About The Film
Looking to the Sky
Cinematographer George Steel was listening to the radio and heard an extract
from 'Falling Upwards' by Richard Holmes, a history of 19th-century ballooning.
At the time, Steel was shooting "War & Peace" with Tom Harper, and suggested it
would be a visual spectacle to make a movie all set in the sky. Harper then read
the book and wrote to Holmes in early 2017 with the offer to option it as the
inspiration for The Aeronauts script. "There have been so many stories of
adventure, death- defying action and remarkable discovery in balloons over the
past 200 years. We thought you could take aspects of some of these true stories
and put them together to get an amazing combination, celebrating the
extraordinary lengths humans have gone to in order to expand our knowledge of
the world. It would also be a white-knuckle ride of a film!" Harper remembers.
Writer Jack Thorne was in the midst of preparing a play when Harper reached
out to him to write the script. "I thought it was the best idea I'd read so said
let's do it," Thorne explains. "We decided to develop and write it alone, until
it was in a place ready to send out."
Producer Todd Lieberman of Mandeville Films had been a fan of Harper's
critically acclaimed 2016 TV series "War & Peace," and had met with Harper
previously to talk about working together.
"I could immediately see the cinematic scope of what this film could become
and started to fall in love with what it could be," Lieberman recalls.
Having previously worked with Thorne on Wonder, Lieberman knew that the
script was going to be one he would love to be involved with. "They were
gracious enough to let me into their little Aeronauts family as it was being
Anchoring the story in James Glaisher's record-breaking 1862 ascent in the
Mammoth, Harper and Thorne embellished the plot with events from other
ballooning journeys. This included, for example, a flight taken by French
astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion in which he described being surrounded by
a swarm of butterflies. The key element of Glaisher's 1862 flight that was
changed was the replacing of real-life aeronaut Henry Coxwell with Amelia Wren.
Amelia is a fictional character inspired by the French aeronaut Sophie
Blanchard, the first woman to work as a professional balloonist and widow of
ballooning pioneer Jean-Pierre Blanchard.
"I was surprised, but it was a brilliant idea: rather than have another bloke
in the basket, let's have a woman," outlines Holmes. "It's a wonderful way to
combine history and imagination in order to produce a very exciting film."
Lieberman was delighted by the script. "What I loved about it was that whilst
there is the adventure and beauty of the sky, and the breathtaking nature of
what's going on up there, audiences also see the beautiful quiet moments. We
have this serene period drama where two people find each other, mixed with this
absolutely crazy action movie set in the sky. Those two elements together are
what makes The Aeronauts so unique," Lieberman explains.
Holmes adds, "The world of ballooning is sort of dreamlike. The script
captures that feeling very well; that certain things are scientifically accurate
and certain things are complete dream fantasies. The mix of it is very true to
the spirit of ballooning."
The film was mixed in Dolby Atmos by BAFTA-winning Re-recording Mixers Stuart
Hilliker and Lee Walpole (Les Miserables). The film and Dolby Atmos are
perfectly suited to each other, the format enabling us to sonically place the
viewer directly in the balloon, immerse them in our world and allow them to
really experience the journey.
Casting The Aeronauts
After the success of working together on The Theory of Everything, Eddie
Redmayne and Felicity Jones were looking for another joint project. Their
previous collaboration had seen Redmayne win an Academy Award for his portrayal
of Stephen Hawking, and Jones an Academy Award nomination for her role of Jane
With Jones and Redmayne already at the top of the filmmakers' lists for the
roles of Amelia Wren and James Glaisher, the scripts were sent simultaneously to
their respective teams.
"We knew going in that these two actors had an undeniable connection that you
couldn't otherwise hope for. One of the challenges of the film is that 70% takes
place in a confined basket," Lieberman explains. "As filmmakers we needed to
make sure that those two people had chemistry."
Redmayne recalls what instantly drew him to the project. "Jack Thorne's
script was really unlike anything I have ever read. I found it viscerally
moving; it had a sense of wonder to it, which I found deeply fresh. We live in a
time in which we are almost forced to look down and inwards. The Aeronauts was a
story about dreaming to look up."
