'King's Speech' director Tom Hooper on Hollywood: No one says what they really mean
I had lunch the other day with Tom Hooper, whose film, "The King's Speech," has been earning plaudits everywhere for its absorbing portrayal of King George VI's relationship with his cheeky speech therapist, who helps him overcome a lifelong stutter. Colin Firth, who plays the king, and Geoffrey Rush, who's the therapist, are both getting Oscar buzz for their engaging performances.
Meanwhile, Hooper, a 38-year-old Londoner who's become the go-to filmmaker for posh British TV and HBO dramas ("Elizabeth I," "Longford" and "John Adams") has been getting something of a Hollywood education. Adept with actors and unabashedly ambitious, Hooper would clearly like to make films on a larger canvas (it's telling that his big heroes are outsiders like Ridley Scott and Peter Weir, who found ways to make personal films on a grand scale). But as Hooper has discovered, Hollywood has its own peculiar language and mores.
"I've discovered that the film culture in Los Angeles is very indirect -- it's almost Japanese in that way," he said. "No one says what they actually mean. It must be why you need an agent, because you need someone to interpret the indirectness for you. It's really quite odd. You'll hear that the person from the studio doesn't want to meet with you because they're afraid that they'll have to say no to you and you'll be upset. So rather than risk saying no, they would rather not see you at all."
Hooper admits that he's often the cause of some of the cultural confusion. When his American agent would send him scripts, he would often be unimpressed. "So I would say 'I quite like it,' which in the English way means that I really didn't like it. But my agent would go, 'Oh, great, you liked it--we'll set up a meeting.' It took me a while to realize how different the meaning was over here."
The problem, Hooper says, often begins with American television. "We have so much exposure to American TV that we get lulled into a false sense that we understand the culture, when it fact, it's a very different world. I've had a lot of the same cultural missteps that seem to regularly happen to Larry David on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' " he laughs. "In fact, you could say that I've learned a lot about what not to do in L.A. by watching 'Curb Your Enthusiasm.' "
Still, after the success of "Elizabeth I" and "John Adams," Hooper found himself being wooed all over town. He ended up signing on to do a new version of "East of Eden" at Universal Pictures, with Christopher Hampton ("Atonement") penning the script and Brian Grazer, the studio's top producer, overseeing the project. Everything seemed on target until the week that Hampton finished the script, which coincided with a shift in priorities at the studio (which had suffered a series of costly box-office failures). "Chris was due to turn in the script on a Friday, which turned out to be exactly the same time that [Universal co-chairman] Donna Langley gave an interview announcing that the studio was getting out of the drama business," Hooper recalls. "So suddenly the project wasn't happening. It was as if 'East of Eden' had fallen on the wrong side of history."
The one thing that does translate nicely from Britain to America is numbers. When "The King's Speech" was finished, the Weinstein Co. tested the film in New York City, where it scored a sky-high 93 with its test audience. "That was great," Hooper says. "But I went to Harvey Weinstein and asked him if we could test it somewhere else, just to see how it played in a different place." So they had a test screening in Kansas City, where the film scored a 93 again.
"We all found that really heartening, to know that the film really plays everywhere," says Hooper. "People just identify with it, whether they see it in London, New York or Kansas City. We've really been getting a good response." In other words, people don't quite like it -- they really like it.
Photo: Tom Hooper, left, with Colin Firth at New York City premiere of "The King's Speech."
Credit: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images