Who is Srinivasa Ramanujan? If you’re a film buff, you would have heard his name being mentioned in Good Will Hunting. Matt Brown discovered Robert Kanigel’s biography of Ramanujan and the story stuck with him. Twelve years later, it comes to life in Brown’s latest film, The Man Who Knew Infinity. I recently caught up with Brown to talk about the challenges of making a film about a mathematical genius, especially when math is a subject that typically intimidates Hollywood. We also talked about filming on location in England and India.
AD: Congratulations on the film. I watched it and was like, “math was my weakest point in school, I did terribly.” But this is such a touching film.
MB: Thank you very much.
AD: How long did it take you to get it off the ground?
MB: Like yourself, I wasn’t much good at math either. I think a lot of people are pretty intimidated by the subject of mathematics, especially in Hollywood. It took about 12 years to get the film make from the time I first discovered the biography by Robert Kanigel that it was based on until now. It took a long time [laughs]. It’s the subject matter really and that it’s a period piece and mathematics is the backdrop for it and then it’s an Indian lead. It just didn’t have a lot of the things Hollywood sort of looks for when they want to finance movies.
AD: What made you stick with it for so long?
MB: It was the human story that was at the heart of it and is what drew me in originally. It’s what made me think that despite the naysayers, that it was a film that could touch an audience and cross over that way. I think any time you have a film that’s hard to make like that, you sort of check in with it every once in a while and ask if it’s growing with me or not. For all those years, this film did. To feel like it was something that would have some kind of a personal connection to me, despite not being a mathematician, was the key thing.
AD: You mentioned the book, did you know this story before the book?
MB: It had been referenced it Good Will Hunting, but to be perfectly honest, I didn’t remember that. I came across the book and then I remembered that the story and Ramanujan’s name had been referenced. I wasn’t really very well aware of it. I’m a history buff and I had been interested in the Great War and had just read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which is an amazing historical novel, and then I came across this book. It was set against The Great War and I think that initially sparked my interest. And, as a writer, you look for stories with drama and this story was almost too incredible to be true. Just this idea that for this man, family and religion and home was so important and then he breaks castes, which must have been just terrifying at the height of colonialism, and then travels to England and finds himself on the other side after this incredible journey he must have gone through, and is greeted by a man who is completely emotionally cut off. There was all the prejudice of that period and the war and the fact that he’s an atheist and Ramanujan is Hindu, which meant for him an equation of no meaning unless it expressed the thought of God. It had big themes and a big human story that I was really excited to delve into.
AD: Yeah, it has those themes that Hollywood is really scared of, religion and math.
MB: [laughs] It’s one of those things. I sometimes wondered if I was just afraid to direct and I found the most difficult story that I would never have to and then somewhere along the way I’d think I was ready, but then think about how we’d get this made [laughs]. It’s funny afterwards now because we’ve been so embraced by the mathematical community and science and tech world. They’re all like, “why didn’t you come to us in the beginning and we would have financed it,” and I tell them that we tried [laughs], but hindsight is 20/20.
AD: When you’re watching the film, they’re not coming across as crazy mathematicians so what was the challenge in getting that part of telling the story?
MB: I was excited about the fact that they weren’t crazy. I felt like every time I watch a movie about a mathematician it has to be the crazy or mad genius or else it’s like portrayed as a complete revenge of the nerds or something. To me, to have the characters that were multidimensional and real people with complex personalities was really exciting to show. It’s one of the things that I’ve been thanked for a lot, by mathematicians and their spouses afterwards. They’ve all been thanking me for portraying it this way so that people can understand more of what this world is about. For me, these were artists and it took me a while to learn that, but pure mathematics is really an art form and they’re very creative people. While we can’t quite see exactly what they see, you can, hopefully, in the film understand the passion and drive that an artist has for their own creative process.
AD: When you’re telling a life story, what was the challenge in deciding what you keep in the story and what you take out? For example, you keep his mom and wife in.
MB: I felt like it was really important to show some of India because of how important his home was to him. It really played a part in the isolation he went through, I mean he never intended to go to Trinity for that long and the war came and it cut him off. It’s a true story. The mother really did hide their letters and I think it really contributed to his sense of isolation and despair while he was away so it was a decision about that, really. It was about trying to keep that link so that we could understand what he gave up, so when he tells Hardy, “you have no idea what I’ve done to be here,” we actually understand it on some level.
AD: The India themes were great. How long did you spend shooting there?
