Interview: Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech)
“people think it was a rather unlikely success story but I found it a perfect storm of ingredients when I read the story. A man with a stammer forced to become a king right at a time when the radio was taking over as a mass medium, right before second world war who’s saved by a failed Australian Shakespeare actor who has become a speech therapist. You can’t make this stuff up.”
British helmer Tom Hooper’s winning streak should continue well past tomorrow’s night date at the Oscars. With The King’s Speech, he might have produced one of the best films about a British Royal — which is quite an impressive accomplishment when you consider that the Monarch’s history is longer than film history. Hooper and writer David Seidler tap into a story so rich and complex that we should be thankful that no one attempted to bring it to screen beforehand. I sat down with the filmmaker before the Oscar nominations were announced.
Yama Rahimi: I was first introduced to your work with Longford (2006) which in turn drove me to check out your 2008 outing The Damned United. I was wondering how do you go about choosing your projects?
Tom Hooper: That film is very well loved but hardly made any money at US box office. The King’s Speech has made 58 million and counting and it shows unfortunately how significant it is how your choices of subject matter can influence your decisions on projects. I’m actually not a soccer fan and I fell in love with the script (The Damned United) because I found it so universal. I thought it talked about the big themes of Clough’s self destruction through pursuit of power and collaboration through this very specific world of football which actually didn’t require you to like football but it was terribly hard to get that message across that it was a film for everyone. In the UK it did well but in the US it was an uphill struggle.
Rahimi: That’s hard as a filmmaker for the public to give your film a chance!
Hooper: Yes. That’s where the journalistic community have to help to guide the people to give films a chance that they wouldn’t otherwise expect.
Rahimi: Looking at your competition for the DGA award, I noticed you had perhaps the most unusual career path starting in TV.
Hooper: It’s an expression to be honest to show how difficult is to become a director in the UK because the industry is so tiny but the healthy stream is in television. Me and my contemporaries like Joe Wright had the same career path in television. The other thing about TV directing in the US is unless it’s for HBO, you don’t have much of creative control as you have in the UK which is the same as you would have on a movie, the same level of authorship.
Rahimi: In the US working on TV is something you retire to instead of starting your career.
Hooper: Apart from HBO because when I did John Adams, I had the same authorship that I had on The King’s Speech. The process is the same, the only difference is one is nine hours and the other two.
Rahimi: I also notices you are drawn to period films. Is it because of what BBC offers or is it something personal to you?
Hooper: I’m drawn to best stories that I came across which have been period films. It’s hard to find contemporary stories which offer the same rich and complex characters. In the end it’s all about the script and characters. My teenage films and early TV work were contemporary tales. Only recent work has been period.
Rahimi: I love period films, especially European films because it opens the window to another era…
Hooper: In literature it’s mostly period stories of another era. I grew up reading Dostoevsky and others. I hardly read anything contemporary growing up. If you read the greatest writers, they are mostly in the past. Only recently you find great authors still alive. To me it doesn’t matter if it’s in the past or present. A good story is a good story.
Rahimi: What’s impressed me about The King’s Speech is how rich and complex the story was. It’s a story that nobody really knew about. Most people know about King Edward VIII but nothing about King George VI until now.
Hooper: Some people think it was a rather unlikely success story but I found it a perfect storm of ingredients when I read the story. A man with a stammer forced to become a king right at a time when the radio was taking over as a mass medium, right before second world war who’s saved by a failed Australian Shakespeare actor who has become a speech therapist. You can’t make this stuff up.
Rahimi: Exactly if it weren’t a real story, nobody would have believed it. The behind the story is also a great story in the manner in which it came to you….
Hooper: As directors we are known to be slightly controlling personalities, so it’s humbling to recognize the massive role chance plays in our lives as in love I suppose. I’m half Australian and half English. I live in London. My Australian mother was invited by Australian friends to make up a token audience for a reading of The King’s Speech, a play that hasn’t been produced or rehearsed. Basically a bunch of actors around a table. She has never done such a thing before. She came home and ring me up: “I have found your next film.”
Rahimi: And Geoffrey Rush got the same story.
Hooper: Geoffrey Rush was sent the story in an equally unlikely story. The story was sent in a brown paper envelope like an orphan child to his Melbourne house doorstep because someone at the London theater had an Australian friend who knew Geoffrey’s address.They sent a note saying: Dear Mr. Rush, you don’t know us but would you do our film?
