AWFJ Women On Film – Tom Hooper On “The Damned United” – Jenny Halper interviews

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Tom Hooper made his first short when he was thirteen. It was twenty five pounds worth of film stock spent chasing a runaway dog. The next year he found his social conscience – or so he says, half joking – tackling World War II (his grandfather was killed as a bomb navigator) and buskers, and by the time he was eighteen he was directing televised short films and winning awards. Twenty years later Hooper, a tall, soft-spoken man who can say he’s unusual without sounding pompous, has forged an alliance with HBO and developed a reputation as one of the few directors ballsy enough to make historical accuracy entertaining.

Hooper follows his acclaimed miniseries John Adams (and its predecessors Elizabeth the First and Longford) with another compelling portrait of stubborn greatness: The Damned United, Peter Morgan’s adaptation of David Peace’s novel about the controversial football coach Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) who left behind his lifelong business partner, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), for a disastrous sprint coaching Leeds United.

JENNY HALPER: Are stubborn people inherently more dramatic?

TOM HOOPER: I do seem to be drawn to hubristic storylines – whether it’s Elizabeth the First brought down by her love of boy toys, or John Adams brought down after the high of being central to the American Revolution, or the perils of ego when you start thinking you can do everything yourself and you forget that there’s someone next to you who is vital to your success. The Damned United is almost like a marriage story where a husband has an incredibly supportive wife and is only great because of her. Brian Clough’s actual marriage was very happy – he had a nuclear family and he had a fantastic relationship with his wife and kids. That’s not where the drama is so we ignore that. It’s a professional marriage brought low by an obsessive rivalry.

HALPER: Is football like the film business, in that sense?

HOOPER: There are analogies with filmmaking. The theme of professional jealousy is an interesting one. Everyone tries to pretend it isn’t there. Filmmakers who become successful often isolate themselves from the people who help them. I’ve particularly noticed this working in America – the more successful you get the less likely your agent will ring you up and tell you that your film is crap. I’m close to my family and I live in London and I’ve stayed living in London – one of the reasons is they are those people who always tell me exactly what they think.

HALPER: Wasn’t it Christine Langan, who produced The Damned United, who also gave you your first big break with the TV show Cold Feet?

HOOPER: I’ve been very helped by women in the industry – Christine was one of the first people to give me a step up to bigger budget television, and I think the god mother or god father role is very important when you’re a young director. But the truth is I had people who helped me earlier. My mother’s a writer, who, when I was growing up, wrote children’s books. She’s become in her sixties a specialist in Antarctica and wrote a book called The Ferocious Summer about the case for climate change. I later discovered I’m a much better rewriter than I am a writer of original material – when I have something in front of me I have great instincts about how to improve it. But I was remarkably strategic as a kid. I remember thinking, “if I make a short film when I’m 18, I’ll be one of a kind. If I wait till I’m 21 I’ll be one of many.” I realized I could use my youth to leverage my position.

HALPER: You also directed theater while at Oxford. How did that prepare you for going from shorts and commercials to longer projects?

HOOPER: I directed my first play at Oxford, A View from the Bridge with Kate Beckinsale, who was genius. If you haven’t done theater there is a whole language about how to direct that you don’t know. On a film set you’re dealing with a constant conspiracy to distract you from the actors. When I first started making films I would storyboard and plan; when you start working with people like Helen Mirren you realize it’s not a great idea to say to Helen “you need to be standing by the window,” because she’ll come with a whole set of ideas and insights. When I’m shooting performance scenes I come with no plan and I work out how to shoot it as a response to the actors. It’s an incredibly organic way to work.

HALPER: Is it true that you almost didn’t direct Prime Suspect 6?

HOOPER: I had an ego. I don’t want to do anything with a “2” next to it let alone “6.” In the end Helen was rolled out by the producers to persuade me, and Helen is the most seductive woman in the world when she wants a man to do something. I can’t say I was independent of that charm. And thank god, it’s been a great working relationship — she asked me to do Elizabeth the First. And I also learned from it – the episode I did was about asylum seekers and the Bosnian war. You realize if you talk about those themes in Prime Suspect 6, you get the audience that might normally be resistant.

