Tom Hooper on directing the queer love story, “The Danish Girl”

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Filmmaker Tom Hooper has received accolades and awards for his films like The King’s Speech and Les Miserables, and his new film, The Danish Girl, will likely follow suit. Having already won the Queer Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival, Tom is masterful in his direction of the fictionalized feature based on a true story of the first trans woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

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Starring Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, The Danish Girl focuses on the marriage of two artists whose relationship goes through a major change once Lili reveals her true self. Alicia Vikander stars as Gerda, Lili’s partner, who paints beautiful portraits of Lili that find her fame in France. A childhood friend of Lili’s, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), and ballerina friend of Gerda’s, Ulla (Amber Heard), are also part of the ensemble, serving as confidants to the couple, offering their own support as needed. 

We spoke with Tom Hooper about translating the true story and how a trans woman friend of his helped him to know he was on the right track.

 

AfterEllen: What took this film so long to get financed?

Tom Hooper: It’s been a 15-year-journey for Gail Mutrux, the producer. She optioned David Ebershoff‘s book in 2000, and for me it’s been a seven year journey. I fell in love with the script in 2008. All I can say that when I first started talking about it it was considered a hard film to finance, a hard film to cast, a hard film to get made. And suddenly now as I’m releasing it, people are saying it’s a timely movie or it’s an obvious movie, and I’m thinking, “What change in seven years!” It’s extraordinary and I think it speaks to the sort of kind of extraordinary pace of change in the perception of trans issues, which I think is a result of a lot of good work by people moving this conversation forward. But it’s also thanks to a great narrative drama like Transparent, brilliantly acted, directed and written. And Orange is the New Black and Caitlyn Jenner sharing her story. So in narrative terms, it feels like this year’s a big tipping point with the acceptance of trans stories in the mainstream culture. And I welcome that. I think there’s a long way to to, but I think that’s what changed since I first started working on it.

 

AE: I noticed you had some well-known trans people like Rhys Ernst and Paris Lees listed in the thank yous. Were they consultants?

TH: Yeah, we had a great group of people helping us. Rhys was often on the set and was there for me and Eddie whenever we had any questions. Paris is someone who Eddie reached out to in pre-production and had a very inspiring conversation. He had help from Paris and Eddie came back saying she’d said he could ask her anything and was incredibly generous and inspiring. So I just wanted to make sure that we acknowledge these amazing people who helped with the movie.

 

AE: Outside of the struggle to finance the film, what was your biggest challenge?

TH: Creatively, I think the calibration of the balance between pain and joy in Lili’s story, because of the time period, because of the closed-mindedness of the medical community, because of the lack of the language—existing language to help Lili understand her gender identity. …But I didn’t want the film to only focus on that and not get the sense of the joy and the promise of release when you discover your true self and kind of showing that. Like in the scene when she puts the stockings on and holds the dress against herself, when she’s still living as Einar—obviously the suppressed memories of Lili create tremendous anxiety at that moment. But there’s also beauty in that moment and in Alexandre Desplat‘s score there’s a balancing of anxiety and excitement and I think getting that right was probably the most important thing for me to navigate. Because if you made it too painful, then would the audience understand the imperative to change? And if it was too joyous, then would it be dramatic, or would it be truthful to the 1920s? So I think that balance, I think, was an interesting challenge.

 

AE: I was just saying to Eddie how I loved the amount of joy in it. So many times films about trans characters focus on the pain.

TH: When people say ‘We want it to be more painful,’ you kind of go, ‘Well, what are you really saying?”

 

AE: What has the response been from trans women who have seen the film?

TH: The most emotional screening for me was a screening for one person, and that was for a woman called Jennifer Whyte, who is a trans woman who was the musical director for Les Miserables. I’d worked with her and she’d played the piano accompaniment to Eddie singing “Empty Chairs, Empty Tables”—little known fact. I asked her to see the film in an unfinished state to get her read on the edit and how it was playing. She couldn’t speak for five minutes afterward, and she was very—she said something like, “You served up a portion of my own brain back to myself. How do you know? How do you know about that moment?” There’s a moment where Lili as Einar is moving through the tutus, and that sort of triggered a moment that was very close for her. There was something about someone in London who I’d worked in another context entirely, who’d been transitioning on Les Mis, having that connection that I found very, very moving.

 

AE: Amber Heard mentioned you asked if she could sing because the role she played was originally written as an opera singer. Why did you change Ulla to a ballerina?