"The balloon in The Aeronauts is a symbol of hope," Jones interjects, "and in
our current political climate, it felt like a very relevant film to be making;
one which is full of optimism and the feeling that anything is possible."
The opportunity to play Amelia was one she couldn't turn down, as she
continues: "Amelia Wren is an absolute live wire. She is a maverick that doesn't
like to be contained or play by the rules. She is an absolute free spirit, which
is why I loved her when I read the script and had great fun playing her."
After reading the script, the two actors readily signed up to work together
again. "Eddie and I are like boxers," Jones continues. "We were so happy to be
back in the ring together. We really push each other, constantly trying
different things, not stopping until we've got something we're both happy with.
It was great coming back to work with someone with such a familiar working
method." Redmayne picks up the story. "It's so rare that you get to push an
actor in different directions and to have the comfort of having great love and
admiration for them. We have needed our mutual trust of one another to really
push each other, and my God, we have needed it! This film was nothing if not
intimate and intense. Poor Felicity! It has literally been like having to live
with me in a tiny basket for many months."
For Harper, having two actors so attuned to one other was a blessing, as he
explains: "They respect, admire and like each other immensely. It gave us a real
head start as they trusted each other and knew each other's strengths and could
play to those."
''Eddie is constantly surprising," Harper continues. "He gives you all sorts of
options to play with, each one of them truthful in their realisation. He kept me
on my toes, everything was constantly fresh."
About his leading lady, Harper enthuses, "Felicity was perfect for Amelia
Wren. On the one hand she has fragility and vulnerability to her. Then on the
other hand, she has immense strength. When you put them together, the results
Both actors were equally complimentary of working with the director for the
first time. "It's been an absolute adventure working with Tom," says Jones. "He
is a director who really pushes you. He likes a real naturalism in the
performances so he has created this environment where we could give the most
believable performances we can."
"I adored working with Tom Harper on this film," adds Redmayne. "A huge
amount of that is the fact that the story is deeply in his blood. It's a story
that has come from two great collaborators of his: Jack Thorne and George Steel.
The story feels rooted in the three of them. So, when Felicity and I joined
there was already such passion and fire and love for the film. There was a great
sense of community and that bleeds onto the screen."
Building the Mammoth Balloon
Harper had one particularly big idea for The Aeronauts: to build a fully
functioning and accurate replica of a 19th-century gas balloon. For that job, he
needed production designers willing to take on the immense task. The team of
David Hindle and Christian Huband stepped up to the challenge. "David and
Christian were great. They had a meticulous attention to detail but were also
able to see the bigger picture," Harper says.
Recalls Hindle, "You think about a film set on a spaceship, your first
thought wouldn't be to build a spaceship and fly it. Tom's point was that if you
could, you should. So, we did!"
"It was a very beguiling idea to get behind," Huband adds. "You want the
grandeur and the spectacle. But all the variables of the weather, the potential
to crash, and all the randomness of being up in the air - not to mention the
balloon itself - definitely bought an interesting flavour to the film."
Tasked with designing and building a gas balloon, the filmmakers reached out
to renowned aeronautical engineer and pilot Per Lindstrand. Lindstrand,
alongside Sir Richard Branson, has set two world records for distance and
duration in a balloon: in 1991, the two piloted a balloon 10,880 kilometres from
Japan to northern Canada; and in 1998 the pair flew for seven days from Morocco
to Hawaii and covered 20,000 kilometres.
"They are incredibly interesting people to meet and are experts in the
ballooning world," Huband explains of the team at Lindstrand Technologies. "To
work with the modern-day descendants of aeronauts did inform us as to what the
craft and art of ballooning was about." Having worked on films in the past, The
Aeronauts stood out for Per Lindstrand, as he explains.
"Before The Aeronauts, balloons captured on film were fake hot air balloons
made to look like gas balloons. I've done many films before, but this film is
something special. We built the world's first true replica of an 1800 gas
balloon. In most productions, it's the cost that drives the process. With The
Aeronauts, it was precision, performance and accuracy. Every single element has
been accurately transcribed and researched to perfection."
