Director Matt Brown on “The Man Who Knew Infinity”

In 1914 a self-taught math genius named Srinivasa Ramanujan left behind everything he knew when he boarded a ship that would take him from his life in Madras, India to Cambridge University in England. He was drawn to the prestigious school via a correspondence with English mathematician G. H. Hardy who recognized Ramanujan’s enormous potential not just for discovering known theorems without any formal education, but for seemingly cracking brand new ones.
Their collaboration is charted in director Matt Brown’s new feature The Man Who Knew Infinity starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons as Ramanujan and Hardy. Despite the left brained subject at hand, Brown’s film delves further into the very human story of a man faced with living in an entirely new world. Patel and Irons make for a compelling duo experiencing a huge, but ultimately fruitful, culture clash. The pair are supported by a roster of talented actors including Stephen Fry, Toby Jones and Kevin McNally. The road from Robert Kanigel’s book of the same name to its film adaptation was one that took over twelve years to travel and Brown spoke with me on the phone about how it all came together (Spoiler: It didn’t involve shoehorning in an unnecessary romantic subplot!)

Lauren Damon: First off, speaking as someone who knows nothing about math, you made a very touching film!

Matt Brown: [Laughs] Thanks, I don’t know much about it myself so thank you.

LD: Since this is your second feature since 2000, how long ago did you come across Ramanujan’s story and what made you decide to make it?

MB: Well…my aunt was a member of a book club and about twelve years ago I was visiting her and she introduced me to Robert Kanigel biography. I had done a small film right out of school that I never really got to finish and so this was my first sort of opportunity to do a little bit of a bigger film–or we were hoping it would be–but it was a long road. I mean it was twelve years trying to get this film made so I sometimes joke that I think I was nervous to go through the process of having to make another film and I picked maybe the hardest film in the history of the world to try to get made. [laughs]

LD: I read that you had had an interest in World War One, which this story takes place during but it’s not really the focus…

MB: No it doesn’t, it’s just with–You know I’d read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and I was really fascinated by the period, as anyone that has read that incredible book might be afterwards, and this was set against the great war and that just sort of got my attention for a second look at it. Once I’d read it, I really fell in love with the human story and the relationships. You know, as a writer, you’re always looking for conflict and drama and it just had two characters that couldn’t have been any more different. So it drew me in. I was drawn into the isolation that Ramanujan was going through…This illness and everything he went through was something I could really relate to because I was helping caretake actually for my brother at the time. I was helping with his wife because he had cancer. He subsequently got better and wrote all the music for the movie, so it was a happy ending.

LD: That’s amazing.

MB: It was pretty amazing.

LD: There are many biopics that handle these mathematical geniuses–like Theory of Everything or A Beautiful Mind–did you look to any of those?

MB: Sure I guess like over the years, I couldn’t not have. You know it was over such a long period of time, and I’m a movie lover so I’ve them all at this point, I think! [laughs] And it’s funny because we all have perceptions of films and they’re not always totally accurate what our perception is of what the film was. I remember watching Beautiful Mind one time to try to see how they portrayed the mathematics visually in it. And it was shockingly small, the amount actually. It was like the one moment where he adjusts the tie, and he makes the pattern of the tie work. And it was like small and subtle. I don’t even know if there was another moment in the movie that did it besides doing lots of math on the chalkboards. People writing furiously. You know and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do a film that was organic. Anything we tried to do we wanted to do it in the camera. And it was really important to me to just portray the mathematicians as multidimensional human beings that weren’t crazy and weren’t like frenetically insane and were actually, you know, complex flawed characters. So I didn’t need to make it into something it wasn’t already. I think just trying to be authentic to what the story as more than enough. I mean this had so much drama: Man breaks caste, leaves his country and his home, gets trapped by the war, goes all the way to England only to find that the one person that brings him there is emotionally completely unavailable…And how these two had to come together.

LD: Throughout the film, so many of the actors have to speak so passionately about what their characters are working on. Did any of them delve into studying what they were talking about?

