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Oscar Watch Q &A: Tom Hooper Talks Long Road to King's Speech

by Anne Thompson
November 22, 2010 2:21 AM
2 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

Fest fave The King's Speech, currently the front-runner at Gurus o' Gold, this Saturday blew the roof off its packed Academy screening. The crowd applauded director Tom Hooper, writer David Seidler, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, cinematography and score. It also nabbed the most effusive reaction so far over five years of showing films at Sneak Previews--the WGA crowd clapped Hooper down the aisle as he settled in for a Q and A. The movie debuted at Telluride (here's TOH's review) followed by audience-award-winning turns at fests in Toronto and the Hamptons. Will anything slow this film's Oscar momentum? (Well, some say it gets its history wrong.) The Weinsteins open the movie November 26--and it could reboot the company.

AT: How long did it take to get this film to the big screen?

Thompson on Hollywood

TH: The story of how this film gets made really starts in the second World War with a little boy with a dreadful stammer who used to listen to the kings' speeches on the radio, and his parents said to him, "well if the King of England can conquer his stutter, then there's hope for you." This little kid will grow up to be David Seidler. And King George VI was David Seidler's hero and inspiration, so when he became a writer he dreamed of making a film about this story. When he went to Cornell University he read the biography and started researching it. It wasn't until he read Tucker by Francis Ford Coppola in 1982 that he finally thought "now I can write this passion project," little realizing that Hollywood doesn't necessarily work like that.

So he set about researching it and began to find out about the king's speech therapist, which completely intrigued him. And he tracked down the grandson of Lionel Logue, who said he had in his attic hand-written diaries of his relationship with the King. But he said he should check with the palace first. And so a letter came back from the Palace and the Queen Mother said, "Yes" but "please, not in my lifetime, the memory of these events are still too painful."

So David waited, little realizing the Queen Mother would die 180 years later. So he finally sat down to write it in 2005. He got partway through and got quite blocked. He wanted to write it as a play as an exercise to help unblock it. The play got picked up by a tiny French theatre company in London and they did a play reading. And they were trying to find some real Australians to listen to the play and it just so happens my mother is Australian and someone reached out to her and asked her if we wanted to see the play. And it didn't sound very promising to be honest, and she almost didn't go. She went along and called me up and said, "you have to see this," and that's how it happened. So the only reason I came to that material is that I happen to be half-Australian and half-English and living in London.

AT: And you listened to your mother.

TH: And I listened to my mother. I couldn't have made the film about a dysfunctional relationship without a highly functioning relationship. So the film was very personal to me in many ways because one of the themes of my childhood growing up was my Aussie mother unpacking the effects of my father and his upbringing. My father lost his father to the war when he was three, and as a result was packed off to a full time boarding school. And my Australian mom made it very clear in my childhood that my father would be very close. So the end of the story, nine weeks before the shoot, the production tracks down the very same diaries in the grandson's aunt's attic. They are a first-hand account of the therapist and his relationship with the King, which has never been published and some of the best lines of the movie are written by King George. And to have this insight into the relationship was an incredible gift.

AT: How much are you sticking to the material and how much are you embellishing it?

TH: The diaries begin with the coronation of King George VI. And it's basically as if he's just the plain old Duke of York and Lionel had no idea who he was. So it's a huge testimony to David's imagination which managed to re-create the early stages of that relationship. And I think in the diaries the relationship between the two men is backed up. But I think the reason David wanted to do it so authentically was, as a stammering kid he got speech therapy there and in America, so the technique he's talking about he could relate to.

AT: You shoot two very different worlds, upstairs and downstairs, very differently. And why did you use a wide angle lens?

TH: You probably noticed in the film that I try to distinguish between where I shot Colin and where I shot Geoffrey. And when I was shooting Colin I was up close on his face, to focus on what's the nature of stammering. And he improvised, so I wanted to put this negative space in front. Over and over again Colin is up against the wall paper, whereas Geoffrey's frame is a very cluttered background. I ended up shooting Colin slightly wider because it brings the actor into his environment.

AT: You have two great sequences shot in the fog.

TH: Great story. My ninety-two year old neighbor, Mr. John Peck, he said to me "In the 1930s, sometimes the fog used to be so thick that the cab driver would ask you to get out of the taxi and walk six feet in front of the taxi to find the way." And that is the source of the manservant walking in front of the car finding a way. Films about the English monarchy, they tend to have a lavishness, sumptuous imagery, it's all very posh and rich. And the truth about London is that in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, it was a very hard time, very polluted and smoggy.

AT: What did you learn on Damned United and the mini-series John Adams about making films about real people, and what you could apply to this biopic?

TH: On John Adams I was always obsessed with finding truly researched images to add authenticity, out of that came something totally contemporary and modern. Research is very key to my process because over and over again, reality provides more interesting images than you could have invented. Certainly compared to modern films set in those periods. Filmmakers tend to recycle the same cliches over and over again.

AT: Now clearly this isn't just a technical tour-de-force, this is also about performance--two men facing off. Colin Firth has never given a performance this good, not even in A Single Man. What did he bring to this and why was he the right man for the role?

TH: Researching the man, he seemed to be frail but also full of humility. Colin can be very smooth, but I did feel that Colin has that incredible sweetness, he's nice, vulnerable, honest, he can't play a bad guy, he's generous. That defines him, and that's what makes him so perfect. I think the source of his performance, for both me as a director and him as an actor, was watching the real footage of a speech. It's great theatre, with the stadium crowd, and he's dying inside, and I think we managed the essence of that.

AT: What are your plans as far as the Royal Family seeing the film?

TH: What I've been told is, I'll never know if the Queen sees it or what she thinks. It's hard to say if Buckingham Palace has seen it. Proof of this, is the film The Queen --no one knows if she's watched this, the household keeps trying to protect her from these things. But do I want her to watch it? Yes.

AT: In America this story we don't know: we know about Edward and Mrs. Simpson. Does everyone know this story in England?

TH: Yes. David Seidler says he has a childhood memory. His mother would say, "Edward would give up the throne, and you won't even wash up?" Americans saw it as an incredibly romantic act of love, but I think it was an unbelievably selfish thing for Edward to do because he never consulted George, never said, "younger brother, can you do this?" The mystery of it actually is that Edward spent his life with long-term mistresses, and more than that he had a pretty colorful sexual life, in Paris and had felt no need to marry anyone. Guy Pearce suggests that it was his sexual jealousy, he needed closure, and that was where the marriage obsession came from. He didn't actually say, "this is fine, this is crazy, I'm going to back off, let's break up." It drove him crazy, the idea that this woman could step away from him.

Hooper video:

Trailer:

MovieCityNews Firth interview:

2 Comments

  • Susan Viebrock | November 22, 2010 8:58 AMReply

    I have covered the Telluride Film Fest for 18+ years. I am now writing reviews for my own webzine www.tellurideinside.com. This year's review put "King's Speech" in, well, the king's seat, for an Oscar. From screenplay to casting, the film will be hard to beat. For the record, we called out "Slumdog Millionairem" what?, two years ago.

  • Brian | November 22, 2010 3:52 AMReply

    Great interview, Anne. It makes me want to see the movie. Thank you for putting it in transcript form. Because of my office situation, I'm reluctant to watch video longer than three minutes and it's much easier for me to read the interview rather than listen to it or watch it.

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