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Australian connections helped bring together the right cast with the right director for a story that might have been the ‘B plot of history’ but is made into the ‘A story’, as The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper explains to Andrew L. Urban.

The first day of shooting The King’s Speech will “always stand out in memory” for director Tom Hooper. “Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush had first met at rehearsals and both were nervous. I didn’t want to waste that natural nervousness so we shot their first, nervous on screen meeting. The very first shot was a close up of Colin … and by the end of the day I knew we had something special here … they worked together perfectly.” 

The other Aussie in the cast is Guy Pearce, who plays Bertie’s brother, David, who is portrayed from Bertie’s point of view, rather unkindly, some might say. “From Bertie’s point of view, David acted selfishly in abdicating. He never asked his brother or considered his situation.” Bertie was terrified of being King, not least because of his devastating stutter, which made him almost speechless. Indeed, in the film, Lionel Logue (Rush) explores the potential reasons for this: his terribly lonely and cold childhood.

"this is Bertie’s story"

“Guy and I were very conscious of making sure that David’s story didn’t become the focus; this is Bertie’s story,” says Hooper. “David could have just carried on with Mrs Simpson as his mistress. It was not unusual in royal circles … But Guy felt that David married her because of sexual jealousy – he wanted to own her.”

Hooper is also full of praise for Helena Bonham-Carter, who plays Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth, (later known as the Queen Mother). “She did massive amounts of research, always talking to Royal historians… She saw Elizabeth as a marshmallow made with a welding machine; soft and mushy but with a steel core inside.”

The story is the personal journey of the introverted, stammering Bertie. As the second son of George V (Michael Gambon), Bertie is not ex-expected to ascend to the throne, but when Edward (Pearce) choses to abdicate to marry Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), Bertie is the rightful successor and in 1936 is crowned King George VI. Thrust into the international spotlight, he eventually engages irreverent Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush) to help him find a voice with which to lead the nation.

"the intimate, personal nature of the story"

It is the intimate, personal nature of the story that is its driver, but also its potential weakness. “You live with many fears as a filmmaker,” says London-based Hooper during a Sydney visit to promote the film. The boyish looking, 37 year old is a highly regarded (multi-awarded) director, but he admits, “one such fear was that the material was too slight for a movie. One of my biggest jobs was to make sure that the climactic speech at the end of the film played like a major climax to our film.”

Of course, he had the perfect cast for the job. Hooper met with Firth and was immediately convinced. As he records in the notes to the film, "Everything I read about King George VI showed that the King had this indestructible core of niceness at the centre of his being - I feel the same way about Colin, he has this extraordinary moral compass, humility and kindness that I strongly felt made him perfect for Bertie.”

"maverick energy"

As for Rush, Hooper is genuinely at a loss to think of the film without him as Logue. “I really don’t know who else could have played that role so effectively …He has this maverick energy, an unorthodox quality. And the chemistry between them is fantastic.”

It was Australian/English director Hooper’s Australian mother, Meredith, who started a chain reaction which led to the making of The King’s Speech. Meredith had been invited by friends in London to an unrehearsed reading of the play – as it was then – by David Seidler. She loved it, but immediately saw it as a film – and so she sent it to her son, Tom, who had made some striking films, including The Damned United, Red Dust, as well as highly acclaimed television drama such as the Emmy Award winning mini-series John Adams and Elizabeth I. 

But fate had already propelled the project in the right direction with an unsolicited copy of the play landing at Geoffrey Rush’s Melbourne post box. He, too, loved it but saw it as a film ….

These elements all came together when producer Gareth Unwin optioned the play as a film and took it to Iain Canning and Emile Sherman of See-Saw Films, an Anglo-Australian production company. Having worked with Geoffrey on Candy and $9.99, Emile Sherman was delighted to be working with Rush again.

Casting is always important, but in this case it was especially so. “The story is like the B plot of history – one that becomes the A plot,” says Hooper. “There are so many potential pitfalls; it could be just too agonising to watch this man struggling to speak. Colin was in fact scared of the amount of stammering he had to do.”

"bottled the essence"

Hooper himself was brought to tears during his research when watching the footage of Bertie’s 1938 speech at the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow. “He keeps drowning in his silences…it’s awful. And Colin has bottled the essence of that.”

Careful nbot to meake the film ‘a miracvle cure’ story, Hooper toned down the original script, which was “more severe” he says. “And by the end of that he was virtually Laurence Olivier at the microphone; I didn’t want that.” But he still had to make the speech an emotional knockout. That’s where great acting comes in.

Published December 23, 2010

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Tom Hooper


The King's Speech

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