James Marsh Q&A: ‘The Theory of Everything’ director
After making "The Theory of Everything," a biographical drama about the life of physicist Stephen Hawking, director James Marsh was anxious to hear the opinion of Hawking himself. "We took the screenplay to him to get his approval, which we got. I can't say he was wild about the idea, but he didn't object to it," says Marsh. "Then, as the film was almost finished, we had to show it to him, which was one of the most nerve-racking experiences of my whole life, to show a film about someone that's about his marriage and the source material is from his ex-wife, and who wants that perspective on your life?"
But Marsh still had to wait for Hawking's verdict: "Once the film was over, we had to wait quite a long time to get his reaction because how he communicates is quite slow," the filmmaker explains, "so the film ends and you're waiting for his reaction, his proclamation about it … and because silence is not a good thing, you need to kind of babble on inanely to fill this silence … this is happening in front of the very smartest man in the world, and there you are making yourself look more and more stupid."
As a documentarian, Marsh has heard the opinions of his films' subjects before, but despite his trepidation in this case, Hawking's response was positive. "His reaction was very generous and very gracious, and his proclamation was that it felt broadly true to him, which is not bad given the nature of the film we've made."
"The Theory of Everything" is a contender for Oscars this year, but Marsh is already an Oscar-winner, having won Best Documentary Feature in 2008 for "Man on Wire," about daredevil Philippe Petit's tightrope walk across the World Trade Center towers in 1974. After that victory, Marsh was invited to join the motion picture academy's documentary branch, so while he hopes for his first recognition for a dramatic feature, he'll also be considering this year's 15 shortlisted documentaries vying for nominations.
"I think you've got a system now that feels better in terms of how the process works to get the shortlist and the voting for the actual nominations," Marsh says of the academy's procedures for selecting the year's best in nonfiction filmmaking. "More people see more films in my branch, which I think is the right way of doing it." The current rules require films to complete seven-day theatrical releases in both Manhattan and Los Angeles and to submit their entry forms along with 300 DVD copies of the eligible work. This year, there were 134 documentaries in contention, which were narrowed down to 15 on December 2.
Describing the differences between working in dramatic and documentary films, Marsh says, "Documentaries are much more lonely … and in a sense it's more personal too, because it is just you and your three or four key collaborators, but your approach to the subject matter and storytelling is quite similar." As a voter, he says he gravitates towards "films that expand in your mind afterwards … That's kind of what I look for is a film that lingers."