Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a fantastic new film starring Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack. I recently spoke to its Australian director, Sophie Hyde, about the movie…
Matt: When did you first become involved in the project?
Sophie: Just over 18 months ago. I was sent a version of the script and it was a concept that really appealed to me – an older woman who decides she just wants to have good sex for the first time in her life and she hires a sex worker. I knew it was going to be mostly set in one room and so there was a lot of potential to explore intimacy and connection… and Emma Thompson was attached which made it a tantalising idea.
Matt: So was Emma Thompson attached right from the very start?
Sophie: Yeah, she knows the screenwriter Katy Brand who had written it with her in mind. When Emma read it, she recognised the character of Nancy as someone very familiar and as an interesting woman who have never been put on screen before. As Emma would say, she’s a character who is usually next to the person doing the interesting thing. Katy put her in a position that was very fascinating and when anyone is in a position that is unusual to them, you start to see the layers of interest.
Matt: Can you tell me about the way you and screenwriter Katy Brand worked together during the production?
Sophie: The script was very early when I came in. Katy had an original idea and had written a very funny, short script. Before I came on, I had a meeting with them all and said what I’d like to do with it which is expand and make it a bit longer. We added an extra meeting and some sex. There was no sex in the original concept. I also wanted to explore the character of Leo more.
We worked back and forth remotely for about six months. Katy was in Germany, I was in Australia and our producers were in the UK. My partner Brian, who was the cinematographer and editor, and I then got on a plane in the middle of the pandemic over to the UK and shot the film.
Matt: Filmmaking is such a collaborative medium. What do you learn as a director from working with someone with as much experience as Emma Thompson?
Sophie: It’s a delight to work with someone like Emma who is a very smart woman but also at the top of her game. She’s so skilled. She’s seen a lot of sex too. Anytime there’s a great collaboration between people, you feel like you’re in a little boat together on the ocean and you have to look after each other. My job as a director is to challenge my actors but also to support them and make them feel like they can do the best that they can.
What I learned from Emma is that it’s really important to show up for the things that matter to you and to put yourself on the line for those things. Instead of thinking about things in terms of a “career trajectory”, you go after what you believe needs to be in the world.
Matt: Thomson is so great as Nancy – a constant mix of nerves and tension and being uncomfortable. It looks like such an exhausting role to play so I was wondering how easy it was for her and to get what you were looking for on screen?
Sophie: Emma is so skilful that you can get anything you want all of the time. It’s the truth. A lot of our time together was working out the tone we were going for. Nancy is terrified and I think Emma enjoyed playing her very much. When Emma is inside a role, she thinks like the character. In terms of exhaustion, there’s so much dialogue and it’s such a quick shoot, the two actors had to be ready all the time and churning out so much material in the many different ways I asked for. Every time we got to a scene which was more physical with less dialogue, I think they were like “oh thank goodness”.
Matt: Daryl McCormack is someone I didn’t know a lot about before this. What made him stand out for you?
Sophie: We auditioned so many great actors for this role and we knew it had the potential to show audiences someone they didn’t know very well. Daryl stood out because of his gentleness. It was important that Leo could come in and present himself as a fantasy that Nancy would have chosen but at the same time, what’s really interesting about Leo is how much he can put aside his own stuff and try really hard to be what Nancy needs him to be. Daryl is a very generous, interesting human and that layer he brought, in addition to his physical beauty, was what we were looking for. He didn’t feel like he was fitting into an idea of masculinity that I’m bored of. He felt like a version that is real and that I want to see more of on screen.
Matt: We get these great glimpses into Leo when Nancy slips into the bathroom and the camera chooses to stay with Leo. He doesn’t say anything but these are rare moments where we see him as himself and not as a character. Can you tell me about your creative choices there?
Leo: It was really important for us to show that Leo was performing a role for somebody. It’s his job to be there and be what Nancy wants and eventually what Nancy needs. I hate it in films when someone’s on their own and they’re exactly the same as they are around other people. They’re the bits when you get to see under the surface, under the façade. I also enjoy a character who is trying very hard to be good at what he does and that first moment with Leo alone where he’s trying to work out how to be the perfect man for her… I love watching him do that.
In terms of Leo’s longer-term choices across the film, it’s important that we worked out who he was, and how he got where he was, and the things he had dealt with in his history. There was a shame that had been placed on him which he had risen above, and he’d become very good at what he does despite that shame.
It was important to me is that what Nancy offered back to Leo was her acknowledging he was really good at this, and what you are doing is important – offering pleasure and release to somebody. That feeling of being seen and recognised for your skills is what frees him. It’s not about him being saved from a life he doesn’t want, or saving him from some trauma. It’s what a lot of us want – to be acknowledged.
Matt: With limited exceptions, the film is shot entirely in a small hotel room. How did you approach that with Bryan Mason in terms of the cinematography?
Leo: It was a set we used. It had to be. I asked for a neutral hotel room which was not too posh but not too cheap. I wanted the textures to be nice and sensual. I also wanted a giant great window and have it set during the day. That was an unusual thing to do – neutral room in the daylight – for something that is primarily about sex. For me, the look of the film was always about light.
We wanted to shoot into the window and see the light in every shot and watch the light change in the same way as the bodies and characters change. We didn’t want it to be seductive in a different way or seedy or any of those things. Also, because it was set in one room, we needed things like light to help us feel the film move and change and be cinematic. That was a huge part of it. In the first meeting, the sun goes down and in the third meeting, there’s rain. These things become important in keeping the audience there in the room and in the space with them.
Matt: I think the film does a great job breaking down the stigma of sex workers but there are people in this world who don’t believe it’s an appropriate profession. Have you received much in the way of a negative respond to the film for that reason?
Sophie: I’m sure there are people who are still puritans about the idea. There’s certainly been some brilliant conversations about sex work. I worked with a lot of sex workers to make the movie and it was important to me that they were part of the conversation – those with lived experience. There are so many stories and so much we could be telling in this field and we’re only telling a tiny droplet of it.
I think we’re telling a story that is really interesting and connects to some of the people I met. I was amazed at their unique skills. Obviously, there are millions of other stories and I’d love to hear more of them. We’ve had stories about the dangers and the history of sex work and where it’s gone wrong. It’s still criminalised in places and it’s very much “in the dark” and secretive which means people can be mistreated. We’re not saying that it’s all good but in this film, I enjoyed showing a part of sex work we haven’t seen very much.