TH: I sort of feel, actually, there’s something actually about the ballet dancer and the emphasis on the physicality that felt more resonant for our story, and the idea of pain—because ballerinas put up with a lot of—there’s great beauty but there’s a lot of pain to get to the beauty; the pain has made it visible, and I thought it was an interesting but slightly obscure metaphor for what I was doing.

Premiere Of Focus Features' "The Danish Girl" - Red CarpetPhoto by Todd Williamson/Getty Images

AE: Another change from the book is that, in your film, Gerda and Lili are together at the end of Lili’s life. Obviously that plays better in a feature, but did you ever consider keeping it the original way with Gerda going off with Hans?

TH: The most important thing was I didn’t want the film to play as heteronormative. I didn’t want for a moment to suggest that Hans would then become the great love of Gerda’s life. The great love of Gerda’s life is Lili, end of story. Who knows what happens with Hans? He’s there as a friend, as a companion, maybe as a lover—I don’t know. But I wanted to de-emphasize that or make that more ambiguous in order to honor the love between Gerda and Lili. Because I think, you know, if they’d been alive today, they probably would have lived as two women and been married as two women, because in those days, it was not even possible. And I felt that Lili was caught up in that desire to be a “normal woman” and a “normal woman” would obviously live with a man, and I think dualism leads to sort of pressures on people to normalize sometimes in ways that maybe—maybe, nowadays, maybe, there’s still some way to go—feel more free not to kind of have to be in sort of dualistic frame of mind.

 

AE: It seems like there is a romantic and sexual connection for Lili as Einar with Gerda at the beginning of the film, but their love turns more familial once Lili begins to emerge.

TH: From research we commissioned into the real couple, I definitely got the feeling it became more like two friends in love and the physical side became less important. But I was kind of interested in how, at the same time, in exploring how sex and sexuality can create a kind of permissive space where secrets can get uncovered or people can sometimes reveal themselves in the act of sex in ways that they might not reveal themselves elsewhere. And so I felt those two sexual moments with the slip create a kind of safe space for Lili to emerge. But I feel, for me, ultimately, Lili wanted to kind of be a “real woman” and I thought she was stuck in her period where a “real woman” should love a man. As opposed to now, would she feel freer to be a lesbian as a woman, one can only speculate. But certainly, I feel like the physical side sort of becomes something between then rather than something bonding them.

 

AE: A lot of people seem to focus on the believability of Eddie as a woman. This is the first film I’ve ever gotten notes on using terminology like “cisgender” and “gender reassignment surgery” and pronouns. I wonder what your experience has been with journalists not used to these kinds of ideas.

TH: It’s weird because you get this kind of—should I correct a journalist? When people kind of go, “Oh, I’m not sure she convinced me that she’s fully a woman,” you kind of go, slightly, “You’re missing the point.” It’s not about imitation—she is a woman. And she’s a woman who’s been forced to live as a man, and I certainly think there’s a lot work into Einar that the woman was being revealed. I think the word transformation, although I think people have used it about Eddie as a compliment, is not the right word. I think it’s a revelation, not a transformation. It’s a revealing of the woman underneath, rather than a man turning into a woman. And we talked a lot about that, the idea that he’d had to put on the armor of a man, that there was a latent femininity to be released through the film. And of course there’s a phase, which comes from our research and our conversations, a phase of hyper-femininization when you feel like, in order to reawaken the feminine sex, she kind of over-feminizes maybe; overreaches a very feminine version of herself. But then as the film progresses, that kind of relaxes in those last scenes. A much simpler Lili emerges; a grounded Lili. Even decisions that she has like putting on the red wig we found that was inspired by the paintings, the real paintings;  then she gets rid of that and has her own hair, let’s her own hair grow out. You see she feels more comfortable as her own self.

Premiere Of Focus Features' "The Danish Girl" - Red CarpetPhoto by Todd Williamson/Getty Images

AE: I wondered if you found Lili to be selfish in any way, when it comes to her relationship with Gerda.

TH: I think the truth is to go through that journey, to insist on the need to go through that journey, needs a measure of selfishness, but it’s a selfishness that comes with the survival instinct. I definitely felt in the edits sometimes there was pressure on me to sort of soften that. … But a key part of it, particularly when Lili is considering suicide and is depressed—I mean, depression and high-anxiety are totally selfish states of being because you’re kind of clinging on to survival and I thought it was kind of essential that you saw the toughness in Lili, too. “No, I have to go through with this, even if aspects of this journey hurt Gerda. I have to do it.” For me, there’s a bravery in that; a courage in that. Because you know it’s breaking her heart.

 

The Danish Girl opens in select theaters this weekend.

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