I published my best and worst list for 2010 in last week’s blog as I’ve got something special to finish off the year.
The pick of the Boxing Day releases in Australia this year is The King’s Speech. It’s a fantastic movie about King George VI who overcame a stuttering problem thanks to the help of an unorthodox Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue.
The King’s Speech topped the list of nominations at the Golden Globe Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards last week. It’s in line for several Academy Award nominations and Colin Firth is a very warm favourite for the best actor Oscar (which is great news).
I was lucky enough to speak with the director of the film, Tom Hooper, while was recently in Australia at the Sydney premiere.
You can download an abbreviated podcast of the interview (which runs for about 10 minute) in my special podcast section. Just click here.
Here then, is what Tom Hooper had to say…
Matt: I believe you have an Australian connection in that your mother was Australian. Is that right?
Tom: Yeah, my mother is Australian. She’s from Adelaide, like Lionel Logue. So I’m half-Australian, half-English and I’ve got both passports. I’ve been coming here regularly since I was 6 years old and we actually have a family house in South Australia.
The thing that drew me to this story was that for a long time, I’ve wanted to find a film or a story that deals with my anglo-Australian heritage and that very particular relationship that the Aussies have with the English. This seemed like the perfect vehicle for that. What could be a better study of that relationship than the Australian speech therapist who effectively saved the King of England from his dreadful stammer.
Matt: Well you’ve got two of our finest actors on board – Geoffrey Rush and Guy Pearce. Geoffrey Rush is the actor who plays Lionel Logue. How did you get him? How did you get this script under his nose?
Tom: The story has almost become a legend. This film started as an unproduced play that a tiny theatre in north London was trying to produce. They had an assistant who was Australian who happened to have once delivered a package to Geoffrey Rush. So they dropped off this play script in a brown paper envelope on Geoffrey’s Melbourne doorstep with an unsolicited note saying “Dear Mr Rush, you don’t know us but would you do our play?”
Most actors in that scenario would probably throw it in the bin but Geoffrey read it and rang his agent in Hollywood to say that he wouldn’t do it as a play but he’d love to do it as a movie. So Geoffrey was in right from the beginning, saw it as a film right from the beginning and he became an executive producer of the movie, such was his passion and commitment to getting it made.
Matt: We’ll have all screenwriters using that strategy now I think?
Tom: (laughs) I know, I know. We all occasionally get shoved an envelope with an unsolicited script. Now, I live in paranoia that it’s going to be the next King’s Speech and that I should read it after all.
Matt: When I saw the movie I thought it was based on a book but I now know it’s an original screenplay from David Seidler…
Tom: David actually had a severe stammer as a child and he used to listen to King George VI on the radio during the second World War and think well, if the King of England can cope then maybe there’s hope for me. So King George VI was David’s boyhood hero and when he became a writer, he dreamed of writing about the King.
I think he made his first attempt as a student and it was only after he wrote Tucker (in 1988) for Francis Ford Coppola that he then turned to this passion project. He tracked down Valentine Logue, who is the son of Lionel living in London and Valentine said that you’ll need to get permission from the Palace first. David wrote to the Queen Mother who wrote back saying “please, not in my lifetime as the memory of these events is still too painful.” So David waited… not realising that the Queen Mother was going to live until she was 101.
Matt: Are there other people that you could speak with who had a really strong knowledge of King George and Lionel Logue?
Tom: The real stroke of luck we had was that 9 weeks before the shoot, my production design team tracked down the grandson of Lionel Logue who was living in London, 10 minutes from where I live. In his attic was a hand written diary account of Lionel Logue’s relationship with the King of England as well as load of papers and the original medical report cards describing the King’s flabby tummy and weak diaphragm.
It was a treasure trove of information and we set about furiously rewriting the script to ensure we made the most of it. A couple of the best lines in the movie were written by King George VI and Lionel Logue. For example, there’s a big speech that the King makes and Lionel turns to him at the end and says “you still stammered on the letter w”. And the King says “well I had to throw in a few so they knew it was me.”
Matt: (laughs) And that’s actually in the diaries?
Tom: Yeah. Geoffrey said that it’s a line worthy of Groucho Marx it’s so hilarious. In the audience at the premiere last night in Sydney it received a great roar of laughter.
Matt: Geoffrey Rush brings a bit of comedy to the film with his unusual method and odd sense of humour. Was the real Lionel Logue like that?
Tom: Yeah. Amongst his papers were reams of jokes which he collected. From that and from some of the conversations he transcribed, we know he understood the power of humour to relax people. I as a director know that too. Often on set during a stressful day, someone cracks a joke and it makes the crew relax and more importantly, make the actors relax before a big moment.
I understand the power of humour to overcome people’s stress and for Lionel, this was a key part of his therapy. It’s not something we put in the film to chase a gag. We also know from the diaries that the King was pretty witty. It’s made the film very funny and one of the surprises for people who hear this film pitched is how funny it actually is.
