You know a Tom Hooper movie when you see one. Or at least that's what I said after seeing "The Danish Girl" for the first time at the Toronto Film Festival in September. After the triple punch of HBO miniseries "John Adams," Best Picture winner "The King's Speech" and Broadway favorite-turned-film "Les Misérables," Hooper's ornate period-piece stylings and sensitive overlapping themes have crystallized. "The Danish Girl" picks up where they left off.
Based on the true story of Lili Elbe, a 1920s painter who was born into a man's body as Einar Wegener and underwent the first gender confirmation surgery, "The Danish Girl" is a compassionate and luxuriant look at a time when transgenderism had no vocabulary. Eddie Redmayne, already a Hooper disciple, plays Lili as she begins to understand she isn't Einar, while Alicia Vikander, who broke out this year with "Ex Machina" and "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," portrays Einar's loving wife, Gerda. At the center of "The Danish Girl" is both a search for identity in a judgmental world and the tale of an unconditional romance.
A small group of film journalists had lunch with Hooper at Manhattan's Bowery Hotel earlier this month, after which I sat down with the 43-year-old British director to discuss the film. We chatted about following up "Les Mis," working with Redmayne and the timeliness of "The Danish Girl."
I first saw the movie in Toronto, where it played rather somberly. But at a New York screening, the audience found a lot of humor in it. It's common for filmmakers to tweak things after their movies play for festival audiences. Did your "Danish Girl" adjustments come from things you wish you’d done differently or from reading audiences' temperaments?
It’s a combination of both. One of the craziest experiences about taking a film to a festival is getting to sit and watch your film with 2,000 people. By that point in a movie, you’re so close to the film and you’ve seen it hundreds of times. Plus, also, I have a brilliant editor called Melanie Oliver. This is the sixth film we’ve done together. She edited all nine hours of “John Adams” by herself, and she did “Les Misérables,” which was an epic thing to cut. She also flew out to Venice with me and had that experience of seeing the film in a big room. So between me and her, we came up with a list of improvements, which were sound mixing, grading and a few subtle picture edits. The extraordinary thing, I think, about directing, and I know it’s a cliché, is that God is in the details, almost to a scary degree in that if you play a music cue slightly too loud in a scene it can overwhelm the actor. One of the things I’ve learned about filmmaking over the years is you can make a big different in how a film plays based on subtle little adjustments.
You've talked at length about how laborious "Les Mis" was, so it couldn't have been easy selecting your next project. Lush period pieces have become your M.O., but what made you certain this one was feasible after such a difficult film?
It’s interesting, I don’t think lush period pieces are my M.O. If you tell a story about what happened last year, it’s a period piece. If you tell a story about what happened yesterday, it’s a period piece. I came out of televison, where I was directing “EastEnders” and “Prime Suspect” and “Cold Feet," all of which were contemporary. My first film, “Red Dust,” was contemporary. I think it’s more that directing is about falling in love, and the stories I’ve fallen in love with happen to be set sometimes in the near past.
Really, you could say what links the last three films together is that love is at the center of all of these movies. It’s funny, you suddenly get to a point in your career where you’ve done enough of a body of work to start seeing patterns. I think this time is the first time where I’ve started to realize that. I mean, yes, “Les Mis” was necessarily epic because of the journey that Jean Valjean goes on. But what’s the center of that movie? The center of that movie is a man who’s been brutalized by years in prison who is forgiven by a priest and, through that, has this extraordinary epiphany where he discovers the power of faith and love and compassion and, in one burning, glorious, brilliant moment, remakes himself as someone who’s going to reengage with the world through love. Then he finds this daughter figure in Cosette and his life changes forever. At the center of “The Danish Girl” is love. At the center of “The King’s Speech,” I think, is a loving friendship. So I think probably what speaks to me is what moves me or what touches me or what makes me cry, and I’m aware I’m probably coming across as quite a cerebral person or quite an analytical person, but, ironically, in my choices it’s not about my brain at all -- it’s about getting moved.
What kind of visual language do you think you’ve cemented through these last few films? I could point to certain things throughout "The Danish Girl" and say, "Oh, that looks like a Tom Hooper shot."
I feel it's quite different. With “Les Mis,” I wanted a lot of the world to be quite ugly because at the center of it was France in a revolution. Even the look of Hugh Jackman -- there’s nothing pretty about what he’d experienced. I wanted the savagery of that, and I wasn’t trying to create beautiful images in “Les Mis.” And in “The King’s Speech,” I don’t think I was particularly pursuing beauty because I wanted to get a different version of royalty, which was about sitting around in all the echoey rooms that were sort of dilapidated. The monarchy is not everyone’s idea of it, and I wanted to get away from the cliché.
Whereas this film, I think, is a film where I chose to put beauty at the center because at the center are two artists who are deeply engaged by the pursuit of beauty in their work. For Gerda, it's through the beauty of portraits, and the real portraits are about the idealizing of beauty in the pursuit of female perfection. For Einar, it's through the beauty of the landscape. Early on in the film, you see Einar looking at Amber Heard’s character, and it’s almost like Lili, living as Einar, is haunted by this apparition of feminine beauty and perfection. It’s this alluring goal that she has this connection to, and so I wanted to almost get inside their viewpoints. I wanted to shoot the film through a painter’s point of view. In “Les Mis,” there’s lots of handheld, and here the camera’s positions are quite static, so it’s framed like paintings. There’s an opportunity, really, to explore the artistic aesthetic through the filmmaking, which is quite different.
