Winter 2014

Moments of Truth

Tom Hooper used his experience in soaps and theater to capture the intimate details of The King’s Speech and the grand gestures of Les Misérables. But working big or small, he’s always looking for a better idea.


LIVE SINGING: Hooper's experience directing soaps taught him how to work out problems and find solutions instantaneously--good training for the rigors of staging Les Misérables.

The hardest thing about directing,” says Tom Hooper, “is choosing. You choose a project, you live with it for two years, and from the DNA of that choice everything flows. If there’s something wrong with the choice, then you’re always in trouble.”

By all accounts, Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech (2010), Les Misérables (2012) and the HBO mini-series John Adams (2008), would seem to be a master at making the right choice. The projects he’s directed, for the big screen and television, have accumulated over 60 major awards, including seven Oscars, 22 Emmys, 20 BAFTAs, and the 2010 DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures for The King’s Speech.

But his reasons for choosing one project over another are perhaps not the obvious ones. Opting for The King’s Speech, for example, “was nothing to do with the monarchy or stammering, but really because it played out the same dynamic that existed between my parents.” He went for Les Misérables because “even though there was a lot about the stage show that would be difficult to adapt, there was something about the emotional hit I got when I first went to see it.” Even his less well-known projects, like his 2004 debut feature Red Dust, were approached with the same consideration. He “completely fell in love with the idea” of a thriller set during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in post-apartheid South Africa. “I really thought the world needed to know about it.”

Hooper, at 41, has four major features (the other is The Damned United from 2009) plus a good half-dozen high profile TV projects in both the U.S. and U.K. under his belt, but—perhaps remarkably in this highly schooled generation of filmmakers—he did not receive any formal education in film. Instead, his early, formative years are a study of an ambitious and utterly focused schoolchild determinedly marching his way into the film industry. He discovered theater as a 10 year old, but as a self-confessed “tactical kid,” he swiftly gave up any dreams of acting when he didn’t get lead roles, and instead opted to work with the lighting team. After a chance discovery of a book about filmmaking, he was off. Armed with a dusty old 16 mm camera from his uncle’s attic, he made his first short film at age 13. More shorts followed—all silent (“I couldn’t afford sync sound”), he cut them on a primitive hand-wound flatbed editor with slicer and tape. “It was a very old school beginning.”

By the time he was 16, Hooper had the confidence to try something more ambitious, and set about raising money for a short which was to become his calling card piece, a 15-minute film called Painted Faces (1992), about an artist whose paintings come to life. Against the backdrop of a largely moribund British film industry in the 1970s and ’80s, he targeted advertising agencies for funding. “I looked around and thought, ‘the only rich people in films in the U.K. were commercials people.’” He was able to score donations from the likes of Paul Weiland, then among the most successful British commercial directors.

Painted Faces did its job: it got into the London Film Festival, secured a small theatrical release, and was sold to England’s Channel 4. Rather than try for film school, Hooper then took up an opportunity to study at Oxford University in a characteristically tactical assessment that he “wanted to spend three years on ideas and content rather than on technique.”

Another advantage of a more traditional university education was the opportunity to rediscover theater, to which Hooper credits his ability to deal with actors. “The thing about theater is this: you get uninterrupted time with actors. When you’re on a film set, demands are constantly being made that take you away from them—camera, lighting, worrying about tomorrow. You have to fight really hard to have space for the actors. But in theater, that’s all you’re doing, and it gave me a relaxation with actors that I’m grateful for.”

Hooper points out another important skill he learned from the theater that proved invaluable to his future directing style. “Theater really introduced me to the whole concept of playing the truth of the moment,” he explains. “It’s such a simple idea: In acting terms, you’re not playing out the story architecture, you’re just trying to work out what the dynamic is in each individual moment. In a well constructed piece, if you do that right, that will then serve the overall architecture.”

