The late Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is one of history’s least likely best-sellers. Yet the book was a pop-cultural phenomenon, selling more than 10 million copies and popularizing everything from advanced cosmological theories to the phrase “turtles all the way down.” It was also adapted into a documentary of the same name by Errol Morris. A Brief History of Time (which is currently streamable on FilmStruck) was Morris’ first major documentary after The Thin Blue Line and the first of his portrait films. Combining interviews with Hawking, his family, his friends, and his colleagues with clips from Disney’s bizarre live-action sci-fi film The Black Hole, archival images, and, of course, a Philip Glass score, A Brief History of Time is the kind of film that only Morris could make.
After Hawking’s death on Wednesday, I called up Morris to talk about making the film, why Hawking was his generation’s celebrity scientist, and their friendship, which continued for decades.
Isaac Butler: What drew you to the book—or to Hawking—as a subject?
Errol Morris: I was a graduate student in history and philosophy of science at Princeton. I have some familiarity with the underlying science, so I was interested for that reason alone. Eventually Amblin [co-founder and producer] Kathleen Kennedy became involved with this whole project and asked me about my interest. I said, “Of course I’m interested.” I was sent off to meet Hawking in Cambridge, England, at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Cambridge University.
I read the book on the plane on the way over. I was surprised, because I had been told that it was a book about theoretical physics and cosmology. But it was something much more than that. It was a work of literature.
He had done something strange and unusual and powerful. He had described himself and his own situation in terms of his science. Hawking’s greatest discovery—Hawking Radiation—was, in its own way, a tour de force. He was combining elements from general relativity, from quantum mechanics, and from thermodynamics in a new way. There’s something extraordinary about it, but what was most extraordinary about it is that here you have this entity, a black hole, from which nothing can escape. The gravitational field is so strong, surrounded by an event horizon. Nothing can escape from the black hole. Nothing inside that event horizon can get out.
What did Hawking show? Hawking showed that black holes are not entirely black. Radiation can escape from a black hole. He showed the mechanism through which this could occur.
At the same time, he’s telling you that he’s been condemned to this chair, to motor neuron disease, to ALS, and is really unable to talk. He’s lost his ability to speak, and now has to use a computer device, a clicker, a screen with a built-in dictionary and cursor. Despite the disease, he’s not trapped inside of himself. He’s able to communicate. He would always cite the famous line from Hamlet, “Bounded …”
“… in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.”
“… count myself a king of infinite space,” indeed.
In reading the book, you discovered this central metaphorical knot between his work and his most famous scientific discoveries.
Yes. I even think I said it to someone: “Maybe the pathetic fallacy is thinking it’s a fallacy.” Endowing the universe with humanlike attributes, it’s so much part of Brief History of Time.
Do you remember that first meeting with him?
Of course. It was frightening.
You were scared of him?
Of course. Who wouldn’t be? Here’s somebody who’s completely physically incapacitated, someone who can’t move, confined to a chair, can’t speak, and yet, he’s one of the most frightening people I’ve ever met. Call it ironic, whatever.
I guess you really don’t want to say something stupid in front of Stephen Hawking.
You don’t have a primer on how to conduct yourself in this kind of situation. You say something, and he doesn’t respond right away.
After a while you understand that he is clicking away composing a sentence that eventually he will click with his cursor and the voice synthesizer will speak the sentence that he’s just written. But, you don’t know this at first, so you’re just sitting there. Time goes by, and you don’t know whether he’s offended by what you just said, or whether he has no intention of answering, or what you’re supposed to do.
As I got to know him better, I wouldn’t sit in front of him at a desk. You walk behind him and watch as he was writing, watched as he was assembling sentences on the screen. It became almost like a game. He’s written three words. How is the sentence going to be completed? It just changed. It became participatory in way that at first it was certainly quite different.
What was the process of working on the film with him like? Not all of those passages are from the book. Were you sending him questions?
Yes. He was writing answers, and some of the material was taken from lectures that he had given. Some of it was written for the film. I called him the first nontalking talking head. It became pretty clear that you had to assemble a dictionary of Hawking shots, but there’s no point in interviewing him for those, because it’s not synced. It’s a voice synthesizer. He gave us the voice synthesizer so we could just assemble his voice in the office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he insisted on calling “the pseudo-Cambridge.” There’s nothing like this project.
Wait. He sent you the synthesizer so he could send you an answer and then you could feed it through the synthesizer to get the sound of his voice delivering the answer?
That’s really wild.
Yeah. It is really wild. Yeah.
What was the experience of actually filming him like?
Really endlessly interesting. I wanted to shoot him on a stage, so we assembled a facsimile of his office in a studio. He has all of these pictures of Marilyn Monroe on the walls. At one point, one of the pictures became unglued and fell off the wall. Stephen, of course, is clicking away and finally, he says, [synthesizer voice] “A FALLEN WOMAN.”