"We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Per Lindstrand for building the
Mammoth," Hindle adds. "We are very lucky to have had the chance to work with
him. It's quite extraordinary; the balloon flies because of his technical
expertise in his factory."
Huband concludes, "I find myself reflecting sometimes on which projects of my
career I'd want to relive because they've been so exciting. The Aeronauts
already steals ahead of all of them, because when in your life do you get the
opportunity to design a flying machine?"
Costumes, Hair and Make-up
Academy-Award winning Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne recalls her thoughts
when she was sent the film script: "It was utterly charming; a delightful script
about a woman's journey to rebuilding her life."
After having completed production together six months earlier on Mary Queen
of Scots, Byrne reached out to her frequent collaborator Jenny Shircore to see
if she would be interested in working together again. "Alex is brilliant,"
Shircore says. "We collaborate on every detail together. She's a great friend
and guide to have. You can work on films where you hardly have anything to do
with the other designers involved. But this production, we all felt like we were
in the basket together. Rather than a look for the period, I did more research
in respect to what would happen to people in the balloon and how their skin and
hair would react to those temperatures."
In the film, as the balloon ascends higher, Shircore worked to create
incremental stages of weather-ravaged looks for Jones and Redmayne. She explains
more. "With any humidity in the atmosphere, frost will start to form on their
hair. There is a slow build-up to the actual frostbite stages. Early stages are
rosiness to the cheeks, a red tip to the nose, like anyone walking around on a
cold winter's day."
For Byrne, her main challenge was the costumes for Amelia, a woman who
doesn't abide by society's rules. "The big challenge was to think about how
Amelia functions within the world. For a woman in that time who was stepping
outside the boundaries of what was expected, she needed to have a look not so
outrageous that she would be written off as mad and to balance it with the sense
Byrne concentrated on written material, rather than the visual research of
portraits more commonly undertaken. It was the diaries of female mountaineers
and explorers of the time that helped form Amelia's look, one which steered away
from the large hooped skirts seen in contemporary pictures. "That is quite an
unreal idea on a mountain - you wouldn't be able to see your feet as you
climbed. The reality is they would leave the village in a full-skirted dress,
drop their hoops and skirts behind a rock, go climbing, then pick them back up
on the way down to look like they had worn them the whole time," Byrne explains.
Jones comments, "A huge amount of work goes into the costumes. The team
created Amelia's flight suit from their imagination, as no such thing existed at
the time. It's a combination of flying leather and something a pilot like Amelia
Earhart would have worn. It was very practical, but also had a little bit of
eccentricity true to Amelia's character."
After building a replica 19th-century gas balloon, the filmmakers' striving
for authenticity continued. "The thought was, the more we can do it for real,
the more realistic it feels," Harper explains. "Tom's intent from the beginning
was that the experience of the film was one that put the audience inside the
basket of the balloon," Lieberman adds.
In order to accomplish that, as much filming as possible was captured up in
the air - even the most death-defying scenes, including when Amelia climbs up
the outside of the balloon. To achieve this in the most realistic way, the scene
was filmed in three stages and cut together: firstly with Jones climbing the
balloon in the studio; secondly using Helen Bailey, Jones's stunt double,
climbing the balloon flying at 3,000 feet; and finally filming the skyscape at
37,000 feet out of a helicopter.
For Jones and Redmayne, filming whilst flying in a balloon was an experience
neither will forget, as Jones explains. "It was absolutely majestic. To step
into the balloon and take flight was so special. The wonderful thing about
ballooning is that you never know what is going to happen or where you are going
to land. You have to give yourself up to the air."
"Balloons have always been an object of fascination. We were flying over
Oxford one morning," Redmayne recalls, "and people would be looking up and
waving at us. The element of not knowing where you are going to land, of having
to throw yourself slightly into the void, is why people find them so mesmerising.
When you are landing a balloon, you just look for a field with a gate and
hopefully no livestock and wish for the best!"
