This past weekend saw Focus Features hosting three events to celebrate the release of The Danish Girl: a brunch, a luncheon and the LA premiere. I managed to catch director Tom Hooper just after the luncheon to talk about his passion project that took him seven years to bring to the screen.
Awards Daily: Hi Tom. How are you? How was the luncheon?
Tom Hooper: It was good thank you. Ah, you sound English.
AD: I am. I’m a Brit in L.A.
TH: It was good. I actually was sitting with two Brits.
AD: That’s funny. I sat down to talk to Lucinda Coxon, a fellow Brit, earlier. I didn’t realize it took eleven years to bring this to the screen.
TH: Well, I think it took more than that. Gail optioned the book fifteen years ago, then I fell in love with it seven years ago so I’m the newbie at seven years.
AD: I must say though, the film is a story about beauty, sexuality and the art, and freedom.
TH: Why would you say freedom?
AD: Because he stays true to himself. If you think about the time period, transgender wasn’t a word then, and he follows his heart and he stayed true to himself: “This is who I am.” He didn’t choose to conform to the constraints of society.
TH: What’s fascinating about screening it here is the reactions you get from people who often relate to all kinds of things in their lives. People get very emotional with the movie. One person who’d been divorced said, “I kept loving this man and however much I loved him I couldn’t hold on to him.” That’s how it connected with her. As you put so beautifully, it’s connecting with people in so many different ways, as well as the transgender issue.
AD: It is a beautiful love story because she stands by him. Well, let’s just go back a bit and talk about the journey of you getting involved.
TH: All thanks to my casting director, Nina Gold who’s a wonderful collaborator of mine going back to when I was 21 and she cast my first TV commercial. She’s done almost all my casting since. She just cast the new Star Wars movie so she’s doing fine. I was talking to her and she said, “I know of one unmade script. It’s called The Danish Girl and you should read it.” I read it and fell in love with it. I found it profoundly moving. I found the marriage and relationship moving and was moved to tears by the script.
I committed that one day I’d hope to have it made. It was difficult to have it made and to have it financed and to set up and cast. But after Les Mis and The King’s Speech and having the luck of the box office of those two films, I had that moment in time, Jazz, when I could go make a commercial movie, but I could also get a passion project made — and waiting in the wings was The Danish Girl. After this long and chequered history of struggling to emerge I thought I should use this moment in time to get this made. I’m pleased I did.
AD: There are so many profound moments. One of the highlights for me was when she says, “I want my husband.”
TH: You should write an essay on what you feel that film did for you because you talk about it so beautifully.
AD: [laughs] Who knows. Let’s talk about Alicia Vikander. She’s exploded this year. Talk about how she came on board.
TH: Well, I was aware of her from Anna Karenina and A Royal Affair where she’s Swedish playing Danish. There’s a purist part of me that wanted to allay the 15-year wait for the movie by going to Denmark, learn Danish and a making it in Danish, but out of pity for the producers I decided to skip that step. If I could cast a genuine Scandinavian who’d actually played Danish that was a great way of bringing the Scandinavian energy into the film at its core, rather than having two English actors. That was exciting.
I got an early sneak look at Ex Machina which I loved. I thought she was really brilliant in that. Alex Garland did a great job of that. She came in to do a screen test. She did the excitingly titled SCENE 56, the morning after Lily kisses Henrick and Gerda confronts Lily as Imar. It’s a very emotional scene, but she gave such an emotional performance that I had a tear in my eye at the end. Eddie turned around and went, “No surprise who you’re going to cast now Hooper.” I was wiping away, saying, “No, no, I’m completely objective. Let’s go again.” I was slightly busted because it became clear who I was going to cast.
Then we had to wait another four months because she was shooting The Light Between Oceans, and I remember Gail, my producer, broke down over lunch and said we had to wait a few months for it.
So, we started with both of them, but Alicia has a lot of heart, is compassionate and is fiercely bright. What I like about what she’s done is she brings a strength to it, you never feel that Gerda is a victim. Quite often goodness is hard to portray on screen, we often gravitate towards the bad guy characters, she makes goodness interesting and dramatic and that’s not easy to do. It’s a great gift.
AD: She’s also so refreshing to watch.
TH: Yes, and you know, as I said, she’s has a Scandinavian energy so she’s open and direct.
AD: Did you know they’d have the chemistry that they have on screen. I mean, they’re one of the best on-screen couples of 2015
TH: Awww, that’s a good quote. I sensed it in the screen test, and I got the feeling, for Eddie who was in such a great place, that this was a co-star who was going to push him to be even better and could challenge him.
AD: Are you a bit of a history buff? You’ve directed this which is the story of a pioneering Transgender, you’ve directed Les Mis which is my favorite musical.
TH: Oh, can I tell you my Alain Boubil story because you’d appreciate this?
AD: Go on then.
TH: I’m having lunch at the Chateau yesterday, and Alain sits down next to me. As you know, he wrote Les Mis. Anyway, I invited him to come to the screening last night, he came and then he sat in the Q&A. I told the audience he was there, and they all went crazy. Then we had dinner. I was there with his wife, his 21-year old son. For a full hour, all they wanted to do was talk about the film, they were so passionate. Alain was really interesting because he wondered if it was only women who could love in that way when they see the soul and they’re not preoccupied by the physical embodiment of that soul. His son then said, “No dad. Men can love like that too.” All three of them said it was their favorite film of mine that I’d made. So for me I’m very close to Alain, and so that was a very special evening that he and his son reacted in a heartfelt way.
I love that people want to talk about the film.
AD: That’s so nice to hear.
TH: So, am I a history buff? I gave up history at A-Level [College]. I think it’s partly because I’m always on the lookout for the best story and the stories that I’ve been attracted to relate to these part of histories that have been marginalized. In the story of Lionel Logue and Bertie, Logue got a sentence in the biography of King George. It was a story that had been suppressed because obviously any link between a member of the Royal family and anything psychological involving therapy would not want to be talked about.
In the same way, I felt that this story had been unfairly marginalized and there’s a part of me that likes to right these wrongs and give these stories exposure. This goes all the way back to the John Adams story that David McCullogh had written, this great book about the founding father who had become marginalized and wasn’t considered one of the great three alongside Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. I don’t know why I have this attraction to people who have been marginalized but I do.
AD: Well, someone has to tell them. I’m glad it’s you.
TH: Thanks Jazz.
AD: OK let’s talk about the score, Alexandre Desplat is one of my favorites.
TH: If you met him he’s one of the most charming men on the planet. It was a difficult score to get right. The funny thing about film music is it’s the one thing that operates as the narrator figure. The music is not in the room, it’s the one thing that sits outside of the scene and is unavoidably the filmmaker making a comment on the content.
In the scene when Lily holds the dress against herself, Alexandre’s first instinct was to write something that caught the strangeness and darkness of that. But then we thought that it was saying that getting in touch with your true gender identity was a dark thing, which felt patronizing. The breakthrough was when we realized the score had to balance both, it had to balance joy and pain, anxiety and hope, it had to speak to Lily making contact in this moment with her happiness, but it had to connect with the profound anxiety in making this re-connection in terms of what it meant for her, her marriage, and what she was going to do with the discovery.
The one thing Alexandre said that was true, was that he wanted the Lily music to be strong. Lily had to emerge. If you listen to that cue, there’s a flow of water or a river, the inevitability that links to the visual metaphor and water as part of a journey.
AD: It’s been a pleasure speaking to you and I’m looking forward to seeing it again tomorrow.
TH: Thanks, Jazz.
The Danish Girl opens November 27