Director James Marsh Explains Why He’ll Never Watch ‘The Theory of Everything’ Again
There’s a special sensibility that James Marsh brings as the director of ‘The Theory of Everything,’ which, I suspect, has a lot to do with his success as a documentary filmmaker. Marsh won an Oscar for directing ‘Man on Wire’ – a documentary detailing Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the two World Trade Center towers – and now he’s back on everyone’s awards radar with his Stephen Hawking biopic, ‘The Theory of Everything.’
Felicity Jones, who plays Jane Hawking (the film has been adapted from Jane Hawking’s book, ‘Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’) equates the film’s tone to Marsh’s deft handling of his documentaries. “Being a documentary filmmaker, he doesn’t judge any of the subjects,” says Jones. And in a movie so emotionally wrought – the film focuses on the relationship between Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane Hawking, a relationship filled with triumph, tragedy, sacrifice and infidelity – the lack of judgment is the only way any of this works. Which is also why the film belongs as much to Felicity Jones as it does Eddie Redmayne.
Ahead, James Marsh – who got to spend a beautiful Friday afternoon sitting in a hotel room talking to people like me – gives us a peek behind the process of making a Highly Regarded film. Basically, the insecurity that comes once a film is finished and having absolutely no idea how people will react to it – and, then, once that’s over, never watching that movie ever gain.
This is a nice room.
Isn’t it? I’m just here in my holding room, handcuffed to the chair.
You get to make a movie people like, and your reward is a day like this.
No, it’s fine.
Well, I’m shooting an HBO show ('Crime') at the moment, so I was up until six in the morning.
‘The Theory of Everything’ got a great reception back when it premiered in Toronto. The last time you watched it before then, do you have a pretty good idea that’s going to happen?
No. You can’t.
Well, it’s a very interesting question and it gets almost to the heart of what you’re doing. You start off, the impulse to make a film you feel it’s inside you already to some extent. And then the process of making it is a series of compromises and discoveries. Compromises being things you think you want to do and can’t do.
What did you want to do that you couldn’t do?
An interesting example in the film, for the first time I had the resources I never had before. So, this film, unusually, has much less compromises in terms of its resources. And we were able to do many things that were quite complicated and quite a big scale. But, to answer your question, by the time you get to the end of post-production, it’s very, very hard to understand what you’ve done.
Because you’ve seen every scene so often?
The score, which comes often quite later in a film, can help reinvigorate your emotional engagement with it.
When the swell kicks in?
Yeah, but you shouldn’t trust that. You need to trust the performances and trust what happens before the score goes on it. Beware the potency of cheap music.
It’s not the case with this movie, but I always wonder why a director is taken so off guard when really bad reviews come out. Is it really because you can’t tell?
I think so. Usually, with the work I’ve done, by the end, I usually feel like it’s a failure. It doesn’t matter how it’s received.
When you’re getting that standing ovation at Toronto, you aren’t thinking that.
No, but the moment when you finally finish it and you think, It was all for that? Is that good enough? I’m not sure that it is. There is a sense of emptiness when you finish any film, because you’re empty and you can’t give anything more to it anymore. They test the film a couple of times…
What’s it like reading test audience responses?
I didn’t read them. All I know is at the end of it, they were happy with the figures. It’s not going to help me.
In ‘The Devil’s Candy,’ De Palma reads them.
I noticed that. There’s a madness to that. Like reviews, there’s a madness to that, too. At a certain point, it becomes unhealthy to engage in too much analysis of what you’ve done and what you haven’t done. The best thing is to do something else. And you’ve got your own list of mistakes or miscalculations -- and every film I’ve made is full of them – and you take those forward and you make sure, “I’m not going to do that again.” My general point here, which is an interesting one, is the film isn’t really finished until an audience sees it and until you see it with that audience. Then it’s done. Then I never see the film again after that?
Really? So you watched it in Toronto...
That’s the last time I will ever see it. Yeah, for sure.
So even 30 years from now?
I don’t know. I’ll get back to you in 30 years.
There could be a retrospective.
I’m not ruling it out … two or three years ago I did see one of my films and I had left, I couldn’t stand it. It was ‘Wisconson Death Trip,’ black and white, an experimental film I did many years ago. It was a retrospective of my documentaries and was like “I can’t stand this, I’ve got to go.”
The associations of it; the difficulties of making the film – I just couldn’t engage with it. It felt like a brother that I had fallen out with many years ago and didn’t want to speak to again.
Do you enjoy watching it that first time with an audience?
You’re learning from it, essentially. You can feel people’s engagement or non-engagement. That, for me, you can sense at an animal level. Are people paying attention? In ‘Man on Wire,’ there’s a moment early on that’s supposed to be funny, when I saw people got that in the first screening in London, it’s like, “OK. They get that.”
Some of the criticism toward ‘The Theory of Everything’ is that it doesn’t focus enough on Stephen Hawking’s accomplishments.
How would you do that? I think the focus of the film is the portrait of a relationship and a marriage. And that’s sort of its declared intention from the get go.
You’d have to explain the theories around black holes.
And a film isn’t the place you should do that. Errol Morris already made a great film about this already, by the way, ‘A Brief History of Time.’ It’s great and it gets into all of that. That film exists. There it is. You can go see that. But, that’s not the film we’re making.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.