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Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon
We could float among the stars together, you and I
For we can fly, we can fly – Jimmy Webb, “Up, Up and Away”

Three years after the release of his acclaimed miniseries adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and after pausing to make the Glasgow-Nashville-set contemporary drama Wild Rose, director Tom Harper returns to the 19th century with The Aeronauts. Combining fact and fiction, the story by Harper and screenwriter Jack Thorne, spins the tale of pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher and balloon pilot Amelia Wren as they take vertiginous flight in the name of science. Glaisher is obsessed with weather. To find the answers he needs takes death-defying feats of derring-do.

The Aeronauts reunites The Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Glaisher and Wren, depositing the actors in a real-life replica of a 19th-century gas balloon as Harper filmed scenes as often as possible in the open air to an altitude of 3,000 feet.

On a visit to San Francisco recently to accept SFFILM’s Sloan Science in Cinema Prize on behalf of The Aeronauts and screen the film, Harper, 39, sat down with Cinezinekane to chat about his high-flying achievement.

Q: In this age of CGI, you insisted on building and flying a real balloon.

Tom Harper: We wanted it to feel as real as possible. So much of the jeopardy and the thrills come from experiencing or kind of feeling what it’s like for those characters. And I think that you can just tell the difference if you’ve done some of it for real. We’re now living in a day and age where you can create visuals in CGI that are almost impossible, if at all possible, to tell the difference. But there are other factors as well.

For example, you can shoot something that’s completely photorealistic and believable, but if the camera’s moving around the balloon and the crane, in your subconscious you’re going, ‘That it’s not possible.’ We went up in a balloon and we filmed for real and we saw some, you know, parachuters and, and actually, it’s all of the imperfections that make something believable. And that’s actually the thing that I’m most interested in in filmmaking, the imperfections. Humans are these wonderful, fallible imperfect beings.

Q: You’ve made an action adventure movie about weather. Saying it out loud sounds so daft.

Tom Harper: (laughs) I mean, it’s not the most glamorous of interests, admittedly. But James Glaisher talks about trying to understand the things that you can’t control. There is something so big involved about the weather and our atmosphere, that it is sort of unknowable.

And 170 years ago, it was thought that it would be impossible to predict the weather. Admittedly, we still have a way to go, but we’ve come an incredible way. And I like the idea that what we think is impossible now, in a hundred years will be considered commonplace. There’s something wonderful about that, and it sort of challenges us to think beyond the outer limits.

Q: James Glaisher was a real person, a pioneering aeronaut and meteorologist. Amelia Wren is a fictional character. In fictionalizing his story, you could have followed many different avenues, what led you and screenwriter Jack Thorne to Amelia?

Tom Harper: With Amelia, not only do you have that dynamic of male, female, but she is such a show person. Amelia is based on (19th-century aeronaut) Sophie Blanchard. She was a flamboyant firecracker, a woman who was an acrobat and who shot off fireworks from her basket.

We thought putting someone like Sophie in the basket with James, who’s a meticulous, methodical scientist would be a really interesting combination of characters. The main thing was OK, if you’re gonna spend 90 minutes in that basket, who are the most interesting characters to put there?

Also, there is a gender bias in science, and certain there is in film, where there aren’t enough strong female characters. So, that there was this historical woman to draw from was a wonderful thing and something we embraced wholeheartedly.

Q: In casting Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, they have great chemistry and that is enhanced by that sense memory of the two of them together in The Theory of Everything.

Tom Harper: They are great friends and they do have this great chemistry, but they also trust each other and they dare each other to take risks. I think the reason that they’re so good together is because they push each other and they have great working relationship.  And that’s reflected in the relationship that eventually evolves between the two of them in the balloon as they start out as these antagonists that are stuck in this basket together. Because of the things that happen, they have to learn how to rely and trust each other or they’re just not going to survive.

Q: And you and Eddie went through hypoxia training so that he would know what it was actually like to be deprived of oxygen?

Tom Harper:  We did, yes. And Eddie was very keen to (do it), so that he could draw from those experiences and deliver the best performance. We went to a Ministry of Defense base in in the UK and they put us in a decompression chamber and they took us up to the equivalent of 25,000 feet. They take you out, they break off oxygen, and you basically suffocate while you starve yourself of oxygen. That has a very interesting physiological effect on you. And, actually, everyone responds differently. It can lead actually to a sort of euphoria and sort of a fervid quality or you start losing your memory; all sorts of strange things can start happening to you. I just felt very sick and then, of course, forgot everything. Eddie, on the other hand, became fervid and passionate and started reciting lines from the film. He was generally very cool. I was less so.

Q: You spent a lot of time up in balloons preparing to make The Aeronauts. You built and filmed your own balloon and found drama in that tiny basket high up in the air. Has all that experience translated into a lasting addiction to ballooning?

Tom Harper: I hope so. I loved it. There is something majestic and wonderful about it. I would like to get my piloting license, I have to say. You need to be very flexible with ballooning. because it depends on the weather. So, I think it’s like the perfect retirement thing, because you have to drop out, you know, when the weather is right. You just have to drop everything and go.

Q: So, Around the World in 80 Days’ Phineas Fogg, he’s your spirit animal.

Tom Harper: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. –Pam Grady