Wednesday, 19 January 2011

And They Said Drama Was Dead

Here's my interview with Tom Hooper, director of The King's Speech, from The Sunday Times, 16/1/11...

As the old Mel Brooks quip goes: “It’s good to be the king.” Perhaps not in the case of the Brothers Windsor, who, in 1936, were each making a compelling case as to why the Top Job was not a sensible career option. But certainly if you’re Tom Hooper.
Currently, in the business of entertainment, Hooper is the nearest thing you’ll get to a Roi Soleil— one to be showered with trinkets; a man whose bed-chamber, by the grace of Tinseltown, is quite possibly being licked clean, wit’ tongue.
Tonight, Sunday, January 16, the film he directed — The King’s Speech — is expected to bag substantial booty at the Golden Globes, where it is up for seven baubles, including one for Hooper himself. On Tuesday, January 18, comes the BAFTA shortlist; on January 25, the one for the Oscars, all likely to swell a trove including the top award at last year’s Toronto Festival and too many guild and critics’ gongs to mention.
The tall, slender, floppy-fringed 38-year-old is far too diffident to endure a fuss. But there’s no denying his film about the relationship between King and Commoner — the yet-to-be George VI (Colin Firth) and unorthodox speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an independent flick that cost less than £10million — has struck a chord. “Geoffrey liked to joke, ‘It’s about two middle aged nobodies becoming friends,’” says Hooper. “’But don’t put that on the poster.’”
In the States, The King’s Speech has out-performed studio bloaters like Gulliver’s Travels on a fraction of the screens and looks set for a $100m payday, due in no small part to producer Harvey Weinstein, whose career has been built spinning Oscar gold out of arthouse pictures like The English Patient and Shakespeare In Love.
Funny, then, that no studio wanted to touch the project. “The mantra we were told from the studios was, ‘We’re out of the drama business. Drama is dead,’” Hooper reminds, the lack of deemed commerciality leading the production to be funded, in part, by the now defunct UK Film Council. “What I’ve enjoyed in making this film is that I wasn’t chasing big box office success. I made it as I wanted to make it, as intelligent as I wanted to make it, to the standards I wanted to make it. I didn’t compromise. I didn’t dumb it down for a mass audience. The fact that it then translates, having kept your integrity, is really exciting.
“I read this stuff on the blogosphere which that implies that we drew up a recipe list of the things that guarantee success at the awards season,” he continues. “All I can say is it could not be further from the truth. It was a classic independent movie where the chances that it could fall apart came upon us regularly
The day we meet, a Friday, at the Covent Garden Hotel, is the very one on which the film gets its British opening — the film unrolling across the kingdom as we speak. “You do worry, because critics have the chance to see it as early as last September, they must tire of being nice about it,” shrugs Hooper. But they haven’t. The reviews are stunning. Somewhere, you fancy, is a ticker tape machine rattling away with the returns (£3.5m by Monday morning, straight in at number one).
Though Hooper can’t do so tonight (he’s togged up in his Savile Row finery to host a Q&A), he’s itching to go out and see it alongside real[ital] punters, trailers and all, loaded up with popcorn. As a kid, growing up in London, the Odeon Leicester Square was his venue of choice and he’ll head there tomorrow. “I remember having this ritual. As I left, I would do one glance back at the credits and make a vow to myself that I would have a film on that screen eventually. It will be actually be a rite of passage.”
The film’s contents have been pored over endlessly — poor old Bertie, tongue-tied Duke of York, seeks help for his speech impediment, turning to a maverick Antipodean with no official qualifications where court physicians have failed. Meanwhile, this sub-plot, lagging behind the abdication crisis and the rise of Hitler, gets elevated to the main attraction. Metamorphosing into George VI, the reluctant monarch must now address the nation on the brink of war. “I love that subversion of telling a very famous story through such a surprising prism,” says Hooper. “I don’t think I would have wanted to tell the story of Wallis and Edward head on.”
The film is personal for Hooper. Though born in London, a product of Westminster School (and with the slight plumminess to go with it), his mother, Meredith, is Australian. It was she who, by chance, had been invited, with a group of ex-pats, to see David Seidler’s yet-unproduced play of the story in North London. “She’s never been invited to a play reading in her life and almost didn’t go because it didn’t sound very promising,” Hooper recounts. On return, she phoned her son and enthusiastically suggested it as his next project. “If I hadn’t had an Australian mum I wouldn’t have found out about it, so there’s a lovely symmetry there.”
Hooper’s paternal grandfather, a navigator on a Lancaster, had been killed in 1942, perishing on his final mission. “It was very sad. They were coming in over the channel and they had taken enemy fire and they asked permission to land at the first available airstrip. In classic British bureaucratic tradition they were told, ‘No, you have to go to your home base,’ and they crashed. He was 30 years old.”
