Interview: The Danish Girl Director Tom Hooper

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Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper talks with us about his new period drama, The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper had been directing odds and ends for over ten years before he won the Oscar for directing his 2010 feature The King’s Speech, but the success of that film has helped him get other projects of the ground, including his latest, The Danish Girl. It stars Eddie Redmayne as Danish painter Einar Wegener, who became the first person to undergo gender confirmation surgery in the mid-20s to become the transgender icon Lili Elbe. This was all taking place with the support of his wife Gerda, played by Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), who tried to keep their marriage going while her husband was going through his crisis.

It’s another gorgeous piece of work from Hooper, who has firmly established himself as the go-to director for historical epics going back ten years to his Emmy-winning television film Elizabeth I, starring Helen Mirren.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Hooper a few weeks back for the following interview.

RELATED: The Danish Girl Review

ComingSoon.net: I was rereading our previous interviews from three years ago and two years before that and you were saying how difficult it was finding another movie to do after each of those movies (“The King’s Speech” and “Les Miserables”), so how did you end up with “The Danish Girl”? I know it’s been floating around for some time.

Tom Hooper: The trick this time was to have found it before I even did “The King’s Speech” and realize I had it right in front of me, which makes it easier than to rely on that strategy. I fell in love with it. I first read it in late 2008 when I was on early pre-production on “The King’s Speech” and the script was one of the best first draft scripts I’d ever read. Really moving, made me cry, the love story at the center of it was so beautiful. What was interesting was that I heard some conversations about making it was a very hard film to finance, a hard film to get made, and maybe after “King’s Speech,” I thought I was in a position to use that position to get a film like this made and went on that journey. 

CS: I was wondering about that, because Eddie had a great year last year with “Theory of Everything” and you had worked with him before. Was that happening while you were trying to get the financing to get this made or was that just happenstance?

Tom Hooper: We were two weeks into shooting when he won the Oscar, but basically for my sake, he went away for a long weekend than came back and went straight from the airport to set and spent five minutes congratulating him and then I checked my watch and went “Um.. we have to get back to it, because our schedule’s pretty tight on this film.” What’s amazing is that he was unchanged before and after. He was just wanting to get back to work and was so focused. He was never distracted through that whole process, and I really admire that about him. He’s a consummate actor in that sense, a professional. 

CS: I had the benefits of knowing Eddie’s work from before “Theory of Everything” so I knew that he was a hard-working actor for longer than people realize.

Tom Hooper: Yeah, there’s that thing that people are going to say that he came from nowhere. I first directed him on “Elizabeth I” with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons for HBO and he was 22-23, and he did this scene where he was sentenced to death for rebelling against Queen Helen Mirren, which is obviously not a good idea. Obviously given that moment, it was so emotionally raw and powerful, I thought “I’ve got to cast this guy as a lead in a movie, he’s an extraordinary talent.” 

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CS: Over the course of the years when this project has been mentioned, I feel like they’d always been looking at a woman to play Lili, is that true? Was it going in that direction before you signed on?

Tom Hooper: Before me, there was an iteration with Nicole (Kidman) attached. I think that would have been a really interesting choice, too, because Lili is a woman living as a man, but I suppose I felt that the majority of the film, Lili is living as a man, and the transition happens quite late, so that was partially my thinking to cast Eddie. 

CS: You talk about how it was hard to get this film financed, so did you feel there was a pretty major sea change even before you started on this? I feel this year there’s been a lot of talk about transgenders, but you had already started production as that was happening.

Tom Hooper: I think the sea change probably post-dated financing the film, but it’s thanks to terrific television like “Transparent,” which I just watched all of Season One, and I was blown away. It’s so well-written, directed, acted. I mean, Jeffrey (Tambor) deservedly won that Emmy. “Orange is the New Black” and then Caitlyn Jenner, the bravery of sharing her story in that way on a global basis. I think we’re in a tipping point here for the accepting of trans stories in the mainstream, and that’s exciting. There’s still a long, long way to go, particularly giving more voice to trans filmmakers, trans writers, but it’s an exciting time I think. 

CS: I also feel like it’s something that’s being accepted more readily, which wasn’t particularly common for many years.

Tom Hooper: I had a trans person reach out to me saying, “I look forward to the point where it’s not news that you made a film about a trans person.” Like that’s not the story. The story is what’s happening within the story. 

CS: You’ve done a lot of films about real people, and in this case, you had Lili’s book,k but I wasn’t sure how much other information you had about the times.

Tom Hooper: This was kind of interesting, because the screenplay is an adaptation of a wonderful novel by David Eversoft, which was Gail Mutrux, the producer’s inspiration, and Lucinda Coxon, the writer’s inspiration, which David at the end makes very clear is very highly fictionalized. I think Lucinda brought it closer to the real story. In the novel, Gerda is a Californian, she’s not Danish, and we felt that it was kind of important that Gerda was Danish like the real artist, but we commissioned some new research into Lili and Gerda, and it’s maddeningly difficult to get at some of the facts. Like the memoirs that Lili wrote called “Man into Woman,” there’s debate about whether Lili wrote all of it, because it was published after her death and maybe the editor wrote some of it and there were contributions even from the surgeons. It’s not fully reliable and probably wasn’t constructed with the idea of finding a big readership. I think the key for me was to be true to the spirit of the woman and honor her courage as a transgender pioneer going through gender confirmation surgery at a time before the invention of anti-biotics, before the invention of penicillin when really the risks were extraordinary. 

