Filmmaker Tom Hooper

Filmmaker and director of The King’s Speech—this year’s most Oscar-nominated movie, including best director and best picture—explains the role his mother played in bringing the story to him.

British director Tom Hooper has a reputation as a compelling historical filmmaker.  He won Emmys for the HBO serial Elizabeth I and the net's miniseries John Adams and made his feature debut with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission drama Red Dust. For his latest effort, The King's Speech, he's racked up numerous award noms, including an Oscar nod for best director. Hooper began making short films around age 12, featuring his mother and the family pet, and went on to study at Oxford, where he also directed plays and TV commercials.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Tom Hooper is a talented filmmaker whose previous projects include two mini series for HBO, “John Adams” and “Elizabeth I.” Those two projects combined to win 22 Emmys. His latest project is, of course, “The King’s Speech.” This week, the film received 12 Oscar nominations, the most of any film this year. Here now the theatrical trailer for “The King’s Speech.”
[Clip]
Tavis: During the trailer, actually, at the very end, you and I were just talking and you whispered to me that you thought it was a great trailer. I was about to ask you how much role the director has once you’ve done all the hard stuff in getting that trailer just right. You know how this works. It can be a great movie, but if the trailer stinks, nobody wants to go see it. They’re not motivated to go see it. So why do you think that was such a good trailer, since you did the movie?
Tom Hooper: I think it’s because it all builds up to the importance of that one moment, that one defining moment, that one defining speech. It’s interesting, with the State of the Union this week, we still live in a culture where there are these incredibly important speeches that become the focus of an expression of political leadership.
Tavis: We’ll talk more about that in a second. What role do you play, if any, once you’ve turned the project in, in deciding what makes the trailer?
Hooper: This is a joyous example of a time where that was pretty much the cut I was shown and I was knocked out by it. I think the answer is, if you don’t like the trailer, you get very involved. But if the trailer is great, it’s very liberating to know you can trust the team who bring it to you.
Tavis: So everybody’s seen this movie, and for those who haven’t, they will see it between now and the Oscar ceremony, to be sure. But I’m curious from your perspective because there’s so many ways I could answer this, but I’m not the director. What do you essentially think this movie is about? What do you think it’s about?
Hooper: I think it’s about the biggest theme of all, which is finding your voice. I think we all have blocks between us and the best version of ourselves, whether it’s shyness, insecurity, anxiety, whether it’s a physical block, and the story of a person overcoming that block to their best self. It’s truly inspiring because I think all of us are engaged in that every day.
As I sit here now, I want to arrive at the best answers. I want to give the best of myself to you now and I’m conscious that’s always a fight to achieve that, and I think we’re all involved in those negotiations, so it’s very profoundly important. I think also why it’s connecting to people, if you think about the way we dream and what our fears are, one of the most recurrent nightmares we all have is dreams of paralysis, either physical paralysis or paralysis of the voice.
I mean, we’ve all had those dreams where, you know, we try to cry out and our voice won’t come. So it also taps into that tremendous anxiety that, for us to be human, it’s about our ability to communicate. Without our ability to communicate and talk, our humanity is compromised, so it’s about that theme as well.
Tavis: I had a friend on this program years ago who sat in that very chair who said something to me that resonates now with what you’re sharing. His phrase was that each of us – I love it – as surely as we have a thumb print on our hand that makes us uniquely different in the world, each of us has a thumb print on our throats, he said. We each have a thumb print on our throat, and life is really about trying to find your own voice.
Hooper: I think the thumb print on the throat of many people is childhood trauma that goes unprocessed and unrecognized. And I think one of the messages of this film is that, you know, which I’d like any kid or teenager to think about, is if you feel your childhood or teenage years have been defined by some kind of traumatic episode or traumatic phase, try not to let that overshadow your entire adult life. You know, it’s in middle age that the king finally addresses the effects of his childhood.
But I think the film is about that incredibly important thing of processing your childhood so that it doesn’t define you. In other words, you don’t live with that thumb on your throat all your life because you haven’t looked at it.
Actually, one of the most important lines in the film was actually given to me by my father. My father lost his father in the war at the age of two and he was packed off to full-time boarding school at the tender age of five. It was that brutal initial era of cold baths in the middle of winter, outside loos with no doors, corporal punishment.
In later life, he was told, “Don’t be afraid of the things you’re afraid of when you’re five years old.” This lit up like a revelation in his life because he realized he was still living in a state of siege mentality against that early banishment to boarding school when he was five years old. When he told me the story, I said, “Thanks, Dad. I’m gonna put it in the film.” And in the center of the film, that’s exactly what is told to Geoffrey Rush.
