The 5 Secrets of Tom Hooper’s ‘King’s Speech’ Success
How did Tom Hooper win DGA and pole vault to a likely King's Speech Oscar? "I'm a failed actor." But one frosty look from Helen Mirren made him a great director of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.
After the one-two punch of Hooper's Directors Guild Award win Jan. 29 and The King's Speech's Jan. 30 SAG wins (the best picture Oscar-like Best Ensemble and Firth's inevitable Best Actor), The Social Network reels on the ropes (though not on the mat), and we pundits who predicted David Fincher's DGA win drink even harder than usual.
So how did Hooper do it? What are the secrets of his success?
1. Fail as a Child Actor Directed by Roger Mortimer. His ex-Royal Shakespeare Company drama teacher when he was 10 to 12 taught him well. "I'm a failed actor," confesses Hooper. "But I was a very strategic 11-year-old and I said, 'Hold on, if I'm not getting the lead in a school of 300, I probably shouldn't be an actor.'" So he "nicked" (stole) a book on filmmaking and became a director instead. And he never forgot the acting lessons Mortimer drummed into his Oxford-bound skull.
2. Listen to Helen Mirren, Don't Be an Actor Manipulator Like Howard Hawks. Hawks once got a startled reaction he wanted from Rita Hayworth in Only Angels Have Wings by feeding her ego with compliments all morning, then having Cary Grant dump a pitcher of water on her head on camera. Mirren would not respond well to this technique. "Working with Helen Mirren, you don't want to go, 'Right, Helen, on this line you've gotta be here, because I've got this shot lined up.'" says Hooper. "She'll just give you one of those looks that only Helen Mirren can give you and go, 'Well, that's great, but for these reasons I think my character would do this.' I learned from her to love that moment of rehearsal -- you've got your plan, but what does she bring to it?"
"So I became good in a very quickfooted way in reconsidering how I was gonna shoot to take advantage of the spontaneity of that rehearsal. In King's Speech we had three weeks."
3. Listen to Geoffrey Rush. Out of the rehearsal came a crucial King's Speech montage of speech lessons. "That was Geoffrey Rush's idea, because the risk was you'd have a film where these guys meet six times and he's fine, you wouldn't understand the frequency and intensity of the relationship."
4. Listen to Geoffrey's Body Talk. "Geoffrey was trained at Lecoq Mime School in Paris, and is consequently brilliant in the way he carries his body. His Exit the King on Broadway was a master class in physical acting. So I'd start out with a closeup and -- oh God, he's doing something amazing with his hand which I'm missing. Then we'd go a bit wider. Then I'd go, God, I love that, but I'm missing the silhouette his body's making, so I'd go wider still, to explore his body language."
"So it made me think about Colin's body language. Was there a way he could create a silhouette specific to Bertie? Was there a way of deconstructing the confidence with which Colin naturally stands, 'cause he's a big strapping lad of six foot three and, and, and, and [Hooper sometimes repeats words rapidly, a bit like stuttering] creating a sense of a man who folds into himself, crumples into himself? Who on a sofa will sit in the corner as if to use the arm of the sofa as a kind of friend, as a security blanket?"
"In some ways there's this process of transference that goes on, where you see what one actor is bringing and could I bring the other into the language of the first so there's an equilibrium going on in the style of both. And managing those exchanges of action, of, of, of their, of their, of their essences, is kind of very interesting."
5. Be a Bit of an Actor Manipulator Like Howard Hawks. "The other thing I thought was really interesting on The King's Speech was how placement of the camera affects the psychology of the actors. People said I shot with fisheye lenses, which is complete nonsense, but I definitely shot on wider lenses than is typical. The camera was maybe 18 inches from Colin's face in the closeup on the very first day, a 10-minute scene where the characters first meet. I wanted the nervousness of the first day to percolate into his performances."
"I thought, well, stammering is like living with performance pressure. So I wnt to do everything to rather counterintuitively increase the pressure on Colin. He's about to shoot ten percent of the movie on the first day in the first scene. And I mean this was really rather ballsy, 'cause it could've backfired. But my instinct was that he could use that pressure, that sense of being hunted, and I think that's what happened."
"Then I turned around to Geoffrey, and he thought, Ah! I've gotta be more minimalist than I've ever been before because Tom's shooting it so close. I could've been 12 feet away and just as close, but it's the psychology of where you put the camera."
"Actors are so highly attuned that just walking out onto the set they'll start picking up all these clues. I was at the roundtable with Ethan Coen and he said to me, 'I've never directed an actor in my life,' and I thought, well -- I wonder if that's true. Because I'm sure if you walk into a Coen brothers setup, a good actor will immediately read so much from the locations, the art direction, where the camera's placed, from the casting of the other person -- that is all directing as well, just because it's not saying, 'Now do it this way, now do it that!'"
The bottom line on actors, which may earn Tom Hooper an Oscar or two: "Make them partners in the storytelling process."
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Scott Feinberg, the lead awards analyst for The Hollywood Reporter, is one of the entertainment industry's most experienced and trusted experts about the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys. He started on the awards beat in 2001, writing for independent websites including his own ScottFeinberg.com before joining the Los Angeles Times and then THR, for which he writes “The Race” blog, which won the LA Press Club’s National Entertainment Journalism Award for best entertainment blog of 2012-2013. A voting member of both the Broadcast Film Critics' Association and Broadcast Television Journalists Association, he is also writing a book about film history for young people for which he has interviewed more than 500 high-profile Hollywood figures whose careers span the silent era through the present.
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