Interview with Lisa Bruce, Producer of The Theory of Everything


By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)

The Theory of Everything is much more than a typical biopic. The film spans a 30-year relationship between Stephen Hawking and his first wife, Jane, and is in fact based on her memoir. But more than that, it delves deeper into their relationship and love story, something no other Hawking film has done before. It was no easy task bringing this movie to the big screen, but the effort has been well worth it. In fact, it has been receiving accolades left and right. The morning of this interview, it garnered three Screen Actors Guild Awards and has since gone on to get four Golden Globe Award nominations, including Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama for Felicity Jones, Best Actor – Best Motion Picture Drama for Eddie Redmayne, and Best Motion Picture – Drama.

Lisa Bruce, one of the producers, recently spoke to The Nerd Machine about the film and what makes it so special, phenomenal performances by its actors, and more.

Congratulations to the cast on the SAG nomination! It wouldn’t have been possible without you. Has it sunk in yet?

I think we’re floating a little, all of us. You sort of anticipate these moments and you prepare yourself for both sides – no notice or there is notice – and I don’t think you can ever really get there. So it is still sinking in, but it’s really exciting for all of us, the producers, everybody at Working Title, Eric Fellner and Anthony McCarten, [who was one of] the other producers and who wrote it, and certainly for James Marsh [the director] to see that both the leads and love story [get recognized]. Eddie is so amazing and the arc is so incredible in that role, because of the physical change, but he obviously couldn’t do it at that level and [portray] the love story without having a tango partner like Felicity [Jones, who plays his wife Jane]. They really do that movie as a team so it’s great that they both have the nomination and it’s just an added [bonus] that the ensemble was also nominated because great acting like this just doesn’t happen in a vacuum, so it’s really great to see all those people [nominated] because we really did have a tapestry of talent so it’s nice to have them all noticed.

I read it took many, many years to get this movie made. What do you think makes this film so special and that it was worth that effort?

[It’s] such a heartfelt tale and it’s a tale, obviously, that deals with real-life people who are still alive so those things are quite complicated and can be quite difficult to tell and I think that we needed, in fact, the length, the journey, to deliver the movie at this kind of level. I think if we somehow got quote-unquote lucky and the journey could be shorter and we could have gotten the rights faster and we could have gotten the money faster, I don’t know if we would have made as good a movie as we did. I’m sort of happy now in retrospect. It was a long journey – for me, it was six years but for Anthony, it’s closer to 10.

What drew you to Stephen Hawking and this point in his life and why did you feel like this particular part of his story needed to be told?

No one has done a film where someone plays him that covers this span of time. The only other one just covered two years, right when he had been diagnosed, and I think the amazing part of his story and the amazing part of his and Jane’s story together really only comes across when you see the triumph of their tale and you appreciate it fully when you see the difficulty. I sort of always say they faced an impossible life and they somehow wove it into this incredibly triumphant climb. They really achieve almost more than any able-bodied couple does in the world and yet what they were up against with him being diagnosed and given two years to live, and then him slowly losing all physical ability, it’s sort of impossible to really and fully appreciate just how far Stephen and Jane and their children and that family has come unless you really cover it over the span of their marriage. That’s obviously a 30-year span so I feel like that’s where people really go, “Oh, I never knew that Stephen Hawking.” They all know the famous guy who’s really smart – the brainy guy who’s in that wheelchair, but they don’t know this other domestic side to him, which I think is such a more full rainbow and I think that’s sort of why the film is as memorable as it is for people.

The film is not just about Stephen; it’s also about his wife Jane and their relationship. What were some goals in adapting her memoir and what were some of the things that had to be touched upon, that just couldn’t be left out?

We are really focused on their relationship but through it, you obviously learn a lot about the Stephen Hawking that I’m sure your readers will care quite a lot about. You learn quite a bit about how he even came up with some of the theories that he did. But in terms of adapting her book, it was more about pulling [back] the curtain and looking into their personal life and seeing how they really managed this world, so navigating that was a lot about looking at the progress of the disease, how it affected Stephen, and how it affected Jane, and how they managed this family life. He was given two years to live and now he’s just turned 72 [and] it was, effectively, a 30-year relationship, so we were navigating that mainly from the point of view of their relationship, their love story. But Anthony, as the writer, [used] this sort of triple helix [to describe it] – it’s the science, it’s the love, and it’s the effect of time, what you’re really watching in that tale, so that’s why the story is encapsulated and bookended the way it is. Have you seen the film?

I haven’t. It’s not playing anywhere at all near me. But I’m hoping to soon!

Well it’s sort of bookended with this sort of theme of time and you’ll see that when you see it, because obviously time was the game that he was fighting against, given two years to live, and his thesis is in fact about time and our movie is about how they survived the time they were given and how they stretched it and basically made two years turn into 70, which was quite amazing, so that was really the focus. And also, in terms of the science, the way Anthony was approaching that was that [he] chose to basically always have the science explained to everybody from a layman’s point of view. So it’s always a layman in the film, not scientists, who explain the science, other than one brief lecture, and then the rest of it is, like, Jane explaining it to someone else. You’re sort of learning it while you’re watching Stephen lecture so you can get it in bits and pieces so it’s made for a general audience so that’s how we wove it in through the love story.