Tavis: Since you raised your father, let me now raise your mother. There’s so much to talk about in the time we have because it’s a wonderful film – witness all the nominations.
But you mention your father, so I want to bring your mother into this because I think the best part of this film is how you got turned on to the material. So I will let you do the honors and tell me the role that your mama played.
Hooper: Well, I’m half Australian, half English and I live in London. That is the only reason I came upon this story. My Australian mother, Meredith Hooper, was invited in late 2007 by some Australian friends to make up a token Australian audience in a tiny fringe theater play reading of an unproduced, unrehearsed play called “The King’s Speech.”
Now my mum has never been invited to a play reading in her life. She almost didn’t go because it didn’t exactly sound very promising, but, thank God, she did because she came home, rang me up and said, “You’re not gonna believe this, Tom, but I think I’ve found your next film.” And the moral of the story is, listen to your mother.
Tavis: [Laugh] Listen to your mother. What did you make of the fact that your mother, again, goes to see a play – a reading. Not even a play, a reading – of an unrehearsed, unproduced play. She is so moved by apparently what she sees that she calls you and tells Tom, “I think I’ve found your next project,” and then you look up and you’ve got 12 Oscar nominations, later Best Picture, Best Director. What do you make of that?
Hooper: Well, I feel that my film in many ways is about the dysfunctional effect of parenting on a child. I mean, the way Bertie was parented led to a lot of his trauma and I’m -
Tavis: - Bertie, of course, the nickname for King George VI.
Hooper: Yeah. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m the son of highly functioning parents who I’m incredibly lucky to have. When I look at this journey, I think about the chance I happened to have parents with good influences on my life and I honor them this week with this incredible result because of the influence they’ve had. But I think the reason it connected, I’m sure, to my mother and the reason it connects to me is one of the stories of my childhood growing up.
One of the narratives was my Australian mother unpacking the effects of my father’s upbringing. You know, because of my father’s brutal upbringing, my mother was brilliant at saying, you know, within the family, of course, this would have affected your dad and it’s up to us as a family to unpack it. My dad went from someone who, you know, was not amazingly engaged as a father and now he says, “Tom, you’re one of my ribs.” You know, that’s thanks to my mother. She’s kind of the Lionel Logue in our family.
So in many ways, my interest in the film was not about monarchy. It was about talking about this very particular Anglo-Australian relationship which I’d experienced growing up with my parents and exploring that through the characters of the king and his speech therapist.
What’s fascinating about the Australians is they have this quality that they are impervious to majesty. They’re not awed. They’re not kind of in awe of it, and that quality of being relentlessly democratic and challenging the English way was something that’s very important to Logue and very important, I think, in my mother’s experience as an outsider coming in.
Tavis: You raise a question in my mind now that is at least fascinating for me. There are a number of folk around the world who are not necessarily in awe of, not turned on by, monarchy.
Yet what you had to do as a filmmaker here was to take a story that is clearly connected to, revolves around, monarchy and tap into something that would allow each of us to wrestle with the humanity in our own lives. How do you get us to wrestle with that humanity when monarchy is your vehicle and a lot of us ain’t necessarily turned on by that?
Hooper: Well, if you think about it, the creation story of the United States of America involves an angry letter to a monarch saying we’ve had enough. We’ve had enough of your behavior, we’ve had enough of your arrogance, we’ve had enough of your feeling that you’re a superior human being and we’re an inferior human being. That letter is the Declaration of Independence which I looked at when I made “John Adams.”
So deep in the DNA of America is this challenging rejection of an English monarch. You know, that monarch could have answered the challenge in a different way and diffused the situation by saying, “You’re right. You have a point and I behaved badly,” but he didn’t. He went to war against America.
Therefore, because of that, I kind of think there’s a very deep connection in America to this idea of this Australian character challenging an English monarch and saying, “I’m not gonna play it your way. I’m gonna take on your upbringing and I’m gonna take on your role and the only way I can help you is you doing that.”
I think the reason it’s resonated here is I think, of course, the American audience, we can all see ourselves in Lionel Logue because America has that wonderful republican spirit, that wonderful democratic spirit. It’s intrigued by majesty, but it’s not overruled by it, so you don’t have to play lip serviced to it. So I think in a weird way, you’re touching on something that’s very resonant to the creation myth of this country.
Tavis: Let me go inside the picture itself now without giving too much of the story line away. Tell me about this stuttering problem that Bertie had.
Hooper: Well, it was very severe. It started about the age of four or five and it was very connected to aspects of his upbringing. I mean, he was left-hander, retrained as a right-hander. He was bow-legged kid who had to wear metal braces in great pain during the nights to correct his legs. He had a nanny who neglected him and was slightly abusive to him. He had parents who were distant.