In the role of both Director of Photography and camera operator, Steel also
faced the prospect of actually going up in a balloon to film. "In all honesty,
my first feeling," he remembers, "was one of terror! There was something
primarily frightening to me about balloons, in that you're let loose in the sky
and have no idea where you might land."
After a few flights, nervousness soon turned to wonder for Steel. "It's such
a strange and amazing experience when you take off. It's silent and suddenly
you're lifted up into the air. It feels like the most natural thing in the world
because you're under no real pressure. It's not like being in a plane where you
are shunted around and feel like you are fighting nature."
"It was inspiring to watch George work," says Lieberman, "as not only did he
make the overall composition of the film look stunning, but the film owes its
energy to George and his guerrilla-style filmmaking in the basket."
In the end, for Steel the chance to film whilst in the sky was a real joy.
"As a cameraman, it's been a true gift. We floated around some of the most
incredible skyscapes anyone is ever going to see on film. I've got the best job
in the world."
The filming also required a leap of faith from the principals, who had to
complete some stunt work at height. "The most important thing you need to know
is that Amelia goes through many more physical extremes than James," says
Redmayne. "Felicity's physicality is formidable in this film. She is so hardcore
and robust that it puts me to shame."
Jones found herself reunited with Bailey, who had acted as her stunt double
on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. "It was wonderful to work with Helen again. We
know each other very well and have built up a really strong working
relationship," says Jones.
After weeks of stunt rehearsals and training with an expert aerialist, Jones was
ready to take her performance to the skies. Whilst at 2,000 feet, in a replica
gas balloon, Jones climbed the ropes of the Mammoth for real, pulling herself up
from the basket and onto the hoop.
Lieberman recalls that moment with awe. "Felicity is one of the toughest
people I've worked with. She is an action star and is absolutely, unequivocally
For Harper, it was Jones's ability to complete the arduous stunt work whilst
simultaneously staying in character that amazed him. "The strength and stamina
Felicity endured for the stunts, at the same time as never wavering on the
delicacy and subtlety of Amelia Wren, was really wonderful to watch." As well as
filming in the air and completing physical stunts in the name of realism, in
order to fully understand what Glaisher would have felt at extreme heights,
Redmayne and Harper undertook hypoxia training. This simulated the feeling of
the brain becoming deprived of oxygen at high altitudes. Additionally, during
the scenes where the balloon faced freezing temperatures, a cold box was built
around the balloon in the studio so that during filming, the actors' breath was
What is more, their hands were plunged into ice between takes so that their
on-screen shivers and blue lips are genuine. "The dedication of the actors to
these roles has been nothing short of extraordinary," concludes Lieberman.
Back Down to Earth
The process of making The Aeronauts proved unique. As well as being intense
and physically demanding, the endeavour was always for the utmost authenticity
in the re-enactment of a story based on real events. A film about Victorian-era
scientific exploration and the emergence of weather forecasting is made ever
more compelling by precise attention to detail, the focus on a powerful
on-screen relationship, and incredible stunts, some performed in mid-flight and
in tough environmental conditions. The filmmakers came to truly appreciate the
ground-breaking endeavours of James Glaisher and his peers all those years ago.
Even more than this, for Harper and his lead actors, Redmayne and Jones, the
film has left them with a sense of awe about both humanity and our planet.
"It's a film about hope and feeling that anything is possible," asserts
Jones. "In these times, which are increasingly becoming more complicated and
worrying, it's great to have a film that is about optimism and to remind people
that humans are capable of great things when they put their minds to it."
Redmayne agrees with his co-star and explains, "The Aeronauts for me is a
film about the freedom and the wonder of looking up. It's a film about defying
expectation and refusing to be boxed in by society."
"It's taught me about the childlike wonder inside me, and about the
possibilities of humanity to go forth and uncover secrets that could improve all
our lives," concludes Harper. "The idea of exploration and pushing the frontiers
of what is possible is always relevant, whether that's space travel now or
flight in 1862. There's always a new frontier to learn about."
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