MB: Unfortunately, not nearly long enough. It a very quick shoot. We were an independent film and we really stretched every dollar as far as it could go. We only had about a week and a half of shooting in India. We tried to get to the heart of the script as best we could, but we couldn’t accomplish everything, which is frustrating when you’ve had something for that long and you know you’re not going to be able to do everything. It was a really a question of focusing on trying to get the essence of what was most important about the story down. I feel like we did that, but there is stuff that I wish we could have done more of. I wish we had an extra couple of days in India to shoot and be able to show more about how he came to his mathematics. He spent a lot of time writing on temple floors in India where he would be surrounded by Carnatic music and jantai, and it was just rhythmic music that I think probably heavily influenced him. It was things like that that I wish I could have shown, but we didn’t quite get to do because of schedule constraints and the whole thing. Thank God we got what we did get [laughs], so I’m grateful for that. It was tricky because we had shot for about 22 days in England and literally five days later we were right into India with a brand new crew. You can imagine it goes at very different pace and rhythm than a British crew which is different than an American crew [laughs].
AD: On the subject of England, one scene that stands out is when he’s invited to Cambridge and you see that scene with Mr. Hardy. It’s one of the few exterior scenes in the film so what you can tell us about that scene?
MB: We were really fortunate on a lot of levels. When you’re doing a small film like this you need the support of your cast and crew on a ridiculously large level. Everybody was sacrificing left and right to try to get this story told because we all felt it was a worthy and important story. We also had the benefit that Trinity College felt the same way. They had never allowed a film to shoot there before, including Chariots of Fire, so I was hopeful that maybe there was an outside chance they would consider letting us shoot there. We were really, really surprised when they said we could, in fact, shoot there and they opened up their gates to us because they felt it was so important to tell this story. The script doesn’t exactly portray them in the best light originally, it shows their own racism when they denied Ramanujan a fellowship, which I think was largely based on race. The fact that they would support this and show they change is pretty incredible. There’s that line in the film where Hardy is trying to get Major McMahon to support him for a fellowship at the Royal Society after Trinity denied it and he says, “But he’s an Indian!” We showed the movie to the Royal Society and the president said that was his favorite line and the president of the Royal Society is now an Indian! It shows some of the change in how the world has changed since then.
AD: Talk to me about the casting because your cast is incredible.
MB: Dev [Patel] is amazing. He was really my partner on this film. We worked on the script together for a couple months and it was really important for him to feel like the human story was front and center and I think that paid dividends. Dev was so giving, I mean if I told you the kind of stuff he had to go through in India and during shooting with the demands on this kind of film where you have like two takes and maybe one set up in a scene at times. You’re running and gunning and he was just so incredible. He said to me, “please find somebody that will intimidate me to play Hardy,” so I brought in Jeremy Irons [laughs] and I think he was shaking in his boots for a bit. He was so happy about that and I felt they have great chemistry. Jeremy was just a gift in this film and he really took it to another level and I’m just so grateful because he’s taught me so much. We also lucked out with a lot of the other casting too. I reached out to Stephen Fry because he had his own project that he’d been trying to make for about ten years and Stephen, really graciously, said he’ll come and support this project because I was making it finally. He flew all the way to Chennai to shoot for two days. I asked him what character he’d be interested in playing and he said he was happy to be Sir Francis Spring and I think he did it because he knew that we needed somebody with some gravitas and when you first see a British actor in India, it’s Stephen. It was just so generous and amazing. Jeremy Northam, who plays Bertram Russell, I absolutely loved in the film. And then there’s Toby Jones. We just lucked out across the board with these guys.
AD: The end result is such an exciting and educational film, as well. How accurate is the math in here, because they know what they’re doing?
MB: It’s 100% accurate and that was important to me to portray that correctly. I’m really glad I did, in retrospect, because everyone was like, “the people that like math will like your movie,” but you don’t take anybody for granted. But they have and they’ve really supported it. We’ve had everyone from Freeman Dyson to you name it see the film at this point and been so happy with the mathematical portrayal and the authenticity. Ken Ono, one of the top mathematicians in the world, came to set and was there for me and worked really hard to make sure that not only was the script completely vetted, but that all of the art department and everything was really accurate. I think it gave the actors that confidence that they could trust the material and they could trust me.
AD: What’s next for you now that this is out?
MB: I don’t know! I’m just so happy that it’s working [laughs] and expanding and the audiences seem to not be turned off by the math, but actually embracing the human story with it. I’m circling a bunch of different projects right now and feeling pretty good about it.