MB: Yeah they both spent some time trying to–Well, first of all I just would say it was really important to Robert Kanigel who wrote the book that I philosophically understood some of what was going on with the mathematics. And certainly I came to respect them as artists, pure mathematicians. It was really important to Jeremy and to Dev. Jeremy, I know read A Mathematician’s Apology, they both read the biography and I think that they both wanted to do right by this story. So they, they did a lot of research on their own and they worked with [mathematician] Ken Ono who came to set and worked with me while we were shooting which gave the actors a lot of confidence that the script was right. That when they would point at a formula or when they would look at the notebooks, everything was exactly right. And you know it’s one of those things that afterwards you know people always say that ‘well, the math people of the world will love your movie’ but I’m like ‘well, actually you don’t take that for granted.’ It’s really been humbling that I can have Freeman Dyson or Steven Strogatz be like ‘You got us. You did it.’ You know and that really means a lot to me. And so that aside, I want the movie to touch people that are not mathematicians. It’s very important that–that’s who I made for was for people like me or you or anyone that doesn’t know math and maybe we could just respect it as an art form and come to see their passion with it. Really the movie is about acceptance and the human story.

Jeremy Irons with director Matt Brown

LD: Meanwhile, I feel like Dev Patel probably wasn’t so much a household name until after Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, but you had the rights to the story for so long, how did that casting come together?

MB: I mean it’s been, it’s just been a process. I think when we started Dev was  you know just had  done [Slumdog Millionaire]. It was so long ago. You know, we went through different actors at different points over twelve years trying to get a movie made. But you know I think it was sort of–I have to think that there’s a plan for these things in some sense. And I knew that I wasn’t gonna compromise on the film in terms of the overall authenticity of it. I mean I’ve mentioned to the press at different times that [producer] Ed Pressman really stood by me when we had been offered opportunities to make the film if we would have Ramanujan fall in love with a white nurse to get it financed. And we didn’t do that. So I think there’s just a bigger plan at work and it happened the way it happened. Dev was ready to go at the right time and committed to it and felt like this was a character–he saw the nobility of the character and it was really important for him to play this role. And it’s a different kind of role for him than we’ve seen him in before and he does it brilliantly.  And for Jeremy, I think it was an opportunity to revisit something in a different way as an actor for him. And he, his performance is just so pure and beautiful.  I’m just humbled to be part of it.

LD: You also have an amazing supporting cast with Stephen Fry, Toby Jones…

MB: Yeah and Jeremy Northam, all those guys. You know, Stephen Fry is amazing–they’re all amazing–but Stephen you know he had his own project, for ten years trying to get it made,  and when we found out that we were gonna be making the film I reached out to him and I said do you wanna maybe join our team for this? And he did! And he flew all the way to Chennai for a weekend. Just took two days to shoot, to play Sir Francis Spring in it. And it was such a big thing for the movie to have the first time you see British actor to have that kind of gravitas that Stephen Fry could bring to it. That authenticity was a really great gift that he gave the film. But they were all wonderful.

Dev Patel and Stephen Fry

LD: How long were you filming in India?

MB: Not long, about nine days. Which was really…it was hard because it was an independent film and you obviously get compared to I don’t know, movies like–I mean, I’m really flattered anytime anybody ever mentions like the John Nash film for instance that was about fifteen times our budget [laughs] you know? So if it’s even in the conversation. But you know, we had a very short shoot compared to those kind of movies and we did twenty two days in England and then we had to say goodbye to our crew after we’re in a great rhythm. And then we switch to India, to Chennai, which is nothing like Madras in 1914. It was a real challenge and a brand new crew all of the sudden which is Indian and goes to a totally different rhythm. It was a tribute to my team–my production designer Luciana Arrighi, the cinematographer [Larry Smith], my costume designer [Ann Maskrey]– that they all came out alive and in one piece. [laughs]

LD: I’ve read now that you’ve also adapted an Ian Fleming biography, are you actively working with that?

MB: No that’s something I had written a while back. That’s, I’m not really sure what the state of that. I think that they said that that was going into production this year though so that was exciting. I have another movie called London Town that I think is in the Los Angeles film festival right now and then doing, I think it’s having a premiere maybe in Cannes. And that’s about falling in love with a band for the first time. A young man coming of age story with the band The Clash and Joe Strummer. Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars in that.

LD: That’s quite a change from Mathematics and World War One!

MB: Right? But you know what, it’s not though. That’s the funny thing, I thought the same thing then I was thinking about it more and more…It’s socially conscious kind of and it’s about artists, you know, so in a weird way it isn’t so different. But yeah, it is different because it’s a little easier on the face of it to rock out to Joe Strummer.

