Ascension: A Tom Hooper Profile (Part 2)

Following his Academy Award nomination for Best Director on The King’s Speech, Trevor Hogg profiles the career of British filmmaker Tom Hooper in the second of a two part feature… read part one here.

Expecting to do a film about Katharine Graham, the legendary publisher of The Washington Post, British director Tom Hooper found his cinematic agenda changed; for his third outing with HBO, he was given the task of helming a nine-hour miniseries about John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. “When HBO entrusts you with $100 million to tell that kind of story and they are bringing it out at the time of the primaries in the election race, let’s just say there’s a little bit of pressure to perform,” admitted the London native. “This is the creation story and in a country that has such an incredibly strong film tradition it’s been overlooked… A lot of filmmakers have been obsessed by the Civil War and have ignored this period.” Shot over a period of a hundred and ten days, John Adams (2008) is based on the Pulitzer-winning biography by David McCullough. “As I directed the wonderful cast through seven epic episodes – John and Abigail Adams, played by Paul Giamatti [Sideways] and Laura Linney [The Truman Show], the English actors Tom Wilkinson [Michael Clayton], Stephen Dillane [Spy Game], Rufus Sewell [Dark City], [and] Tom Hollander [Gosford Park]– it was fascinating to see how the revolution was driven by a group of exceptional individuals.”

“When I first met [executive producer] Tom Hanks [Apollo 13], his first big point was don’t make the English the bad guys, don’t make them these moustache-twirling villains – they have their reasons, just as the Americans did,” said Tom Hooper who collaborated with the Hollywood actor on the historical project. “We were intrigued by the idea that England in John Adams was a near equivalent to superpower America today. The British were an occupying military force in Boston, hated by many of the locals. In turn, the local ‘Sons of Liberty’ were distrusted as insurrectionists by the English.” In describing the motives of the main character portrayed by Giamatti, the director stated, “Adams joins the revolutionary war fighting not for independence but for his rights as a ‘natural born Englishman.’” Hooper explained further, “Thomas Jefferson was a deep romantic who believed that people are perfectible and could become self-governing. John Adams had a pessimistic view of human nature. Coming from 1770 Boston, he feared the mob and believed that people needed strong government. From the clash of these two views, comes a whole American debate about more or less government, the debate that resounds today about the power of the executive.” The filmmaker added, “My recent work has been driven by these universal ideas about the relationship between the individual and power. To be looking at these in the context of the American Revolution is a huge and exciting privilege.”

For his efforts, Tom Hooper received a Directors Guild of America nomination and at the Emmy Awards John Adams won Outstanding Miniseries, Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries or a Movie, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Paul Giamatti), Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie (Laura Linney), Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Tom Wilkinson), Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or Movie, Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or Special, Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie, Outstanding Makeup for a Miniseries, Movie or Special, Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or Special, Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Miniseries or Movie, and Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Miniseries, Movie or Special; it also received ten nominations including Outstanding Direction for a Miniseries or Movie and Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Stephen Dillane and David Morse). The Golden Globes presented the HBO production with awards for Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television, Best Performance by an Actress in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television (Laura Linney), Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television (Paul Giamatti), and Best Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Series, Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television (Tom Wilkinson). The Screen Actors Guild Awards honoured Laura Linney with Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries; Paul Giamatti beat his co-star Tom Wilkinson to win Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries.

“I seemed to be drawn to hubristic storylines – whether it’s Elizabeth the First brought down by her love of boy toys or John Adams brought down after the high of being central to the American Revolution, or the perils of ego when you start thinking you can do everything yourself and you forget that there’s someone next to you who is vital to your success,” contemplated Tom Hooper who for his sophomore movie decided to adapt the book by David Peace which chronicles the rise and fall of Brian Clough. With the help of his trusted assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) obtains managerial glory with Derby; a professional falling out between the two men leads to Clough’s dismissal failure with Leeds United. “The Damned United [2009] is like a marriage story,” explained the director, “where a husband has an incredibly supportive wife and is great because of her.” Originally, British filmmaker Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things) was going to do the project but he pulled out at the last minute because he “set out in pursuit of something that was leading him down a blind alley.” Hooper was able to resolve the problem encountered by his predecessor. “What defines Peace’s book is hearing the voice inside Clough’s head, and we decided early on not to try to do that, because I don’t think it’s very cinematic. In a funny way, the film captures more of Clough’s wit than the book does, because like many great comics, they’re brilliantly funny in the room and privately, incredibly tormented. So I think the film is less dark than the book.”

