By Steve Prokopy
Simply put, the new film from director Tom Harper, THE AERONAUTS, was meant to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Set in 1862, the film centers on pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), who teams up with daredevil balloon pilot Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones) to advance human knowledge of the weather and fly higher than anyone in history. During their voyage to the very edge of existence, the unlikely pair finds their place in the world as they face physical and emotional challenges in the thin air, as the ascent becomes a fight for survival.
Although based on actual events, Harper is quick to point out that his work is not a documentary and that he was more interested in telling this emotionally driven adventure story than doing a docudrama. In fact, the Rennes character is an amalgam of female flyers of the era. More importantly, the high-flying visuals achieved in THE AERONAUTS are guaranteed to be a limit-testing experience for anyone with a fear of heights. But it’s also a movie that places science and facts at the forefront of its story; Glaisher was interested in weather prediction because he wanted to better human existence and potentially even save lives.
As for Harper, for about 15 years, he’s enjoyed being a steadily working director in both British television (“Peaky Blinders,” the 2016 “War & Peace” miniseries) and film (WAR BOOK, THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH, and WILD ROSE, which was released stateside earlier this year). We spoke with Harper about his journey to make THE AERONAUTS, how he and screenwriter Jack Thorne crafted their female lead, and how dangerous it was to film a balloon-crash sequence. THE AERONAUTS opens at the Music Box Theatre for a limited run in 70MM beginning Friday, December 6th.
Question: The fact that Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones had worked together before on THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING matter to you? Did you want actors that had an established chemistry, or was that just a coincidence?
Tom Harper: It wasn’t the only reason for the choice; I just wanted the best actors for the parts. It actually almost stopped us from offering it to them because we were worried that they’d just made another movie together, maybe that wasn’t a good idea. But then I started to think that maybe it would work in our favor, and it turns out they wanted to find something else to work on together, and so they did. They had this proven on-screen chemistry, so they were already several steps ahead when they started off. They trusted each other and dared each other to take risks and push each other, support each other, and inspire each other. It was a really lovely thing. And they were generous enough to pull me into that. It was a really wonderful experience working with them.
There used to be a time when the film community used to rely more on acting teams—it was a selling point—and now, as you mentioned, it seems to be something people avoid. I thought it was great to see them back together.
TH: I really hope they continue to work together because they have a great relationship on screen, of course. Old Hollywood certainly wasn’t afraid of it, but even today, look at Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, they’ve worked together a bunch of times now, and they’re great together.
Why do you think it’s important to tell this story today? Beyond it being an impressive history lesson, what resonates about it today?
TH: I think there are many things that are relevant about it. In particular, one of the things I discovered is that they obviously didn’t know what was up there or how high you could go or what would happen. One of their key discoveries is that they worked out that oxygen runs out or becomes very thin; you can’t survive after a certain point. So in essence, they discovered that all of life as we know it is contained in this thin band of air just seven miles high. As such, it’s precious and we must do everything we can to protect it. And I think that’s never been more relevant than it is today.
I realize the character that Felicity plays is a collection of real people, but having a female lead be the daring and adventurous character, was that important?
TH: Yes. I wasn’t the reason for the choice to create Amelia Rennes. There was this one flight in particular that caught my attention, and I’ve always been quite interested in the weather and Sir James Glaisher as a pioneering meteorologist. There was this one flight where they went to 36,000 feet, which was higher than anyone had been in a balloon before or since without additional oxygen, so that really stood out. But on the actual flight, they didn’t really talk to each other because James Glaisher was just taking measurement and there was another guy flying, which is admirable but not the best cinema. And I had also read about these other balloon flights where all of these amazing things happened, so I knew that I wanted it to be an amalgam of different flights and that these two characters needed to change in some way in order to make it worth going to the cinema for.
Then I started asking myself “Who’s the best pilot you could find that’s going to cause the most amount of dramatic interest, if you put them in that confined space with Glaisher?” And there’s this pilot called Sophie Blanchard, who was a firecracker of a woman—flamboyant, did acrobatics, she threw a dog out of the balloon with a parachute on it, and she fell to her death in Paris. She set off a firework that went into her balloon and exploded. So I found this amazing character that was completely different than Glaisher, and I thought if we put those two in the basket together, you’re going to get some real sparks. So that’s how it came about, but the fact that it was putting a female character front and center and having her do the action, that was a bonus, that’s a great positive. Most historical films, because of the nature of women in society in the past, are about wealthy white men. There’s no harm in telling a story that is representative of our cultural values today, particularly if it comes about from the best dramatic and creative reasons.
Because so much of the story takes place in a single location, I couldn’t stop thinking that this would have made a great stage play. What were some of the steps you took to make this confined-space drama more cinematic?
TH: We thought a lot about how we wanted the balloon to evolve over the course of the journey. We did something called cloud charts that tell us what the type of clouds look like at different heights, like you see in the film. We did that, but then we’d say “Put the storm here. Snowflakes here. Butterflies here.” So we tried to figure out how to get this craft to evolve, when it’s constantly changing and shifting and looking beautiful. If you think of it as a magic carpet, if you like, going to completely different worlds, and each level of the atmosphere is a new world, then the visual landscape will change.
