Anthony McCarten and the Art of Trying Harder: The Screenwriter of ‘The Theory of Everything’

Anthony McCarten and the Art of Trying Harder: The Screenwriter of ‘The Theory of Everything’

nullWriting a
film about one of the most brilliant men on earth can’t be an easy task. The Theory of Everything, though, not only showcases Stephen Hawking, but even more so his wife Jane. When I
sat down to chat with screenwriter Anthony McCarten, I wasn’t surprised that he
had a compassionate and introspective attitude towards every topic we
discussed. I thought, this man was made
for storytelling.
McCarten, though, was quick to stress just how much work
it requires: a theory Mr. Hawking might agree with himself. Telling the best
stories and revealing the most exciting secrets comes with the greatest


After McCarten and I discussed our favorite teahouses in
London–yes, he’s very British–we got down to his beginnings. “I started as a
journalist.” This is where McCarten first learned a little about writing. He
recalls the first story he ever wrote: “We used to put these stories in vacuum
cylinders, and they used to shoot across the room to the sub-editor.” He remembers
her, surrounded in clouds of smoke as she crossed out and filled in an array of
articles. “She wrote some stuff on it and she put it back in the vacuum
tube. I opened up the little cannister,
and it was all entirely crossed out, with just the words, ‘Try harder’.”

This stuck with McCarten. I point out how elusive that
statement can be. We’ve all heard it before, whether from our third-grade math
teacher or our adult boss. He specifies what it meant to him.

“Be more ambitious.
Do your homework. There’s no easy way around this. We live in an age of, what course can I sign up for and in 24 hours
become a screenwriter

He’s got a point. But McCarten didn’t learn
screenwriting quick. He’s been in the business of writing for many years,
working also as a novelist and playwright. I brought up his most successful
play to date, Ladies Night. It had
eight sell-out national tours of Britain and has been translated into twelve
different languages. McCarten laughs, “It’s been everywhere! It’s been done on
an ice floe in Greenland!” He’s kidding: “No, but almost.” But
that success didn’t come until after he had a number of other plays produced.
He shrugs: “But no one went to them. Commercial success and quality are not
necessarily allied.”

He compares playwriting to his work as a screenwriter,
discussing that although plays are built upon dialogue, the two crafts aren’t
dissimilar. “It’s the same game, but it’s different tools from the toolbox.” McCarten does point out that he finds novel
writing is the most “meditative, most prayer like.” He’s
had the best experiences with screenplays when he’s allowed to also reach that peaceful state.
Luckily for McCarten, he’s developed a way to enter this meditative state regardless of location: “I was born to a very
large family, one of 7 kids, I grew up with carnivals and chaos all around me,
so I can write anywhere.” He wrote his last novel entirely on a dining car on a train
in Germany, enjoying the sounds of the car and people around him.

So, how did McCarten, who’s clearly already made a name for
himself in the British literary scene get involved with The Theory of Everything? As it turns out, winning the approval of
Jane Hawking wasn’t as easy as one may think. 

McCarten read Jane Hawking’s book, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen in 2004 and was already
“hyper-aware of Stephen Hawking and the dramatic potential of his story.” He
realized “this is God’s gift to a storyteller.” McCarten attributes that to the
uniqueness of Hawking. “When that voice comes out of the computer…. it’s the
voice of God himself! It has an enormous power.” A relationship story centered on
a man like this excited him.

“Love stories are all
about obstacles.”

Approaching Jane required some guts, more than just reaching
out to an editor or agent. “I had to do something more outlandish,” McCarten
reveals. “I stalked her!” He went to Cambridge and showed up at her door. Her publisher
had set up the appointment, but she had never met McCarten before. I had to know
what pitching Jane Hawking was like: “I sketched it out
roughly on the train. It was three movies in one. I wanted to give equal weight
to all those three threads.”

“I used a clumsy
image of a triple helix, of these three threads complementing each other. The
threads would be this one of a kind love story, with all the little unorthodox
changes in course. The second thread would be the physics that would tell us
something about the birth of time and the nature of time. The third element would
be the horror story of Stephen’s physical decline.”

This was his pitch, and McCarten is thankful the script never
changed much from his original idea. “I wanted the story of the career to be
just as important as the care. I wanted the woman’s story to be just as
important as that of the iconic man.” To his relief, Jane was convinced of his ideas,
enough to tell him to write a draft of the script. “That began the
process of me winning her trust.” 

Again, like the “try harder” goal, gaining someone’s trust
can be equally as abstract. How do you actually do it? McCarten reveals
that for him, gaining trust for a project means, “You prove it on paper. In the
end it’s not the pitch, it’s the work you produce.” When Jane finally read his
draft, she could tell that it wasn’t all talk. After that, McCarten and Jane started
to make progress. Up until then. McCarten explains that Jane’s autobiography
had been unflinching. “Some of the press in England can be a little malicious
and gave the book quite a hard time. They don’t want to hear that side of the
story. They don’t want to hear that it might have been hard work looking after
Stephen.” But for McCarten, that’s exactly the element of the story he wanted
to bring to life.