“It deals with themes I love: alcoholism, self-destruction, psychotic male competitiveness and treachery,” commented screenwriter and two-time Academy Award-nominee Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) of the story which marked his second collaboration with fellow countryman Tom Hooper. “The theme of professional jealousy is an interesting one,” stated Hooper. “Everyone tries to pretend it isn’t there. Filmmakers who become successful often isolate themselves from the people who help them.” Revealing the approach taken by himself and Morgan, the director said, “Peter Morgan and I were affected by the way they [the Clough family] felt about the book and it did inspire us to make sure we did as rounded a portrait of Brian Clough as we could.” The Oxford University graduate went beyond the source material and interviewed players like John McGovern and watched archive news footage. “You’ve got to remember the world Clough came out of – it was really hierarchical. It was about respecting your boss, respecting your seniors. He was so iconoclastic and burst through all this; he wouldn’t be put in his place or be confined by where he came from. I think that’s why people loved him.”

“I don’t even like football,” confessed Tom Hooper. “I always felt terribly excluded at school as I couldn’t join in those conversations, but I think that’s what fired my passion about this project.” The director aimed to achieve a sense of authenticity for the biopic. “I was obsessed with getting the look of the film right. We did a huge amount of research on locations, and it really brought home to me how profoundly football in this country has changed; look at the dug-outs the mangers sat in, just rickety wooden huts.” The timing of the movie production turned out to be fortuitous. “If we tried to make this film five years in the future, it might not be possible. The stadium we used to represent Derby’s Baseball Ground at Chesterfield was scheduled to be knocked down and we were lucky to get to use the old West Stand at Elland Road.” Some imaginative ingenuity was required during the principle photography. “The training ground is no longer a training ground. We had to turf over a section of car park to film there, which was pretty strange.” The most controversial casting decision for The Damned United which features Colm Meaney (Law Abiding Citizen), Henry Goodman (The Saint), David Roper (Downtime), Jimmy Reddington (Playing Away), Jim Broadbent (Gangs of New York), and Oliver Stokes was in the selection of Timothy Spall (Secrets & Lies) to portray Peter Taylor. “I knew he wasn’t a dead ringer, but he is such a brilliant actor and has such a great heart that I knew he would work for us so well.” Hooper went on to say, “In the end, it’s not about getting a photo-realistic recreation of the past; it’s about getting the spirit of the past.” The British Independent Film Awards nominated Jim Broadbent for Best Supporting Actor while at the London Critics Circle Film Awards Timothy Spall contended for the ALFS Award for Best Supporting Actor of the Year. At the Satellite Awards, Michael Sheen was nominated for Best Actor in a Motion Picture and Timothy Spall contended for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture.

“I opened the front door of my house in Melbourne one morning and there was a brown paper bag with a script inside,” recalled Australian actor Geoffrey Rush on when he first became acquainted with The King’s Speech (2010). “At that point in time, which would have been 2005, it was actually a stage play and the British producer who wanted me to do it had a friend who lived on my street and asked her to drop it off straight to me, instead of going through agents. That’s not the way to proceed with ninety-nine percent of the acting profession, but it suited me just fine. I sat down to read it straight away. I found the story enthralling; I knew all about Edward VIII’s abdication and George VI becoming king and have a stammer, but I knew nothing at all about how he cured it.” Rush turned down the role in the London stage production as he did not want to commit to a year-long absence from his family and because he felt the script was “trying to be Henry V.” Nevertheless, the historical project left a lasting impression on Rush. “Lionel Logue [the man who teaches George VI to stop stuttering] had a lot in common with me. A family man, someone who was happiest on stage, but hadn’t enjoyed the kind of success he had ever really dreamed of. But at 45, he met King George and his life changed. And when I was 45, I made Shine [1996].” The project found itself a supporter in author and academic Meredith Hooper. “My mom was invited by some Australian friends to a fringe theatre reading of this unproduced play,” recounted director Tom Hooper, “having never been to a play reading in her life. They were like, ‘We need some Aussies in the audience, would you come along?’ She called me up and said, ‘I think I may have just seen your next film.’ She sent it to me and it sat on my desk. Two or three months went by and I read it in one sitting. I rang her up and said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’”

“I knew he was just the man,” stated Geoffrey Rush when it was suggested to him that Tom Hooper should be the man behind the camera. “His work on John Adams convinced me he had a real gift for making history seem real with the camera, which is just what we needed for this essentially intimate story. We didn’t need someone who would have to be seduced by all the pomp and the pageantry.” Rush added, “This is really a story about two middle-aged losers who manage to bring out the best in each other. It’s almost incidental that one of them happens to be the King of England.” The Oscar-winning actor collaborated with the director on improving the screenplay. “We spent three weeks in script analysis and development. We had just received the diaries and were trying to incorporate some really fascinating ideas that were alluded to in the screenplay but weren’t concrete. Tom’s thing was why fabricate a dramatic narrative drive when the real facts are actually that much more interesting? It deepened and got many more grace notes and subtleties.” Playing the role of Lionel Logue, Rush looked forward to being reunited with co-star Colin Firth who portrays King George VI. “We’d had a good rapport ever since we did Shakespeare in Love [1998] together and I thought we made the kind of odd couple this story needed.” Cast alongside Rush and Firth are Helena Bonham Carter (Alice in Wonderland), Derek Jacobi (Gladiator), Robert Portal (In Your Dreams), Guy Pearce (Animal Kingdom), Richard Dixon (The Man Who Knew Too Little), Michael Gambon (The Book of Eli), and Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Glory).

