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‘The Theory of Everything’: Stephen Hawking's Story on the Big Screen

Hiscott, Rebecca

doi: 10.1097/01.NT.0000458815.71166.8b
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ARTICLE IN BRIEF

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The feature film, “The Theory of Everything,” chronicles Stephen Hawking's relationship with his first wife, Jane, from the time of his diagnosis with motor neuron disease to his publication of A Brief History of Time. Here, the director and screenwriter reflect on making the film.

Prior to being diagnosed with motor neuron disease (MND), a class of debilitating neurodegenerative illnesses that includes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Stephen Hawking was as active as he was brilliant — and irreverent. The coxswain for the rowing team at Oxford University, where he studied physics before receiving his doctorate in cosmology at the University of Cambridge, he was known for taking risks, steering his crew along dangerous courses and damaging vessels in the process.

The symptoms of what would be diagnosed as MND were subtle at first and easy for a determined young student to ignore: a slight tremor in the hand, a spilled coffee cup, a stumble on the stairs. Then came the falls, the slurred speech, and the shuffling gait.

The early stages of his disease, and his progression to near-total paralysis in later years, are depicted with remarkable honesty in “The Theory of Everything,” a new feature film in theaters Nov. 7 that dramatizes Professor Hawking's relationship with his first wife, Jane.

Tony Award-winning actor Eddie Redmayne (“Les Misérables”; “My Week with Marilyn”) plays Professor Hawking through the film's 25-year time span. The preparation that went into portraying both the man and his debilitating disease was exceptionally detailed. In addition to working with voice and acting coaches, Redmayne visited with MND patients and their caregivers and conducted extensive research to accurately plot the progression of the disease. Meanwhile, as Jane Hawking (née Wilde), Felicity Jones (“The Amazing Spider-man 2”; “The Invisible Woman”) channels the spirit of a woman who must balance the demands of family and an education with the all-encompassing responsibilities of a caregiver.

The film is a beautiful depiction of a relationship tested by the immense hardships of disease, but it does not shy away from the ravages of MND, the fraught nature of the couple's marriage, or the fact that it ended in divorce.

Neurology Today spoke with Academy Award-winning filmmaker and director James Marsh and award-winning screenwriter and playwright Anthony McCarten about the challenges involved in bringing Professor Hawking's story — and the ravages of his rare form of MND — to the screen.

JAMES MARSH

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HOW DID YOU BECOME ATTACHED TO THE FILM?

The screenplay was sent to me by the writer and his producer at the time, before it was in production. Anthony [McCarten] had spent many years already working on the screenplay and liaising with Jane Hawking to get the rights to her book.

When I got it, I was expecting to read a biopic of Stephen Hawking, and I felt that I wasn't going to be the right person to do that. So I was surprised when I read the script and it had a very specific focus on his relationship with his first wife, a portrait of a marriage. That interested me as a director, because it's very rich dramatic territory, and something a documentary could not do.

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WHAT KIND OF PREPARATION AND RESEARCH WENT INTO MAKING THE MOVIE?

Eddie [Redmayne] did enormous amounts of preparation, and he was able to bring his research to the script. He would report back on details that he was learning and we could then change the script, and that was very useful. The dialogue was so much about the physicality [of the illness] and how he was going to achieve that.

A lot of our work before we started filming was just about the physical aspects of the illness and what he as an actor needed to get there, which was a lot of support from a voice coach and an acting coach. He met many people with MND, he spent time with them, and generally just did amazing amounts of work, which allowed me as a filmmaker and a director to rely on him. It was remarkable, his preparation and the detail he brought to it.

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HOW DID FELICITY JONES PREPARE FOR HER ROLE AS JANE HAWKING?

She also met with MND patients and caregivers. It became a very delicate and a very beautiful dance between the two actors, and they were certainly in sync with each other. Felicity always knew in any given scene what Eddie could and couldn't do, and therefore what she had to do [for him]: move his hand, put his head back, wipe his nose, wipe his saliva. It just became second nature.

Her preparation was, in its own way, as detailed as Eddie's, working off of Eddie's preparation so she understood exactly what Jane would have done in that situation. Often that came through without directed or written details. It was just spontaneous. Eddie would often salivate, and she would just wipe it away. The scene would go on as if nothing was happening. That was the beauty of what they did in terms of their preparation.

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DID YOU WORK CLOSELY WITH JANE AND STEPHEN HAWKING?

Jane was more involved in the production of the film than Stephen was. I met with her several times; I spent some time with her in Cambridge, and she would point out the various impediments to wheelchairs you could find in Cambridge, of which there are many.

Professor Hawking wasn't actively involved in that, but we showed him the script. He's a very savvy man; he knew, as a public figure, that we could make the film with or without his blessing, but he gave us his blessing nonetheless. Gradually, he began to offer certain things. He offered his medal, the actual medal the Queen gave him, which Eddie wears at the very end of the film.

We showed him the film when it was finished. It was the most nerve-racking screening of my life; I was just so worried that he was going to not like it. It appeared to me that he was moved by the film. He did declare that it felt broadly true to him, and later, in an email, he said that at certain points in the film he thought he was watching himself, that Eddie's performance was so convincing that he believed it was him. On the back of that screening, he then said, “Would you like to use my actual voice?” At this point, we were using our own version of that [computer] voice. We were delighted. That felt like an endorsement by way of a gift.

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WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO COMMUNICATE WITH PROFESSOR HAWKING?

