'Genius': Breaking Free of Feature-Length Narrative Limitations to Tell Einstein's Story
After many years of trying to make an Einstein biopic, the success of television limited series was the breakthrough this story needed to get made.
Albert Einstein is one of the most well-known figures of the 20th century, a titan in the scientific world. And yet, most of us probably only know of him as the man responsible for the Theory of Relativity and that guy on the ubiquitous poster with the crazy white hair sticking out his tongue. Ten years ago, biographer Walter Isaacson set out to change that perception with his book, "Einstein: His Life and Universe," which was swiftly optioned to become a major motion picture.
After several attempts to get the project off the ground, National Geographic Channel is finally unveiling Genius, a 10-part limited series about the life of Albert Einstein. The first episode of Genius screened at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, followed by a panel of the show's creators and talent who described their journey from concept to limited series. Panelists included director and executive producer Ron Howard, executive producers Brian Glazer and Gigi Pritzker, showrunner Kenneth Biller, and cast members Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Flynn, Emily Watson, and Samantha Colley.
Thanks to Facebook Live, you can watch this panel in its entirety below, or if you don't have time, check out our key takeaways after the video. You can jump to the 12:25 mark to get to the start of the panel.
This story needed television to embrace the limited series before it could be told
During the panel discussion after the premiere of the first episode of Genius at the Tribeca Film Festival, executive producer Gigi Pritzker explained that they originally developed Einstein's story as a feature-length film after approaching biographer Walter Isaacson for the rights when he was on his book tour for "Einstein: His Life and Universe" back in 2007. Try as they did, Pritzker and her colleagues couldn't get it off the ground as a feature, partly because Einstein's life was too big to fit into the narrative structure of a movie.
"I never felt that it worked in…that [feature-length] timeframe, that narrative. It always felt limited."
Fellow executive producer and director of the first episode, Ron Howard elaborated on the difficulties of making a feature film based on Einstein's life: "I never felt that it worked in…that [feature-length] timeframe, that narrative. It always felt limited." After reading the pilot script and Walter Isaacson's book, Howard discovered many surprises about Einstein that he never knew and thought he and other directors would have a lot of aspects of Einstein's life to explore. "These innovators are adventurers," said Howard. "The greatest of these geniuses require a certain amount of courage. It's intellectual, but it's also emotional, and in Einstein's case, it was even sometimes physical. So I felt that there was a lot of drama there, and certainly plenty for ten hours."
As several limited series gained traction on U.S. television and networks came around to see this extended story format as commercially viable, Genius was reimagined as a 10-part limited series and finally found its green light. Pritzker noted, "Watching it tonight, I'm kind of glad we didn't succeed at the feature part of it because it's so resonant now, and I'm really happy we were able to wait and have it come out this way."
Two actors try to solve the equation of the character of Einstein
To create a realistic portrayal of Albert Einstein spanning decades of his life, the creative team decided to cast two actors for the role: Johnny Flynn as the younger Einstein, and Geoffrey Rush as the older Einstein. To create a cohesive character, first, the two actors needed to get to know each other. Flynn reached out to Rush, and together they studied all of the available footage of Einstein later in his life giving interviews and lectures, particularly focusing on his quick wit. To get the comedic element right, the two actors went to comedy shows in London together and referenced clips of the Marx Brothers (Rush in particular cited Harpo Marx).
Rush explained that they needed to figure out how to create the character of Einstein to take the audience beyond the famous posters of the genius hanging in every high school physics classroom. Yet, sometimes, tiny details from the photos of Einstein told them a lot about the character, like an image of Einstein wearing huge fluffy slippers. Rush insisted they had to find a moment in the story to include those slippers without commenting on them so the slippers could reveal something about Einstein's inner story.
Women loom large in the story of Einstein's success
With the expanded storytelling canvas of ten hours, Genius has the time to examine the influence of key women on the life and success of Einstein. These women's stories are likely unknown to most audience members, and even some of the cast were unaware of their existence. Samantha Colley, who plays Mileva Maric in Genius, actually thought at first that the writers had created the character of Maric as a love interest for the young Einstein to enhance the story. But after doing her research, Cooley not only discovered that Maric was a real person, but also "a feminist icon that's kind of sat there in history and been ignored, and I found it enormously exciting to try and breathe life into that, and do right by her. For me, she's an example of a woman crashing through boundaries, demanding to be taken on an equal footing as men."
"I don't think he would have necessarily succeeded [or] survived without her."
Emily Watson plays Elsa Einstein, his wife and partner, who came into his life just before Einstein's Theory of Relativity was proven and he became a worldwide celebrity. Genius reveals how Elsa helps guide Einstein through this major transition in his life. After creating her portrayal of Elsa and discovering her unique bond with Einstein, Watson declared, "I don't think he would have necessarily succeeded [or] survived without her."
To learn more about the making of Genius, you can check out this behind-the-scenes video. Genius premieres April 25 on National Geographic Channel.