“The Aeronauts” reunites Felicity Jones with Eddie Redmayne five years after they costarred in “The Theory of Everything,” but the pair’s rematch wasn’t inevitable for director for Tom Harper.
“Initially we thought it might be an inhibiting factor,” Harper says, sitting with Jones in the Rosewood Hotel in London during the BFI London Film Festival. “But then we sat with it for a few days and you’ve got to go with the people you think are right for the part. And maybe it would be a great thing — there’s a long history in Hollywood of great duos working together over the years.”
The filmmakers put out the ask to the pair simultaneously and received a resounding yes from both. Jones was thrilled to be cast opposite Redmayne again since the actors have developed a strong sense of trust over the years, something she felt was particularly important for the role of gas balloon pilot Amelia Wren, who is enlisted by scientist James Glaisher to ascend higher than anyone has ever gone. It’s a period piece but also an action film and psychological drama, requiring a depth and range of emotion from its lead actress.
“When you have that safety, that’s when you can take risks,” Jones says. “You feel like you can make a fool of yourself in front of someone else because you’ve built the trust over many, many years, and I think that’s when really exciting work starts to happen. There has to be anarchy to get something interesting.”
To create Amelia and James’ journey, the filmmakers built a replica 19th century gas balloon and shot aerial scenes in actual flight and in a studio with blue screens. Careful thought was put into each level of the balloon’s ascent, considering the temperature, air quality and potential effect on the human body as the journey progressed.
To replicate the feeling of cold at higher elevations, Harper put Jones and Redmayne in a “cold box,” a confined space that lowered the temperature to below zero Celsius. Some of that visible breath coming out of the actors’ mouths is real, as are their shivers and glassy eyes. The actors even plunged their hands into buckets of ice before takes to amp up the chaotic feeling.
“Basically they just chucked freezing cold rain on us with wind machines for a few weeks,” Jones remembers, laughing. “We were in so much pain to shoot those scenes. I think the three of us just sort of whipped each other up into a spirit of masochism. We definitely learned to hit the limits, Eddie and I.”
Adds Harper, “We did some in the cold box and some not, and some actually flying and some not. So it blurs the lines where you’re never really sure what’s real and what’s not. It helps the audience believe it. We all agreed that we should try and get as close to reality as we could without killing ourselves.”
Even before filming started it was important for Jones to approach Amelia physically as well as emotionally. She spent six months with a personal trainer ahead of production to build the core strength needed to hang off ropes and climb a massive balloon, and trained with an aerialist to learn trapeze and acrobatics. Jones and Harper even flew to Germany to learn about gas air balloon piloting from father-son aeronaut team Willy and Benni Eimers.
“You read the script so many times, but there’s nothing like actually doing it and getting up there,” Jones says. “The element of risk is what seemingly makes it so enticing, particularly for someone like Amelia. That’s the thing about ballooning — it’s just ropes and canvas, but the stakes are very high.”
“The Aeronauts” centers on Amelia and James during a perilous balloon journey told largely in real time, but the core of the story is about Amelia’s grief and how she’s able to overcome her personal obstacles during the ascent. The character is based on several real-life aeronauts. Her evolution culminates in a precarious scene that forces Amelia to climb to the top of the massive balloon in the freezing cold, barely able to use her hands.
“That’s when drama is at its best,” Jones notes. “When you get something psychological expressed physically. When she’s making that climb at the end she’s metaphorically overcoming the death of her husband. I love that about it. It’s almost a classic action film. And that was what was so delightful about the part, the fusion of emotion and action.”
For Harper, the film is also a reminder that the world around us is immense and miraculous. It’s an encouragement to set down our cellphones and consider what’s out there.
“There is this incredible world of nature and beauty surrounding us and we can get caught up in our own little lives and our technology,” he says. “But it’s important to look up and remind ourselves of the world around us. You have to keep looking up.”