“I used Stanley Kubrick’s favourite lens, the 18mm,” remarked Tom Hooper on how he approached the shooting of the principle photography which lasted thirty-eight days. “It pulls the world right into you and people are always framed in an architectural environment…I just had a feeling that I wanted to be incredibly intimate and close with the actors.” The director had to convince Colin Firth to share in his vision for the picture. “I think he was scared of committing to the fact he was going to stammer on every line in the movie. But I really believed that it had to be a profound problem, not something that we could reduce for the convenience of pace.” A creative partnership developed between the two men. “We watched a speech given in 1938 where the newsreel people cut from a close-up [of the king] to spectators in the crowd. Whenever they would come back…you can just see in his eyes – he wants to get it right.” To combat the lack of box office appeal for the tale, Hooper made sure that a certain cinematic element was present. “A lot of dramas get a bad name commercially because they are unremittingly bleak. The secret weapon is humour.”

The filmmaker’s instincts proved to be right as The King’s Speech, which premiered at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival, won the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award; it was also lauded at the British Independent Film Awards with Best Actor (Colin Firth), Best British Independent Film, Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Best Supporting Actress (Helena Bonham Carter) and Best Screenplay while receiving nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Guy Pearce), and Best Production Design. The King’s Speech was honoured with a Producers Guild of America Award; while The Broadcast Film Critics Association nominated the historical drama for Best Acting Ensemble, and the Independent Spirit Awards handed it a nomination for Best Foreign Film. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards, The King’s Speech won Outstanding Performance of a Male Actor in a Leading Role (Colin Firth) and Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture; it also contended for Outstanding Performance of a Male Actor in a Supporting Role (Geoffrey Rush), and Outstanding Performance of a Female Actor in a Supporting Role (Helena Bonham Carter). The Golden Globes awarded Colin Firth with Best Actor – Drama while handing out nominations for Best Director, Best Picture – Drama, Best Supporting Actor – Drama (Geoffrey Rush), Best Supporting Actress – Drama (Helena Bonham Carter) and Best Screenplay. For his work behind the camera, Tom Hooper was honoured with a Directors Guild of America Award. At the Academy Awards, the British monarchal tale leads the way with 12 nominations which include Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Picture, Best Actor (Colin Firth), Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Best Supporting Actress (Helen Bonham Carter), and Best Original Screenplay. The BAFTAs were even more enamored with the $15 million production as it competes in 14 categories which include the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film, the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, Best Actor (Colin Firth), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Film, Best Makeup & Hair, Best Production Design, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Best Supporting Actress (Helena Bonham Carter), and the David Lean Award for Direction.

One of the projects in the works for Tom Hooper is the long-in-development remake of East of Eden (1955). “I read the book as a teenager and it had a huge impact on me,” stated the London native of the story penned by novelist John Steinbeck. “It poses the question, ‘can we, by pushing West, escape from our past? Can we separate ourselves from in heritance?’ The film adaptation in the fifties starts with the last generation, so you don’t understand that point. I want to see if there’s a way of starting earlier and telling the intergenerational story. The challenge is, can you do it as a movie?” As it currently stands, the film which was being composed by screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) remains at a standstill. “Chris was due to turn in the script on a Friday, which turned out to be exactly the same time that [Universal co-chairman] Donna Langley gave an interview announcing that the studio was getting out of the drama business. So suddenly the project wasn’t happening. It was as if East of Eden had fallen on the wrong side of history.” Another cinematic possibility for the director is a $18 million production called The Lady Who Went Too Far; it is an adaptation of the biography Star of the Morning by Kristen Ellis about Lady Hester Stanhope whom scriptwriter David Seidler (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) describes as being “a female Lawrence of Arabia, a hundred years before Lawrence.” Hooper has also been linked to the making of a big screen version of Long Walk to Freedom, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. “The hardest part of directing is the choosing,” admits the filmmaker. “Unlike an actor who can do a variety of work, it is a year of your life. You can’t afford to get it wrong.”

Visit the official website of The King’s Speech, and read our review here.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.