As McCarten got deeper into writing the script, and one
about a man he greatly admired, he admits, “It brought out the best in me. It
required nothing less than my best shot.” But his greatest worry wasn’t
capturing the Hawkings’ voices as much as it was that they would never be
heard. He wrote on the film for years without a guarantee it would be made.
“That was the scary thing. It would have been like a creative death or
something.” It would have been the script that slipped through his fingers.

Fortunately, it didn’t. Before we got to the details of
shooting the film, I had to know how McCarten crafted such a massive story. The
characters are just as complex as the concepts. Starting within his helix idea,
McCarten knew the beats in all three threads of the story. He carefully allowed
each thread, the love story, the science and the physical decline to naturally
weave together. ”It was really painterly in the approach, a little magenta, a
little bit of blue, a little bit of yellow and in the juxtaposition of these
elements, something else was born.” He found parallels between the expansion of
the universe and the growth of Hawking’s mind, “the black holes
being contractions of the universe and then his body collapsing. It was like
adding two chemicals together and getting a third reaction.”

These mirror images are prevalent in the film and powerful,
without being heavy-handed. Time is also something that connects all three
threads and serves as a throughline. “The theory of everything: another phrase for
that is the unifying principle, and the unifying principle of this whole entire
script is time. It’s implicit in his doctoral thesis in the beginning of it.”
Hawking, from the beginning, is living at a different speed, experiencing time
differently than the characters around him. “Although we’re very much
intellectually driven to look forward, the heart is a bit of a time traveler
and it’s just as alive in the past as it is in the present.” Upon a closer look,
time travel is even mentioned in the dialogue, Jane ascribing her love for
literature to it.

McCarten reveals that the concept of time travel was
implemented in more than just the dialogue. ”Everyone on the team tried to
embody it in their own way. I know that the cinematographer, Benoît
Delhomme, did a great job of finding cosmic elements that would, without
rupturing reality, give you a sense of timelessness.” He did so with lighting,
keeping a stronger light on Stephen because he was the sun. In the visual and
emotional language of the film, everyone orbited around him. McCarten laughs, “Everyone
was trying to dial up the inner poet.”

So much of the film did rely on the visuals, more so than
usual, given the protagonist is losing his capacity for words. Although
McCarten comes from a playwriting and novelist background, he was excited to
work on a project not so reliant on word play.

“I wanted to work
with the restrictions almost Stephen had, taking away the primary tool in my
toolbox which is dialogue and working with almost nothing.”

A scene with Stephen and Jane comes to my mind. He tells her
he’s moving to America and their marriage is basically ended. So much is communicated,
with such little speech. McCarten agrees that it’s one of the scenes he’s most
proud of. “By the end of the scene they’re no longer husband and wife, and to do
that with almost no words was one of the great challenges and joys of writing
this kind of material.” While developing that scene, he scraped away the
dialogue till there was almost none, having each word communicate multitudes. When
Jane says, “I have loved you,” it’s a single line that changes their entire
relationship so far.  McCarten knew that in
order to earn this moment, and have it prove effective, he had to plant the
seed early on. He began with Jane and Stephen as a “witty, young couple and at
the end almost incapable of movement. They would be the polar opposite of each
other. I thought that central architecture would be really fascinating to play
with and I thought, the less dialogue I use in the end, the greater the
dramatic reward.”

McCarten’s construction of the script and the characters is
indeed elegant. Still, I was curious where he
was in the story. Every writer leaves an imprint of themselves on any
project. At first, McCarten explained that it’s more that “in between the known
points, they’re like stars in the sky, there are these vast empty spaces, and
this is where you have to use poetic license.” 

“It’s distilled
through what I think is appropriate for them, but they’re not there to give me
the exact words. I call it inspired speculation.”

McCarten never had the guarantee that he would get it right,
that these inspired moments would prove affective. But when Jane Hawking saw
the film and said, “I feel like I’m floating on air” and Stephen sat through it
and his “nurse wipe[d] tears from his cheeks,” McCarten was relieved, having a
realization he must have done something right:
“95% of the dialogue is just my best shot at what they might have said!” He admits,  “That’s you, that’s
your personality. You can’t write a character more brilliant than yourself. It’s
just not physically possible.” He brings us back to where we began, with his
first piece as a journalist. Whatever he’s working on, whether sending it
through a vacuum tube to an editor or onto a screen in front of Jane and Stephen
Hawking, McCarten still repeats that phrase to himself,  “Try harder!”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

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