The Spool / CIFF 2019
Tom Harper on the High-Flying Dangers of “The Aeronauts”
The director of Wild Rose and The Aeronauts sits down to talk about his high-flying historical adventure, now available on Amazon Prime Video.
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Welcome back to More of a Comment, Really…, a weekly interview podcast hosted by Clint Worthington! Every episode will feature interviews with actors, filmmakers, producers, and more, giving you the skinny on the latest films and TV.

In an age where film discourse gets divided between wholly original films and derivative spectacle based on existing properties, it’s rare to find a big-budget spectacle that straddles that line of bombast while remaining distinctly of its own universe.

Such is the case with Tom Harper‘s The Aeronauts, which just premiered on Amazon Prime Video. Based loosely on a real-life hot air balloon ride in the 1860s in which scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) took vital atmospheric data that would kickstart the science of meteorology (and also broke records for the highest any human being had been at that point), the film straddles an intriguing sense of wonder with seat-clenching thrills not unlike the survival stakes of Gravity.

Not only that, Redmayne’s co-star female aeronaut Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones), a fictionalized replacement for Glaisher’s real-life copilot, provides welcome chemistry and plays host to some of the more physically death-defying elements of the film.

The day after it screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, The Spool got a chance to sit down with Harper (who also directed this year’s Wild Rose) to talk about the origins of The Aeronauts, balancing real-life spectacle with visual effects, and the cinematic utility of a dog in a parachute.

(More of a Comment, Really… is a proud member of the Chicago Podcast Coop. Thanks to Overcast for sponsoring this episode!)

How does it feel to release two films in the same year, between this and Wild Rose?

TOM HARPER: It’s been really great, but a bit random, the way it ended up. Because Wild Rose was released quite a long time after we finished the movie, and Aeronauts was released straight away after we finished. They’ve both come out within six months of each other, which is rare for directors.

And of course, Wild Rose is this kind of intimate, grounded character study, whereas Aeronauts is a much more effects-driven spectacle. Are your approaches different when taking on these kinds of films?

HARPER: Truth is, it’s not that different. There are obviously key differences in the process, but the fundamentals are the same. Just two people in a confined space, and it’s ultimately about their characters and the narrative arc. Obviously, with Aeronauts, it’s a much bigger scale, and the action sequences have a lot more to consider logistically, which involves more planning. There’s more time and money that goes into that. But fundamentally, the storytelling, which is the important bit, is the same.

What attracted you to this project?

HARPER: Firstly, I came across this book with all these incredible stories. I was very inspired by the extreme lengths by which these early aeronauts went to to expand our knowledge of the world. I was attracted to telling this story of two people just in a confined space, and of course, the world keeps changing around them. But the challenges of making an action film in a balloon basket was really exciting. And the visual potential of telling a film all set in the sky was really appealing.

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in THE AERONAUTS Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

You’ve also done Peaky Blinders, which also dabbles in this kind of 19th-century Victorian aesthetic. Is there anything in particular that attracts you to these kinds of period pieces?

HARPER: I don’t think so. You do get that [with the period pieces], but every film has the opportunity for that kind of worldbuilding. Every film has its own specific visual world that you draw from. For example, Wild Rose probably couldn’t be further from something like Aeronauts or Peaky Blinders, but it has its own specific world, even if that’s more modern and naturalistic. You’re still making specific choices. So my starting point is the character and the narrative, and you build the world out from there. I don’t think I would ever choose to do something just because it’s period or because of the setting. It always comes from the characters and story, and it builds up from there.

Speaking of the characters, you’ve got two protagonists – one based on a real person, the other a fictionalized character as an amalgam of other real people from that time. How did that affect the casting? What was the road to finding Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones?

HARPER: It was actually surprisingly straightforward; we looked at these characters, James Glaisher and Amelia Rennes, and at the top of the list of who would be best, we put Eddie and Felicity. In our initial thoughts, we said, “will this be problematic?” because they’d just done Theory of Everything together, so maybe they’re not gonna want to work with each other again. But we thought that shouldn’t stop us from offering the part to the best people; it may be they want to work with each other again. There’s a long history of actors working with each other again and again, from Fred and Ginger to Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. And someone was just telling me Saiorse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet just did their third movie [Little Women] together.

That’s actually what we found; they like working with each other. They obviously have great chemistry together and wanted to find a project to work on with each other, and this was the one. That was a great benefit to me because when I started working with them, they already had this great trust between them that dared them to take risks and inspire each other and push further.

What was it like entering an already-established dynamic like that?

HARPER: Well, they’re very generous, so they were very open in letting me into that. The key part of an actor-director relationship is establishing trust; since they already had that with each other, perhaps that led them to open themselves up to me more quickly. Or maybe they’re just very generous, trusting people. Because we did some of the stuff in the balloon for real, the weight limitations meant I couldn’t be up there with them. We had to rehearse some scenes there like it was a play because they’d be up there filming by themselves. So we had this quite intense rehearsal period, which was also quite nice.

Felicity Jones in THE AERONAUTS

How much time did you spend in the real balloon versus doing green-screen?

HARPER: Lots of people have asked that question, and without meaning to be evasive, it’s a really hard question to answer. Every shot is a construct of a number of different things, so it doesn’t quite work out neatly. For example, when they’re over London, we did shoot that for real above the English countryside with Felicity Jones sat on a hoop in a helicopter. But we had to add to that, because that was all 21st-century England. You have to take off her harness, for instance. So even though it’s real, it’s not quite real, because you have to keep doing stuff to it.