HALPER: Do you think that’s why no one saw your film Red Dust, even though it starred Hilary Swank – because they knew there was a focus on tough issues?

HOOPER: Red Dust was a film about truth and reconciliation in South Africa and it featured a confrontation between a torture victim and his torturer. When I started making it you could watch the movie with a wonderful sense of “we’d never do it in our own country…they’re the horrible people but it’s not us.” By the time the film came out (there were) these revelations that the Americans were torturing, the British were torturing. The film became a lot more uncomfortable for the very audiences it was designed to target. I have learned that sadly the theatrical audience does not run to see films that are openly issue bled.

HALPER: But TV audiences might.

HOOPER: Television is the best place to get audiences to talk about difficult subjects. With HBO I’ve done these three projects …with Longford I’m making a film about an aging, aristocratic, loony, slightly mad lawyer and his relationship with a serial killer whom no one knows in the US. And John Adams? It’s a one hundred million dollar miniseries. No studio would let you cast Paul Giamatti.

HALPER: And you shoot a sex scene with Paul Giamatti, which would probably not happen, unless you’re Alexander Payne.

HOOPER: Yeah, and the whole thing about me wanting to return the accent to its English regional roots, they would have said, “let’s keep it clear cut.” Listen, I grew up with the BBC, and Lord Reith always said the BBC was there to inform, educate, and entertain. It feels like HBO is operating like an old fashioned public service broadcast – it does those three things. I remember this day I was shooting a scene with Paul, and they’re sitting around the dinner table discussing the role of the treasury and the role of debt. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m doing a 100 million dollar miniseries where there’s a five minute dinner table scene about the importance of federal assumption of state debt. This is insane.” So it’s almost the reverse – I was asking, “are you sure you don’t want to cut this scene?” but when you get into it, it’s kind of riveting because these guys were very clever and knew what they were talking about.

HALPER: Do you find that there’s a big return to classics now, both in film and on television?

HOOPER: As a director one’s greatest challenge is finding good enough material to direct. One of the myths is that there are brilliant writers sitting in attics writing great screenplays – if only the system would allow them to be made. The King’s Speech, the next film I’m about to make, is a good example. It was a stage play, and my mother who’s Australian was invited to a fringe theater reading in London because she’s part of the Australian community. The play’s about the relationship between King George the Sixth and his Australian speech therapist. She came back and said “you’ve got to read this play,” and I read it and it was brilliant, and a year later it’s a film starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush which the Weinstein Company is financing which will start shooting November 12th. That’s the first time that’s happened to me – I found a script no one knows about.

HALPER: What drew you to East of Eden, which is already a film and very good mini-series?

HOOPER: I read the book as a teenager and it had a huge impact on me. To me it’s the great California book. It poses the question, “can we, by pushing West, escape from our past? Can we separate ourselves from our inheritance?” The film adaption in the fifties starts with the last generation, so you don’t understand that point. I want to see if there’s a way of starting earlier and telling the intergenerational story. The challenge is, can you do it as a movie? Christopher Hampton’s writing the script, and it’s very good, but it’s still two and a half hours long. But that’s my mission.

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Jenny Halper

Jenny Halper is the film editor of Spare Change News, a Cambridge bi-monthly dedicated to empowering the homeless. She's written for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Now,, amNewYork, Beliefnet, Cinema Confidential, Park Slope Reader, and Knit Simple Magazine, among others, and has served as a film critic/entertainment reporter for Track Entertainment and Her fiction has appeared in journals including Smokelong Quarterly and New England Fiction Meeting House, and has been a finalist for prizes from Glimmer Train and the Sonora Review. A graduate of Northwestern University, she is currently earning an MFA at Emerson College.