Writer/Director Matt Brown on the project’s long gestation, the cathartic moment of a good story, and the scene he wishes he hadn’t cut.
The Man Who Knew Infinity stars Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Newsroom) as Srinivasa Ramanujan, an unparalleled genius of mathematics who earns a seat at Cambridge University during World War I, where his theories are mentored by professor G. H. Hardy, portrayed by Jeremy Irons (The Man in the Iron Mask, Batman V. Superman).
The British biographical drama is based on the 1991 book by Robert Kanigel and it took writer and director Matt Brown over ten years to get his screenplay written and produced.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Brown about the project’s long gestation, the cathartic moment of a good story, and the scene he wishes he hadn’t cut.
What led you into screenwriting and directing?
I was an English major, but really I had been writing my whole life. In my last semester of college, I took a screenwriting class and I fell in love with it. I had always loved movies. My professor told me that she could tell how much I enjoyed the class and she suggested I go down to NYU’s Sight & Sound.
I had just finished college and no one was going to pay for any additional schooling. It’s actually a funny story, my car got stolen and I got a really big insurance check that was unexpected and then I won a couple thousand dollars off of a scratch ticket, all in the same week.
That paid for Sight & Sound for the summer so once I did that, I absolutely fell in love with filmmaking. We got to shoot on the 16mm and cut on the Steenbeck, which I doubt they even do anymore. It was pretty incredible.
From there, it was the middle of the 90s, so everyone was caught up in the we-can-make-movies-ourselves attitude so everyone in my class was working on each other’s films. It was a really exciting time in New York. I did a little bit of everything, like working with the sound department and shooting, which led me to fall in love with film.
What made you want to tell this story, The Man Who Knew Infinity?
I had read a book called Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and I was fascinated by the Great War. My aunt was a member of a book club and while I was visiting her in Big Sur, she showed me The Man Who Knew Infinity, which was also set amongst the Great War and I fell in love with the humanity behind the story.
During the years it took to make the film, I grew a deep appreciation for the mathematics and began to see mathematicians as artists so I could relate to them more.
Can you elaborate on the research involved?
Beyond the book, I became very close with the author, Robert Kanigel, who gave me his research. I had a lot of Indian authors’ points-of-view to take a look at and I found minutes from UDC (Union of Demoratic Control) meetings. UDC was part of the pacifist resistance towards the Great War in Trinity and there were minutes from the actual meetings so I could actually use specific lines of dialogue within the film.
I had G. H. Hardy’s “A Mathematician’s Apology” and part of his lectures such as the “Tercentenary Conference” at Harvard. As often as possible, I tried to use the actual words spoken by the real characters.
I had a tremendous amount available to me. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s like you live with these people from a difference era and the great thing about filmmaking is that you get to see the actors bring them to life in a whole different way.
You mentioned that it took a few years to get this film made. What was that process like in terms of writing multiple drafts and deciding what historic pieces to use within the story?
It was probably twelve years in total of trying to get the film made. As a writer, I think the first draft was the longest draft so the next question was refining where I wanted the interest of the story to be. A ton of research went into it, so it was a very heavy script from the beginning and then it was just about whittling it down and highlighting the emotional drama of the main characters.
What was your writing process like during that time? Are there any rituals that come to mind?
I try to get in a couple of hours everyday, but I’m not a morning person. I don’t wait too long into the day because then I just feel like I’m procrastinating. When I am writing, I try to get in a couple hours in the afternoon and when I’m not writing there is incredible guilt.
As a writer/ director, do you see the scenes in a different mindset?
When I finally got the opportunity to direct the film, after living with it as a writer for twelve years, I thought it would be harder for me to cut but it really wasn’t. I put this director’s hat on and became this person that I would have probably hated as a writer. It was just something that you know: you can’t have everything and if you do, you will hurt the film. Then you go through it all over again in the edit. In retrospect, back to my old self, there are things that I regret having to cut.
I actually woke up today thinking of one scene that was driving my crazy. There was a scene with Hardy and Ramanujan are in their office and they talk about being pure mathematicians. As such, Hardy was very much against the war and he didn’t want his mathematics being put to poor use, such as how Littlewood (Toby Jones) went off to work on ballistics.
