The critical and commercial success of The King’s Speech, has been an affirmation of Tom Hooper’s instincts as a director. Speaking with the Director’s Guild recipient on the phone from New York in January, he discussed how the project was introduced to him, “I only came to know about the film because I was half Australian and half English and living in London. So late 2007 my Australian mother, Meredith Hooper, was invited by some Australian friends to make up kind of a token Aussie audience in a tiny fringe theatre play reading of an unproduced, unrehearsed play called The King’s Speech. Now she’s never been invited to a play reading in her entire life. She almost didn’t go because it didn’t exactly sound very promising. But Thank God she did! Because she heard the play read, came home and rang me up and said, “Tom, I think I’ve found your next film”. The moral of story being is, “Listen to your Mother’.”
Mainly known to audiences for his acclaimed work on television for projects such as Elizabeth I and John Adams, Hooper had been actively looking for a project in which he could relate with his own experience growing up with an English father and Australian mother. “My father came from a traditional English background. He lost his father in the war when he was only two years old”.and as a result my father was packed off to full time boarding school, sent away from his mum. And it was a very tough era of English boarding school. My father had to endure cold baths even in the middle of winter, 5 mile rounds every day before 6 in the morning” corporal punishment”.all those great British educational innovations. And my mother was amazing at saying within our family that this obviously must have affected your father and it’s our job to unpack the affect of it. And my mother, being Australian, challenged the English way and was not kind of respectful of it, was not in awe of it.” says Hooper. Hooper added, “So in a much more gentle way, my mother was like the Lionel Logue to my father in my childhood”so that’s why it’s a story I know so well, and that’s why I did it. I’m not especially interested in the monarchy per se. It was just that this story gave me the opportunity to look at the relationship between England and Australia through these personalities.”
Just like it was an incredible chance event that brought the project to Hooper, the same can be said about how the researchers found a wealth of information about the relationship between King George VI and Lionel Logue, the unconventional speech therapist, just weeks before shooting. “Another stroke of amazing good fortune we had” Lionel Logue’s grandson Mark was actually living in London only ten minutes from where I live. And he had a filing cabinet with a drawer full of papers. Now these papers turned out to include a hand written diary account of his grandfather’s relationship with the King which no biographer has ever read, no Royal historian has ever had access to and no member of the Royal Family has ever seen,” explained Hooper. “I literally was the first person to get my hands on this and with 9 weeks to go we had this treasure trove of information and revised the script with David Seidler (writer) to make the most of it. On the one hand what was exciting is that it confirmed a lot of what David Seidler had already imagined”it also gave us some great new additions about Lionel Logue”at the end of the big speech, Lionel turns to the King and says “You still stammered on the ‘W’ “, and the King says, “Well I had to throw in a few so they knew it was me.” Those lines were last spoken out loud by King George VI and Lionel Logue and it’s a direct quote, they wrote that dialogue”. the proof that the wit in their relationship was not invented by accident, it was there in the diary,” Hooper added.
One of the surprising aspects of the film for Hooper is the amount of humour that comes across, “We definitely were not striving to make a film as funny as it’s ended up being. We knew there was wit in it and we knew it was important. We didn’t sit in rehearsal worrying endlessly about how to make a scene funny. If you had been a fly on the wall, it wasn’t something we spent a lot of time worrying about. And one of great delights, the first time of Colin, Geoffrey and I first sat down together, ” the 3rd or 4th of September at Telluride, the first preview on the Saturday in early September was to see how much humour there was, which was a huge thrill.” Hooper added, “But I think a lot of it does come out of the extraordinary chemistry of Colin and Geoffrey. I mean they are both incredibly funny, incredibly bright, incredibly talented charismatic men.”
Colin Firth, who portrays the tortured stammering King George VI, has been praised for his performance by critics and awards groups and is on his way to receiving his first Academy Award as Best Actor. In Firth’s research on stammering, Hooper explained that David Seidler, who had a stammer as a child growing up, provided the most information, “In rehearsal he would tell us about his battles with stammering. And he was incredibly eloquent and helpful to Colin and myself.” Hooper added, “There was also a wonderful archive of the real King George VI and his battle with stammering which was very moving, particularly a clip from the 1938 Glasgow Empire Exhibition where the King has a terrible bout of stammering and you can see in his eyes he just wants to do the right thing and he keeps drowning in these terrible silences.”
Derek Jacobi, who plays The Archbishop in the film and played one of the most famous stammerers on television in I, Claudius, also provided some insight, “Derek told Colin that he found it quite infectious playing stammering and I think that’s what happened to Colin,” explained Hooper. “There came a point in the shoot”. where Colin ceased to choose whether to stammer or not, he started stammering anyway, and it didn’t become a matter of his conscious control. He crossed a line in a way into being a stammerer. And there was one evening when he went off to go to an award show for A Single Man and he came back the next day and said, “My God, I won the award and I started to stammer. He actually started to stammer during his acceptance speech,Hooper added.
One of the themes of the film is how important image and presentation are in inspiring a nation and is as true today as it was in era The King’s Speech represents. Hooper explains, “The extraordinary shift that happened with the coming of mass media with the radio, now suddenly leaders could have a one on one relationship with their public, their citizenry through voice. Which is not something that we could ever had before on a mass scale”..before the coming of radio, as a King, as a leader, as an official icon, as long as you could look good waving from a carriage, or look good sitting on a horse in uniform, you could fulfill that role. And suddenly with the coming of radio, there began this anxiety, “Can a leader project sufficient emotional connection between himself and the public?’ And this anxiety we live with till this day.” Hooper added, “I certainly remember after the midterm elections there was soul searching whether Obama could connect in the right way and no one was saying is he actually connected or does he actually care or is he actually emotionally involved, they are saying “Does he actually project it?’ So it’s an acting question and I think the risk I suppose with that is that society can celebrate those people who are able to act compassion which is not necessarily the same as being compassionate, sometimes it is, but it is not always the same.”
Thanks in large part to the success of The King’s Speech, Hooper is more in demand by producers and film studios than ever, ‚’ve had the most staggering amount of scripts send to me and I am desperately trying to read everything so I know which one I want to do. I would like to take this opportunity to make something I’m passionate about.”
As this awards season draws to a close, Hooper reflects on his extraordinary journey with The King’s Speech, “It’s very funny how material can come to you”..it’s rather humbling to reminded how chance in the end, as in love, can play such a key role in one’s creative choices”