You touched on it, but how did you find a balance between the science side and the character-based, relationship-driven parts of the movie?

This is really important to me and important to us because in so many [stories] when there’s a scientist, you really don’t learn anything about the science. I don’t know anything more about the science when I leave the film than when I came into it and we did have the goal of at least bringing some big concepts, bringing everybody down the road a little further with some big concepts that Stephen proposed and struggled with and that Stephen is famous for putting that out in the world and I do think that you find that people feel that part. We tried to do the science in such a way that it wasn’t superficial. What we do present is drilled down enough that you do get a little bit more of an understanding of it and you can get a sense, even from a layman’s point of view, of, “Wow, I can see why that might have been a game changer, that idea that Stephen had.” We had a theoretical physicist who’s head of [the department at] Imperial College here in London and he was a consultant and he would always be checking all the formulas on the board, [he] wrote numbers on the board, was checking all the science that we were saying, so from a scientist’s point of view, you might say, “I wish there were more of it,” but you couldn’t really say what’s in there is wrong. What’s in there is there in a way [that] it takes [the audience] from, I don’t know, junior high through high school.

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones just got nominated for Screen Actors Guild Awards, and are certainly getting also Golden Globe buzz and Oscar buzz, too. What made them the perfect actors to play Stephen and Jane?

Eddie and Felicity were always on the short list and I think it’s because they sort of checked all the boxes we needed in terms of being the right age, being British, having amazing acting talent, but you know, none of us had ever seen them do this level, in a way. We were always looking for something great, but frankly I think they took it to a new level. I think they were, I almost think you could say, spectacular. They have so much chemistry, which they brought to the roles. They have a very deep respect for each other. They had studied under some of the same people in London. Michael Grandage is a theater director that they had both worked with and they had similar styles and because they had respect for each other, they were able to really build chemistry and they had chemistry on screen, which I think is something that is harder to cast. It’s one thing to cast individuals, but it’s hard to cast the chemistry and they really brought that. And I think they’re at the exact right time in their careers for something like this because it was just so challenging, but they had enough experience and enough acting chops and just enough chutzpah and guts to say, “I think I can do this.” And on top of that, and all this is incredibly truthful, they brought so much passion and a fierce dedication, I would say, to both of their roles and that just makes all the difference. Nobody was ever going, “Oh, it’s just a job,” or, “I can’t wait ‘til this is over,” or, “When we finish this scene, I get to go home.” It was just constantly 150%.

How much responsibility do you feel there is in telling the story of real people who are still living? This isn’t a documentary, it’s more of a biopic, so what line do you have to tread to show what is true and what works dramatically and on film?

Yeah, it is quite a tightrope you walk because even though it is based very much on specific moments from Jane’s book, the story she tells, specific stories we knew from Stephen’s life and from the kids’ lives, you are still taking 25, 30 years and you’re putting it to two hours, so in a sense, you’re writing a poem of these peoples’ lives, to a degree. So that is a tightrope in a sense, that you’re definitely condensing the key elements of their life so that we can all walk away after two hours and have a sense of what it might have been like to be them. And because their life is so extraordinary, they faced such extraordinary challenges, I think you still walk away in sort of in awe because their life just doesn’t match anyone else’s, you know what I mean? It’s quite an extraordinary thing that they walked, but that was a tightrope really, to try to bring forth the truth, but sometimes it’s not about the literal truth, the literal thing that the person said. We were always trying to capture the truth of the spirit of their life. We were trying to really deliver what you could say was what it was like, that’s the kind of thing Jane would have said, the kind of thing Stephen would have said, and that’s the intent of what they were doing in that period of their life and that’s what they mean to each other in this point in this point in their life. I think that was a tightrope Anthony was always walking with the script and did it quite well. And James is a master at this because of his documentary background. You know, James is so intent on the truthfulness of each moment and he had that obviously with “Man on Wire” so it was quite perfect to have that kind of director because he cared just as much as we did about it being truthful.

I was reading an interview with Anthony and I can’t remember what he said Stephen Hawking said after seeing the movie.

He recently said something incredibly truthful about [his] marriage. I can’t remember it exactly, but after the movie he said, and it’s quite funny, that it’s “broadly true.”

And then also we simulated his electronic voice in the movie, which you can obviously do quite well, but his electronic voice is actually different, it has a different cadence and after he saw the film, he offered his voice and we sent him the dialogue and he actually recorded through his computer and then sent it back to us. He has a different rhythm and a different sound and the editor actually had to re-cut the picture slightly because the rhythm of his voice is different. And you’ll see elements in the movie, awards that are on the wall and his actual thesis with his actual signature – that’s his actual thesis that we cut to in the film because he lent us all those artifacts, which was quite an honor, that he felt very supportive.

What do you hope people take away from the movie and what did you personally learn from being part of the filmmaking?

I still keep learning from it because it really is movies like this that are heartfelt that are about two people living extraordinary lives that have a lot of layers – I keep changing my perspective on time, I keep getting a different perspective on what time means and what we can do with time and how valuable time is. I think Stephen took something where a lot of people could have just quit and he did the polar opposite. So I really hope people get inspired. I really hope that it shifts people a little bit in terms of how they use their own time, whatever time they’re given on this earth. I hope it inspires them to do something, I hope it inspires them to reach to the stars because he and Jane certainly did.

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