There are points where it feels like fantasy, and I’m guessing for people at the time, it might have felt that way.
TH: Yeah. Have you been a balloon?
TH: It is a bit like fantasy, right? It’s majestic, ethereal and surreal. And it’s pretty much the same contraption today as it was when the film is set. We don’t have a netting balloon today, but there’s still a wicker basket and a material-filled envelop of hot air or gas that you’re using to propel you up. That’s basically it.
Did you build a real one for the film?
TH: Yeah, and we flew it and took the actors up in it.
Logistically, what did shooting those aerial sequences look like? Were you just surrounded by green screens?
TH: Some of it was for real in the atmosphere. We did a number of real flights with the actors. We went up to 3000 feet, above Oxfordshire. I was in a helicopter, and we shot them. Obviously, we couldn’t put them in a real storm, for example. So for the bits we couldn’t do for real, we replicated them as close to the footage we did shoot as we could.
I assume you had technical advisors as well.
TH: We did, and aeronautical engineers, and legions of health and safety people.
I love that you’re treating science seriously and that you’re celebration it and using it as the dramatic device. Gathering this data is pat of the drama We live in a world where science is not almost treated seriously anymore. Was that another thing you wanted to emphasize?
TH: Absolutely. The importance of knowledge and finding out, and that has the potential to improve or save lives. Ultimately, small advances in technology in science—look at energy and look at something like LED light bulbs. What a huge difference that must have made to the world in terms of energy usage. They use something like three percent of what conventional light bulbs use. You think about vegetarianism and Impossible Burgers, for example. If they become successful in creating plant-based meats that are genuinely consumed on a certain level by consumers, that’s going to make an enormous different to our world. This progress that weren’t making through science makes massive difference to our ability to survive as a species and to preserve life and make life better. It’s fundamental to our progress.
And the way weather patterns are behaving in bizarre and unprecedented ways today, this particular story seems all the more important as a reminder. When Amelia is scaling the side of the ballon and it’s frozen and she’s freezing, tell me about staging that moment. You get some angles on that that truly freaked me out. Can someone even really do that?
TH: [laughs] Well we did it! In terms of the camera positions and giving a sense that she’s there, we wanted to film it in a way that could only ever be done if you did it for real. That meant either the camera was on the ballon with her with the cameraman literally being in the balloon, or in a helicopter. There’s nothing where someone is floating around in a studio. It had to feel real. But the height speaks for itself. We used particularly wide angle lenses to get a sense of the magnitude of the space as well.
The other scene that I think people are going to talk about, because it is in no way fantastical, is the landing. Again, that looks so real, like you crashed something and dragged people along the ground.
TH: We did! Two things: on day one, we had a crash landing with our cast by accident. Eddie tells that story very well, and I don’t want to ruin it. But you can go online and find him telling that story, because it happened to him and nearly killed both our actors on day one. So they had that very visceral experience to draw from. I was trying to find a reference for crashes that we could draw from and I couldn’t find any from other films, so what I drew from were a lot of real crash landings of balloons and parachutists. We took our stuntwoman Helen and dragged her along the ground using these two enormous cranes. We put the hoop in the balloon and fired it into the ground and dragged it through the trees.
One of things that connects us with these two characters is that they’re damaged for various reasons, and the success of this, they think, is worth their lives. The information is that important. Were you worried about putting two people in this balloon whose emotions were so volatile that they would probably never pass modern psychiatric test to fly a plane, for example?
TH: That’s why I wanted to put them into a balloon. They’re trying to escape something in their lives and looking for answers to something in their own different way. Through each other, they are able to find their place in the world, back on earth. That sums up the journey and narrative arc of the film, the fact that they would both push themselves to such extreme lengths, which was the thing that made them so interesting to me.
There are facts and a few character decision that do stray from the facts. When you’re telling something that is a historical story, when did you say it was okay to stray from the truth and when wasn’t it?
TH: It’s about remaining truthful to the essence of the story you’re telling, and at no time are we ever pretending or attempting to suggest that this is real. Of course, it is inspired by true events—I read all of these amazing stories about balloons and that’s where the story came from—and 90 percent of the things that happen in the film did actually happen, so that’s the “Inspired by true events” part. But there are lots of wonderful books written by those aeronauts themselves about what actually happened, there are fantastic museums, and good documentaries, but we’re a Hollywood action-adventure movie. I don’t think anyone expects or imagines that we’re trying to say this is how it happened. You have to go with that in mind and tell the best story you can according to the dramatic principles of the movie, and tell the most thrilling, adventurous, entertaining movie, while also sticks to the dramatic and conceptual truth. For example, the important of knowledge to further our ability to improve live for others. That’s a core, fundamental truth of the narrative. As long as you remain true to things like that, that’s the benchmark to which we adhered. But to answer your question, I think it’s so clear that we’re not pretending to be a museum piece or a documentary. We use our artistic license to thrill and entertain.
I’m just glad you name her Amelia. I’m guessing that wasn’t an accident.
TH: It wasn’t [laughs].
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com), and appears weekly on WGN Radio as part of the Nick Digilio Show’s Monday Morning Movie Reviews segment. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.”