Fri. Aug 7th, 2020

Interview: 'The Aeronauts' director Tom Harper on his high-flying adventure and getting Felicity Jones up in the sky

Left: Tom Harper on set with Eddie Redmayne; Felicity Jones scales great heights in THE AERONAUTS

London-born director Tom Harper began as many directors do, making short films. But he quickly rose in ranks helming television projects like The Scouting Book for Boys (2009), Misfits (2010), This Is England ’86 (2011), Peaky Blinders (2013), The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (2015) and the Emmy-nominated and BAFTA-winning BBC TV miniseries War & Peace (2016).

2019 has brought not one but two feature films from Harper, the BAFTA and BIFA-winning Wild Rose, about a woman from Glasgow, Scotland (Jessie Buckley) who dreams of being a country star in Nashville, and his new epic adventure tale The Aeronauts starring Academy Award nominee Felicity Jones and Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne, which hits theaters this Friday, December 6th from Amazon Studios before debuting on Amazon Prime Video on December 20th.

I caught up with Harper at AFI FEST in November to discuss The Aeronauts, the festival response to the film and Felicity Jones’s derring do in the skies high above London.

AW: You’ve had a lot of festival time this year. Between Wild Rose and The Aeronauts it’s been a lot. How has that that experience been?

TH: It’s been great actually, I really love festivals. I’ve done film and television and one of the real things I love about films is that you get to go to festivals because you share your work with people, you make your work for an audience. To be able to share in that with an audience is one of the nicest things about the job. So it’s been really lovely to have such a nice run of it all together.

AW: There aren’t a lot of opportunities to do that with television. There are starting to, like The Crown‘s first episode premiered here at AFI.

TH: Yeah. But it’s really not the same way. They’re still different worlds and it’s still coming together perhaps, but still feels quite different.

AW: Were you excited or surprised by the response from festival reactions because I was there at Telluride and that was a pretty amazing response and I saw that TIFF was as well.

TH: I never quite know what to expect. I am always thrilled. It’s always thrilling when people like your work, but it’s a very sort of exposing thing. It’s very hard to be able to look at it in any objective manner until like a bit afterwards. I’ll give you an example: every time I show Aeronauts it’s always exhilarating. It’s always thrilling. I’m always thrilled if people like it, but it’s always caught up in the emotions of exposing your work and revealing something of yourself, which is always challenging. The other thing about Aeronauts was, we finished it two days before Telluride, so that was like, ahhhh! (laughs)

Whereas I did a screening for Wild Rose recently and actually because that’s been out, because of the reviews had all been done, no one was sort of judging it. It was just people watching it. And that was a really lovely experience because it didn’t have any of the same anxiety about showing your work for the first time. I saw I was at one with where that film had got to and where it is and what it is. Whereas I’m not quite there with Aeronauts, ask me again in six months time! But yes, it’s been wonderful, it’s been such a great response and and it is wonderful sharing it with audiences, but I still get very nervous and anxious because you put so much into it, you put so much of yourself into it.

AW: You had some overlap between the end of post-production of Wild Rose in the pre-production of Aeronauts. What was that like?

TH: I mean, it was great, honestly. Sometimes things just take forever and you have these great long gaps and then sometimes everything goes at once, like buses.

AW: A bit like feast or famine where it’s like, how do I not say yes to this?

TH: (laughs) Yes, exactly.

AW: How did you manage that transition then to be able to just completely move to that next project?

TH: Well, I had been working on Aeronauts for a awhile before Wild Rose came about. So I’d actually done quite a lot of the work on Aeronauts, and the prep on Aeronauts, at least conceptually in my head. So it wasn’t like starting from scratch. It was just picking up where I’d left off. So once Wild Rose was sort of slotted in it was one of the very rare experiences in my career where everything is slotted together perfectly.

Usually it’s to the detriment of one project or the other but Wild Rose happened whilst I was waiting for Aeronauts to get greenlit and then just as a Wild Rose was coming to an end and freeing up time, Aeronauts started gearing up and it’s just kind of went very smoothly. I also had some good producers who were very generous in making it all work with each other. And that makes a huge difference.

AW: Tell me a little bit about the creation of the story and that Felicity Jones’s character Amelia Wren is a fictional and Eddie Redmayne’s James Glasier is a real life person. What was the origin there?

TH: George Steel, my cinematographer mentioned that he’d heard a snippet of this book being read out on the radio of this balloon flight in 1862 where they traveled to 36,000 feet. So I read about this flight and it was remarkable. But initially I was like, well, I’m not sure there’s a movie there because these two, Henry Cocteau and James Glasier, who were both in the flight, didn’t talk to each other. They sort of just took measurements. And while that was admirable and they achieved this amazing thing, two people sitting in silence and basket doesn’t necessarily make for the greatest movie. So at that point I started looking around and thinking about ways in which I might be able to expand the story. I’d read about a whole number of other flights and characters and we realized, well, okay, there’s this other flight where they discovered this swarm of butterflies, you could put that in there. And there’s another flight where they cut the anti-piracy line and use that. Suddenly you’ve got all these amazing things to draw from. Then I came across this character, Sophie Blanchard, who this firecracker, flamboyant woman. I thought, well, if you took someone like that and put them in the basket with James, you have these two completely different characters and the sparks would fly and then you’d have a really interesting character dynamic. You could play it out in sort of real time and see how that relationship develops over time. So it was about how to kind of create this sort of cinematic journey. We knew from the very beginning that we weren’t setting out to make a documentary. So it became about how do we tell the best story.

