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Directors & Their Troops: James Marsh on the ‘Theory of Everything’ Team

“The Theory of Everything,” about Jane and Stephen Hawking, marks the third narrative film for James Marsh, after he made several notable documentaries (including the 2008 “Man on Wire”). Here, Marsh talked with Variety about his work with his artisan colleagues on the film.

Editing, Jinx Godfrey
“We’ve worked together since we made a documentary for television in 1997. As with all collaborations, you improve and complete each other’s ideas, you push each other. We had worked on documentary films like ‘Wisconsin Death Trip,’ then we made several dramas together. The film we’re probably best known for is ‘Man on Wire,’ which has so many disparate elements: interviews, archive films, re-creations, 16mm and super-8 — you have to make the film sing and dance and flow. You take some of these ideas and bring them to a feature.

“Jinx is very unsentimental. We have a strong female character in the film, and the first cut was very much Jane’s story. Then we needed to find the balance, bringing Stephen in a proper relation to Jane. I spent months with Jinx. It’s a very unfiltered relationship, based on trust. It’s all about what the film needs. It’s a blessing to work with the same person every time because you can quickly get to the heart of the matter. She’s a brilliant editor in her choices of where she cuts. I’m grateful to have someone who can test me, challenge me. That’s very important.

“There was one scene we kept coming back to, and that’s when Stephen and Jane separate. It’s a very intense scene but it wasn’t a strongly visual scene. It’s about Stephen initiating a separation and in quite an awkward and uncomfortable way. The scene as written was much longer, with more words. We had to distill it into something purer — instead of words, about characters. Every week we were trying to get balance right. If we cut it too much, there was nothing there; and then we expanded it, too long. The moment we found, toward the end of the scene: Stephen cries and his nose runs. And she reached out and wiped it. That wasn’t scripted, but Felicity was always alive to details. The scene comes together with that one little gesture of compassion when everyone is so hurt and wounded. So that was the key to unlocking it. We took that as the end of the scene and worked backward from there. Finally it worked and you could see strong emotional response at the screening.”

Music, Johann Johannsson
“He was an established modern classical composer. I met him a few years ago. I loved his work. He was a hard sell to the production because he doesn’t have vast experience on scoring big films. But I knew his voice would be fresh and welcome; he doesn’t work by rote. I said, ‘I don’t want you to underscore it, I want you to explore it, with your voice.’ And he did that beautifully, with such an unusual blend of instruments. One of last things on a film is to complete the score. It refreshed the whole film for me, it’s an appropriate and lovely score for the film we’re telling.”

Production design, John Paul Kelly
“He spent a lot of time looking at documentary and archive footage, what was in Stephen’s household. J.P.’s work is in the background and foreground at the same time; he makes designs so you don’t notice it. We didn’t want to make a ‘British period film.’ His work is appropriately discreet and technically brilliant. He had to put that May ball scene together very quickly. His work is not flashy, not overselling itself, just working with actors. I think that’s great design, when everything is in sync, and not screaming out at you as a lot of British films tend to do.”

Cinematography, Benoit Delhomme
“We spent 10 weeks working out locations and strategies of filming. Benoit attended rehearsals to understand what the actors would be doing. It became an intense collaboration between the actors and the camera. He said he needed to respect what they do. We looked at documentary footage of Stephen. And as you always do, you talk about film references. We talked Krzysztof Kieslowski, who uses quite bold mixtures of light in his trilogy ‘Blue,’ ‘Red’ and ‘White.’ I also mentioned ‘The Servant,’ the Joseph Losey film, which was shot largely in interior spaces. The film is strongly visual; Benoit’s main contribution is light. The lighting of this film is very distinctive; the film is ultimately optimistic, so the idea was to make this a film about light. And light, of course, is very important in the realm of physics, a big part of how we understand the universe. Benoit’s job was to light it in a very bold way. For example the May ball sequence, where the characters fall in love. The film plays with light throughout.”

Costume design, Steven Noble
“Steven’s work is so appropriate, and often on a scale that you can’t appreciate when you have to costume 150 extras in 1960s academic fashions. There’s a coherence to the design and costuming that allows the actors to do what they need.”

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