a lot of that is through gesture, and through eyes. And when Stephen loses the power to gesture... in one scene he can’t even embrace her anymore. I think somehow the relationship had to operate on that basis.”

It was a challenge, he admits, to write a believable relationship where the words are lost but the emotional connection remains: the wordless domestic scenes, he says, were difficult to pull off, and are a testament to actors playing Stephen and Jane.

He flags a scene of realisation towards the end of the film (no spoilers here) that sums up the emotion and silence of what he was aiming to achieve. It’s a scene, we agree, that packs a raw emotional punch.

“I hope what comes through in that,” he says, referring to this pivotal moment, “is all the layers of emotion. It’s very complex emotionally; there’s an aspect of letting go, there’s an aspect of sadness, of release, and the actors play all those multiple layers simultaneously.”

It’s a challenge the actors pull off well: aside from Golden Globe nominations for both Eddie and Felicity, there’s is a hum of Academy Award possibility surrounding Eddie’s performance, which is subtle and never overplayed - something that Anthony, in his creation of the script, had at the forefront of his mind.

Finding the voice of Stephen the man, apart from the discourse that surrounds him, was also a work of speculation, says Anthony. “I knew he was witty,” he says, “I knew he was mischievous. I wanted humour in there, I wanted a bit of mischief; I wanted an element of the artist. Because he’s an extraordinarily good writer as well, he’s an extraordinarily creative person... I had those things, and that’s the basis of a voice, in a way.”

The film is taken from Jane’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, although only partially according to Anthony – “because I wanted it to be equally about Stephen. They roughly had the same screen time, so I was able to find out a lot about Stephen. In the public domain there’s a lot known about his achievements and his battle with ALS (Motor Neurone Disease), and his scientific work – this wasn’t taken from Jane’s memoir, but it did give me insights into his life, his personal life, and his feelings.”

Obviously, displaying such a prominent figure’s personal life when so little is known of it is a huge responsibility, and Anthony acknowledges the difficulty of writing words for people without having being there – and “trying to guess what they felt.”

Those moments, he says, aren’t in the memoir either – but the challenge is to take what is there, and what we already know, and develop it into some kind of sensitive form, “without speculating on words, on images, or on feelings.”

Perhaps because of this, The Theory of Everything has been a decade in the making – having acquired the rights in 2004, it was years before Jane Hawking herself was ready to come on board with the project.

“She was nervous about it,” he says, “but she went as far as to say “write a script, and then I’ll read it. And then we’ll see.” And that began an eight-year process of getting her comfortable with the idea. And finally Stephen embraced the project as well.

“It was just a project that couldn’t be rushed; it was such a personal story. They had to feel that the film was in the right hands.”

Is it true, does he think, that the emotional and personal life of those with disabilities generally gets ignored, or at least swept under the rug – and that this might have also been the case with Stephen? Or maybe, society sees him as a scientist first – and a man second?

“I’ve shown this to scientists on both sides of the Atlantic,” Anthony says, “and they’ve unequivocally said, thanks for showing that we’re not machines, thanks for showing that we’ve got love lives and that we’re real people. Scientists are so often only depicted n sterile environments, in white coats.” Pause. “It may well be the first film about a scientist that’s passionate.”

That very well might be the case.

The Theory of Everything (2014), directed by James Marsh, is released in UK cinemas on 1st January, Certificate 12A.

Watch the trailer below:  

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