AW: Was pairing Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne again a conscious decision or was it just kismet that it happened?

TH: We looked at the two characters and picked the best people for them. At the top of the list for James was Eddie and the top of the Amelia list was Felicity. And we were like, is that going to be problematic? Because they’ve recently done Theory of Everything, but then we thought, they clearly worked well together and it shouldn’t stop us from offering. And, there’s a long Hollywood tradition of people working together again and again. So, fortunately for us, they wanted to work with each other again and it stood in our favor. I think they’re wonderful together. I hope they work together again and again and again.

AW: It’s kind of strange that we don’t see more of that because it was such a common thing. Those pairings were a part of the draw.

TH: I guess you do see it but maybe it’s not quite so upfront I guess. Like I’m just thinking about Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone and I guess they’ve done three or four movies together, but not quite necessarily in the same upfront pairing, I suppose.

AW: True, and it’s also a different era now obviously, without studio contracts where you were just were supposed to do what you’re supposed to do. There’s freedom of choice with that now.

TH: Yes, exactly.

AW: You had a relatively modest budget for this being such an adventurous action film. How did you make the most of it?

TH: I think it’s a combination of a brilliant team and lots of prep. We met, we started having these meetings probably a year and a half out from the start of production where we would meet every month or two with our key HODs [Heads of Department] and we would go, okay, this sequence, how are we going to achieve it? Because we were so well prepped, and we had such a clear idea of what we were going to do, it meant that we could be very focused during our shoot. So I think that’s probably how we were able to make our money go far; we just didn’t waste any money.

AW: The visual effects and everything that is involved in it just looks so big and expensive and real.

TH: Oh, thank you.

AW: That steers me right to the balloon itself, which is really like a third character in the movie. Tell me about creating that for the film.

TH: Absolutely. The thought of building our own balloon and then flying it and then putting the actors in and flying, flying with them and doing the stunts was a real joy. With Felicity, we couldn’t have done it without such brave actors, in truth. But it informed everything that we did; it came out of that balloon. I think 70% of the film is set in the balloon. And so the fact that they HODs were able to go up in it and the fact that actors were able to go up on it and we were up to shoot scenes, we did it all at the beginning. So for all the stuff that we couldn’t do in the balloon, we were all able to draw from that experience.

I think that really informs the rest of the film; it feels so real because we’d all done it for real. It also meant that the visual effects had to match up to that standard, it had to match all the stuff that we did for real. So there was no excuse for not getting to that level of quality. But that was kind of something that we, that was the kind of concept that we took through the rest of it. How close to reality can we do it. So, when they get higher up, we chilled the studio to minus one degrees and they stuck their hands in ice cold water. So when you see the breath and the eyes glazing over from the cold, that’s all real.

Eddie did some hypoxia training where he’d gotten in a deep compression tank at the Ministry of Defense base and experience what it was like to have that lack of oxygen. The core center to Felicity’s performance for her I think was her desire to go to extreme physical lengths and to use that in her performance. And I think you can really tell that. And I have huge admiration for her for going to those extreme lengths.

AW: Did anything surprise you about Eddie or Felicity in their performance above expectation?

TH: Well, certainly I wasn’t expecting Felicity to climb out of the basket at 3000 feet above London! I mean, I wouldn’t do that. She always said that she wanted to do as much for real as possible. I always wanted her to do as much for real as possible. I thought there would come a point where she was like, you know, but again and again she went for it. All those stands where she’s doing those tricks, that’s her, that’s not a stunt woman. That’s her doing that 300 feet in the air above the cheering crowd. I was constantly surprised by how up for it she was, but in a kind of a smaller but no less significant way, I, I was surprised by how much they dared each other to take risks in their performance and how much they supported each other. I think that so much of performance is about taking risks and that means sometimes you fail. You can only take those extreme risks if you feel supported enough by your costars, by your crew. And that’s not just actors, by the way, it’s all members or any creative. You need to feel that you can put yourself out there and I think that they were really wonderful and inspiring and doing that amongst themselves and therefore encouraging others, myself included, to do that as well.

AW: What do you, what do you want people to feel and take away from The Aeronauts?

TH: I think I want people to have gone on a great epic adventure into the skies and have had a really exhilarating, thrilling experience. I want people to feel that humans are capable of wonderful things and great things and that it’s amazing what we can do when we put our minds to it. I think that we face many challenges as a species and I think that lots of times film does a wonderful job in exploring some of the difficult and the dark recesses of the human condition. I think that’s what I love that about film making, but it’s also important to celebrate some of the things we can do as humans. I hope that people take away something of that celebrate tree quality as well.

AW: Do you have any dream projects stirring or actors that you are really dying to work with?

TH: I’ve got loads of people I’d love to work with. I’ve really enjoyed the epic scale of this so I’d love to do sort of a modern day David Lean type movie. That’d be what I’d love to find.

AW: I love that idea.

TH: Since watching Aeronauts I’ve gone back and I watched Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge Over the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago, my own War & Peace had some of that. I would love to find some big new epic adventures.

The Aeronauts hits select theaters on Friday, December 6th from Amazon Studios then will available to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on December 20th.

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