That's a very curious thing. Often, Stephen prepares things he wants to say ahead of time. If he's doing an interview, for an example, you would give him the questions and he would prepare the answers. “Conversation” isn't quite the right word for it. I'm not sure how to describe it. You can say something, and Stephen then has to distill lots of words into maybe three or four words that he can, very efficiently, in his own way, get on his machine to speak. That can take 10 minutes. So you tend to fill that silence. You're just babbling on, saying more and more about yourself, about this and about that. It's kind of awkward, to be honest. But he gives you a look — you're engaging with a very, very, very intelligent man. You know that the moment you enter his presence, that he's observing you in a very withering way. It's a kind of strange encounter, to be honest, and not one that I've ever had before or am likely to have again.

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WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE WITH MND TO TAKE AWAY FROM THE FILM?

There's not much I can say, or the film can say, to alleviate the appalling degradations of that illness. But I think we try to give a truthful account of it in the film. We don't shy away from some of the ugly details of the illness, as shown in Stephen's case. I hope that if people were to see the film, they would get some comfort, perhaps, from Stephen's example. He lives every day to the fullest, and that appears to be the best thing we can all do. Stephen is a good example of every minute, every second, every day counting. That, perhaps, is embedded in the film as a moral.

ANTHONY MCCARTEN

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WHEN DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN STEPHEN HAWKING, AND IN ADAPTING JANE HAWKING'S MEMOIR AS A SCREENPLAY?

Like everyone else, [I became interested in Professor Hawking] in 1988, when he published A Brief History of Time. In 2004, I read Jane's book about their life, and suddenly I realized a movie could be made about these two people, who both had extraordinary experiences. You could have a story where the universe is somehow analogous to what's going on in their personal life. It's a rather poetic idea, perhaps, but this was one of the ideas that animated the writing of it.

After reading the book, I thought, “I must try and get permission to tell this story.” So I got on a train and went down to Cambridge, where she was living. She was by then divorced from Stephen. I rang her doorbell and introduced myself, and she let me in. I explained the vision I had for the story and asked her to grant me permission to tell the story. She did, but that took eight years. In that time, we built a lot of trust. Bit by bit, I was given permission to go to the next stage: to show it to other people, to start putting a team together. But at no stage was it guaranteed that she would ever give me final written permission to do this, so it was all a bit of a gamble. But I thought the subject matter was so extraordinary it was worth the risk.

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DID YOU WORK CLOSELY WITH JANE?

She was a great taskmaster when it came to the details. She would say, “This record can't be playing because it was released in October 1968 and this party happened in March 1968,” or, “Stephen wouldn't say this particular word, he would have used this word.” She got a lot of the details right. The color of the front door of their first flat was red, it wasn't green. Stuff like that. She wanted those details to be right.

When we showed the film to their daughter, Lucy, she had a very profound reaction to the film. She sent us an email saying, “That was my life.” I think that's a tribute to the whole team, really.

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DID YOU RESEARCH MND WHILE WRITING THE SCRIPT?

Jane's book was rich in detail, because she was essentially playing the nurse and caregiver for many years. She documents in great detail the stages of his physical decline and what that meant — every aspect of life, from eating, coughing fits, getting him dressed, getting him in the car.

For me, it was important to map out a few key phases in the script. One was the first manifestations of the loss of hand [function] and coordination. This is when the warning bells started sounding. Then he started falling over, and then he got the diagnosis. The next phase was depression, or very close to a depression, after the diagnosis. Then came needing the use of one walking stick, and then two walking sticks, and battling against giving up walking for as long as he could; there are scenes in the movie of him pulling himself up the stairs by the handrails, which actually happened. People used to come over for dinner and Stephen would spend half the evening pulling himself up the stairs.

And then surrender to his first wheelchair, which is nicely dramatized in the film, I think. It's an almost grumpy collapse into this wheelchair, and he says, “This is temporary.” We all know it isn't. Then there's the transfer, at [Jane's] behest, to an electric wheelchair, and then the episode, which required the tracheostomy. That basically takes us to the end of the movie.

Subsequent to that, he's lost even the power to use his hand to click the mouse, and now he's using his cheek [to control his wheelchair]. There's some intimation that he may lose the power to twitch his cheek, in which case IBM is working on predictive software to work on his brainwaves.

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WHAT WAS PROFESSOR HAWKING'S REACTION TO THE SCRIPT?

I waited almost until we were shooting the film before I ventured to reach out to him, because I wanted a very persuasive argument that we would do justice to his story. I tried to make it clear that the film's aim was to celebrate this extraordinary journey truthfully and show the tough times, too.

He said, “I won't meet you until I read the script.” So I sent him the script, nervously waited, and then word came that he would meet me. I still wasn't sure that he would support the film; he may have just wanted to tell me it was terrible. It was very nerve-racking because by now I had invested basically10 years in this film, and if he didn't sanction it, it would have been a telling blow. But he did support it, and he then began to offer his support in practical ways, too, like eventually giving us his computer voice to use in his film.

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WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE WITH MND TO TAKE AWAY FROM THE FILM?

The example of Stephen is that if your mind is active and you keep a sense of humor, as he says, anything is possible. He never gave in. When I met him, his body is just so clearly inert in every way — only the eyes move to look at you. And then I told him some silly joke, and his face broke into a radiant smile. It's just wonderful, and telling about the man, that everything can go, but as long as the smile is there and the wit is there, you can endure a lot. He's endured everything, he's lost almost everything you can lose, except the mind and the wit and the spirit.

© 2014 American Academy of Neurology