Director Tom Hooper connects with 'King's Speech'

by Luis Arroyave

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

25 January 2011


CHICAGO — Director Tom Hooper, like King George VI in “The King’s Speech,” is not a fan of public speaking. But unlike the king, who stuttered since he was a child, Hooper’s nervousness has more to do with the A-list crowd in attendance at awards shows and the fear that he will become the next YouTube sensation for all the wrong reasons.

“I have had that kind of relief where I go, ‘I’ve lost, but thank God I don’t have to make the speech,’” Hooper said last week in Chicago.

Two days after attending the Golden Globes in Beverly Hills, Calif., where “The King’s Speech” led all films with seven nominations, the English director discusses awards shows, his advice for Colin Firth when approaching the king’s stammer and how he felt about the Motion Picture Association of America’s giving “The King’s Speech” an R-rating:

Q: What was going through your head when the Golden Globe for best director was announced?

A: The Golden Globes are very particular. During every commercial, people are moving around and talking to each other. It’s all filmmakers, actors and producers — it isn’t crawling with agents and managers. It’s really nice. That takes the pressure off. You’re not sitting going, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, my God.’ I felt quite Zen because I figured whatever happens, to be leading in nominations and nominated for director for the first time, I mustn’t forget that, in itself, is a fantastic thing.

Q: How do you feel about making acceptance speeches?

A: When your category is called, your heart rate changes. There’s a chance in a few seconds you have to speak — not only in a room with (Steven) Spielberg and Robert De Niro, as if that isn’t intimidating enough — but live on TV to millions of people. If you (mess) up, it will be immortalized forever. The live performance aspect of it makes it stressful. Up to that moment, it’s about “Did I win?” And right when it’s happening, it’s “Oh, my God, I have to stand up and do it.”

Q: Colin Firth won a best actor in a drama Golden Globe for his portrayal of King George VI in the film — what advice did you give him about his character’s stammer?

A: We did a lot of research, and one of the key things we found early on in the shoot was this amazing footage of King George VI at the Glasgow Empire Exhibition. It was one of the few things we could find of him stammering on camera. I think that was the kickoff point for the both of us. What was so powerful was, in his eyes, all he wants to do is do a good job. It’s so adorable. And he hits the stammer, and you see him start to drown. He stops, thinks, “Recover, recover,” and then drowns again. I had tears in my eyes from this five-minute black-and-white clip on my laptop screen.

A lot of what we talked about is me encouraging him to do more (stammering). I think he was scared of it. He didn’t want to kill the pace of the movie. There was this big moment where he asked, “Tom, are you saying you want him to have an issue on every line in the movie?” “Yes.” Probably the most useful person was the writer, David Seidler, a childhood stammerer. He used to listen to King George VI on the radio, and his parents would say, “If the king could do it, so could you.” He talked a lot about how he would go to a restaurant and think, “I can’t order the beef because I can’t do the ‘b’ properly.” Those small details helped.

Q: How did you avoid royal family cliches in the film?

A: The original script started with what I felt was a cliche. The king gets dressed in a uniform with medals, a plumed hat, sword and goes to Wembley Stadium, where his father is wearing the same. My heart sank when I read this. It implies that the surface is important in the film. Then I found some archive of the Wembley event, which David didn’t have access to when he wrote that because it was quite difficult to find. He’s dressed identically to every man in the stadium — black suit, overcoat. He’s an Everyman. And that’s how we meet the Duke of York.

Q: Because you put such a big emphasis on accuracy in your own films, does that mean you’re nit-picking when watching other period piece films?

A: Yes. I’m not an expert, but when I know a period, and I see a film set in it, it’s shocking sometimes. There’s modern makeup and people with washed and conditioned hair. When I made (HBO’s) “John Adams,” I became obsessed with accuracy. There was one scene where the actors’ uniforms were spotless. ... I literally scooped mud off the ground and plastered it on the guys myself.

Q: “The King’s Speech,” to many people’s surprise, is rated R. Do you feel it’s deserved?

A: It’s shocking. In the U.K. and Canada, it’s a family movie. People go as families. In the U.S., people are told it’s for adults only. It’s a shame. The F-word is used in a therapeutic context — not for its aggressive or violent meaning. It’s an unblocking mechanism, which David (Seidler) found useful to help him with his stammer. The MPAA argues one (F-word) is PG-13, two is R. I want people to take their kids. The film says don’t let childhood trauma define your adult life. Don’t carry the scars your whole life. Address them.

Q: You’ve made it a point to go see the film in various theaters with audiences. What sort of reaction are you seeing from the crowd?

A: The main shock is how funny people think the movie is. Yes, I knew it had humor, but we didn’t sit around thinking how we could make the scenes funny. It’s the film’s secret weapon. Humor wakes people up. ... In the end, I make films for audiences. If I can improve someone’s day, that’s great. And if I can inspire someone, how amazing is that?

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