The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl recently picked up 4 Oscar nominations.  While he was visiting Australia, I spoke with director Tom Hooper about his film.  You can listen to the full interview by clicking here.

Matt:  We’re in the midst of awards season and so I have to start out with a lighter question – where do you keep the Oscar that you won for directing The King’s Speech? 

Tom:  I know a lot of the Brits like to keep them in obscure places like the loo but I keep mine on my mantelpiece next to the fireplace.

Matt:  I remember your reaction as you jumped out of your seat with excitement after finding out you’d won.  What was going through your head in the few moments before they announced the winner?

Tom:  It’s nerves but not like you expect.  As the weekend progressed and it got closer to the ceremony, I got more nervous about the thought of winning and giving a speech live in front of half a billion people.  Minutes before they handed out my award, I was sitting there thinking this was ironic because I’d made a film about a guy who was terrified of public speaking.

When my name was called out, it was like a bolt of electricity had shot though me.  I went up to the stage and I remembered some advice that Ricky Gervais had given me.  He said that if you can get to the microphone without falling flat on your face, then you should relax and remind yourself of what you’ve achieved.   

Matt:  The Danish Girl had been floating around for a while with different directors and different actors attached.  How did it end up in your lap and what convinced you it was the right project?

Tom:  I fell in love with this script back in 2008.  I was in early talks to direct The King’s Speech at the time.  I have a wonderful casting director, Nina Gold, who has cast almost everything I’ve directed.  She said she knew of one great unmade script called The Danish Girl.  It was the most beautiful script.  I completely fell for it and it reduced me to tears when I first read it.  I then wanted to share how much the story moved me with the audience.

My seven year involvement makes me a bit of a newcomer on the project.  My producers have been fighting since 2000 to get this brought to the screen so it’s been a passion project for us for many years.

Matt:  You’ve worked with Eddie Redmayne before in Elizabeth I and Les Miserables.  Were there a lot of actors in mind or was Eddie always the guy?

Tom:  I actually imagined Eddie in the role the first time I read the script.  Back then, they said I’d never get finance for a film with the unknown Eddie Redmayne in the lead role.  That amuses me now because he won the Oscar last year and he’s now in a very different place.  I’ve always found his acting so emotionally raw.  It was actually on the set of Les Miserables that I slipped him the script in an unmarked brown paper envelope.

Matt:  It’s a role that requires full frontal nudity and there are many actors in Hollywood who would say no to such a part.  How did you approach that with Eddie?  Was he up for it all the way or did he take convincing?

Tom:  I was clear that I wanted to do that from the very beginning.  He asked that before I showed it to anyone, he could see the edit first and approve it.  I stuck by that.  He never questioned it aside from that and he was very brave about it.

Matt:  She’s been around for a little while but it’s been a breakout year for Alicia Vikander.  She’s picking up a lot of award season attention for this and her performance in Ex Machina.  How did you get her on board? 

Tom:  I think she’s going to be a huge move star.  She’s done 7 films in rapid succession over the last couple of years.  What’s great about The Danish Girl is that the story is as much about her as it is about him.  She really illuminates the love story at the centre of this film.  She has an unconditional love for her husband.  She supports him even though there’s a risk of losing her husband.  Gerda is never the victim in the film and she’s always a strong, inspiring woman.  That’s not easy to do.

Matt:  You mentioned that the film is as much about Gerda as it is about Einar.  Was that always the intention?  To find a balance between their respective stories?

Tom:  Yeah but when you’ve got Eddie Redmayne playing one lead and you’re looking for another lead, it’s intimidating.  Eddie is so gifted and he disappears into his roles.  I was lucky to find Alicia to balance Eddie because there aren’t too many young actors who could go head-to-head with Eddie.

Matt:  The film is based on the 2000 novel David Ebershoff which in turn was loosely based on actual events.  Was the focus on remaining faithful to Ebershoff’s novel or were details changed to make it more like the actual story of Lili and Gerda?

Tom:  Good question as it’s a bit of both.  David’s novel is the reason we’re here with the film but the real story was extraordinary.  Writer Lucinda Coxon changed a few details to make it closer to reality.  I was staggered in 2008 when I looked up Lili Elbe online.  There wasn’t a lot of information and much of it was inaccurate.  It was if history had marginalised this extraordinary story.  I actually thought Christine Jorgensen in the 1950s was the first person to have gender confirmation surgery.  I had no idea that it happened in 1930.  It made me think that history has a tendency to “bake in” the prejudices of the time and so maybe that’s why this story was kept hidden from view. 

Matt:  There are a lot of emotional sequences in the film with characters blubbering and crying.  Does it take a lot of work to create an environment for that to occur?  Or can the actors just turn the waterworks on at the click of a finger? 

Tom:  Ironically, I probably spent more time trying to suggest that they didn’t cry.  Crying is not hard for these actors because they are so good.  It was more about choosing the moment for those emotions and then balancing that with humour and levity.  When you go on a journey like this, a little humour helps open your heart.

Matt:  To ask about the set design, how easy is it to recreate all of Einar’s and Gerda’s paintings that we see throughout the film?

Tom:  It’s a funny story.  I started out being very purist and saying that I was only going to use the real Gerda Wegener art and the real Lili paintings.  I was told this would be difficult as they’re mainly in private collections and it would be expensive and perhaps impossible to get our hands on them.  About a month before the shoot, my wonderful production designer, Eve Stewart, sat me down and told me very gently – “you do realise that it’s not Eddie Redmayne in the Lili paintings?”  I then got very embarrassed and realised we needed to do our own versions based on the real things but obviously with Eddie Redmayne’s Lili at the centre.  We tried all kinds of shortcuts like blowing up Eddie’s face and doing photocopies of the paintings but the key to getting them right was to get Eddie to sit and pose as Lili and do the portraits in the old fashioned way.

Matt:  I’m a big fan of composer Alexandre Desplat and I was reading that he can put an entire film score together in a matter of weeks.  What was your approach in creating the right music for this film?

Tom:  I was very lucky to get Alexandre.  He won the Oscar last year after being nominated 7 times previously.  It was hard to get the score right and it was a long journey.  The thing about music in a film is that it’s the one element that’s not actually in the room with the characters.  It’s put on by the filmmakers afterwards.  You have to be very careful what you’re saying with the music because if you make it too dark, what are you suggesting about the transgender journey?  If you make it too light, it’s not capturing the pain.  The essential thing with the score was to balance the pain and the joy.  To show that this journey in the 1920s was provoked by anxiety but it also opened the door to a happiness and a contentment that you may never imagine possible. 

Matt:  As always I like to finish up by asking what you’re working on at the moment?

Tom:  My mum lives in South Australia so I’ve spent some time there celebrating Christmas.  Now I’m back to promoting the film and taking it around the world.  I think the last country we visit is Japan in March.  I can then get stuck into my next movie.  I am close to lining something up but can’t say anything just yet.