The Aeronauts made its East Coast Premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival. The film follows a thrilling quest by fearless balloon pilot Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) and pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) to soar higher in the sky than anyone before them had, and to further the understanding of our weather system as they reach unprecedented heights.
We sat down with The Aeronauts‘ producer and Co-Owner of Mandeville Films and Television Todd Lieberman to learn more about the exhilarating, visually stunning film.
Why was this a story that you wanted to help bring to the big screen?
TL: I’d seen Tom Harper’s War and Peace miniseries and I thought it was brilliant. It was totally amazing, it was funny, it was accessible, it had a lot of scope. He did it for a budget that I was really impressed by. So, I sat with him and he was talking about things that he’s working on. He happened to be working with a writer named Jack Thorne, who we had hired to do a movie called Wonder for us. Jack and Tom were conspiring on this story of these two early ballooning pioneers.
He pitched me the one liner and he basically said he is looking at doing this movie where it’s kind of like a real time flight in 1862. They go up 37,000 feet, and it’s the trials and tribulations of going up, and then the trials and tribulations of going down – a real time flight interspersed with how they got there. I just saw exactly what the potential there was. If the emotional connection’s there, and we understand why these two people want to do it, the thrill and the challenge of being able to tell that story visually is one that was kind of undeniable to me. I think when people see it, hopefully they’ll see the results of those challenges executed, I think, in a pretty great way.
Now, The Aeronauts is based on Richard Homes’ Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. Could you talk about the decision to feature a female lead?
TL: Falling Upwards by Richard Homes is a compilation of stories from the early days of ballooning. There was one particular piece in that book that had sparked Tom Harper’s interest and that was the real flight that the Mammoth took in 1862. James Glaisher did it with another gentleman named Henry Coxwell, and while they did fly up to those heights, and the results of that flight were real, and James Glaisher did go on to become the president of a newly formed Meteorological Society for the Royal Society, there wasn’t an incredible amount of tension in that ride. It was two guys, two scientists, going up and coming down.
There was another female balloon pilot called Sophie Blanchard, who happened to live a little bit earlier than this flight took place. She died in 1819. She was a firecracker of a young woman and a showman and there became something compelling about putting a character like her together with a character like James. So, the movie is inspired by true events and a lot of the things that these two encounter along the way happened in different flights around the time period. But, they didn’t all happen in this particular flight, and these two didn’t fly together at this particular time.
With Beauty and the Beast and the Divergent series on your resume, you’re no stranger to exceptional special effects. Could you speak about the special effects for The Aeronauts?
TL: We knew that going in, one of the reasons to tell the story was to make an extreme visual impact and that it wasn’t going to work if it didn’t look real. One of the benefits and challenges about the way that Tom Harper wanted to film the movie was he wanted to shoot a lot of it practically. Which means that while we would do some visual effects enhancing, because obviously London today doesn’t look like London did in 1862 – so we had to change some of the landscape, we did actually film the two actors in the balloon in the air. We did that with the actors, we did that without the actors, we built a real balloon, so a lot of what’s in the movie was actually filmed for real. That in conjunction with an extraordinary visual effects team.
The goal was how do we make this experience look and feel as authentically real, as authentic as possible, in a real visual way as if the audience is kind of there in the flight with these two. Getting the visual effects right in combination with the practical filming was essential to all of it. Obviously, you don’t have anything if you don’t have an emotional connection. But, the reason to tell the story visually were these spectacular set pieces. I will say with genuine honesty that I’m proud of the way it all turned out. I think the combination of what we filmed for real, which was exciting, scary, harrowing at the time, and what we did with the visual effects on top of it, works seamlessly to put something out there that really feels like you’re watching it as it was actually shot.
Now, the film reunites Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Why did you feel that they were right for this project?