PLANNING STAGE: (above) Hooper rehearsed for three weeks with Geoffrey Rush (left) and Colin Firth for The King’s Speech.
He did extensive research for John Adams, with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, to make the characters come alive for a modern audience.

Hooper modeled his career choices on the likes of Ridley and Tony Scott, Alan Parker and Hugh Hudson, directors who had moved from successful commercials careers to Hollywood projects. “I had what you might call a multi-track strategy, to just see which got me into filmmaking first. I discovered that TV drama trains you for speed and economy with actors and crew. On commercials, you are given time to craft beautiful images and get to use expensive equipment you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”

It wasn’t quite that simple, however. Hooper had to detour into children’s TV when his advertising career initially failed to take off as planned. From second unit work on a popular British kids drama series called Byker Grove, Hooper then arrived at the nation’s most popular soap, EastEnders, where he received a thorough grounding in the art of multi-camera shooting.

“From a training point of view,” says Hooper, “there is nothing harder. Directing 16 minutes of finished film in a single day, using four cameras at the same time. You’re not only shooting for 10 hours, you’re cutting in the same time period, too. You have to get to the mental place where you can watch a scene once, work out the problems and the solutions instantaneously—there’s no better training at teaching you how to get out of tight corners. It’s really a training in being utterly present: you can’t let your mind wander for a moment.

“It all paid off on Les Misérables,” he says. “The only way to shoot live singing, with live accompaniment, was multi-camera. What that meant for a director was that no two takes were necessarily going to be the same tempo, and you couldn’t intercut one take with another. It meant that with every take, you had to get all the shots you needed in one hit. So you’re back in the multi-camera environment, and you have to protect the integrity of each take as a standalone event.”

It was his success on EastEnders that helped put Hooper on the directorial map. He quickly progressed to shooting upscale period adaptations such as Daniel Deronda (2002) for the BBC. Then came an offer to make his first feature, Red Dust, starring Hilary Swank and a then considerably less well-known Chiwetel Ejiofor.

However, Red Dust proved a false start. It fared poorly, commercially speaking, and failed to get a release in numerous territories. “It was tough to discover that if audiences sense a film is going to be ‘good for them,’ they probably won’t rush to see it. You need to promise people entertainment and escapism, and underneath it or through it, come at what you want to say. It was a lesson.”

Hooper jumped back into a trio of HBO-commissioned TV projects, including the hugely ambitious mini-series John Adams. “The greatest challenge about making John Adams was making American independence not seem like an inevitable fact and therefore un-dramatic. The only way was to recapture the burning intensity and the meaning of the moment.”

Hooper became obsessed with historical accuracy and research, not just for its own sake, but for the images he could create from it. This suggested a revealing moment with Adams in the first episode. “People wore wigs like hats,” says Hooper, “and underneath them they often had completely shaven heads, which led me to the image of Adams warming his wet wig by the fire and cradling his head. It’s a completely modern image and removes the sense of history as pageant; it draws you in.”

He also tells a funny story about dealing with the historical reenactment enthusiasts who were supposed to be playing battle-weary soldiers. “We were filming in Washington’s camp, and when I got there, it was my idea of a nightmare. Spotless uniforms everywhere. I said, ‘How can this happen? How many times have I said, we need the grit and the dirt?’ I was told the problem was that the extras owned the costumes and wouldn’t allow us to dirty them. I went out down the line, dug my hands into the mud and said to one of them, ‘Do you mind if I dirty up your costume?’ For some reason, because I was the director, he was somehow flattered. I started to hand-dirty his costume, and suddenly it was OK and they could all do it. You literally have to get your hands dirty sometimes.”

