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The Damned United - Tom Hooper interview

Tom Hooper directs The Damned United

Interview by Rob Carnevale

TOM Hooper is a rapidly rising British director whose management credits, so far, include acclaimed UK TV drama Longford and multi-award winning American TV epic John Adams.

He now turns his attentions to The Damned United, the complicated story of Brian Clough’s 44-day management of Leeds United football club in the ‘70s, and talks to us about why it was so important to portray Clough as a rounded character, and not to judge from the benefit of hindsight.

Q. The family were famously anti the book and have been careful not to become involved with the film. What efforts did you make to get them involved?
Tom Hooper: We invited them to read the script when we were developing the script. We invited them to see an early cut of the movie before we locked the cut. And we invited them to see the finished film. I certainly would have loved to speak to them because what better research than the family and Nigel [Clough]. In the end, I spoke to as many of the ex-players as I could but we definitely wanted to involve them.

I hope that at some point they will see the film. I think [screenwriter] Peter [Morgan] and I were affected by what they felt about the book and it did inspire us to make sure we did as rounded a portrait of Brian Clough as we could. I think [David] Peace’s book is brilliant on the agonised interior voice, the self-destructive, pained underbelly of Clough. But I felt it was very important to make sure that Clough’s wit was there and that we captured the side of Clough that made people so affectionate about him.

I mean in the year that I’ve been making it, whenever I say to people that I’m making a film about Brian Clough their first reaction is always a fond smile. They always grin at some level. So, unless you can access why Brian Clough has inspired this response in all of us, and sit that alongside the darkness… unless you can get the light and the shade, then maybe one hasn’t captured every side of him.

I also think that Peter and I were terribly careful not to let who Clough became… you know, after the death of Peter Taylor, after that tragedy, when the alcohol issue was clearly more visible, overshadow the younger Clough. This was a Clough who had it all ahead of him. He had Nottingham Forest ahead of him. In our story, he’s having that success at Derby and we wanted to make sure that the young Clough wasn’t discoloured by our collective memory of hat happened to him.

Q. Did you get much help from Leeds?
Tom Hooper: I think they were so great to let us film at Elland Road. When we were shooting the famous scene of Clough accusing the Leeds players of cheating on his first day… for Michael [Sheen] to be standing yards from the spot, if not on the spot from where Clough gave that speech. We’d turfed out the old car park, so we were sandwiched between the unchanged west stand and that old run of red brick warehouses that looked unchanged from the archive. So, to be able to have that degree of authenticity was really helpful. I found it a real buzz.

And I think it was very big and very generous of the club to see that our endeavour was all part of the myth and the history of the club, and we weren’t out… I was always interested in getting to the truth of his time there. I take the view that it’s a complex situation and I think whatever the players felt about Clough, if you’re a megastar player and someone says all your achievements are basically worthless and should be shoved in the bin because you’ve done it all by cheating, it would be hard not to have a big problem with someone who starts like that. So, Leeds have been great and the players who spoke to us were also generous with their help and their time. It’s been so great to hear that Norman Hunter who saw the film recently really liked it.

Q. What would you like Leeds United fans to take away from this?
Tom Hooper: I hope it’s still kind of a kick to go back to the time when Leeds were the dominant force in British football – to be reminded of that kind of glorious history that they had with Don Revie. I think it’s a complicated story and I don’t really believe there was this conspiracy that pre-existed Clough to make sure he failed. I think the way Clough chose to handle his early days would have pissed anyone off.

Clearly, Clough was brilliant when he enlisted players that perhaps other managers wouldn’t have seen the genius of – people like John McGovern who, when Taylor and Clough hired him, had only been playing football for a year. He has an odd run. So, to take someone like that and say: “I’m going to make you a star!” The kind of loyalty that’s bound between those two men is extraordinary. Whereas in the Leeds scenario, he’s already got the Irish captain, the Scottish captain and a bunch of stars who don’t feel they need him to show they’re good at playing football and I think that required a different management style.. and that’s possibly where he came unstuck.

I also think that in terms of the dirty Leeds thing, it was a much more physical game. When I was watching the archive, it almost feels like rugby in terms of people’s pride being a big factor. You get hurt but you get up and carry on, whereas now you could almost be more proud about your ability to execute a brilliant fake rather than having incredible stamina in the face of pain. So, I see it as a celebration of Leeds United as much as Clough.

Q. How difficult was it to cast the players? I imagine you went for capturing the spirit of them, rather than their looks?
Tom Hooper: The truth is I found it agonising. When I was on the brink of casting Stephen Graham as Billy Bremner who, as you know, has anything but red hair, you think: “Am I mad?” But he’s a brilliant actor and we’re so lucky that he’s willing to do what, in reality, is a fairly small part. What if we put a red wig on and it doesn’t work? I cared hugely about it. But in the end, it’s not about getting a photo-realistic recreation of the past, it’s about getting the spirit of the past. And with all the casting it was whether the spirit of the actor was right.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about how you hope the film will be able to reach out to audiences other than football fans?
Tom Hooper: Well, it was always my hope that Brian Clough as a personality could transcend football – that he could speak absolutely to the football passion but also transcend it. But I think the brilliance of Peter’s script is that it tells a universal story about the big themes of rivalry, love and hate. I think it offers plenty of ways for people to connect to it. I was born in 1972 so I don’t have any direct memories of this period, but the extraordinary thing about Peter’s script when I first read it is that it cut straight to me and I got it during the first read. I found that very inspiring in the ability of the film to reach a wider audience.