You’re working off a script written several years ago, based on two books even older than that. And yet we’ve learned so much about this subject matter in recent years. By the time you were ready to shoot, did you feel the script needed to be updated or altered at all, in keeping with what we now know about being transgender?
That’s a really good question. There was what we call the 2007 draft, which was the brilliant draft that I read. It was a work of art, in a way. Through reaching out to trans women and trans men and hearing their stories and the literature I read -- Conundrum by Jan Morris and books of gender theory -- I started to go, “Oh, there is this way of looking at this subject that’s changed.” [Screenwriter Lucinda Coxon] and I did work on a draft where we were trying to fit the script more in terms of how it would be told today. And I went back and read the original draft, and I actually realized there was a kind of innocence about that that felt more reflective of how they must have experienced it in the 1920s because this language didn’t exist then. So, actually, having gone a little bit in that direction, I began to think it’s more interesting to really stick to the historical point of view.
It brings alive the challenge because now, my God, it’s challenging, but there is a language. There is some kind of road map. There are people you can talk to and predecessors who’ve been through the transition. But then, there were no predecessors and no road map and no medical advice and no psychological advice. There wasn’t even an acceptance of the claim Lili was making. A good example would be in the memoirs, Man Into Woman. Lili talks about herself in the third person, like, “Lili and Einar are in this battle between the woman and the man for supremacy. Which one is going to win out?” In today’s language, you wouldn’t ever talk like that. You would say she was always she, and you wouldn’t talk about a battle between him and her. Again, we thought about, “Oh, should we update that?” But then we thought, “Well, hold on. These are Lili’s own words. This is how she made sense of it.” And also, if you think about it, I suppose it’s a way of her explaining what it was like to be her to someone who didn’t understand. So, in the end, we found that honoring her language and her way of expressing it was a more interesting way to go. Through that, we accept that everyone’s journey of transitioning is unique to them.
Where did your connection to Eddie Redmayne first blossom?
Oh, I’d love to tell you that story. He was 22 years and we were shooting “Elizabeth I,” starring Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons, for HBO. We were shooting Tudor England in Lithuania and other places. It was pretty illogical. We built the interior of Whitehall Palace, the queen’s palace, inside of an old disused Soviet sports stadium, and Eddie was playing this young kid who rebels against Queen Elizabeth I. Obviously it’s never a good idea to rebel against Queen Helen Mirren, and he gets sentenced to death. In the scene where he gets the death sentence, Eddie just gave the most extraordinary, emotionally raw performance. His skin was translucent, there were hot and cold flashes running over his face. It was like watching someone who actually was experiencing a death sentence. It was like watching a young person just going, “Fuck, my life’s over and I’m 22. I’ve been such an idiot.” He was weeping and in that moment I just thought, “This kid has got this extraordinary contact with his emotions and I need to find a film where he’s the lead because he’s an amazing talent.” I think it’s that emotional transparency that Eddie has that then led me to cast him as Marius in “Les Mis.” I look back at that film, and his performance remains one of the highlights. Again, it’s so fucking raw. I wanted a Lili who would have that emotional connection so that you’d understand step for step and beat for beat, and so the audience would feel compassion for her.
What was your objective in the visual cues that signal Lili's transition? Early in the movie, she poses so Gerda can finish a portrait of a woman wearing a dress. In that moment, you see Lili first emerge out of Einar, and the way the camera traces Eddie makes the start of that journey both quiet and incredibly bold.
The most important work was in the psychology. I think for Eddie, the most important were the meetings we had with very inspiring trans women, iconic people actually who you may not know in the U.S. We met with a very famous model from the 1960s who now lives in Chelsea. We had an afternoon in a pub with her, telling us her extraordinary life story. Then he worked with a movement choreographer called Alex Reynolds, who also did “The Theory of Everything.” It was about trying to tap into the latent femininity that he carries. I kept saying to Eddie, “You are always Lili -- you just disguise this and now you have to let the disguise slip.” It was about a revealing of what was beneath, rather than a metamorphosing of something warping into another thing. A lot of that work was broken down in terms of the detailed movement and body language.
Knowing that Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron had been attached previously, did you feel pressure to cast an A-list actress? Alicia Vikander has had a huge breakout year that coincides with this movie, but at the time she was cast, she was more of a gamble.
I think Nicole was actually attached to play Einar, or Lili, initially, which is interesting.
Did you consider having a woman play Eddie's part?
I did. I think you could have found a way to do it. I suppose I just felt that Lili presents as a man for the first third of the movie, and the transition is very late. That, in the end, led me the way I went. But was there pressure? I mean, I don’t know. I just feel lucky that Alicia exists. When you’ve got another actor who has to go head-to-head with Eddie in so many intense two-handers, you’re scared of finding someone who’s not going to be strong enough to take Eddie on and raise his game, and Alicia is that person. She’s got such heart and a tremendous life force. She brought strength to Gerda. She wasn’t playing herself -- she was giving life to this character who was very strong and never a victim. So, no, I think we’re just pleased that we found her.
"The Danish Girl" opens in limited release on Nov. 27.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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