I screened The Man Who Knew Infinity as part of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently in limited theatrical release with national expansion in the coming weeks.

Paul Bettany discusses “Shelter” with stars Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Mackie

Paul Bettany may be known as one of our finest English actors, with roles in such major films as A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander, The Da Vinci Code and of course, Marvel’s Avengers franchise. What he also is however is now a fifteen year resident of New York City with Oscar-winning wife (and Beautiful Mind co-star) Jennifer Connelly. The city, which Bettany loves, is currently facing a homeless crisis which sees 60,000 people seeking public shelters nightly. The majority of them families.

The actor had been developing a story about judgment and redemption for his feature directorial debut, but it wasn’t until Hurricane Sandy hit his home city that Bettany honed in on filtering his story through the lens of the homeless experience. The result was Shelter, which Bettany describes as a “moving optimistic story,” and stars Connelly as Hannah and Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Civil War) as Tahir, a pair of homeless people from completely different worlds now residing in New York City. They come together to help each other face their pasts and the everyday trials of living on the streets. An impassioned, opinionated Bettany joined Connelly and Mackie this week at the New York press conference for the film.

One particular homeless couple focused Bettany on where his story would go:

Paul Bettany: “I live in a really nice apartment I moan about because I’m now a New Yorker…outside this apartment was this homeless couple. A black man and a white woman, she was blonde. And I would see them, we would see them, we would pass them on the school run. My children would say hello to them, they’d say hello to us, and that was kind of the extent of it. And I have to, I’m ashamed to say, that day by day, their poverty became more and more acceptable to me and they became invisible. Before they actually disappeared. And then Hurricane Sandy hit and we never saw them again. There was a mandatory evacuation of our area of Tribeca and they used to live in a tiny little piece of like a ‘park’–it’s laughable, it’s smaller than this room–on the corner of Canal Street and the West Side Highway. And they used to live under a plastic tarpaulin and I noticed that they seemed to complain a lot less about their circumstances than I did and I admired that. And then I really couldn’t see them anymore and I felt the instinct to write about them. But I didn’t know who they were. And then I thought, well wait a second, maybe that would be a really good way to discuss judgment because I find our response to homelessness really puzzling. It’s a peculiar response that people have.”

This “peculiar response” was loudly voiced this week by New York’s own Police Commissioner Bill Bratton who had advised city dwellers to ignore panhandlers and not spare them any change in order to get them off the streets. At the press conference Bettany, who spent three years developing the script for Shelter and by extension working with and researching organizations that support the homeless, was asked to address this idea, firing back:

Bettany: “I’m not one to say anything rude about anyone else but, that’s a fucking stupid idea. To ignore a homeless…The homeless. Especially when there’s 60,000 of them on the streets—staying in shelters—in a city that’s home to more billionaires than any city on Earth, you know…I can’t believe that someone would say ‘ignore homeless people.’ And frankly, it’s absolutely the reason I feel it’s urgent. Obviously I spent three years bleeding it into a movie that’s trying to talk about exactly that. So forgive me if I get a little bit heated about it. Because that sort of mentality just drives me up the wall.

They’ve been ignored for too long. I’ll just tell you this, if you are a family on the brink of eviction, you’re 80% less likely to be evicted If you have legal counsel. But there is no right to legal counsel in a housing court. It would cost the city $12,500 to grant that family legal counsel. The average stay in a shelter for a homeless family once they have been evicted costs the city $45,000. So not only does it seem to be morally the right thing to do, it also just seems fiscally a smart thing to do, right? You’re thinking outside the box…

All of these figures that I have my head you know because I’ve been really thinking about this for a long while, I say them in front of audiences and I can just—I know that they’re mind blowing and then kind of numbing and that’s the interesting thing about narrative. Narrative can breath life into those figures that can be baffling. And peculiarly they become more meaningful the smaller they get. Which is why Shelter is just about two people. And two people who need forgiveness and who are deserving of forgiveness. Cause you know what? It’s not just those 24,000 children [staying in shelters] because when I say it, I always I feel the audience go ‘[gasps] Not children!‘ but actually we’re all innocents. We’re all worthy of forgiveness. And we’re all fundamentally deserving of a home”

For Connelly and Mackie, working on Shelter refocused their perspectives on the struggles people face.

