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The King's Speech - Tom Hooper interview

Tom Hooper directs The King's Speech

Interview by Rob Carnevale

TOM Hooper talks about directing historical drama The King’s Speech and how the discovery of speech therapist Lionel Logue’s diaries just weeks before shooting turned into a treasure trove of information. He also talks about why Colin Firth was perfect for the role of King George VI.

Q. You seem drawn to historical figures when you make films. Is that something deliberate?
Tom Hooper: I’m drawn to iconic characters and what they reflect back to us about national identity. Brian Clough was a great way of looking at our national passion and obsession for football, John Adams was a way of asking whether one can trace America, which is very divided against itself politically, back to the personalities of the founding fathers?

And this film, I suppose it’s a way to meditate a bit on our monarchy through telling the story of the Queen’s father. You can understand more about why things survive and exist by going back in time a bit. Our monarchy is under no attack… it seems to be completely safe, although there are dissenting voices. Why? I think partly because of King George VI and in understanding more about King George VI, we will understand more about that because the abdication crisis was the closest we came to losing the monarchy probably in a long time because it was so catastrophic. There was something about the fact the man who took over, King George VI, had this severe stammer that, in a way, helped to humanise the monarchy because when people listened to him during the war on the radio, first of all he didn’t shirk from the job of doing speeches despite having a stammer, and there was then an intrinsic drama in listening to him speaking and hoping that he wouldn’t stammer.

But also, when a man in that kind of struggle is reaching out to people, saying: “I know about your suffering, I care about your suffering…” It has a different authenticity if it’s coming from a person who is involved in a huge struggle just to even speak to you on the radio. I’m sure that’s why he became such a popular figure during the war, and why probably the Queen’s current sense of duties have a lot to do with her father.

Q. So, how much of a gift was finding Lionel Logue’s diaries so late?
Tom Hooper: Unbelievable! I mean, as a director you try to control your circumstances as much as possible but you cannot get away from the role of chance in filmmaking. Look at the royal engagement recently… but nine weeks before the shoot our wonderful production designer, Eve Stuart, through her team tracked down the grandson of Lionel Logue, who had in his attic a hand-written diary account of his grandfather’s relationship with the King of England, which know historian has ever read, no royal biographer has ever seen, no member of the royal family has had access to.

The King's Speech

We got it first and we were able to rewrite the script with this treasure trove of information. It was really exciting. Some of the best lines of dialogue in the film were written by King George VI and Lionel Logue. For example, after the big speech at the end, Lionel says to the King: “You still stammered on the ‘w’.” And the King says: “Well, I had to throw in a few so they knew it was me!” That’s a direct quote from them both.

Q. How much did they reveal about what went on during the therapy?
Tom Hooper: In terms of the content of the therapy scenes, really that comes out of [screenwriter] David [Seidler]‘s imagination. If he has a strong claim on knowing therapy in that period, it’s because he was born in 1937, he had a terrible stammer as a child and underwent therapy in England and American in the 1940s and early 50s, ten, fifteen years after Lionel Logue was practising.

Things like the swearing technique – we don’t know if that happened, but that was used on David in the 1940s, and it was the breakthrough, and it was an incredibly powerful and helpful thing. In terms of the B plot, which is the therapy plot, I think it’s as much a personal exploration of David and the way he overcame stammering because we don’t have the intimate details, because of patient confidentiality, but the A plot, the historical plot, the abdication, is very well documented and the key shift in the script is to compress the chronology because Logue and Bertie met each other for a while before the abdication and we compressed it in order to create the ticking clock of the abdication.

In fact, I did force David to rewrite the script to obey historical chronology and it had a first act where the two guys first met where there’s no pressure that he would have to be anything other than the Duke of York and I turned round and said to David `I’ve just made your script worse, I’m very sorry’ but I had to do it to see if a more historical chronology could work. So, you know, it’s a mixture of imagination and fact.

Q. Colin Firth inhabits the role of King George so well, so what about him as an actor appealed to you?
Tom Hooper: Well, the real king is nice to his court, as far as I could see. He’s a gentle man, he’s humble, he has a great moral compass and Colin is nice to his core. There doesn’t seem to be a bad bone in Colin’s body. He’s got extraordinary humility for a man in his position, he’s a gentle man, he’s not cast as testosterone fuelled action heroes, and I think that connection and personality seemed to be very key.

The King's Speech

But more important than that, and what’s so extraordinary about Colin, is that there’s something about him in this film where he becomes so loveable – you care about him. Given that he’s playing a man with a severe stammer, you need an actor who you care for because if you’re on the outside of that it wouldn’t work; whereas with Colin, you’re rooting for him and you’re tense with him and you’re on the edge of your seat for him and with him. That was the great gift he gave the film.

Q. How does it feel to be included on so many best of film lists and in awards contention?
Tom Hooper: I’m delighted that we’re even being talked about in that [Oscar] connection, but I’m most of all delighted with the awards that we have won so far – particularly the audience award in Toronto. I mean, there are something like 400 movies there and that’s the popular vote with the public. And then to win the British Independent Film Award for best film was a huge deal. I was pleased that the film was celebrated as a true British independent movie, which it is. It’s only thanks to the independent scene here that the film got made, and thanks to the UK Film Council that it got made.

Read our review of The King’s Speech

Read our interview with Colin Firth