James Marsh Enters Stephen Hawking’s Universe

The director on his new film, The Theory of Everything

Tullio M. Puglia / Getty Images for Lancia

The cosmologist Stephen Hawking is best known for his big ideas, and has arguably done more than any other scientist to popularize the story of the universe. I corresponded over e-mail with James Marsh, the director of the new Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, out November 7, about his new film, multiple universes, the fate of social progress, and beyond. 

Most of what we hear about Stephen Hawking tells of his later career. What's most surprising about his early life?

I was struck by how idle and directionless he appeared to be before he was diagnosed with ALS. Obviously, he had a brilliant mind for theoretical physics, but when he was completely able-bodied, he didn’t apply himself, by his own admission. The inverse correlation between the progression of the illness and his increasingly significant thinking and research is fascinating. 

Which of Hawking's ideas about the universe do you find most fascinating, or most troubling?

Black holes are pretty scary when you ponder them. They seem nihilistic, infinitely destructive on an inconceivable scale, not withstanding the ideas of Hawking radiation. From working on this project, I came away with the idea that we have a tiny and ephemeral window of consciousness on an infinite and unknowable universe (or multiverse) and our existence might just be an utterly irrelevant part of some vast cosmic joke—of which no mortal will ever know the punchline. 

The Theory of Everything TRAILER 1 (2014) - Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones Movie HD

If it's true, as Hawking believes, that there are an infinite number of universes and every possible reality plays out in one of them, how should that affect how we behave in this one?

It is a theoretical idea and not one that I can conceive of—or agree with. Even if it were to be true, it shouldn’t influence us at all. We don’t need cosmic alibis to absolve us from our daily responsibilities or moral choices.

What did you want to be as a child and how has that informed the person that you've become?

I wanted to be a police detective. In my work, particularly in documentaries, I am obsessed with finding things out, seeking ever-new facts and perspectives—each project can involve years of research. For a film to be viable, it has to survive this process of scrutiny. I think most filmmakers have obsessive-compulsive tendencies and would be completely unemployable in any other job—so it’s great to be able to channel your psychological anomalies into something productive and creative. 

What do you think should be in the collection of the Smithsonian 50 years from now?

Artifacts from Colorado’s recent legalization of marijuana might be worth gathering up, along with souvenirs of the first gay marriages. These look like significant social developments that will make future generations baffled by our sanctimonious and self-defeating prohibitions on basic human desires and personal choices. And if not, they will stand as stark reminders that all human progress is fragile and completely reversible. 

Is there anything whose truth you cannot prove yet you can't help but believe in anyway?

The fundamental decency of human beings. I don’t quite believe it either—I just want it to be true. Every day you discover evidence for and against that proposition. 

Why search for a theory of everything?

Why not? Also—we have no choice, it is in our nature. 

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.