Jennifer Connelly: “There’s no group of people that isn’t entitled to the same basic human rights as the rest of us…It reminded me how much I need to strive to remain aware and to keep seeing those people. And to keep seeing what’s happening around the world. And to keep you know, to be conscious of how blessed we are to worry about the silly things that we worry about most of the time. When people are worrying about where they’re going to sleep and how they’re going to feed their kids and will they make it through the day. Important to think about.”

Anthony Mackie: “The level of judgment and the lack of humanity I saw in myself was disgusting. Every time I would walk past a homeless person I’d be like ‘Get up, get a job! Get off drugs!’ I never took into account what that person had been through or what happened to get that person to that place. And it just really blew my mind, you know, learning what I learned about homeless shelters and just the idea of finding a warm place to sleep at night, it reminded me of the prison system. And the idea or the lack thereof of rehabilitation in the prison system. You know just trying to get a good night sleep within incarceration… And it was just troubling and eye opening. And I never really took into account the number of families.

You know when I was a kid we used to do this feeding the hungry at my church every other Saturday and it blew my mind one day when I was you know, like scooping out food and this kid from my school was there. I was like ‘Holy sh—shibbity jibbit! That dude we go to school together!’ And somewhere between that moment of realization and appreciation for what my dad sacrificed for us to have and me becoming ‘Anthony Mackie’ I lost it. And this movie really made me realize. And it was very humbling and very sickening to see that within yourself. And so now I make my kids go and scoop chicken on the weekends. And if they don’t do the right thing, I take their shit from them and give it to other kids. [laughs]”

Connelly immersed herself in organizations that reached out to those struggling:

Connelly: “Coalition for the Homeless, that group of people were really helpful to me. I spent time with them, talking to them and visiting shelters and going out on their food runs. Which, every night they deliver meals and stop at set points around the city and people rely on those meals so you can meet people coming in. And I heard a lot–I met and watched and learned from a lot of people. There’s a place called the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center, which started out just as a needle exchange program, and it still is and also has health support services and outreach programs, and overdose prevention and a number of other programs. I spent a lot time there at their location, and going on their walkabout talking to people. Yeah, people were very generous with their stories and with their time. So I was really listening to people, watching people and hearing their stories.”

As for the actual making of the film, Bettany made the considerable leap from acting to directing. I asked him if he’d turned to any of the impressive directors he’s worked with in the past (a list including Joss Whedon, Ron Howard and Peter Weir) for advice when he began this project.

Bettany: “No. No I didn’t but they were the biggest resource for me in showing them early cuts of the movie. Ron Howard, Darren Aronofsky, lots of people that I know–David Koepp, and not just directors, Joss Whedon, Johnny Depp…Just loads of people that I’ve worked with and trust and really whose–who I really admire. But I did that afterward.

You know, I really kept my eyes open as an actor, I’m really interested. You know I see it, you see it when you meet a young actor first day on set, you can see whether they’re gonna be the sort of actor who’s gonna bullshit that they know what they’re doing [laughs] or asked loads of questions. And I was really inquisitive and I wanted to know ‘hey, what’s that do?‘…I was that sort of an actor when I was them at that age. And so I’ve been watching and one of the things that I’ve really noticed with the great directors and actually I first saw this, recognized in Peter Weir, is he knows who’s telling the story. Whether it is the actors holding the responsibility or whether it’s the camera crew holding the responsibility. And if it’s the actor holding the responsibility, every take is the actor’s. And by that I mean there is no complicated techni-crane move that’s going to move in on you during your speech and come in and catch a tear rolling down your cheek and eight out of ten of them are out of focus. ‘Cause all of those takes are for the crew, because there’s this complicated camera. Every scene that is held by the actors is just simple simple camera work. Nothing can be out of focus, every take can be going to you the actor. Just generous, every take. Every take. And then when it’s the camera crew, you better be on your fucking mark. Because they’re the ones telling the story, right, they’re the ones responsible for it. So I thought about that a lot and tried to figure out who was the most important. (It was me. [laughs])”

Connelly was asked if she’d like to turn the tables and direct Bettany eventually, but it seems unlikely:

Bettany: “Do you want to direct me? I can’t imagine anything worse, I’m very difficult.”

Connelly: “I have no eminent plans to direct anything although I’d imagine it’d be something that I’d find–it intrigues me but I’m not nearly ready to, I don’t think–”

Bettany: “I’d be terrified!”

Shelter opens in limited release and on VOD November 13th