All these things conspired to I’m sure make this kid feel like no one wanted to hear him. No one wanted to listen to him. Very connected to stammering is the sense that you lose the confidence that you have a right to be heard. There were still huge debates raging about how neurological or how much it’s due to nurture having a stammer is.
All I can say is Lionel Logue, the speech therapist in the story, where did he really learn about speech problems? He learned speech problems in the first World War with young Australian men coming back from the front with post traumatic stress disorder, you know, with mute, with stammer, all brought about in a 17, 18, 19 years old by the war. So I think he did have an insight that it is possible to acquire a stammer through trauma and I’m sure that really affected the way he treated it.
Tavis: How did the two of them get connected?
Hooper: There’s a couple of competing stories about the detail of it, but Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was very driven to try to help him. They’d gone through the posh, you know, speech specialists, the posh doctors, to no avail.
I really feel like Lionel Logue was the last record card in the back of the box. He was the maverick that, you know, you wouldn’t go to first. From what I understand, it was her stamina in trying and trying and trying to help him that led them to Logue.
Tavis: There are a couple of people I want to ask you about who are no longer with us, of course, but connected to this project. Since you mentioned the Queen Mother, the story is that this project was in development for some time, but she did not want to see this project come to life in her lifetime because the pain was too great for her to endure. Tell me more about that.
Hooper: Well, It’s an extraordinary story because this film really goes right back to the Second World War where the young boy had a severe stammer and that little boy used to listen to King George VI on the radio and think, well, if the King of England can cope, then so can he. That little boy was the writer of the film, David Seidler.
Tavis: He did the screenplay.
Hooper: Yeah, and King George VI was his boyhood hero. So he grew up wanting to write about this guy. It was only after he wrote “Tucker” for Francis Ford Coppola that he thought, okay, now I can write my passion project, rather naively thinking that was the way Hollywood worked.
He tracked down Valentine Logue, the middle son, and Valentine said, “Yeah, I’ve got some papers of my father, but you need to get permission from the palace.” So David wrote to the palace; the Queen Mother wrote back saying, “Please, not in my lifetime. The memories of these events are still too painful.” So David waited, little realizing the Queen Mother was gonna live to 102.
Tavis: Yeah, she lived a little while [laugh].
Hooper: I mean, he was thinking, you know, maybe four or five years, but who knows? It was almost 30 years later that he finally was able to sit down and write it. So what’s sweet about the story is, at the center of it, this great act of respect of David towards the Queen Mother’s wishes which I’m always very touched by.
Tavis: The other person I want to ask about, Lionel Logue, which you referenced a few times. Was it his grandson who exposed you to some more papers, more writings?
Hooper: Yes. So when David finally wrote the script, Valentine had passed away. David was living in California. He couldn’t find the Logues anymore, so these papers went undiscovered.
Nine weeks before our shoot, my wonderful production designer, Eve Stewart, tracked down the grandson of Lionel Logue who was living in London ten minutes from where I lived. He said, “Oh, yeah. In my attic, I’ve got some papers in a filing cabinet.”
These papers turned out to be a handwritten diary account of the relationship between Lionel Logue and the King of England which no one knew existed, no royal historian had ever seen, no member of the royal family had ever looked at, and I had them in my hands with nine weeks to go, a completely new primary source about the relationship between the two men, which was unbelievably thrilling.
Tavis: What did you take from that?
Hooper: Well, you know, first of all, there’s a few lines of dialog that are written by King George VI and Lionel Logue. The best example, at the end of the big speech, Lionel turns to the king and says, “You still stammered on the W” and the king says, “Well, I had to throw in a few so they knew it was me.” Direct quote. Those lines were written by the real king.
Tavis: I couldn’t have done it flawlessly.
Hooper: I know. Geoffrey Rush says that response is worthy of Groucho Marx. It’s very funny, it’s very witty, what does it tell us? It tells us that Bertie’s sharp. The king is sharp, he’s witty and it inspired us to, you know, to find even more moments where we could bring out that humor.
Tavis: I want to circle now all the way back to something you said in the very beginning of this conversation about President Obama who himself is a gifted orator. In the State of the Union speech he gave just days ago and all the hype that was on that and all the expectation and people suggesting that he had to really “kill” this if he had any chance of being reelected or getting his presidency back on the right path.
So there are these moments in public life where there’s a lot riding on a particular speech. Tell me how much was riding on the speech that the king had to give.
Hooper: Well, I think what’s so fascinating about this film is it’s really about this extraordinary revolution in mass media. Before this time period, a generation before, a king was a visual icon. If he looked good on a horse in uniform, if he looked good waving from a carriage, he could fulfill the iconographic duty of being a king.