With his own orphaned father despatched to an authoritarian boarding school at the age of five — “that era of cold baths in the winter every day, five mile runs before six in the morning” — the whole experience rendered a man, he says, emotionally detached. It was his mother, appalled at such institutional barbarity, who proved his father’s own Logue, as he puts it, coaxing him out of his shell.
“My father wasn’t stiff upper-lipped he just wasn’t able to relate to us as kids particularly well. My mother took him on this journey.” He thumps his chest. “Now he says, ‘You’re one of my ribs, Tom.’ He’s emotionally very expressive and incredibly loving. Making this film made me appreciate it because you take those things for granted.”
The sense of duality, the ability to regard your own culture as an outsider, is intrinsic to his directorial being. “Baz Luhrmann said the thing that the film expresses beautifully, which is a key quality in the Australian personality, is that Australians are impervious to Majesty. And I know exactly what he means.”
So how does a story as specific as the struggle of a man to manage (rather than cure) a debilitating stutter yield such a universal response? “I’ve worked with (screenwriter) Peter Morgan twice. Peter has this wonderful image — we walk into the cinema holding an umbilical chord which we all want to plug in and mainline on emotion,” he says. “It’s partly this story of friendship that’s very powerful to people. I mean, we live in quite a selfish age… and actually this is a story about how a man is saved by reaching outside himself.”
And, in a year of two weddings, don’t discount the Royal factor. “Clearly our popular fascination with the monarchy is entirely undimmed.” Even in republics like France or the US, Hooper adds. “What’s so fascinating about the star system, the celebrity culture, is it seems to indicate that, without a monarchy, we culturally have this desire to elevate certain individuals and lose our rational sense over them.”
Hooper had always wanted to go into filmmaking. The son of a media exec (father Richard was deputy chairman of Ofcom), he had made his first film aged 13. At Oxford, where he read English, he directed plays starring contemporaries Kate Beckinsale and Emily Mortimer. Wishing to emulate hero Ridley Scott, he tried his hand at commercials but ended up directing episodes of Byker Grove, Eastenders and Cold Feet.
Impressed producers handed him Love in A Cold Climate and Daniel Deronda. And though he loathes the term “costume drama” (“Do not use that phrase. I will shoot you!”), he demonstrated he could handle big budgets, and, crucially, work “fast, fast, fast”
As he points out, he has done more than his fair share of “gritty”— the South African truth and reconciliation film, Red Dust, the sixth-series revival of Prime Suspect. He was hand-picked by Helen Mirren to do Elizabeth I (nine Emmys, three Golden Globes), bringing him into the fold of cable network HBO. After making the TV biopic, Longford, with them (three more Golden Globes), he went on to helm a truly epic piece of television, John Adams.
In seven parts and costing over $100m, his reinterpretation of the American Revolution through the life one its unsung presidents won plaudits for unravelling the complexity of America’s divorce from Britain. A further, and record, thirteen Emmys and four Golden Globes followed, with barely a murmur this side of the Pond.
When Hooper made The Damned United, turning David Peace’s dark novel about Clough into a far more comedic piece, it confirmed his love of viewing history from the wings — Clough via Peter Taylor, John Adams via his wife, Abigail, Myra Hyndley by way of Lord Longford. “I’m clearly very interest in the notion of collaboration,” he concedes. “Maybe it’s about being a director. As a director you are only great in collaboration. You can’t be great alone.”
If you grumble, with The King’s Speech, that facts have been tweaked —there is little mention of Appeasement and alleged royal flirtation with it, for example — then it is offset, says Hooper, by the authenticity of the relationship between the two main characters. It was only nine weeks before shooting that Logue’s personal diaries surfaced, confirming all that Seidler had conjectured.
“At the end of the big (finale) speech, Lionel says to the king ‘You still stammered on the W,’ and the king says, ‘Well I had to throw in a few so they knew that it was me.’ That was a direct quote from the diaries. But what does it tell us? That King George VI is clever and is witty. Some of the historians can’t look beyond the stammer as a sign of a lack of intelligence. As Geoffrey Rush said, ‘That’s a line worthy of Groucho Marx.’”
One production Hooper has been linked is a film version of the Nelson Mandela story, The Long Walk To Freedom, but it won’t happen this year. He will, too, be looking at Seidler’s script about Lady Hester Stanhope. Meanwhile, there is more pressing business — a flight to LA for the Golden Globes and the unveiling of Colin Firth’s star on Hollywood Boulevard.
Awards count for a lot. “Because a lot of the time it’s your industry peers voting for you and that’s very meaningful. But the mistake is to think that winning an award will give you a special key to a special door and in that room lies the perfect script for you to do next. The truth is the hard work of filming your next project begins from the ground up.”

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