Finally, I said, “I figured it out, why you have all these pictures of Marilyn Monroe on the wall. Like you, she was a person appreciated for her body and not necessarily her mind.”
And he gave me this really crazy look, like, “What the fuck are you saying, Mr. Morris?” He gave me this crazy look, and then finally, there’s a click, and he says, “YES.”
I imagine figuring out how to tell the story that’s in that film was quite challenging.
Yes. It was. I used to joke. I said, “Whatever movies are, they’re not a very good place to teach people about general relativity and cosmology.” They’re not designed for that. Stephen Hawking didn’t want me to do a biography. He fought me tooth and nail. I said, “Well, you didn’t want me to do a biography. Brief History of Time is an autobiography. What are you talking about?”
I would read him sections from it. Gradually, he came to like what I had done. He finally saw it at the old CAA screening room. He came out and the first thing he said to me. … He looked at me. He said, “Thank you for making my mother a star.”
What was his argument against biography? He didn’t want to be the focus of it?
I think maybe he was embarrassed. I don’t really know. He’d just gone through a really nasty divorce. Maybe he felt that I would focus on the divorce.
Which isn’t in the movie at all.
I had no desire to do that. Jane Hawking wouldn’t even talk to me. There was such anger about his relationship with the nurse, with Elaine Mason, that it was hard getting a lot of people to participate in the film. There are people who loved Jane and sympathized with Jane. There are people who loved Stephen and sympathized with Stephen, and it was very, very difficult, but I think I came out with a film I’m really proud of.
Were you in touch after the movie?
We were in touch after the movie, but less and less frequently. He traveled less and less to the United States. I was over for his 70th birthday party, but I didn’t see him because he was sick that weekend. It makes me sad. He was at our house for dinner at least three times. He was really, really nice to my son. My son really loved Stephen. Stephen was funny.
That’s something I was really struck by in the movie. His description of an astronaut getting squished into spaghetti as he enters a black hole, for example.
Yeah. He’s perverse. He’s funny. Politically, extremely left wing. An all around good guy. I could just go on and on with stories about Stephen Hawking.
Please feel free!
My son was having trouble in school. He had been marked down, I think, unfairly on a quiz. We showed it to Stephen, and Stephen was ready to go to the school and argue on his behalf!
He was great. He was also ridiculous, which to me, in a way is one of the highest attributes that one can strive for. One of my favorite memories is watching him eat a lobster. Legal Sea Foods, a three-pound lobster, and the amount of enjoyment …
Is him eating a lobster an example of him being ridiculous?
The whole thing is ridiculous when you think about it. Would it be tragic? It wasn’t tragic in his case.
I remember the first time he came to visit our house. We were living on Essex Street. There were stairs in the front. In order to get Stephen into the house … It’s not an easy enterprise. We had to divide everything into three parts. There’s Stephen, the chair, and the batteries, which are extraordinary heavy.
I was carrying Stephen, and someone asked me, “What’s that?” I said, “Oh, it’s the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics!”
He got into the house. We have a lot of taxidermy in our house. He can’t talk, because he’s been disconnected from his chair and his speaking apparatus. They put him in the chair, and he’s at a sort of really odd angle, the kind of angle that you would imagine Stephen Hawking assuming.
He’s looking up at this albatross in a glass case in the living room, staring at the albatross. So we get him hooked up back up, get him in the chair, the voice synthesizer is on, still looking towards the albatross, and he says—this is the first line on being rehooked up—he says, “They’re very faithful.”
I love the guy. It was amazing.
It seems like each generation, we have the Celebrity Astrophysicist. We have Carl Sagan. We have Stephen Hawking. We have Neil deGrasse Tyson. Why was Stephen Hawking the one for that generation?
His illness has a lot to do with it. The fact that he was truly brilliant, truly creative, truly innovative, and he was a guy diagnosed in his early 20s as having only a couple years to live. He lived until he was 76. He lived fully, as a fully engaged human being: writing, lecturing, publishing, thinking, traveling around the world, everywhere. I remember someone asked me when I first started work with him, “How is Stephen Hawking’s health?” I said, “Well, for someone in the worst health I’ve ever seen, he’s doing just fine.”
It was just an amazing defiance of all of the odds, which in and of itself had this almost magical quality that he would keep going on. I’d have to say I was surprised in some way that he had died. Knowing that he, like everyone else, is going to die at some point, but he’d beaten the odds for so many, many years.
It was a gift to know him. He was a gift to all of us. We were lucky to have him. He was extraordinary in so many, many ways. Who else would offer to go to your son’s high school math teacher and complain?
You should have taken him up on it.
He would have done it!
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.