British director Tom Hooper’s latest film, The King’s Speech, tells the story of King George VI’s relationship with unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue, and the pair’s struggle to overcome the King’s stammer.
Starring Colin Firth as George VI and Geoffrey Rush as Logue, the film has already attracted an enormous amount of awards buzz, with talk of Oscars and BAFTAs on the cards.
Here, Hooper talks about the pleasures and pressures of telling real-life stories.
Q: Did accurately portraying someone who stammers take precedence for you over bringing an historical character to life?
Hooper: Put it this way, you’re never going to have a member of the royal family in the audience at a Q&A commenting on how well you played them! But we’ve certainly have many stammerers at Q&As who’ve talked movingly about how well Colin caught their condition.
Q: How authentic would you say the film is in terms of the historical events it portrays?
Hooper: We had a couple of the royal biographers like Hugo Vickers and a royal equerry who was an adviser on the etiquette. You get as close as you can.
The point is if you make a film about a cab driver you can hang out with one or drive a taxi even. But if you’re making a film about the monarchy, you can’t go and hang out with the queen!
Q: Did you or the screenwriter David Seidler have any contact with the royal family over the film? I know the story was held up for 30 years because the Queen Mother didn’t want it told while she was still alive…
Hooper: I think, to be fair to David Seidler, having waited 30 years he wasn’t about to fall into the trap of writing to the next generation to ask permission! Maybe you could argue he learned his lesson from the first time he wrote! But I think the respect has been paid.
I did write to the Queen via the Assistant Private Secretary, as I was instructed to do, to let her know the film was happening and to show her the courtesy of informing her about it.
Q: You’ve brought a number of real peoples’ lives to the big screen in films and television programmes such as The Damned United, Longford, and John Adams. What are the pleasures and pressures of adapting real stories?
Hooper: I think quite honestly it’s been a response to a struggle to find good original fiction screenwriting that presents me with characters as complex and predicaments as extreme and pressured as the real stories I’ve encountered.
I so like making character-driven work where there’s a possibility of great character writing. And the great thing about dealing with people about whom we have historical resources is that, if the writing needs work, there’s everywhere to go to enrich it.
It’s hard to find characters of the complexity of Brian Clough, King George VI, or John Adams in original writing. So it partly comes from that. But I do have an enduring interest in iconic personalities and what they reflect back about national identity.
In John Adams, I had the opportunity to see whether it’s possible to trace this great schism in political values in America back to the personalities of the founding fathers and it was going out during the Primaries in 2008. So it was really interesting to tell the creation story at that moment in America.
In this film, I think it’s very interesting to meditate on the monarchy because, although there is conflict about the monarchy, it’s not under any attack in my lifetime. It’s very stable. And I feel the source of that stability can be found in King George VI’s story because the abdication was probably the closest we came to any major constitutional crisis about having a monarchy.
The classic attack on the monarchy is that it enshrines an idea of inherited class privilege absolutely inappropriate in a modern democracy. But with King George VI the notion of privilege is almost entirely debunked.
In his childhood he was abused by the nanny and neglected by his parents… well that’s not privileged. Becoming king… that was his idea of a nightmare, so that’s not privileged. And suddenly the very thing you’d use to attack it seems to fall apart in his case.
More than that, in World War Two, because the nation knew he had a stammer and was fighting this impediment, he did more to humanise the monarchy than anyone else had ever done.
And when he reached out and talked about people’s suffering in the war, this was a man who was suffering even to talk to you, so there was an authenticity about his claim to understand suffering that won him a place in people’s hearts and probably made the monarchy much more solid.
Sometimes to understand why institutions are stable, I think it’s interesting to go one generation back and look at the author of that stability.
Q: You mentioned your television drama John Adams. The art of TV drama has certainly progressed a lot in the last 20 years. But do you still see a difference in TV and film?
Hooper: The key differentiation is not the making of it, which is profoundly similar in terms of creative process, but the level of marketing you have to do to release a film compared to a television piece.
John Adams was a $100 million HBO television show. We probably did a 10-day marketing period for that; whereas it will be months before we finish marketing The King’s Speech.
There’s probably still, sadly, a status differential because the world gets more obsessed about the Oscar race than the Emmy race. But that’s not something which should affect your choices about the work you do. You’ve still got to do the best work that comes in front of you.
I got my film education from television. The best films I’ve ever seen – The Godfather trilogy, most of Scorsese – were on TV. And so the best TV I’ve ever seen is feature films. So I didn’t grow up thinking there was a way to shoot TV and a way to shoot movies.
The King’s Speech is in cinemas from 7th January.
By Jan Gilbert, Freelance Film Journalist.