Hooper says he discovered another key directorial attribute while working on John Adams: the ability to change your mind. He cites the filming of the tar-and-feathering scene as an example. “We basically ran out of time on the day we were supposed to shoot it. We had an hour left; I had to shoot it in one go. Just getting the tar off an actor would take two hours. So I had three cameras embedded in the crowd, and told the extras they’re going to be dressed up and in amongst them, and they’re going to fight for the shots. So let them get the shots—but not too easily. We loaded 400 feet in each camera, exactly four minutes, and went for it. What happened was that a weird atmosphere took hold of the crowd, and they really started getting into it. There were 300 people and they weren’t conscious of the cameras at all. It had a feeling of tipping over the edge into why people enjoyed tarring and feathering in reality.

“It’s a scene I’m still very proud of,” says Hooper, directly attributing it to his experience directing a soap opera. “There’s an interesting relationship between resource constraints and creativity. Constraints can force you to do things in a more interesting way. One of the key skills of directing is to be able to make those on-the-spot adjustments to unforeseen circumstances, and find out if there is a way of harnessing a circumstance that is going against you, so the constraint becomes a friend rather than a foe.”

From John Adams, Hooper went to the low budget feature, The Damned United, about the manger of a hardscrabble British soccer team, starring Michael Sheen from a script by Peter Morgan. Hooper does confess to a bit of a culture shock. “It was a little bizarre. One day I was general of a vast army, with $100 million budget, then I went to a tiny British movie.”

Hooper credits his mother—and happenstance—for his next directorial assignment, The King’s Speech. As he explains it, the material was discovered when his novelist mother was roped into going to a reading of the then-unproduced play by David Seidler. Hooper’s theater experience again proved vital, as he workshopped the script with his two lead actors, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, during a three-week rehearsal period, which, he says, took a brilliant script up another notch.

“When I started out, I planned things out beforehand, then stuck to it,” says Hooper. “But then I had the realization that, in the moment of creation on the day, an actor may have a better idea, and it’s important to be completely open to chucking your idea out and taking the better one. You cannot have an ego about it. You always have a plan, but the ability to toss it aside is crucial.”

On the other hand, in some circumstances, being able to hold your ground is equally important, and in this regard Hooper credits the DGA. “The creative rights and financial protections it accords directors is the gold standard for directors organizations around the world—and here in London—to aspire to.”

The King’s Speech, of course, saw Hooper’s career ascend exponentially. Thinking about the prospect of an Oscar, Hooper at first imagined “if you win you’ll be given the key to a secret door: open it, and there on the table, just for you, are the great unmade scripts.” But before the actual event, he realized, “there is no key, no secret door, no table. Winning it is not going to solve the problem of what I do next. It gives you confidence for the future, but doesn’t give you the future.”

Fortunately, by the time The King’s Speech was released, he was already on board to direct Les Misérables. “In retrospect, I’m pleased as it didn’t give me too much time to think. It would have become very hard to follow up the Oscar.”

He decided to shoot the music and singing for Les Mis live to give the actors control over the emotions of each scene. “I wanted the singing to be like thinking out loud; so the actors could take a moment to have a new thought, and you could put that beat into the music. I wanted to give actors full control to tell stories in the songs.

“For me, for the first time, the place of the camera was below that of the performance: in other words, the primary thing became how to protect the performance. I put the cameras where they had to be to make it possible, rather than the other way around.”

Les Misérables’ key scene turned out to be Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which Hooper says, picking up once again from his TV soap experience, he shot with three cameras simultaneously. “I gave myself the facility to vary the shot size during the edit. In my head, my master was a slow push-in from a mid-shot to a close-up, which would take the body of the song. For a long time in the edit we had this, and one day [actor] Eddie Redmayne came in to see me and said, ‘Why aren’t you using the amazing close-up from the teaser trailer? It’s so powerful.’ I swapped it out, tried it at the next screening, and the whole emotion of the scene just jumped another few degrees.”

In the midst of all the action on a set, and the hundreds of people doing what he tells them to do, Hooper says directing is essentially a lonely business. “I’m drawn to stories about leadership. I find them interesting because it relates to the creative life. When you’re a director you’re a leader, by default almost. When you fall in love with directing, you don’t fall in love with being a leader—you have to be a leader because you’re a director.”

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