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Hawking: Can You Hear Me? Introduces Stephen Hawking, The Human (Video)

Hawking: Can You Hear Me? Introduces Stephen Hawking, The Human (Video)

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Most people know Stephen Hawking the physicist. Not many people know Stephen Hawking the human. Director Oliver Twinch and producer Anthony Geffen wanted to change that with their 2021 Sky documentary Hawking: Can You Hear Me?

During a recent episode of the Factual America podcast, Twinch and Geffen explain how they slowly gained the trust of the late physicist’s family in order to tell the true — and sometimes painful — story of the legendary person who wrote A Brief History of Time.

You can watch above, or listen on Google or Spotify here:

Hawking: Can You Hear Me? is the story of Professor Stephen Hawking, the late Professor Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist, who was an icon of the 20th century, and theoretical physics. And he rose to prominence, really, with his book, A Brief History of Time, which was published in 1988. And that really catapulted him from being an academic into being a kind of a rock star physicist who was known on the global stage. And his life was a really remarkable one. And his physics that he kind of worked on was also incredibly remarkable. But what’s very little told, is the human story. And that’s what this film set out to tell,” Twinch said.

Hawking died in 2018, but Geffen had the chance to get his permission to make the film when he was still alive.

“I think the very beginning, when I was thinking about this film, really, there had been a lot of scientific films made about him. And what interested me was, here was an icon, a man in a wheelchair, and we knew very little about the real person, because he didn’t particularly talk about himself in that way. Neither did anybody else,” said Geffen. “And so, from the very beginning, it was clear, very special access was going to be needed. And I met, about four or five years ago, with him, actually, on the pretext of doing something else, doing a VR film about the universe with him. And we got on very well. And we are — actually that hasn’t come out, it’ll come out next year — but we started a dialogue that I wanted to start, which was about, would he be prepared for a film to be made about him that hadn’t been made before? One that, you know, had other people around him speaking, and was a very honest film. And that’s the only film we really wanted to make, a film that really got to the bottom of who he was.”

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But to get that access, they had to really build trust with Hawking’s family, who were hesitant at first.

“The family took a long time to trust, because it’s very easy to be burned,” Geffen said. “I think when Stephen Hawking died, I think a lot of reflection was going on in the family. Because, you see in the film, lots of tough things happened. And I think that was possibly the right moment, not long after that, a year after that or so, where they were prepared once and once only. And I said, Why don’t we do this once: make a film that really tackles everything, and put everything on the table, we’re not going to not tackle things, because we’re going to make a view of his whole life, the human story. And I think they bought into that, and they trusted us. But it took, in some cases, several interviews, because it was very painful; what they had experienced was very painful in some cases. And that’s not easy. To be honest with you, standing there that’s one of the toughest interviews I’ve ever been involved in because you could feel the pain was palpable in the room. And there was, sort of, the crew was feeling that pain, you know, that they felt. But they were very, very powerful interviews, and they were very, they’re amazing that they put themselves through it. But I think they put themselves through it, knowing that this was the film where once and once only they could trust, and it would tell the true story.”

Hawking: Can You Hear Me? is now streaming on Sky.com. Here are timestamps from the Factual America interview:

00:00 – The trailer for Hawking: Can You Hear Me?.
02:47 – What Hawking: Can You Hear Me? is all about.
04:22 – Stephen Hawking’s human side and common misconceptions about his life.
08:26 – The private side of Hawking’s life and the difficulty accessing this side of him.
10:17 – How Anthony gained the trust and confidence of Stephen’s family.
13:51 – Why the interviews were so emotionally challenging for the interviewees.
17:54 – How they made Hawking relatable and ‘human’.
21:13 – How the family responded to the finished film.
22:26 – The reconciliation Hawking had with his family before his death.
23:30 – How the idea for the film came about and how Oliver got involved with the project.
30:20 – How they came up with the structure that the film followed.
34:25 – The biggest challenges they faced when making the film.
37:11 – The positive aspects of Sky Docs compared to some other broadcasters.
38:34 – How the documentary film world has changed and the future of documentaries.
46:30 – The next projects Anthony and Oliver are working on.

Factual America examines America through the lens of documentary filmmaking. Guests include Academy Award, Emmy and Grammy-winning filmmakers and producers, their subjects, as well as experts on the American experience. We discuss true crime, music, burning social and political topics, history and arts with the creators of the latest and upcoming documentary films in theatres and on the most popular digital platforms. This podcast is produced by Alamo Pictures, a London- and Austin-based production company that makes documentaries about the US from a European perspective for international audiences.

Main Image: A photo from Hawking: Can You Hear Me courtesy of Factual America.

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