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Last Chance Harvey - Joel Hopkins interview

Last Chance Harvey

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WRITER-director Joel Hopkins talks to us about the making of Last Chance Harvey, his romantic comedy drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.

He reveals how Hoffman transformed his wedding speech into an emotional highpoint, why missing out on Nanny McPhee was a blessing in disguise and why he chose to set the film in London.

Q. Was missing out on Nanny McPhee one of the happiest accidents of your life, given that it did ultimately put you in contact with Emma Thompson?
Joel Hopkins: [Laughs] Well, I reckon that if I’d done Nanny McPhee… it’s hard doing somebody else’s script and I think Emma probably would have had enough of me by then! You are very much a gun for hire. She’s now doing the second one, for instance, and using a different director – not for any particular reason. In fact, I said after this: “Oh, let me do Nanny McPhee 2!” But she said “no” because she wanted to work with a female director. But we’ve come out the other side of this very much in touch and I hope we’ll definitely work together again. So, in a way I’m kind of glad I didn’t get Nanny McPhee. It actually inspired me to say to myself: “Look, come on, you can write, you’ve got something you can bring to the table that not everyone can – go away, write this bloody thing and Emma will read it.”

Q. And Emma Thompson came on board straight away?
Joel Hopkins: Well, there’s only so many times you can email someone [smiles]. I saw her again in Stranger Than Fiction and did another email saying: “You were great…” The first time I emailed her I’d written a 10-page treatment and I think I was hoping she’d come back and say: “That’s great Joel, let’s write it together.” But she didn’t, she said: “Great, can’t wait to read the first draft.” So, for one reason or another a year went by and I’d email her occasionally, but by the tone of her last email it was kind of clear that the next time I contacted her I had to be delivering the draft [laughs]. There had been enough niceties. She’s a very busy person but what I so respect her for is that she’s so organised and she will deliver on what she says she’ll do. I met her and she basically had her year mapped out but she kept to her word and the last bit proved quite a fairytale. I sent her the first draft, she responded straight away and then sent it on to Dustin, who also responded immediately. So, it fell into place pretty quickly once the script was written.

Q. It’s also nice because you don’t see too many of these type of romances written for older people on the big screen…
Joel Hopkins: That’s right. But it’s interesting because I never sort of clocked that in the creation. If I’m honest, you do have to be a bit clever. But I love Emma Thompson and I love Dustin Hoffman and I thought: “Why aren’t I seeing them more?” In Stranger Than Fiction, for instance, they were great but they were very peripheral characters. It was like: “Why aren’t they being used more?” So, I thought that if I wrote a story for them, there’s a chance they might do it. But it was never conscious. I was looking for characters for them and it turned out that because they are the ages they are, it became an older romance.

Q. There’s a lovely scene where Dustin Hoffman delivers a wedding speech for his daughter. It’s a tear-jerker of a moment. How easy was it to write?
Joel Hopkins: To be totally honest, there’s a bit of what Dustin brought on the day. I wrote something similar but I guess, if anything, a little lighter. Dustin, to his credit, said: “Can I try something?” So, it sort of starts how I wrote it, then he goes off and then brings it back to how I wrote it. But after I’d agree to let him try what he wanted, there was silence in the room and I said to myself: “OK, something’s working here…”

To be totally honest again, it’s almost too good because structurally it’s such a strong emotional moment that it almost lopsided our ending in a way. We hit this peak a little bit too early and then I actually did a few additional days shooting to work on the end, to sort of up or at least equal that moment. We worked on Emma’s speech at the river at the end for that. We had a similar ending but it wasn’t quite as packed emotionally. But that said, I’m so glad to have that scene and I wouldn’t now change it for the world. It’s worth its weight in gold.

Q. So was it a speech delivered straight from Dustin’s heart?
Joel Hopkins: He’s lived a lifetime and he’ll say himself that he’s had experience that’s not literally the same, but experiences where he’s been estranged from a child. He had that connection and could really feed himself into that speech. When he did it, it was like a wedding speech. You sort of spend the time thinking: “Oh God, oh God, is he going to f**k it up at the end?” But he didn’t… And going back to structure, we set him up nicely with the earlier speech where he fails. So, you’re willing him to succeed.

Q. Was it always going to be set in London?
Joel Hopkins: Yes. I wrote this in New York. I’d been living in New York for about 12 years. I went to film school there, did a graduate at NYU and just sort of stayed on. But when I wrote it I think I was slightly home-sick for London and I’d always wanted to make a film here, so I that’s where I chose to set it. It’s definitely a slightly romanticised version of London. But I’ve had a lot of friends come to me after trips to Europe and say that they’d been to Paris and how beautiful it was, and they’d add: “London’s nice too, but not quite as beautiful…” So, I sort of wanted to show that London is beautiful and elegant too, while still making it real.

Originally, Harvey was Japanese. I was writing another script that had a Japanese character in, so I stole that character from that script and tried him out in this story. But it very quickly became about them not being able to understand each other and I didn’t really want that. So, when someone said he should be an American it brought my two worlds together and seemed absolutely natural. And I liked taking an American and plonking him in London.

Q. Was it easy to get access to locations such as Somerset House?
Joel Hopkins: To a degree. You have windows where they let us have it and I think we paid a lot for Somerset House in particular. Dustin and Emma help, of course, because people are excited by that. Somerset House gets so booked up though… but the South Bank boardwalk is public domain so we could shoot on that and they were very generous about what we could close off. It’s funny, people still say to me that I’ve picked new bits of London. But to me, when I was a teenager I used to spend a lot of time there because it just seemed like a very cool place to go, what with the National Film Theatre and all. It’s still a very cool and vibrant place. But for me, it’s one of my favourite places in London. And Waterloo Bridge, with the view you get from there.

It’s a real shame, in fact, because in the old ending of the movie they get on a bus and it drives off across Waterloo Bridge and I pan away and do this lovely 360 pan of London. It was lovely because you get such great views both ways from that bridge. But unfortunately it didn’t end up in the movie – maybe the DVD extras!

Q. How much of a nice surprise were the Golden Globe nominations for Dustin and Emma?
Joel Hopkins: They were great because we were umming and aaghing about putting ourselves out in the middle of the awards season for its US release. When you do that there’s so much product out there that it’s hard to get noticed in some ways. I was a little concerned that we’d get lost in the pack. I think, to some degree, we did a little bit. I would personally have voted for coming out in March under our own steam. Also, with critics and things, if you come out at that time, you’re sort of saying: “Look at us, we are awards worthy.” So, you tend to get reviews saying: “Oh, so you think you’re awards worthy?” And you kind of have to work double time [laughs]. But having said that, Emma and Dustin got nominated, which was fantastic, and it raised the profile of the film. So, in the end I think it worked out. I’m hoping it’ll now get recognised as a British film and Emma’s performance might get some attention from Bafta next year.

Q. What’s next for you?
Joel Hopkins: Nothing definite. What I really want to do is try and direct someone else’s script. So, off the back of this I’m getting sent some scripts and I’m trying to find a project. But I’m also slowly trying to write a couple of things but neither thing has a name yet. Hopefully, it won’t be quite as long as the gap between Last Chance Harvey and my previous film [2001’s Jump Tomorrow].

Read our review of Last Chance Harvey