Director Tom Harper also explained why the historical adventure film is centered around a male-female pair: “Two men in a basket not talking to each other was not going to fly.”
The leads of Amazon Studios’ 1860s-set adventure The Aeronauts start their record-breaking balloon expedition, nearly 40,000 feet into the sky, off on the wrong foot. But for the award-winning actors behind the characters, Theory of Everything co-stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, their past work and real-life friendship helped them begin their latest collaboration on the right one.
“The thought of building on what we’d already established in Theory of Everything, I think, gave us an enormous confidence,” Jones told The Hollywood Reporter at the New York premiere of The Aeronauts. “To go on that adventure with someone that you already had built a trust, a love, an affection with and the ability to admit mistakes — I think it’s when you can take the ego out of a creative dynamic and make it so much more personal that you get a grateful, strong working relationship.”
Directed by Tom Harper (Peaky Blinders, The Woman In Black 2) and co-written by Harper and Jack Thorne (Wonder, His Dark Materials), the biographical adventure follows daring pilot Amelia Wren (Jones) and unyielding scientist James Glaisher (Redmayne) through a perilous journey.
Trapped thousands of feet in the air, the two trailblazers must survive extreme weather events as they navigate flying higher than anyone before them in the name of air travel, weather science and the spirit of discovery.
Recalling how he and Jones got involved with the project, Redmayne told THR both actors were sent the script on the same day, and after calling each other up, mutually agreed to do the movie only if the other did. The Fantastic Beasts actor described the nature and requirements of the role, which involved “three months stuck in a tiny basket with someone” as “quite a hard task.” It was one made easier by having someone he knew and cared about at his side.
That familiarity not only helped the actors navigate their characters’ tougher challenges — both with the elements and with each other — but also eliminated the early back and forth of gauging and gaining creative trust. Already knowing their each other’s process didn’t just benefit the actors. Director and co-writer Harper says that because of Jones and Redmayne’s bond, the production was able to get a “head start.”
“They had such great working relationship and a foundation of trust that enabled them to sort of dare each other to go further and to take risks,” Harper told THR at the Wednesday night premiere. “And they were genuinely including me in that process, and so, therefore, I was able to join them in that inspiration. They inspired me. We dared each other to take risks and push each other further.”
The film is based on several flights detailed in Richard Holmes’ 2013 book Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. Its most central journey, however, is an adaptation of a September 1862 expedition mounted by British aeronauts James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell. At the time, their harrowing adventure in a coal gas balloon broke the world flight altitude record. The book’s detailing of this captured a sense of adventure for Harper.
Why Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones Filmed Key ‘Aeronauts’ Scenes in a Real Hot Air Balloon
But when it was time to adapt that, the director told THR that the men’s encounter — piloting the balloon and taking consistent measurements — meant there was little time to speak to each other.
“Two men in a basket not talking to each other was not going to fly,” Harper explained. That’s why he and Thorne decided to explore the Glaisher and Coxwell story through a different lens: the work and personality of early female aeronauts such as Sophie Blanchard.
“I think the problem with telling historical dramas is there’s kind of a bias towards men because there’s a gender bias in so many fields — science and the film industry for sure,” Harper said at the premiere. “So given the opportunity to work towards better representation, I think it’s something that we embraced and, I think, we all need to do much more of. When you’re not trying to make a documentary, why wouldn’t you take a great female character and put them in the basket as well as a male character?”
Before working on the film, Redmayne was mostly unfamiliar with the film’s era of historical exploration. But Harper’s decision to examine this point in time through the lens of both a woman and a man was part of what attracted the actor to the project.
“It was a very kind of male-dominated thing, and it was about doing science — extreme science — but also with machismo,” Redmayne told THR. “And I loved that in this story, which is a conflation of true stories from that period, that, you know, while Glaisher had an absolute aspiration for his science, it was Amelia that was doing all the kind of formidable work.”
In the end, Harper swapped Coxwell with Jones’ Wren. It was the kind of shift that allowed the Theory of Everything co-stars to explore a leading male-female relationship through an action — not a romantic — dynamic, like the one they shared in the 2014 Stephen Hawking drama.
The Aeronauts is ultimately about two people working together to achieve something bigger than themselves. It’s a dynamic Redmayne says has always existed between him and Jones, who “work with equal passion and equal fairness.” But, Redmayne noted, the difference in who each film centralizes and the demands of their roles during the air expedition changed when one of them physically drove scenes.
‘The Aeronauts’: Film Review | Telluride 2019
“On a purely technical level, so much of the blocking of the scenes when we did Theory of Everything would be instigated by Stephen’s physicality, so Felicity would have to adapt to that, which felt sort of parallel to when Jane had to support Stephen for all that period,” Redmayne said. “I think that certainly on this film, in which [Glaisher] is the passenger and he’s never been in Berlin before, she’s the one that runs it. It was definitely up to Amelia [Wren] to be sort of pushing me around the place.”
This subtle shift, between who is present in a scene and who leads the action of it, is notable in a genre where women have historically been absent. For Jones, working with her co-star in this way was “invigorating.”
“In many ways, the film is a very small indie at its heart. It’s two people in a basket, basically, and the complexity of their relationship, but it also exists on this massive scale, so you’re constantly pivoting from a micro to a macro job,” Jones told THR. “So I think it was exciting. It was good to build a different relationship, to be the same actors but in very, very different roles. There was something really fascinating about that new dynamic and having to get our heads around it.”
Amazon’s The Aeronauts opens for a limited two-week theatrical run beginning Dec. 6, before the film becomes available to stream online exclusively on Amazon Prime on Dec. 20.
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