CS: Even the topic of gender confirmation is complicated among the LGBTQ community and for people outside of it, it’s still hard to adjust to that, so how is it to do a movie like this that will have scrutiny from that community, but you also have to create something that will relate to those not in that community. Was that something daunting to have that on top of the normal pressures of making a movie?

Tom Hooper: We had great transgender advisors like Rhys Ernst, who was on-set with us a lot, helping us. Eddie and I reached out to trans-women in pre-production. Lana Wachowski was massively inspiring to me at one point when I met her through Eddie very early on, and she spent an inspiring couple of hours with me. We tried to take account of the community’s feelings by involving them as much as possible, but we care hugely about the community’s response. 

CS: I guess you got a lot of scrutiny when you took “Les Mis” as well, so it’s not that new for you.

Tom Hooper:
And weirdly, the movie you won’t know so well, but “The Damned United” which was about our most famous English soccer coach, the soccer community is so protective of how their hero is portrayed … or John Addams, which was about an American President, so I’m not a stranger to making films where there’s communities who are very protective and care so much, but that’s good, because they hold you to a better standard of work, and more conscientious standard of work. 

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CS: You tend to work with a lot of actors regularly. Eddie is a good example, Tim Spall and Helena Bonham Carter, but in this, you have Alicia Vikander and Matthias Schoenaerts, two of the best international actors working right now, so can you talk about casting them, especially Alicia, who has been having an amazing year?

Tom Hooper: She’s such a great talent. I think she has such a great big heart, and I wanted her to bring alive this incredible love that Gerda has, and also she’s very strong. I wanted to bring that strength to her portrayal of Gerda, and I just felt lucky that she exists because frankly, when you have Eddie Redmayne, it’s tough to find a person that can go one-on-one with Eddie Redmayne and match him scene for scene. She really was Eddie’s equal in that sense, and probably raised his game as well. She’s got a prestigious body of work already, and I think she’s going to have a really interesting career. 

CS: She’s had five really great movies this year and has been amazing in all of them…

Tom Hooper: I got a sneak view of “Ex Machina” pre-release and I thought she was great in it, and then she came in to audition with Eddie, and she did the scene that we call “Scene 56” which is the scene after Henrich kisses Lili and the next morning they have the argument about it, and she brought a tear to my eye in the audition. She was so emotionally powerful, and Eddie was like, “Well, you made it really obvious who you were going to cast on this one.” And I was like, “No, no, I’m still objective,” as I wiped the tears from my eyes, slightly embarrassed. 

CS: As a filmmaker who has been a part of Oscar campaigns for your previous movies, how do you feel when people see this movie and label it as “Oscar fodder”? Do you feel that’s a pejorative or do you just ignore all that chatter?

Tom Hooper: I thought it was funny when they said that about “The King’s Speech” but I don’t think we had any expectations on “The King’s Speech.” It was this tiny movie that we did and the idea that any of us would predict any of the journey that happened on that film would have been ridiculous. But look, if “The Danish Girl” is in the conversation at the moment, anything that might encourage people to go see the movie when it comes into theaters, if it does that, then it’s fantastic. 

CS: I probably asked you about this before but what are your feelings about doing a film set in present-day. I feel you’ve done that with your TV work but not so much lately. I was curious about your decision to explore the present through the past.

Tom Hooper: I’m very happy to, but it’s about falling in love and about finding great scripts, and it just so happens that what I’ve fallen in love with recently has not been set in the present. If you fall in love with a real story, it’s automatically going to be a period film, because if it’s real then it’s in the past, if you’re talking about the person and there’s a record of the person, it’s already in the past. I felt what was interesting about “The Danish Girl” is that it is a period film, but it’s strangely doesn’t feel like that because we feel as a culture in the middle of navigating these issues. We’re in the middle of a civil rights movement with transgender issues, so it has this unusual topicality for a period drama. It’s talking about one of the first recipients of gender confirmation surgery at a time when we as a society are navigating these issues in such an important way. 

CS: Last time we spoke, I mentioned that I’d love to see you direct a James Bond movie, and then you did that Jaguar Super Bowl commercial which was sort of in that vein. Is that something that interests you to explore more?

Tom Hooper: That was kind of like flexing a totally different set of muscles, sort of an action-comedy thing. Was it fun flying a helicopter 200-feet above the mall of Buckingham Palace with the doors open and pouring a cup of tea into Tom Hiddleston’s hand as he leaned outside the open door? Yes. (laughs) 

The Danish Girl opens in select cities on Friday, November 27. Look for our interview with Eddie Redmayne later this week.