Matt: It was certainly a surprise for me – another reason why I loved it so much. Let’s talk about the casting. We’ve got Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. When you’re casting these people do you have to think about whether they bear any resemblance to the real people or is it something that you can leave in the hands of the make up artists?
Tom: Oh no, I agonised about that. In fact, I hesitated casting Colin Firth because he’s a big, strapping lad of 6’2” and the real King was small, slight and kind of frail looking. Colin has quite a broad face and the King has a narrow face. In the end, I felt that personality was more significant and that there was a strong spiritual connection between Colin and the King. The King is nice to his core, he’s a humble man, he’s a gentle man and that’s what Colin Firth is. He’s nice to the core of his being and there’s not a maligned bone in Colin’s body. He’s got tremendous humility, he’s very gentle and he’s got a great moral compass. I felt his gentleness was more important because the character connection between the two people was more important that the physical connection.
The physical side we were able to work on however. I worked on Colin’s body language so that when he sits in a chair he kind of shrinks into it and it makes him look smaller. I shot him in ways sometimes where there’s lots of head room in the frame so he feels overpowered, diminutive in the shot. Luckily it was not like playing Winston Churchill where everyone knows exactly what he looks like. The younger generation would have to look King George up which gives us a little freedom.
As for Helena Bonham Carter, I think she was a very good match for the Queen Mother. She doesn’t look exactly like her but she has a wonderful spirit which so captures the real Queen Mother.
Actually, one of the actors who looked most like the real person was Guy Pearce playing Edward VIII. Guy has that real Windsor look with a narrow face. He’s got that charisma that Edward VIII had. It’s a tough call if you cast Colin Firth as the shy, less attractive, less charismatic brother, who on earth do you cast to be more good looking and more charismatic? Guy Pearce is one of the few actors in the world who fit the bill and could also nail this extraordinary 1930s English accent.
Matt: You just touched on the setting in the 1930s. Was that easy to recreate with the advent of cars, radios, gramophones? Was it a lot to pull off?
Tom: I live in London and I last filmed at home in 2003 directing Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. Since then, I’ve had to recreate London abroad. I’ve recreated London in Vilnius, Lithuania, in Richmond, Virginia, in Cape Town, South Africa, and in Budapest, Hungary. I finally got to recreate London in London for The King’s Speech and it really works. It’s a lot simpler than recreating it somewhere abroad.
The truth is that we used a lot of locations. We only needed one set and much of old London still exists.
Matt: Do you know if the Queen or anyone else within the monarchy has had a chance to see the film?
Tom: Not to my knowledge. We still don’t know if the Queen has watched The Queen and if she has, what she thought. The reality is that I may never know if the Queen will watch this film but I hope she does and I hope she sees that it’s a very nice portrait of her father.
Matt: I noticed there were a few scenes where the King was interacting with his young daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. Was that to give people a bit of context?
Tom: Yeah. After all, the current Queen is in the film and this is a film about the Queen’s father so it’s terribly important that people have that context and understand how close this history was. It’s only because King George VI passed away so incredibly young at the age of 57 from smoking related illnesses that he didn’t reach into our time more. Of course, the Queen Mother only passed away recently and she is beloved and known by many more people because of her extraordinary longevity.
Matt: I’m a big Oscar buff and I know there’s always this hype around this time of the year. People have been talking about The King’s Speech ever since it won at the Toronto Film Festival. Does winning awards and maybe going to the Oscars excite you or do you try not to get caught up in all of that?
Tom: It’s impossible not to get caught up in what people are saying. Since the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals we’ve had this great response. Playing in Sydney for the first time last night was a real thrill and again, it seems to have gone down extremely well.
I just keep focused on the things that have already happened. I’m so thrilled that we won the audience award at Toronto. Out of the 400 films that showed there, this was the public’s vote of their favourite movie and we were honoured to get it. So I think there’s a lot to be pleased about without evening looking ahead.
Matt: I’ll finish up by saying it’s the end of the year and there are many top 10 lists floating about. I’d love to know from your perspective, with your great director eye, what are some of the other films that you really enjoyed during 2010?
Tom: Oh, gosh. I liked Darren Aronofsky’s film, Black Swan. I liked David Fincher’s film, The Social Network. I haven’t seen the new Coen brothers film, True Grit.
I’m a little bit behind to be honest. I’ve got all the screeners sitting at home so Christmas is going to be a film festival for me catching up on all these movies.
Matt: I can understand you’re very busy at the moment promoting your own film?
Tom: Yes. Sadly, watching films and promoting films doesn’t seem to go hand in hand.
Matt: Well it is a fantastic movie. I think it is one of the year’s best and you can put that quote on the film’s poster if you want. It’s out here on Boxing Day and Tom Hooper, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
Tom: An absolute pleasure. It’s been great to talk to you.