An interview with The King's Speech director Tom Hooper
WRITTEN BY MATTHEW PEJKOVIC
It’s not often that I meet a filmmaker who is on the cusp of scoring an Oscar nomination.
Yet such was the case when I interviewed Tom Hooper, director of the emotional enriching The King’s Speech.
A veteran of TV & film, Hooper has made his mark with productions as varied as the award winning mini-series John Adams and the critically lauded The Damned United.
His latest film is The King Speech, a historical drama which documents the relationship between the stuttering monarch King George VI (Coin Firth) and his unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Louge (Geoffrey Rush).
Hooper was recently in Sydney for the films Australian premiere, and he graciously took time out of his busy schedule to talk in depth about royal dramas, the media, and great actors.
Matthew Pejkovic: I felt The King’s Speech firmly re-established the period piece. Did you set yourself any rules or boundaries so you wouldn’t fall into the trapping of the generic period movie?
Tom Hooper: Yeah, I was almost obsessed with subverting all and any clichés of the royal drama. In royal drama’s directors tend to be very preoccupied by pageantry, and theatre, and gold, and guilt, and the costumes and the service of monarchy, which doesn’t frankly interest me as much.
So in any opportunity I could, I subverted it. A good example would be the beginning. The script I started with had Bertie (also known as King George VI) getting dressed, by footmen in plumed hat, decorated jacket, and sword. He is taken to Wembley where his father is sitting there, also in a plumed hat, medals, decorated jacket and sword, his brother looking on from the podium, and my heart slightly sank, and I thought, "Oh God, this feels like a guy being dressed as a prince", cue the cliché.
Then I did my research and I came across this one little bit of black and white archive of the real Wembley 1925 Empire Exhibition, and there is Bertie, and he’s dressed in a black overcoat, dark grey suit, black top hat, like every over man in the stadium. He was an everyman figure. There is not a single thing identifying him as royal.
His father isn’t there, his brother isn’t there, he is the only person there with his wife, there is no special catwalk, there is no bunting, Wembley – although it’s only 2 years old – look like a shit hole and it is already falling apart. It is grey, misty, and raining, and truly depressing, and I thought, "What a joy!"
So after that came this opening image of Colin, where he’s a man dressed in a black overcoat and a black hat against a dirty grey brick wall, looking scared out of his wits, and that’s the first close up we have of him.
I’m not asking the audience to deal with him as a prince first and a man second. I’m asking to look at him as a man first and a prince second. The nice thing was having started from the view of wanting to subvert royal cliché, I over and over again found that research led me to something that was not cliché. So truth was my friend. The cliché is a film drama cliché, when actually the truth is much more interesting.
Even in things like where they lived, they didn’t live in a palace, they lived in a town house. Yeah, it was a biggish house, but they didn’t live in this sort of lap of luxury.
In some ways even the idea of the film is subvertive, this kind of story of two nobodies who become somebody’s because of this extreme outcome of history. You know, this Duke of York, not the famous one but the shy guy, who shunned the limelight and everything, and who is seeing a speech therapist for 20 odd years.
MP: Then you have Lionel the speech therapist, who wants to be an actor.
MP: You have done a few films now, a lot of them based on true life events and people. What is your approach to that? Does historical accuracy come first? Or, is it whatever goes in service to the story?
TH: I’m one of those people who does care about the record, does care about history, does care about truth. I think the over and over again I found that caring about the truth leads into avenues that are more surprising then you are prepared.
I found often that primary sources are more interesting than watching other movies of that period. John Adams is a great example, with Paul Giamatti, who was brilliant in it. There is this cliché of men wearing curled wigs, and then I discovered that under the wigs they had their heads completely shaven, and that quite often when they got home they just took their wigs off like a hat.
So I had this image of Paul Giamatti cradling his shaven head, which is a very contemporary image, you don’t feel like you’re in a 18th century movie.
I think a filmmaker who has influenced me is Peter Weir. He is a director who has used his research in that same way. Master & Commander was so impeccably researched, with very unusual images that give a clear and vivid presence of that time.
One of the pleasures of this film was getting to know Peter. I first met him at Tellaride where he was there with The Way Back. He’s an Australian, and I’m half and half, so he made me think about who were my favourite Australian directors when I was a kid growing up, so there is Peter Weir, Bruce Berseford, and Fred Schepisi, and George Miller who I followed closely when I was a kid.
"In the end I thought it’s the fact that come that final hour, he’s got a friend in the room, and that is worth more I think ultimately then all of the therapy. " - Tom Hooper
MP: Who else are you influenced by?
TH: Well, there is that Australian group. Then...I kinda got my film education from the BBC, who had that kind of film night, where they played classic movies, and from that I learnt my Tarkovskiy and my Truffaut, and Bergman who was a bit different from the rest of them.
The you have all of the usual suspects, I mean who could not be influenced by Coppola? The combination of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, how could you not be influenced by him? Scorsese...they were born for this business.
But recently there has also been TV, with 70-80 hours of The Wire I’ve watched (laughs).
MP: For all of the historical weight in The King’s Speech, it is essentially a film about the friendship of these two blokes. Is that what touched you about this particular story?
TH: What’s interesting is that the friendship theme kind of grew. I think it was almost towards the end of making that film, that I kept thinking, “What is it that saves Bertie in the final hour?” Is it unlocking childhood trauma? Or is it the different speech techniques? But in the end I thought it’s the fact that come that final hour, he’s got a friend in the room, and that is worth more I think ultimately then all of the therapy.
