How can a British-made film about an English monarch that the majority of Americans know little about, be doing so well at the box office? “I think people need to see something uplifting right now,” says Tom Hooper, director of the surprise hit The King’s Speech, who was interviewed by Illinois Times Jan 18, prior to a special screening of the film in Chicago. The film has racked up nearly $50,000,000 at the box office, though it’s yet to go into wide release. Still, it’s been playing to sold-out crowds both nationally and locally.
In bringing the unusual relationship of King George VI and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, to the screen, Hooper knew there was the risk that few would take an interest in this unusual tale because it is so unique. So he knew he must devote all of his energy to making the best film he could from David Seidler’s script.
“It was the only time that I read a script for the first time and knew this would be my next movie,” recounts Hooper. The gamble has paid off handsomely for the filmmaker as the movie has found success both in the U.S. and abroad. “It’s something of a phenomenon in England. After its eighth day of release, its box office take passed the entire gross of The Queen and after the ninth day, it passed The Social Network in money made. In the U.K. nothing is coming close to it.”
Though Seidler had been working on the script for years, Hooper says they all benefited from a discovery that was made before the cameras began to roll. “With the help of his family, we were able to track down Logue’s diary and in it he recounted his relationship with the king, and it opened everything up for us. We were able to really get a feel for things after finding that. You know, Logue’s grandson told me that he died a year to the day after King George VI died. He said that like an old married couple, once the king had passed away, it was if he was ready to go himself.”
It’s that personal relationship that Hooper and his cast capture so well, giving The King’s Speech its heart. For their regard for each other to be portrayed honestly, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush had to be able to convey this in their roles, something Hooper says was reflected on and off the screen. “You know, Colin has been very open about the fact that there was a triangle of man love on the set,” Hooper recounts with a laugh, “and there really was. The three of us got on like a house of fire. Colin and Geoffrey go about their work in different ways. Colin is very reserved while Geoffrey is so enthusiastic that he’ll be up late the night before talking about the next day’s work. It was great to see his enthusiasm break down Colin’s walls and see them get on. Their friendship grew and I think you see that on screen. My job was to simply photograph them right and make them look good.”
Hooper is no stranger to working with accomplished actors, having helmed the acclaimed HBO mini-series, John Adams, with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, and working as well with such British heavyweights as Michael Sheen (The Damned United) and Jim Broadbent (Longford). So how was the director able to assemble the cast he did for Speech, which also included Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon and Guy Pearce? “I offer them less money,” he says chuckling. “Seriously, I think I’m getting a reputation as an actor’s director and they know I will allow them to explore their roles in a safe environment. They feel comfortable, so they come. Besides, it benefits me as I’d rather work with great actors, not great celebrities, and that pays off immeasurably.”
Though The King’s Speech takes place nearly 75 years ago, it’s still timely in the most unexpected ways. In its look at how new media technology affects people, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the other current media darling, The Social Network. “Both speak of the transformative power of new media,” says the director. “In King George’s case, he suddenly had to learn not only how to speak in public, but also to appeal to and relate to his public. With The Social Network, you see how everyone can suddenly communicate to the masses in their own way, yet there can be a certain anonymity to it, which results in its own set of problems. In the end, there’s a symmetry between the two films because they both deal with the anxiety new technology can produce.”
In the end Hooper thinks it’s the personal themes of The King’s Speech that has made it such a widespread success. “There are some key similarities to what’s going on in the world of the film and what we’re dealing with today. In the 1930s, as now, we are all dealing with a severe economic situation as well as a precarious world position, what with war or the threat of war. In the face of such things, people realize that they must help each other. There is something to be gained by being open to collaborating with someone, and the relationship between the king and Logue is a perfect example of that. We all benefit. That, in the end, is the finest form of communication.”