Equally, when she has to climb up the side of the balloon, some of those shots are with a stunt woman doing it for real. The shots with Felicity, she’s still climbing the balloon, and the clouds in the background are real, [since] we shot them in South Africa. But we did shoot in a studio. And the ice on the balloon is enhanced. It’s a combination of bits we did in the studio, bits we did for real, and they’ve all been sort of put together. But the mantra, or the key thing I really wanted to do, is to do as much real as we possibly could. I think it makes it harder to know what’s real and what’s not. So you look at that one of Felicity climbing up the balloon, and you go, “Is that real?” And it’s hard to know because most of it is real, but it didn’t all necessarily happen at the same time.

And scenes like that make me glad I got to see it in a nice, big theater. But this film is coming to Amazon Prime Video, where a lot of people will end up watching it in circumstances less than ideal to get all that spectacle.

HARPER: It’s fascinating, it’s kind of the topic of the moment, isn’t it? And it’s interesting to hear what [Martin] Scorsese has been saying, which I think is true. We wouldn’t have been able to make this film had it not been for Amazon, who gave us the money to make it. Without them, nobody would be seeing it in any way. That’s a very potent point, I think.

And the nice thing about it is that they can choose to get how they watch the movie. It will be in the cinemas; people will be able to go see it on a big screen. I hope they do because that’s where I believe you get the most immersive experience. I love the cinema, and I’ve always loved the cinema. But I’m also very happy it’ll reach 800 million people around the world, and they can watch it for Christmas. That’s also a wonderful thing. So… interesting times, is all I’ll say.

Another thing Scorsese said about those kinds of movies [Marvel movies] is that he likened them to theme parks; while watching this movie, I got the feeling that this is the kind of big-budget spectacle I’d love to see more often. Yes, there are the effects and you get that theme park feeling, but there’s this underpinning of discovery and scientific optimism. Was that something you were thinking about during filming, balancing the effects with those kinds of intimate ideas?

HARPER: Oh, absolutely. 100%. That’s the side I actually don’t agree with; I think [Marvel movies] are cinema, and there are many people who love those films, and that’s great. There’s 100% a place for that, I just like to hope there’s also a place for films like The Aeronauts, that aren’t based on superhero movies or an existing IP. That are original, you know? Again, this is why it’s great Amazon has supported us, because the traditional studios might not have done that.

I’d agree with that, my only real issue with the whole controversy is the proportion of it; I’d love for there to be room for movies like this alongside stuff like Marvel in theaters.

HARPER: But you know, it’s partly down to what audiences want to see, and paying money to go to the cinema and see them. And if there’s the demand for them, believe me, people will make them. [laughs]

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in THE AERONAUTS Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Going back to the film and its sense of discovery, then, what kind of research did you do into Glaisher and the early aeronauts, and what struck you about what they did?

HARPER: I did quite a lot of research into it. The whole film was inspired by this wonderful book Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes, and that recounts a whole series of the more remarkable balloon flights from the late 18th to early 19th centuries. And some of those, we looked into in more detail, and a lot of those bits have been taken and put into this flight. Because the real flight, where they got to 36,000 feet, James Glaisher just took measurements the whole time, and they didn’t really talk.

Which isn’t very cinematic.

HARPER: Exactly! [laughs]

Which allowed you and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne to throw in this Amelia Rennes character, who offers this different angle on the story. They’re both discriminated against, in certain ways, and we see in flashbacks what drives them, so to speak. What was your thought process behind crafting those earthbound scenes?

HARPER: Well, the starting point was, ‘this was a film set in real-time,’ and from the start of the film to the end of the film is the duration of the balloon flight. I loved the idea that balloon flights tend to be around ninety minutes long, and that’s about the length of a feature film. So telling the story in real-time was something that really appealed to me. It can also provide a really interesting structure with which to build our narrative.

One thing I find interesting about the period setting is that we can look back and see how silly the prejudice against them was — Glaisher for his ideas, Rennes for being a female aeronaut — and reflect on how current prejudices might be looked at in the future.

HARPER: You’re so right; at times, I thought, “does that seem too ridiculous, that they laugh him down for suggesting that?” But like so much of the film, that’s based on things that actually happened. Five or so years before the flight, an MP stood up in Parliament and posited that, with the right investment and research, in the future, it might be possible to predict the weather 24 hours in advance. Not only was he laughed down, but he was also ejected from the House of Commons. Because they thought it was like fortune-telling or magic; that it was such a ridiculous thing to say that it shouldn’t be put forward in the Houses of Parliament. That seems ridiculous now, but that’s the way it was.

We’re living in weirdly anti-science times now, where there’s the same sense of skepticism now as there was then. We’re starting to see Flat Earthers crop up now, of all people.

HARPER: Yeah, I really thought that’d gone away! [laughs]

I’ll leave you with one somewhat cheeky question: will your next film also have a dog in a parachute? And will you release an edited cut of Wild Rose where you splice in a dog in a parachute?

HARPER: [laughs] People seem to love the dog in the parachute. Most films from this point forward should have a dog in a parachute.

Start the Dog in a Parachute Cinematic Universe.

HARPER: Yeah, exactly.