Stephen Hawking

They may share the same first name, but director Stephen Finnigan heartily admits that that’s where the similarities between he and renowned subject of his upcoming documentary Stephen Hawking end. “I got a C grade in Maths and Physics. I didn’t even get an O-Level!”

Whilst Hawking’s achievements are touched upon, Finnigan’s documentary concerns itself with the life of the infamous scientist, painting a vivid portrait of the icon in the process. HeyUGuys caught up with the director to discuss how and why he came to the project, the difficulties he encountered during filming, and his filmmaking process.

How did you come to be involved in this project?

The idea for the film came from the executive producer Ben Bowie. He had worked with Stephen for about three or four years previously making TV series for the Discovery channel and channel 4 about Stephen’s science. Ben had got Stephen’s trust because of that and he and channel 4 had a discussion about the fact that now Stephen had turned 70, would he consider doing something about his personal life rather than his physics. Once Stephen expressed interest in that, I’m a freelance director and I’ve worked with channel 4 before so my name popped up and I was brought in to see if we could make it.

Did you have an opinion of Stephen before you went into directing the film?

I knew about Stephen Hawking’s work, but being honest physics was not my subject and I was terrible at Maths at school [laughs]. I was really intrigued to find out more about the man behind the physics, who he was and where he came from. So it felt like it could be really exciting, and then the idea of it being an autobiography…Straight away I thought Stephen should narrate it and guide it. I wasn’t a huge Hawking fan as there are so many around the world, but I didn’t really want to know about the Stephen Hawking everybody knows, it was about trying to find out about a totally different side of him.

I’m guessing when you make a documentary you want to be comprehensive, but you don’t want to throw too much information at the audience. What do you think the trick is to finding that balance?

When I first started making documentaries, I used to work with someone who said when you’re making a film and you’re explaining it to somebody, it’s a bit like you’re down at the pub with a friend telling a story. If you’re running out of time and you’ve got 10 minutes to tell a story, what parts would you tell? It’s almost that approach that you take sometimes. There’s so much you can say and tell about Stephen. In terms of his science and his physics, I knew straight away that to appeal to a different kind of audience, it needed to be 95% about Stephen as a person. We needed to understand why Stephen was so important and what he had discovered about physics and the universe we live in to understand what made him such a big name and why he’s so important. It was getting to grips with the man behind it, and once that whittled down, it wasn’t that difficult to plot the story.

We have quite a simple, linear approach – we start at the beginning and go to the end of where he is today. Although people think it’s the obvious way to tell a story sometimes I think it’s the best way otherwise you can overcomplicate it if you jump back and forth too much. The jumping back and forth in this film is present day, what I would call fly on the wall filming is what we do. I tried to find the moments in the story where we could come back to present day and see Stephen doing something in his life and then relate it to something in his backstory. I think it really told the most important moments that you would tell a friend if you were telling Stephen’s story.

You alluded to the fact that with Stephen there is so much that you can tell. How much footage did you end up with and how much didn’t you use?

There is a scene that didn’t quite come together properly as we were filming that would have been interesting to put in there; we filmed Stephen with his graduate assistant Jonathan, listening to a selection of possible new voices for a new computer system. When Stephen goes abroad, his whole wheelchair has to be shipped around and it costs a lot to do. They were thinking about keeping a chair with a computer system already set up in the States. So he was listening to 3-4 new voices, and he didn’t like any of them and preferred to stick with the one he has now. I feel that it did have a place in the film but it didn’t quite come together as we were trying to edit it.

We didn’t actually shoot that much. I had to choose my moments; it’s not like you can just be at Stephen’s house as he wakes up and film him silently for 4-5 months and then say goodbye. Straight away, it became obvious to that it was best for me to shoot the fly on the wall present day bits myself because it made it a little more intimate. Also, you never knew whether Stephen was going to be well enough that day so it was a cost issue as well. It meant that I could just capture a moment and if it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen. I grew up shooting on film in the early 90’s, and the reality was you couldn’t afford to shoot a lot. I’ve always been anti shooting a lot of footage because picking your moments and shooting them is often a little bit more realistic and you often make an easier film that way.

For Stephen, he has such a fast mind but the limitations of his body means he has to find new ways to communicate his thoughts. When you’re directing do you find yourself constantly having to adapt to new situations to get the best result?

Yes, sure. Particularly for this film, nothing really happens that quickly around Stephen’s world. It was actually quite hard to express that in the film. It can take him a very long time to communicate. For example there’s a scene where he listens to Wagner late at night at his house – he’s listening to a track called ‘The Enunciation of Death’ – and I asked him why he wanted to listen to that that night. He told me it was because when he was first diagnosed with his illness he identified with that piece of music and he still does today. It took him about 30 minutes to write that because he was quite tired late at night. I had to adapt to his circumstances.

Most of your work has been documentaries. Can you see yourself writing or directing a narrative feature in future?

I would love to. I started out making fly on the wall films in the mid 90’s because that was a great way to get into filmmaking. I’ve done a variety of history documentaries and current affairs. The drama in this film is more of a reconstruction, but I have worked with scripted drama before. I would love to do more narrative, but I love real life stories. If you can find the right story and the right scenario, dramatizing a real story is often a bit more exciting than just writing a straight drama.

Hawking is released in UK cinemas on 20 September, 2013 and will be available to own on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download on the 23rd of September.