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As the director of 2009’s “The Damned United” and HBO’s 2008 “John Adams” miniseries, Tom Hooper has made a quick name for himself as a go-to period-drama auteur. The London resident’s latest, “The King’s Speech,” continues that effort apace. The film details the curious, class-crossing friendship between Britain’s King George VI and Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who helped him overcome a crippling stammer on the eve of World War II. The movie has earned a healthy share of early awards-season endorsements. After last week its haul counts seven Golden Globes nominations including best drama, best director and acting nods for Hooper’s three main players in each of their respective categories: Colin Firth as King George VI for best actor in a drama, and Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth and Geoffrey Rush as Logue for best supporting actress and actor. Hooper recently took some time to discuss the film.
WWD: It’s fairly safe to say that not too many Americans know this story. Is King George VI’s speech impediment something in the British textbooks or is this a historical primer for everybody?
Tom Hooper: I think the real revelation of the film is the [king’s] relationship [with] the Australian speech therapist. The fact that the guy was saved by this wonderfully maverick Australian who wasn’t a doctor, who was self-taught, who was this failed Shakespearean actor, who was such a maverick — that really wasn’t well known. One of the things that brought it to life for us was this amazing discovery we made nine weeks before the shoot. My production designer, Eve Stewart, tracked down the grandson of Logue, who lived in London. Sitting in his aunt’s attic was this handwritten diary account of the relationship between King George VI and Lionel Logue. Some of the best lines in the film were written by King George VI and Lionel Logue.
WWD: Royals aren’t always altogether sympathetic characters, which is how the king is portrayed. Was that a natural element in the story?
T.H.: I think one of the interesting things about King George VI is, because he had this dreadful stammer, he did a huge amount to humanize the monarchy. The film, in the same way, I think, does a huge amount to humanize this figure. I’m not really interested in making a film about someone who’s an icon and who’s removed. People get sucked into it so quickly because it’s heartbreaking to watch Colin play this man who has this basic inability to communicate.
WWD: There are a few scenes that will ring really true to the bullied kid in all of us. Did you draw on anything personal there?
T.H.: One of the key lines in the movie is when Logue says to the king, “You don’t have to be afraid of the things you were afraid of when you were five years old.” In other words, quite a few adults are still trapped in the kind of defensive crouch that they adopted because of their childhood and they have to understand that they aren’t that kid anymore. I think it’s a really insightful line, and actually that line came from my dad. He lost his father in the war when he was three, so he was packed off to boarding school at age five as a result. It was a pretty brutal era of English boarding school. The breakthrough he had much later in life was to be told that, in a way, he was still caught by the effect of being that five-year-old even as an adult and that he needed to kind of realize that his life was completely different.
WWD: Do you have any idea why the film is really catching on with audiences?
T.H.: Studios have been avoiding making dramas recently and maybe it’s because dramas are sometimes kind of all one tone — they’re very serious throughout. This is a drama that has a huge amount of comedy. I think the biggest surprise of the screenings in the film festivals has been the amount and the consistency of the laughter. I think there’s something about that mixture of humor, but also gravitas and emotion that I think you find less often nowadays in films.