The British director talks about the overwhelming success of his new film, The King's Speech.
After cutting his teeth in television, Tom Hooper got his big movie break in 2004 with Red Dust, a political drama starring Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Hooper's follow up, The Damned United, also received admirable critical praise, but it with his latest outing, The King's Speech, that the London filmmaker has announced himself as a major new voice in British film. LWLies caught up with Hooper recently to discuss the film's growing success, the importance of the UK independent film scene, and his mother’s handwriting.
LWLies: Five BIFA awards, Seven Golden Globe nominations and the film's only just now out on general release. You must be pretty happy with how well it's been received?
Hooper: Everyone involved is, it’s been really thrilling but, for me, I’m only trying to concentrate on being really grateful for the stuff that has happened already, rather than looking forward to other awards like the Globes. I mean, I was sitting on the table next to Mike Leigh at the BIFAs and he is a total childhood hero of mine, and you just think that he walked away with nothing, for a wonderful film. So to sit there kind of worrying or thinking 'what next?' would be ridiculous really.
Have you always felt that way?
Yeah. I mean psychologically I think it's always great to just be really pleased for what's happened as opposed to looking forward.
You must be incredibly proud of your actors as well who like you seem to be rolling in nominations?
I was very pleased for everyone really, but my actors we’re fantastic. I was very pleased for Geoffrey [Rush] particularly, because I do think he's amazing in the film. Obviously his is a more understated role and it’s great he’s being acknowledged.
We’d imagine those conversations with Guy Pearce explaining he was up against Geoffrey for best supporting actor at the BIFAs was an odd one...
I don't think Guy was on the edge of his seat to be honest. But I was really thrilled that he was nominated in the first place, it was good for him, because he’s still integral to the film.
Have you viewed the film differently since these nominations came rolling in?
Not slightly. Some people say that it’s a bigger movie, but it’s not, I’ve always believed that this is a true low-budget British independent film.
Why do you believe that?
Well, it only happened because of the film council. It only happened because Momentum our distributor pitched in, and it was really dependant on the tax break at the time. At times it was really touch and go whether it was going to get made and the studio system would never have made this film. I mean we tried to get studios to make it and they wouldn't do it. So really afterwards I was thinking, 'thank god independent cinema is so key' because literally this would not have happened without the independent cinema scene in the UK being so strong.
That being said, if the film was much smaller like you say, did you encounter any hiccups that you could have avoided with that studio or a bigger budget?
Not really, but one strange thing happened just nine weeks before the shoot. Basically, we found this stack of handwritten diaries in the attic of Lionel Logue’s grandson, and we ended up completely changing or ripping up some scenes.
That’s quite an Indiana Jones find...
Oh yeah, definitely, it was like a treasure trove of information that no historian had ever read, so it was incredible. They were first hand accounts of his relationship with the king, so naturally we had to rewrite the script. We couldn’t have not changed it really. In fact some of the best lines of dialogue in the film were word for word conversations that King George VI and Logue had together.
You must have been like a kid in a candy store reading through all that material?
Well, yeah it was great, but his handwriting was appalling. So you can imagine, I'd just discovered this incredible insight in Lionel's life, but then all of a sudden I was like...
'Oh crap I can't read it'?
Exactly. The whole time I was like 'What's he saying about the king?', 'Is he really saying that' and then naturally the only person who could read his handwriting was my mum because she has the worst handwriting in the world. I mean like if I get a Christmas card from her I still don't know what she's said. But according to her she could read every word.
Surely, with nine weeks to shooting, you must have had some trepidation changing things round?
Well, maybe it was risky changing the script so late, but to me it was worth it, but that’s because I'm just incredibly obsessional about truth, and I care about history. I'm not casual about those sorts of things, and generally if I can get it right I will. I mean, ultimately, my duty is as an entertainer and a story-teller. I'm not going to make a boring movie just to be accurate, but I'll always do a lot of research and try to be as accurate as possible and only dither from the truth if I really can't make it entertaining.
Is that why much of the film is, dare we say it, plain? Not in a bad way, but obviously it's very brave to make a film about royalty, without that distinguishable regal touch?
Sure. This isn’t one of those classic royal movies you see, this is something different. Directors usually tend to get infatuated by pageantry and lavishness and gold and sumptuousness, which didn't interest me at all. Initially the first page of the script started with the king being dressed in royal finery and taken to Wembley where he met his father on a canopied stage. But then I found this bit of archive, this silent flickery footage, of the actual speech at Wembley and he's dressed in a black overcoat, a grey suit and a black top hat. He looks like every other man there, there’s nothing marking him out as royal, his father's not there, he just speaks from the stand in Wembley, not from a platform, and I thought, 'thank god.' The reality is much less royal than you'd imagine, but it’s much more interesting and in the end you get this wonderful image of this ordinary man scared out of his wits, and that's the way we are introduced to the prince, which is wonderfully subversive.
Well, you’re clearly not afraid of tackling prominent figureheads?
I don't know where that fearlessness comes from, probably that same obsession for the truth?, But it was quite funny because people kept asking me, 'oh were you intimidated or worried about portraying the Queen's father?', and I always thought, no, no pressure at all. After you’ve done Cloughy, how much more pressure can you get?