Hardy wanted his work put to practical use. There is a scene where he says, “I hope we are utterly useless.” Ramanujan makes a quip, “Useless?” Hardy responds, “Yes, useless. Absolutely.” I loved that. I loved the way the scene was, but the scene was dragging on and there was an ADR (automated dialogue replacement) issue, so in the interest of the film, I cut it.
In retrospect, I think the scene would have done more to define the idea of pure mathematics versus this idea that we have to make this all mean something. For example, The Imitation Game is about saving the world from Hitler, but I don’t have that one-thing in this film such as the practical application of mathematics, nor did I ever really want to have one-thing, but that is one of the things modern filmmakers are having to contend with. That’s one of those things that you wish you could have kept as a writer, but as a director, there’s a possibility that I made a mistake cutting.
Overall, as a viewer, it would appear that a heavy thread would be Ramanujan making the sacrifice to leave his family and his country for the sake of mathematics.
It’s the story of someone who needs to be understood—someone who was isolated. That’s one of the things that drew me into the story. At the time, my brother was quite ill with cancer so I wrote most of the script in an oncology ward, and therefore was relating to those themes of isolation.
More than anything, it’s the story of someone who needs to feel understood. Until he meets G. H. Hardy, he never really has felt understood.
Sadly, the one person who takes him on, does so as more of a cause in the beginning, until he eventually sees him as a person. That was really the conflict between these two people. It’s the cost that comes when people wait too long to connect. That was really my mantra on the film. At the center, it’s two people needing to connect, which ends bittersweet in this case.
As a writer, living with this story so long, is there anything you wish you would have known in the beginning, or any other advice you’d like to pass on to upcoming writers?
I wish I had known that it was OK to be patient. I felt this ticking clock that I had to get the movie made, but the movie got made when it was supposed to get made in the way that it was supposed to get made. When you have a project that you really love, you need to see if it grows with you over the years. Every time I checked in with this story after financing fell through or whatever, I would come back a year later and decide that the film still resonated with me.
It was always still important to me. Then, there was this other movie that I wrote that I thought I would direct after this movie and my agent advised me to hold onto it rather than have someone else buy it, and now it’s just not the right story for me to tell right now. I can’t explain why, but I think you just know. You have to just let things happen rather than try and force the issue.
What did you find to be most difficult step in the writing process?
Every film is different. I’ve written some films in six weeks and others in six years. I had so much to work with in this story. You could have made a movie about Ramanujan before he got to England. You could have made one after he got back from England. You could have made one about the war and its politics.
For me, the difficulties were killing your babies as a writer. I know that’s cliché, but I had to understand that we can’t have everything as filmmakers.
In your opinion, what makes a good story?
Character-drama. Conflict. Cathartic moment. That’s pretty much it.
Aristotle was right. How well we do those things in storytelling is for everyone else to say. It’s about conflict and dealing with that conflict.
For me, the center of this was always about a man who fuses spirituality into his work while another man is an atheist and while they couldn’t be any more different as people, they need one another in order to have this elegant, mathematical relationship that they then display to the world.
Is there anything else you would like to share about the film that we haven’t already touched on?
It’s funny to work on a movie for so long. You love it for your own personal reasons.
One thing that is really gratifying is that I started to see aspects that are more important than those I saw in the beginning. The story of supporting outliers is pretty wonderful. Talent can be found anywhere in the world and it just needs to be nurtured.
There are messages in this film and maybe I could have told them in a better way, but I certainly began to appreciate them in a more profound way.
Can you give any details on your next project? There’s a film entitled London Town listed on IMDB (directed by Derrick Borte and starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers).
I did a small independent film called Ropewalk that I never really got to finish properly. It never really came out and that broke my heart.
But then I had another movie after that and I was encouraged to sell that script and move to Hollywood to take my career in a different direction. So I was working in Hollywood for many years but I was missing those New York, independent films that I grew up on.
After Infinity, I wrote a film called London Calling—now called London Town—about a young boy who is growing up in the 1970s, in London. It’s about when you fall in love with a band for the first time and in this case, it’s The Clash. It also deals with the socioeconomics of that time and it’s really funny that it’s 2016 and both of these films are coming out, but I’m really enjoying it.
This article was first published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.