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Errol Morris on Stephen Hawking and A Brief History of Time (and Yo Yo Ma and Cello Playing)

A Brief History of Time

The pairing of the finest scientific mind of his generation with one of America’s best documentarians and the preeminent composer of his time should, one would think, have made more of a lasting impression on the cinematic landscape. However, 20-odd years after its release, Errol Morris’ 1992 A Brief History of Time – a (liberal) adaptation of Stephen Hawking’s all-time bestseller, with a score by Philip Glass – is a title receiving a much-needed revival thanks to its release on DVD and Blu ray through Criterion.

Morris’ movie, which cannily interweaves Hawking’s own compelling history with the astrophysicist’s theories of the universe’s beginnings, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1992 and made a handful of year-end top 10 lists but mysteriously failed to connect with (intellectually timid?) moviegoing audiences in anything like the way Hawking’s book had done with a global readership. The irony of this is that the film very skillfully conveys its scientific ideas thanks to the visual invention and dexterity of Morris (who himself studied at Princeton under John Wheeler, the theoretical physicist who coined the term “black hole”). Indeed. the universe depicted in the film that is most alien and baffling is the Oxbridge academic sphere occupied by Hawking and his charmingly eccentric family, friends and colleagues.

Last month, Morris spoke to Filmmaker about this re-release of what he deems one of his best works, his friendship with Stephen Hawking, and playing the cello for Yo Yo Ma and Hawking’s ex-wife, Jane. A Brief History of Time is available through the Criterion Collection from today.

Errol Morris
Errol Morris

Filmmaker: Has it been odd doing press simultaneously for both The Unknown Known, your new film, andA Brief History of Time, talking about two films that are 20-odd years apart? What is it like going back and talking about old work?

Morris: With A Brief History of Time, it is old work but it’s also current work. The circumstances around the production and the release of the film were such that I felt that the film never really got its due. It certainly never got its due abroad. I don’t believe that it was ever shown – or if it was shown, it was shown in a very, very limited way – in the UK. Which is very strange in and of itself. Among other things, it is a UK story.

Filmmaker: Absolutely.

Morris: So, I’m delighted that the film now exists in a better form than it has in the past. There was really no decent transfer, and there was no DVD, for years and years and years. And then it floated around in one bad form or another on YouTube. And, to me, it’s one of my very best films and a film that I’m really, really proud of. So, the idea that it’s now finally out and that people can see it, is terrific. There was a screening of A Brief History of Time at DOC NYC [in 2010]. My producer had never seen it [before], and she watched and said, “That’s probably your best film. How come that’s not available?” So my thanks to Criterion and my thanks also to John Bailey, who did this extraordinary job of finally making it look the way it’s supposed to look.

Filmmaker: When I was thinking about the film, it struck me that your background and the fact that you studied physics for a period under John Wheeler made you uniquely qualified to make this. Having an understanding of the material is so crucial to be able to take this to interesting places, and I wouldn’t imagine that there are many people who could easily occupy that headspace.

Morris: I think, yes, in one sense, knowing some of the underlying physics. I remember when it was first suggested that I make this film, I worried that this would be a pure science film. I said over and over and over again that whatever movies are, they’re not a good place to teach people theoretical physics or general relativity and cosmology. And if that was the nature of the enterprise, I wasn’t particularly interested. I was flying across the Atlantic to meet Stephen Hawking for the first time and I was reading A Brief History of Time. I don’t know if I would call this an epiphany, but it was an epiphany of sorts, but I was reading the book and I suddenly realized that this book had been completely mischaracterized. (Often the case, by the way.) People saw A Brief History of Time as the opportunity to learn something about modern physics. And I didn’t feel that that was really at the heart of the book. I still don’t. The book is a not-so-thinly-disguised autobiography. I always thought it was funny when Hawking would say, “I did not want a biography film, I wanted a science film.” But if you read A Brief History of Time, it’s something really quite different. The date of his birth [300 years to the day after the death of Galileo], the connection with Newton… the connection between his physics and his physical condition. I mean, it’s not something to belabor, but it’s really hard not to notice Stephen Hawking is writing about these regions of space/time which are cut off from the rest of the universe. And then, he investigates along with Jacob Bekenstein the entropy of black holes and decides that things can escape from a black hole. All the while, he’s trapped in this chair, and is able still, with this on-off switch, this clicker, to communicate with the rest of the world. A whole set of very powerful metaphors are there. And so I told him that my job was really to capture that story of the connection between biography and ideas. All of these tropes and metaphors and images that come out of modern physics, regardless of whether they’re exact parallels and of course they’re not, still give you the possibility of making a very romantic film, about Hawking and his enterprise.

Filmmaker: How did he respond to the film?

Morris: He said the nicest thing that anyone could have possibly said to me about A Brief History of Time. He first saw it at a screening at the old CAA offices, and he came out of the screening room and he thanked me for making his mother a star. What makes it even more peculiar is I was in Cambridge for Hawking’s 60th and 70th birthday parties, and each time his mother would be there. But his mother had never seen the film. And I thought that’s so, so, so sad, because she’s so fantastic in the movie. She’s one of my very favorite, favorite people that I’ve ever put on film.

Filmmaker: What was it like entering that world of eccentrics and academics occupied by Hawking’s family, friends and peers?

Morris: One unlucky thing was that the movie went into production right at the time that Stephen Hawking separated from his wife. Within a matter of weeks or months. Stephen had moved in with his nurse, Elaine Mason. And with any [breakup], people take sides. As a result, there were many, many people who just refused to speak to me. Interview after interview after interview cancelled. And that was unfortunate.