TL: They’re both incredible performers in their own right and together they had obviously proven that as a combo they’re an undeniable duo with undeniable chemistry. When we were thinking about who might we want to cast in this movie, we came up with lists of actors and actresses. They were both number one in each category of who would play Amelia and who would play James. I had heard a rumor that they really enjoyed working together on The Theory of Everything and that they might want to do it again. In kind of old, classic Hollywood tradition, there’s Hepburn and Tracy, and different combos of people that have become intrinsically linked. We sent them the script individually, at the same time, without telling the other one that the other person was getting the script. The calculation being, well, it’d be great if they reached out to each other and say, “Hey, have you read this? It would be great to do this with you.” That’s exactly what they did. We were lucky.
Since the actors were actually filmed in the hot air balloon, what sort of training did they go through?
TL: Felicity did an extraordinary amount of acrobatic training. Eddie did hypoxia training, where he went into an oxygen deprivation booth and simulated what it would feel like to go up to those heights. Then we had a stunt team that would physically train them both. Felicity took gas ballooning piloting lessons in Germany and all of us, the entire crew, not as a unit but in different times, we all went up in balloons to feel like what it would feel like to be at height without protection around us. Needless to say, they did a lot of training and we, as a crew, all experienced something.
What was the most challenging aspects of filming?
TL: Well, getting the balloon up there for real was challenging in and of itself, because not only did we have the challenge of building this 80 foot – it’s called the Mammoth for a reason – this 80 foot Mammoth, and we had to fill it with helium. We had pilots who knew how to take this up and down in the skies, but the weather had to be perfect. It had to be below five knots. Anytime we put the real balloon up there, we did it with the actors, we did it with a stunt woman named Helen Bailey, who when you see the movie, Amelia, Felicity’s character, climbs on the side of the balloon and summits the balloon at height, and this young woman, this incredible stunt woman did that for real like, basically 2,000 feet in the air. I think the most challenging parts of this movie were filming the practical aspects of getting this 80 foot gas balloon in the sky and then back on the ground.
When is The Aeronauts being released?
TL: We’re releasing in the States theatrically on December 6, and then it hits Amazon Prime on December 20, just in time for the holidays. It will be then simultaneously in theaters and on Prime. In the UK, it’s coming out in theaters on November 4th.
Is there anything you hope the audience takes away from the film?
TL: There’s a lot of thematic resonance in the film. I mean, aside from I’m hoping a visual spectacle and something people have never seen before, all that I feel like is inherent to what I hope the experience is going to be. But, I do hope people come away feeling a little bit inspired. There’s a couple of lines in the film that I think speak thematically to a lot of things that maybe even are applicable today. One of the phrases that Amelia Wren’s husband Pierre would tell her in the film is “Keep looking up.” I think that’s a nice sentiment for today; specifically as we spend a lot of time looking down on our phones, let’s see the world beyond. I think there’s something about pushing forward and achievement and what we can accomplish if we work together, and a little bit of a sense of the wonder of the natural universe that we live in and the beauty surrounding us. There’s another line that I love that Eddie’s character says which is “There are certain things that science can account for, but the one thing you cannot account for is just the natural beauty of the things surrounding you.”
What are you working on now?
TL: My business partner and I have been working together for over 20 years. Over those 20 years, we’ve always had about 20 to 30 different film projects in various stages of development. We’re in a process right now where we’ve had a few that we’ve built to where they’re probably about ready to hopefully go into production. There’s a couple that are teetering on the edge of let’s go make it and I’ve spent the past several years working on films that have a sense of an underdog quality to them, and maybe leave you with a hopeful sense of inspiration.
I’m excited about making a comedy now, and just being on set and laughing a lot. We made a movie called The Proposal about ten years ago and it was an extraordinary amount of fun making that movie. Some of the ones that we’re hopefully going to go into production on are comedies that I really hope to just spend time belly laughing.
What do you look for in a project?
TL: It’s pretty simple, and this is a really broad generalization, so it moves and changes, but if I can read something and it makes me feel better at the end of reading it than I did when I started reading it. That to me is something I’m interested in.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
TL: I love this festival. This is a great festival. I’ve had a really fun time here. I’m appreciative of being included.