This relatively low-budget film is generating a ton of Oscar buzz
By Iain Blair
British director Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech — his film about the true-life story of the stuttering King George VI and his Aussie speech therapist — swept the Oscars in 2011, with the film winning him Best Director, along with Best Picture and a Best Actor Oscar for Colin Firth. Now the Oxford-educated Hooper, who got his start shooting commercials and such hit TV shows as Prime Suspect, East-Enders, Elizabeth I and John Adams, and whose film credits include Les Misérables and Red Dust, is getting more Oscar buzz for his latest movie The Danish Girl.
Starring Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), The Danish Girl, from Focus Features, tells another real-life story, this time of Lili Elbe, a Danish man who transitioned to a female in the 1920s with the help of his artist wife, played by Alicia Vikander.
I recently spoke with Hooper over lunch about making the film, which was shot with a Red Epic Dragon, and edited on a Media Composer.
Transgender issues are suddenly very much in the zeitgeist, but you must have started working on this quite a while ago?
Yes, and it’s been a long journey, and a real labor of love. I fell in love with the script seven years ago, but it was very hard to finance and risky to do. In fact, a lot of people close to me advised me not to try and make it. But here we are, and I’ll be speaking at The White House on a panel about the film and these issues. So a lot has changed since 2008, and now it’s being embraced, so it’s pretty amazing.
Is it true you first gave Eddie the script over the barricades while you were shooting Les Misérables?
It’s true. I slipped it to him and he called the next day and said, “Yes, let’s go,” and I had to tell him to hold on, that it’s not that easy… we’ve still got to pull it all together.
What did Eddie and Alicia bring to the mix?
They’re both actors with a lot of unusual qualities. Eddie has this emotional openness; an emotional translucency that allows audiences to find it very easy to identify with him, which was key for the role. I first saw that in him when I cast him in Elizabeth 1.
Alicia has so much heart, and is so kind and compassionate, and she brings this inner strength to the role. You never think of her character as the victim. She also makes goodness very interesting, which is incredibly hard to do. It’s far easier to play a villain.
Once again you worked with DP Danny Cohen, who shot The King’s Speech for you. He’s quite a maverick, isn’t he?
That’s exactly the right word. He’s a bit of a rebel — he doesn’t mind breaking the rules — and he doesn’t get attached to a certain formula or way of doing things. This is our fifth film together, and I really feel he’s helped loosen up my style and not feel so bound by all the usual rules. He used some beautiful old lenses and very soft lighting inspired by several Danish artists, and I think the film looks perfect for the story and the period. He’s also the nicest guy in the world.
Tell us about working with editor Melanie Oliver, who cut Les Misérables, The Damned United and several of your TV series. How does that relationship work?
This is our sixth film together, and she did amazing work on the John Adams miniseries. She is a really gifted editor. Basically, she’s my greatest secret weapon, my great collaborator, and she functions almost like a co-director. I really feel that editors are often under-appreciated in that regard, and I rarely change a performance take once she’s selected it and cut it in, as she’s completely right about 90 percent of the time in her first assembly.
Performance and editing are like choreography, and they have to go together perfectly like a very intricate dance. If the editor picks the right moments, it can really elevate an actor’s performance, and then the whole film, and she does that all the time.
Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
It was all done in London at Goldcrest, where I usually do post, and then we did all the sound mixing at Halo, all over a period of several months. I love post and the calm after the storm of the shoot where you feel the meter ticking away every minute on set.
For me, the most interesting aspect of it is that, however clear the vision you had of the film before you began, once you sit down in the editing room and start working on, it begins to change into something different. You have to let go of that vision and just look at what’s in front of you, and then it’s all about servicing what the film’s become, and how you can get the best out of what you shot. I love getting the structure right and then the pacing and all the rhythms right — on this we ultimately ended up losing over an hour of material. You hate to cut scenes, but that really tightened it all up.
What about the music and sound? Were they more crucial than usual?
I think so. The next big thing for me in post after editing is adding all the music and sound, and composer Alexandre Desplat responded so well to all the changes. In this film the music acts like the narrator, so we had to be very careful in how we used it. Alexandre went through so many drafts of key scenes where you need to balance the pain and the joy that Eddie’s character is feeling.
Music and sound are always huge for me, but they were even more crucial in this, and a very big challenge, because it’s such a quiet movie. So all the sound effects had to be really effective and just right. I had a great sound team, including Mike Prestwood Smith, our re-recording mixer who did Captain Phillips and Mission Impossible, and we worked hard at getting stuff like the sound of the canals and boats rubbing together exactly right.
Then I love starting to show the film to get a feeling about all that. I always start off showing it to my family first, and then to close friends, and you see how it plays and you learn about it and gradually shape it, and hopefully all the pieces of the puzzle fall into shape by the end of post, and your movie emerges.
Any period piece needs some VFX work. Who did the shots?
There were very few, and they were all done by Double Negative, who I worked with on Les Mis, and they did an amazing job considering the circumstances. This was a very low-budget movie — just about $15 million — and that meant we only had $100,000 for the entire VFX, which isn’t very much. We did need some key VFX shots, such as the shot of the trees at the beginning, and the train on the bridge, which was all CGI. Then there’s a lot of subtle stuff and clean-up work, and colorist Adam Glasman did the DI.
You’ve won an Oscar. How important are they and all the other awards?
I think they really can help with a small film like this. Look what happened with The King’s Speech. I still pinch myself that it did so well and that I won an Oscar.
Where do you keep it?
I know a lot of Brits keep it in the loo, but I keep mine on the mantle by the fireplace
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.