With the coming of radio as a mass medium, suddenly the world changed. It became about can this leader project emotional connection through the way he speaks on the radio? And the anxiety about whether he could do that, we’ve inherited. I mean, you know, when you talk about, say, the State of the Union address, it’s not just a content. It’s about can he perform it in a way where we feel he cares about us, he understands us, he understands every citizen in the U.S.?
When we talk about him being distant or professorial, again, they’re critiquing performance. No one doubts that he cares. I mean, I’ve never seen anyone really think that he doesn’t care or he’s not emotionally connected. It’s about where he projects the connection and that’s an acting question and that anxiety about acting goes right back to the story. In our story, the guy had a stammer, so the most profound inhibition an actor could possibly face reading out a great speech.
The thing that I’ve learned fully about, you know, as I made the film was that it turned out the stammer he suffered from was his greatest asset because as people sat down in the country, around the country, around the empire, to listen to the king speak and this man reached out to you in your suffering and said, “I understand basically what you’re going through,” well, of course, this has a tremendous authority.
The man speaking to you is suffering to even talk to you. He’s not some guy in an ivory tower. He’s all too human and he’s struggling with this incredibly human and tough flaw and I think it made people connect to a monarch in a way that has never happened before.
Tavis: To your point now, you and I were talking before we came on the set here, and I only raise this because I’ve discussed it on this program before. Bill Withers, great American artist, did and still does have a stuttering problem. I grew up with a stuttering problem, a stammer problem. I had to go to a therapist to get past it. I still do it from time to time, but I know what it means to have to work with somebody to get beyond a stammer and a stutter.
I raise that because there is a certain insecurity that comes along with that and that insecurity is hard to navigate through for an everyday person like myself, but how does a king deal with a stammer, a stutter, and feelings of insecurity connected to that when you’re the leader of a country?
Hooper: Well, I think that’s the thing that makes this story so exceptional is that the fact that he becomes a monarch, becomes this extraordinary intensifying mechanism for the stakes of the drama. If you go right back to Shakespeare’s history plays, I’m sure the reason he was so preoccupied by kings is you take a private dilemma or a private emotional issue and make the guy king and suddenly it’s a constitutional crisis. It just massively intensifies the stakes.
I think actually that’s a reason why storytellers come back to the stories of monarchy is because of its intensification. But I think, in the case of him, what made it very interesting is you’ve got a guy standing up to Hitler, standing up to Nazism, who is criticizing Hitler for this doctrine of might is right, who’s criticizing Hitler for his overreaching and thirsty pursuit of power, and it’s coming from a guy who did everything he could to avoid power.
I mean, this guy didn’t want the job. He didn’t want to be king. It was his idea of a nightmare. Again, there’s a certain authority about a man who absolutely to the core being did not want power going up against a guy who’s the most power-hungry in the history of the last century.
Tavis: So let me ask on a personal level whether or not you are a history buff, whether or not you’re just in love with period pieces? You’ve done this a few times now. I referenced a few in the top of our conversation. How does this keep happening to you?
Hooper: Well, I actually embarrassingly gave up history when I was 15 at school, so I’m not going to argue that I was a history buff. You know, I started making films as a teenager and I made fictional films as a teenager in my 20s. The TV I made was fictional. I think, in the end, I’ve been brought to it through a desire to connect with issues of national identity. I want to make work which connects with the big issues of our time.
I cannot tell you what a privilege it was to make “John Adams” and know it was gonna go out during the time of the U.S. primaries and get this opportunity to say, “Is it possible to trace back the origin of this extraordinary schism in political values that runs through this country back to the personalities of the founding fathers?” It seemed to be an extraordinarily interesting opportunity to say, “What can the creation story of America teach us about the politics of now?”
Tavis: And you think it’s still possible to do that?
Hooper: I think, quite often, we have a better understanding of the present through understanding the past. I think it is. The 1802 election which historians still describe as one of the most vitriolic and backbiting and nasty election campaigns in history, the truth is, there was no golden age.
There was no moment in American politics where it wasn’t divisive, where people weren’t stabbing each other in the back. So when I read that, I smile because I think that’s never gonna go away. You’ve got to work with it. But this dream of we’re all gonna hold hands and go together, that ain’t gonna happen.
Tavis: [Laugh] It won’t go away and 2012 is gonna challenge whatever John Adams went through in terms of nasty, divisive campaigning, but I digress.
The movie, as you well know, is called “The King’s Speech.” It received just days ago the most nominations of any film this year. Mr. Hooper here nominated for Best Director, the picture nominated for Best Picture, along with ten other nominations. It’s wonderful to have you on the program and we’re watching on Oscar night to see how well you do.
Hooper: Thank you so much.
Tavis: It’s a pleasure. Good to have you on.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm