The Aeronauts and Finding Adventure in the Sky

We speak with director Tom Harper about The Aeronauts and a time when hot air balloons in the sky were an escape into the unknown.

Pop quiz: what is the first thing that enters your mind when you think about mankind’s first venture into the skies? The smart money is on you thinking about the Wright Brothers. Maybe there is a long shot on a few of you sickos went straight to the Hindenburg. Before all of them though, we first started exploring the skies in balloons.

In his new film The Aeronauts, writer-director Tom Harper brings to light the early perils and wonder of what it was like to float up into the unknown, when one could only imagine seeing anything above the clouds. Along with his co-writer, Jack Thorne, and stars Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, Harper set out to bring along his audience into a vision of the heavens that even now, with all our technology, is sometimes just as mysterious as it was 150 years ago.

Was this the type of project where you just had an interest in the subject before hand? 

No, I had read Falling Upward and was inspired by the extraordinary lengths people went to expand on the known world, and who had that thirst for adventure. Something about the pursuit of flight that just hooked me, I suppose. Just the thought of that time, when we didn’t know what was above us; you didn’t know if you could just keep flying, if you would just keep going and hit the moon, or beyond. Maybe you would encounter something else or whether it would get hotter… it’s amazing that, relatively, it was a short time ago when we had no idea what was in the sky above us.

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There is also that idea here though, of the infancy of meteorology.

Absolutely, again, 170 or so years ago, it was considered fortune telling. There was an MP that stood up in the houses of parliament and said, “In the future, we may be able to predict the weather 24 hours in advance,” and they were laughed down and kicked out of parliament for it, because it sounded like nonsense. It’s amazing, it makes you think that 150 years from now… I mean, look what had happened in just the last 50 years compared to the last 150. Where will we be 100 years from now, and what previous things that we thought were unimaginable–I don’t know, like, time travel. [Laughter] It might genuinely be something like that. 

So when approaching this idea, where did that cross section sit for you between telling this real historical story and making a kind of period action-thriller?

What I quickly realized is there was no one story that had enough in one flight to get what I wanted. I was very drawn to do it all as one flight, sort of a rollercoaster adventure into the skies. I loved the idea of a sort-of action period piece, something you don’t get very often. I liked the idea of doing it in real-time as well. If we were going to do that, there was no one flight that was going to give us everything that we wanted, so we were needing an amalgam of many stories.

What I was looking for was an essence of adventure, of wonder… The vast majority of things that did happen in the flight, did happen to people, just not all at the same time. It’s kind of a greatest hits of the things that happened in balloon flight throughout the century.

What I really appreciate about the film is that you don’t take lots of time to explain every little detail, you just show it. Did you have to balance out how much you delved into?

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In the end, it is a counterbalance. It happens in every film. Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you get it wrong. For example, something that I actually think we got wrong in there, is the gloves. We’ve had a number of audience members ask me, “Why didn’t they take gloves?” Of course, she does take gloves, and she wears gloves–they both wear gloves, and hats, but they lose them in the storm.

There was a line in [Jack Thorne’s] script that said this, and we see a close up of the gloves flying off. But I was like, “Ah, we don’t need to show a close-up of that, people will know,” and actually it’s not clear enough and people do struggle with that, and I do wish I had made it clearer.

So for the record, the gloves are there. You don’t want to over explain things, and in general, audiences are far smarter–you don’t need to explain things, but you need to give them enough that they don’t feel like they’re missing something or feel that the characters are missing something. For the most part, in any film, at any time, it’s always about balance and I think for the most part, we got the balance right in this. I mean, there is a difference between hot air balloons and gas balloons, but I don’t want to spend five minutes boring people with that information.

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Speaking about Jack, what is it about your working relationship with him that keeps you two collaborating together?

Yeah, this is our fifth film together. I’d say trust and inspiration. He’s a massively inspiring person, and he accesses a kind of truth within humans in a way that is quite extraordinary. It doesn’t matter if it is period or present day, he just has a way of getting to a truth that is special. We’ve become friends, we trust each other with each other’s sections. I trust him with the script, he trusts me with his script.

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We can feed in, inspire, provoke, and dare each other to do better work. One of the great pleasures of filmmaking is that collaboration of inspiring minds. Whether it’s cast members, crew members, writers, or producers. That’s when things are at their best, and it is an incredibly rewarding process.

Well then I imagine that is what also makes it great to have two leads who have worked closely together before.

Them having a creative relationship before where they had built up a relationship of trust–they have great chemistry and it gave us a real headstart on things. They are very generous, and folded me into that relationship. We had a really exciting time together, and they push each other. They’ll do a scene a few times and then they’ll throw each other curveballs, they’ll dare each other to take those risks. Even off-camera, they may make it a little personal and push. They’re very exciting to be around.

Of course I never want to take anything away from them or others, but it must be a true thrill to have Tom Courtenay on your project.

I mean, it’s Tom. He’s one of those wonderful, beautiful actors. He’s just such a pleasure to work with and he’s just amazing.

I can never get over how he can sound normal, but somewhere in his throat, you can tell his heart is breaking.

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Yeah, it’s magical, it really is. That’s one of the nicest things about being a director. You’re there when the magic happens and you feel in some way connected and that’s one of the beautiful things about it.

What about the technical side of the film. How do you work on getting those visuals as if you’re 3,000 feet in the air?

We were 3,000 feet in the air, filming in a helicopter. That’s where we started; how much of this can we shoot for real? One of our first days of filming was with Felicity in the basket, 3,000 feet above British countryside, me in the helicopter. We’d rehearse the scene, then we’d do it. She was there, climbing out of the basket, into the hoop… we did a chunk of it for real. What that meant is, when we did do the stuff in the studio, we were able to draw from that experience. We flew in the balloons, a lot. Some of it for filming, some of it for rehearsals, some of it with all of our crew in the balloons, so they could experience what it was like.

I really wanted us to make a film that made the audience feel like they came as close as possible to what it was like for those characters to fly. Part of that was doing it for real, part of that was giving the actors the experiences they needed to draw from. Felicity went on a bunch of pilot training flights. Eddie and I went to a military defense airbase and were put in a decompression chamber to simulate what it would be like at 30,000 feet, starved of oxygen. We even chilled the studio to just below freezing so we create the temperatures of what it was like. Felicity and Eddie would actually thrust their hands into ice buckets. It was about using whatever tools we could to recreate it, so it would feel as real as possible.

That’s for the actors, but one a visual level, you can basically do anything with visual effects these days. But that doesn’t mean it looks real or feels real. What we ended up doing was, yes, working very hard to make it real. To go around the world and film cloud scapes from South Africa to New Orleans, and in the UK.

If you put that together and it’s perfect, it actually doesn’t feel real. Because if you are doing it for real, it won’t be perfect. We looked at a lot of parachute jumpers, and people who film form balloons, and our own footage from filming in balloons; and the things that make it real, are the imperfections. The camera jumps, the flares, the inability to pull focus. We ended up taking a lot of those imperfections and putting them into the film, which I think makes it feel all the more real.

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What about stress testing the equipment, as well? Were you able to see how they were affected by the jump to 30,000 feet as opposed to 3,000?

Yes, we did all sorts of things. We did quite a lot of flying and testing out different lenses, and how it reacts in the basket. I mean, you can only go so high. We could only go about 22,000 feet in the helicopter anyway, and that’s really pushing it. So, 36,000 feet is really fucking high [Laughter]. There is a large element of this is is just staring out of airplane windows. I took a lot of pictures out of airplane windows.

I love how the film opens, almost as if you didn’t know what was going on; you’d think the entertainment of the times was to watch people launch off in a balloon. But much like today, they’re selling an image to get backers for their work.

Yeah, I mean, it was an expensive endeavor at the time. You either had to be rich or have access to a private financier. I mean, Ameila Wren [Jones] comes from a wealthy family, but she was insistent on making her own money and not asking for that; so you have to sell tickets, you have to put on a show, you have to find backers. The whole reason they were able to go up in the first place is because she puts on a show for them. That was the reality of the time.

I have to say through all of the skyscapes and landscapes, that factory where they are building their balloon was one of the most spectacular visuals. Was that a full set?

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That’s an actual location. That’s Chatham Docks, it’s a ship building yard, essentially. So it was all real and there was this one lithograph we discovered an old balloon factory, and it was not unlike it, actually. It had the balloons half-made, hanging all around, and we created that as best we could and there was luckily this location that we found that was quite extraordinary.