If you've ever felt so much as a passing appreciation of taxidermied owls and giant hot air balloons, The Aeronauts is for you. The Amazon Studios movie centers on real-life 19th century meteorologist and hot-air balloon enthusiast James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) and a fictional ballooner named Amelia Wren (played by his The Theory of Everything co-star Felicity Jones). Together, they decide to take a gas balloon up higher than anyone has gone before, breaking a world record and simultaneously getting some data needed for Glaisher's studies into weather prediction. It's basically a steampunk enthusiast's (remember those?) ultimate fantasy.
"I love that, on the one hand, it looks like a very stiff period drama, certainly with one character who is incredibly stiff," Redmayne told VICE. "By the end, almost all the period trappings are gone and it's just two people in a basket hurtling towards the earth in a survival movie."
The Oscar-winning actor took a day off from filming Aaron Sorkin drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 (expected to premiere Sept. 2020) to do what he called "gentle work" and talk about The Aeronauts (out Dec. 6)—a whimsical, spectacle-rich, semi-biographical adventure that pulls from Richard Holmes' Falling Upward, a book detailing the early history of ballooning.
While there are moments of wonder and horrifying stunts, like a dog being thrown out of a basket hundreds of feet in the air (thankfully equipped with an adorable mini parachute) in a fit of showbiz fancy, The Aeronauts has its painstakingly slow moments. It's a period drama about hot air balloons, after all. But it was that juxtaposition between the quiet drama on the ground and the high-flying, death-defying adventure that enticed Redmayne.
"I read the script and there's this moment towards the end of the film where Felicity's character climbs on top of the balloon and is literally standing on top of the world, and I just wanted to see that," said Redmayne. "It was like, if I want to see that in a movie, that probably means that would be a movie I'd like to be part of."
Redmayne spoke to VICE about the process of making the film, his discomfort in being called an Oscar winner, and the challenges of making a movie about balloons.
VICE: In the course of your career you've almost been collecting these amazing writers and directors.
Eddie Redmayne: I'm very lucky. I always have this thing because I didn't train; I didn't go to drama school. I was lucky early on to work with some great actors, from Toni Collette to Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore. I try to observe them. Not only how they work but how they live their lives. It's a sort of weird, nomadic lifestyle being an actor. I have been really lucky with the people I've worked with.
Now you're an Oscar winner. [Redmayne groans and visibly cringes] Does that weird you out?
Yeah it does. It always weirds you out when they do a trailer for a film, and the name comes up with that… [struggles to say the term "Oscar-winner"] logo on it.
You can say it. It's ok. Oscar-winner. Go on.
It's very odd.
What drew you to make this film?
I was so attracted to the idea of working with Felicity again, and trying to push each other, and the weird challenge of trying to make a film that's kind of macro in scale and in the kind of thrill and adventure of it, but also an intimate two-hander. Literally being locked in a basket, I found that inspiring. Not inspiring, that's the wrong word. I found it as a challenge, and kind of disconcerting.
As I was watching the film, I kept getting that tickly foot sensation when you're high up in the air.
We did go up in the air, actually.
You did? Tell me more about that.
They built a gas balloon, because those balloons don't really exist in the U.K. anymore. They built one specifically for the film, and we went up on day one of shooting. Felicity was jumping into the hoop, and she was wired, but there was a pilot hiding in the basket and they had helicopters and drones filming the whole thing. It was incredibly peaceful. It was not scary, because it's silent until you go to land. It goes from total peace to complete carnage.
We did have a serious accident as we were coming down we crashed into these trees and then came crashing down to the ground. Felicity was thrown smack against the basket. What was wonderful was having had that experience, but being able to take all those elements of fear and wonder and try to put them into the basket while we were filming.
How high up were you then?
I think we went to 4-or-5,000 feet, but not anywhere near where [the real Glaisher] went up to. Balloons are extraordinary things. We took off and flew over Oxford. The scariest bit is when you're about 40 meters in the air because you're just in a basket and it feels like you're in an airplane. You kind of desensitize from it because it feels too far. Those moments where you're flying above Oxford and people are walking their dogs. They're such beautiful things.
James Glashier was someone who pioneered the study of meteorology, exploring the actual sky to learn as much as he could. Do you feel like there are still frontiers to be discovered?
What I find riveting about that period is, on the one hand, people would climb mountains and it got colder; on the other hand, [people back then thought that] the closer you got to the sun presumably it got warmer. [Editor's note: opposite is true, as we all learned in modern science classes.]
I also find it weird that it never occurred to me that at one point we didn't know how to predict the weather. And this guy, James Glaisher, would have people up and down the country, normally surgeons or clergymen, taking measurements across the country. He would collate and tabulate all these things. God, now I'm sounding like a weather bore. But that was the first time anyone thought of doing that.
Somebody has to start somewhere.
With great stories, when someone manages to give you insight into a moment you've taken for granted, that's what I found extraordinary. And the mixture of the fear of going up, and also the beauty of it, was compelling for me. The film is about wonder, and I hope it also encourages people to keep interrogating the unknown, as a selfless thing.