Rahimi: That’s amazing! So give me some perspective. Were you guys approached at the same time?
Hooper: Geoffrey got it before me but Geoffrey and I were introduced by HBO because I initially wanted to cast him in John Adams but he wasn’t free. When I heard he was involved, I was thrilled because there’s no other Australian actor who could play the role. He’s the perfect choice. It was only an asset that he was involved. He was fantastically tenacious to get the film made.
Rahimi: How difficult was to assemble the ensemble cast — which on screen more than on paper appears to be the ideal, dream cast?
Hooper: It was amazingly easy. What’s extraordinary is that in England you have this kind of level of actors like Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom who was Charlie Chaplin’s muse in Limelight who are willing to come to play for little money to play few scenes in the movie. A lot of actors in that group who I wanted to work with to assemble them in a room was a joy. Also the reason to have this cast was to have actors to play iconic characters such as King George V, Queen Mary, Edward VIII to suggest these are iconic characters.
Rahimi: How do you select your Director of Photography and Production Designer?
Hooper: I’m very loyal to the head of departments. It was third time working with my DP Danny Cohen with whom I did Longford and the European part of John Adams. Also my third time with Eve Stewart, my production designer with whom I did Elizabeth I and The Damned United. With Eve I remember her extraordinary work with Mike Leigh in Vera Drake and Topsy-Turvy. What’s lovely with this collaborations are the ongoing conversations from one film to another where we always take it to another level which is exciting.
Rahimi: Were you surprised by the success of the film?
Hooper: I always believed it but its success has taken a life on its own that’s beyond my wildest dreams. In England there have been standing ovations at normal screens and it has made more money than Iron Man to give you an idea and here in the US we are going to blockbuster territory as we keep expanding to more theaters which is phenomenal. What’s lovely for me is when we were setting up the film, the studios were busy declaring this kind of drama was dead. A lot of specialty divisions like Warner Independent, Paramount Vantage and Fine Line were shut down. It was a depressing time to be a drama director. I cannot tell you the pleasure at looking at the UK top 10 where The King’s Speech is number one and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan at number two, two films the studios didn’t want to make are dominating the box office.
Rahimi: What does the Academy Awards mean to you personally?
Hooper: Should I get nominated it would be a dream come true. I wanted to be a director since I was twelve and the Academy has a long history and tradition. To be part of that tradition would be unbelievable. [Update: Since our interview, Hooper did indeed receive a nomination for Best Director.]
Rahimi: What films and filmmakers inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Hooper: The extraordinary thing about BBC was when I grew up (which they don’t anymore) is they would show every week a classic European film so I got a comprehensive education on TV watching Tarkovsky, Bergman and Truffaut as well as American directors such as Coppola and Scorsese. But I have to acknowledge another thing that I have thought about recently is that my family was a working family and the only time we would come together was to watch the British comedies on TV. I think I have humor in my films which owes it to those shows. I think one of the secret weapons of The King’s Speech is its humor which might be responsible for its box office draw. I am a great believer in the Shakespeare tradition to alternate between comedy and drama.
Rahimi: I think the “feel good” aspect of The King’s Speech is a driving factor in its success.
Hooper: The feel good factor can be very powerful but the truth is if it’s too formulaic it won’t work. Some films don’t work because it’s too obvious.
Rahimi: How difficult or easy is to make a film about the Royal family when the monarchy is still in place in Britain?
Hooper: I don’t have a particular interest in the British monarchy but what interest me as the storyteller is the mechanism of a film set in the monarchy allows for the extraordinary intensification of stakes. That’s what Shakespeare was preoccupied that if you take a theme of lust for power or murder and attach it to a king, the dramatically intensification becomes huge because the personal crisis become a constitutional crisis which is the same in The King’s Speech. It’s the narrative power more than any fascination with the Royal Family.
Rahimi: What’s next for you?
Hooper: I’m middle of it but haven’t decided yet but I’m also getting an incredible amount of offers which I haven’t had time to read and keep apologizing to the producers.
Rahimi: Would you work in the US?
Hooper: Oh yes. I worked with HBO and Tom Hanks on John Adams which quite an extraordinary experience. So it depends on the project.
The King’s Speech received a total of twelve Academy Award nominations.