But that wasn’t in the script, and it took a while to arrive at that, partly through how Colin and Geoffrey were together, that special intimacy that they have...it’s not that sort of therapeutic, once you’ve unlocked that childhood memory you’re ok, kind of movie.
I didn’t want to make one of those movies where, once you understood where the trauma came from you are cured. It’s not like that at all, because in the end the friendship was much more important.
MP: Another element is the emergence of the radio as a powerful tool. Do you think that technology like that demystified the royals?
TH: Yeah. The film opens with a series of still lines of the microphone, which is kind of a love letter to this new technology, which is also Bertie’s image of horror, something which he is afraid of.
The film charts the beginning of that extraordinary process of the mass media transforming leadership. I mean, the generation before, the King was a visual icon. He could look visually waving from a carriage, he could look visually in a uniform on a horse, he could fill the iconographic role King, but with the coming of radio the question became can the King project emotional connection through the way he speaks to the nation, and we’ve inherited that anxiety about emotional connection.
I was in America for the midterm elections after the Democrats were hammered, and there was a lot of soul searching about whether Obama projected a sufficient amount of emotional connection during the broadcast. People weren’t asking is he emotionally connected or did he care, they were asking whether he projected it.
It’s about performance, it’s an acting question. And that started with King George VI, the coming of radio and of the microphone, and of course King George VI was such an extreme case, because the guy had a basic problem with communication in the first place, which was so subtle.
But weirdly I think it ended up becoming kind of powerful, because imagine in the Second World War if the King speaks to you, he is not talking to a gilded cage. For him to speak to you he is suffering. For him to speak to you he is getting over suffering. And if that King is reaching out to you and you’re suffering during the war, saying that I connect, it has a particular authenticity from a man who already understands suffering because for him to even speak to you is an ordeal. And I think it actually gave him a curious kind of quiet authority throughout the war, which is well remembered.
MP" I think it’s something you portrayed very well. I haven’t admitted this to anyone yet, but The King’s Speech is one of a few things where I’ve actually cried at the end.
TH: Oh, wow!
MP: You have joined a very prestigious group.
MP: If King George VI were around now, he would very much like Facebook. Why speak when you can send a message?
TH: (Laughs) I think it would solve his problems.
"For him to speak to you he is suffering. For him to speak to you he is getting over suffering. . " - Patrick Hughes
MP: You frame your shots in a very interesting way. You leave a lot space, with same shots featuring the actors face only on one side of the frame. What is your process in determining how you frame your shots?
TH: I think the big challenge for this film was how to find a visual analogue for stammering. How to achieve these dreadful silences through nothingness. So I was really interested in Colin’s relationship with negative space, and his relationship with absence and nothingness. So I had this idea of framing Colin against this big empty walls of nothing in the consulting room in Lougues flat.
I chose to shot with a wide lense in order to frame his face in relationship to his background, which is out of focus and quite soft so there is not really any communication between him and the background, which was very important in this particular case.
Also there is a very intimate style of shooting. The camera is very close to Colin during the tight stuff...I operate the close ups with Colin in front of me, and Geoffrey is behind me.
Imagine the very first day of shooting, the first time the two men meet, and the very first shot is a medium close up on Colin. He sits down, the camera is there, and its take after take. There was something about placing the camera which was only upping the pressure on Colin, which I think curiously helped with the stammer, since the stammer is all about fear of the performance. It was all adding the pressure that would help him as an actor, so sometimes the placement of the camera is very connected with psychology in the type of performance you want to get. MP: How do you direct your actors? Is rehearsal an important factor?
TH: It is critical. We did 4 weeks of rehearsal, which is hugely rare on movies. Geoffrey said that this was the only movie he ever done, where the rehearsal was like doing a play. It had the same power, we would constantly go over the script, it was a very rigorous process. For me quite a lot of rehearsal is mostly prepping the script work. You talk a lot about the characters, and you get into character through working on the script.
It is not necessarily about knowing every single thing. You’ve got to keep some of that for the camera and keep some of that fresh.
MP: Was it a pivotal experience to begin filming with such an intimate scene?
TH: Yeah, it was quite an extraordinary day. When you look at how good those two guys are in that scene, I obviously saw that and realised ...I mean, in many ways there is a lot of Lionel Logue which is really direct in that moment in the end speech, where he is conducting and helping Bertie, and then his hands drop to his side and he just watches kind of in awe.
The thing about being a director is that with some actors you have to be very intimate and help them with your direction. But with great actors, often like in that scene, your hands just drop to your side and you just become a viewer. You become an audience member in awe of what they are doing, and your role as a director just falls away. That moment with Geoffrey in the final scene is an example of a great actor.
MP: I’m sure there were many moments like that throughout the film.
TH: Yes, there were (laughs).
MP: What was your approach in directing an actor who is portraying a physical handicap? Were you wary of how Colin would portray the stammer?
TH: Yeah, there are so many pitfalls. I mean it could be comedic. It could be so agonizing for the audience in the cinema. It could be so slow that by the end of 100 min you’re only on the fourth scene. Or, you could run scared of it, and minimise because you are scared of its effect of the audience. And I would say that was Colin’s fear, that he didn’t want to do too much, and my big challenge to him was kind of going, no, I want him to have more, and that was kind of shocking to him. He wasn’t expecting it to be that profound.
But I just felt the risk in this film was that could be very slight, with the film beginning and ending with a speech. The stakes are only high if the stammer is profound, and if we ran scared of the stammer the whole thing could fall apart.
The King’s Speech will be released in Australia on the 26th of December through Paramount Pictures.