I tried very, very, very hard to get Jane Hawking to appear in the film and met with her – it was one of my favorite experiences. I really hadn’t been playing the cello very much. I had not been practicing. And I went to see Jane and her boyfriend, who was a classical musician – a pianist and harpsichordist – and I was trying to convince her to appear in the film. Everyone was convinced, by the way, that I was involved in some kind of muckraking, because why else would I be making the film when they had just separated? Clearly, I had to be making a movie about the separation. And in fact, I wasn’t. I would tell people this repeatedly, but it’s one of those things where just no amount of talking was going to convince anybody of anything. So [Jane] asked me to play something for her. One of the children was a cellist, so there was a cello there and the music for Fauré’s Elegy. So she asked me with her boyfriend to play Fauré’s Elegy. I should’ve been practicing more.

Now if you ask me to play Fauré’s Elegy, I would do a very good job. But then it was not so good. And I tell people that if only I had been practicing more and playing a little bit better, I could’ve gotten the interview. [laughs]

Filmmaker: That was the deal-breaker?

Morris: That was the deal-breaker. [laughs]

Filmmaker: I would imagine you’re ahead of most documentarians in your classical music abilities.

Morris: Well, I practice now. So, there you go. And I should practice even more.

Filmmaker: Do you see some kind of parallel between practice and the discipline of classical music and documentary?

Morris: I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it quite like that. But music has always been really, really important to me. For years, I just was depressed about my playing, so I didn’t play. I mean, you don’t want all these stories, but I started playing again about close to 15 years ago because I was filming an Apple commercial with Yo Yo Ma. And he had his cello with him, a Strad,and his bow was a Tourte, I believe. He told me he liked my films, I told him I liked his cello-playing. And then I told him that I was a kind of amateur cellist. And he said, “No, you’re not.”

He couldn’t believe it. And I said, “Oh no, no, no, I’m an amateur cellist, alright. I don’t really play all that well, but I do play.” He said, “Where did you study?” I said, “I studied at Julliard.” He said, “No you didn’t!” (We have all of this on 35mm film, by the way.) So then he said, “Well, you have to play for me.” So he took out this Strad and made me play for the crew. [laughs] It was, if you like, a second version of playing for Jane Hawking, except somewhat more frightening by many quarters of magnitude. I played part of [J.S. Bach’s] Preludium to the D minor suite and he said, “You know, that’s not so bad – you should practice!”And so I did, I started taking cello lessons and I started practicing.

Filmmaker: I guess when Yo Yo Ma tells you you should start practicing, you start practicing.

Morris: Well, I did.

Filmmaker: That’s a great story.

Morris: Now [cosmology has] become a kind of cottage industry, it’s quite remarkable. I used to joke with [Hawking about this]. There’s a line from Conan the Barbarian –John Milius never really adequately credited with coming up with some of the funniest and best lines ever – when the penitents are on their way to see James Earl Jones. They’re on this winding road leading to the mountains, a road lined with crucifixes and various people who have been crucified on them, and one penitent says to the other, “It used to be just another snake cult. Now you see it everywhere.” And it is really the story of modern cosmology. It’s become ubiquitous and Hawking, they now make movie after movie after movie after movie [about him]. I mean, there are two feature films or dramatic films that I know of. One of which is finished and the other, which I believe is in production. And the fascination with Hawking of course, just grows and grows and grows and grows.

Filmmaker: I think there was a quote from you where you said Hawking was the first ever non-talking talking head.

Morris: Basically, yeah.

Filmmaker: It’s remarkable that he’s such a compelling character within the film, given that.

Morris: I can tell you that the first time that I met him, when I walked into his office, I found it to be one of those frightening things ever. And I can tell you why I think it was frightening. There’s a psychiatric element. I don’t know how better to describe it. I don’t remember exactly the questions that I asked him, what exactly I said to him. But you wait for what seems like an extraordinarily long time for an answer. Now once you know him, once you’ve spent time with him, all of that has become familiar, and in fact, when I got to know him better, I would sit next to him so I could read what he was writing on the screen while he was writing it. Then it became a game that you could play, trying to finish Hawking’s sentences before he finished them. Not out loud, but you would be engaged with him in this process of conversation actually. But in those first moments, where you’re just there, you don’t know what he’s thinking, you don’t know whether he just simply wants you to leave.You don’t know whether what you’ve just said has been deemed to be colossally stupid and unworthy of any kind of answer.And gradually, I got to know him. And really like him.

I remember, at Elstree Studios I constructed a facsimile of his office, and there was a Bert Stern photograph of Marilyn Monroe on the wall, and it fell off the wall during shooting. Stephen Hawking said, “A fallen woman.” And then, I started to think about the Marilyn photograph, and so I said to Stephen, “I suddenly realize the connection between you and Marilyn.” So he looks at me. And I said, “Both of you were extremely smart people appreciated not for your mind but for your bodies.” And he gave me this really, really weird look, and then he said, “Yes.” I love Stephen Hawking. Can I tell you one other story?

Filmmaker: Of course.

Morris: Another story, and maybe [here] he was just expressing the fact that I’m an idiot, which I well might be. I said, “I know you can’t look into a black hole, it’s the event horizon, blah, blah, blah. But let’s just say hypothetically you could look past the event horizon into the interior of a black hole, what do you think you might see?” He looks at me and then there’s a lot of clicking. And then just before he speaks, the voice is activated, and there’s a beep that tells you that he’s set up all of the answer and it’s about to be spoken by the voice synthesizer. And the answer was, “Seven… leather-bound… volumes… of… Proust.”

Filmmaker: That’s awesome.

Morris: He’s awesome.

Filmmaker: That’s a great story.

Morris: I’ve been lucky to have him at our house for dinner at least three or four times.I think I’m very, very, very lucky to have known him. I’m cynical about so many things, but I just simply cannot be cynical about Stephen Hawking. He’s amazing.

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