Tom Hooper: On Directing 'The King's Speech' Tom Hooper's film, The King's Speech, tells the true story of King George VI's stammer and his relationship with an unconventional speech therapist who helped him speak. The movie was recently nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including Best Director.
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Tom Hooper: On Directing 'The King's Speech'

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Tom Hooper: On Directing 'The King's Speech'

Tom Hooper: On Directing 'The King's Speech'

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(Soundbite of music)


The film The Kings Speech is nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for the performance of Colin Firth. He plays King George VI of England, who came to the throne in 1936 and suffered from an embarrassing stutter. His efforts to overcome the impediment with the help of an innovative speech therapist is at the center of film, which is directed by my guest Tom Hooper.

The film was written by David Seidler, who suffered from a stammer himself and took heart as a child listening to King George's radio addresses. Seidler became a successful screenwriter and dreamed of writing about the King. Eventually he tracked down the handwritten diary of the Kings speech therapist Lionel Logue. Much of the scenes between King George and Logue are based on this diary.

Director Tom Hooper won an Emmy for his work on the HBO miniseries Elizabeth I starring Helen Mirren. He also directed the miniseries John Adams. Among his other films are Longford and The Damned United. I spoke with him in November.

Well, Tom Hooper, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. TOM HOOPER (Director): Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: This film, "The King's Speech," this is one of those films where we don't have to worry about giving away the story. I mean, it's fairly straightforward. It's about this very close relationship between the king, George VI and his unorthodox speech therapist and I thought we'd listen to a clip here.

The king is played by Colin Firth and the speech therapist, Lionel Logue, is played by Geoffrey Rush. And this is a moment where the - they've been working together for some period of time. George VI is now about to be crowned king and this is a moment where they have cleared out Westminster Abbey so that they can rehearse and this king can confront the task of making a few remarks upon the occasion of his coronation.

And they get into an argument and I'll just mention it makes it easier for the clip if we - to understand that we note that there's a point at which the therapist, Logue, has the effrontery to park his seat in the chair where monarchs sit and we'll hear that. And what really begins the argument is the king is frustrated and fearful and angry about this situation and he also has discovered that Lionel Logue is not a doctor and is essentially self-taught. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of film, "The King's Speech")

Mr. COLIN FIRTH (Actor): (as King George VI) No training, no diploma, no qualifications, just a great deal of nerve.

Mr. GEOFFREY RUSH (Actor): (as Lionel Logue) Lock me in the Tower.

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) I would if I could.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) On what charge?

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) Fraud. With war looming, you've saddled this nation with a voiceless king. You've destroyed the happiness of my family all for the sake of ensnaring a star patient you couldn't possibly hope to assist. It'll be like mad King George III, only mad King George the Stammerer who let his people down so badly in their hour of need. What are you doing? Get up you can't sit there, get up.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) Why not? It's a chair.

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) No that is not a chair, that is St. Edward's chair.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) People have carved their names on it.

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) That chair is the seat on which every king...

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) I don't care how many royal assholes sat in this chair.

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) Listen to me, listen to me.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) Listen to you? By what right?

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) By divine right if you must, I am your king.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) No you're not. You told me so yourself. You said you didnt want it. Why should I waste my time listening to you?

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) Because I have a right to be heard. I have a voice.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) Yes, you do.

DAVIES: And that's Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth from "The King's Speech" directed by our guest Tom Hooper. You can hear Colin Firth and his playing a royal with a stutter. He has to get this just right. He can't overdo it. Tell us about developing his character?

Mr. HOOPER: I think the inspiration for his performance for both of us was the real king. And we found this wonderful bit of archive footage on the Pathe News, which I think is available on the public site from the one...

DAVIES: The one in Glasgow?

Mr. HOOPER: Yeah, the Empire Exhibition, 1938 and, you know, try as the newsreel people can to cut away from Bertie so they cut from his close-up to, you know, spectators in the crowd. They cut to fluttering flags. They cut to chimney pots all around them. Whenever they come back in this profile close-up to the king you can see, you just can see in his eyes this longing. He just wants to get it right.

That's all he wants to achieve and he keeps getting caught in these horrible painful silences in which he drowns and he stops himself and gathers himself and tries again and gets caught and drowns in silence. And it's so, it's so moving that by the end of this three or four minute clip I had tears in my eyes. And Colin and I saw this and we were both hugely moved. And I'm not sure how aware Colin is, but I think he's kind of, in an extraordinary way, bottled the essence of the real king's stammer.

DAVIES: King George VI of course led his nation during World War II and was an important inspirational figure for his people and had to give all these speeches on the radio. And it's interesting that he was confronted with this challenge of conquering his stutter in some respects because of technology, right? I mean, 30 years before or after he wouldn't have had such an issue would he?

Mr. HOOPER: No, I mean, what's extraordinary about the whole drama of this story, it derives from the advent of this new medium, this new mass communication medium called radio. Because before the advent of radio the king was a visual icon. I mean, as long as he could wave from a carriage, look good on a horse, look good in uniform, he could perform the theatrical duty of being a king which was principally I would say in terms of mass iconography visual. And with the coming of radio suddenly the king was required to speak, to connect, and therefore to be effectively an actor.

So you have this guy, you know, whos the younger brother, who has no expectation of being king. You know, his older brother gives up the throne to marry the American Wallis Simpson. He has a terrible stammer and becomes king right at the moment when this medium has taken off. And, you know, his audience is not just in England, you know, Britain still has 58 countries in the empire, so it's a vast, you know, emergent global audience. You know, and he can't speak.

And even more ironically, it's that, you know, 10, 15-year window when it was only a live medium. I mean, you could not prerecord. You could not edit, so you couldn't cheat the stammers out. He had to be a live performance.

DAVIES: When he gave these wartime speeches, was this speech therapist, Lionel Logue in the room with him? Was he the only one in the room?

Mr. HOOPER: Yeah, I mean, that's what we can tell from the diaries is that, you know, Lionel Logue was in the room, one on one with the king for pretty much all the, you know, the wartime speeches. And, you know, one of the thing about the diaries is it reveals what lies behind, you know, famous imagery.

So for example, it was my birthday recently and my sister gave me a copy of The Times from the 4th of September 1939, so the day after wars been declared. Now it being England and we're an understated nation, news of the outbreak of the Second World War made page eight of The Times. And on page eight there's a big half page picture of King George VI in his full naval uniform at this grand ornate desk with these ornate microphones his father used in a very grand and gilt room, giving the speech that we see at the end of our movie which is basically the speech he made when war was declared. But we know from the diaries that this is not true.

He made it in a special room that Logue set up which he decorated to make it look cheerful with an old school desk that Logue had rescued from the basement of Buckingham Palace, you know, which he'd hammered wooden stilts on to raise it up. And the king did it standing up with his jacket off, with the window open, with Logue in the room one on one.

And, you know, we know, I now know that that image, that famous image of him giving the speech is complete nonsense. It's a fabrication. It's a piece of propaganda and that's what, you know, is so lovely about the diaries is not only did it give us some flavor of that dialogue and their relationship, but it also, you know, gave these wonderful physical clues with which to get behind, you know, the surface of the monarch at that time.

DAVIES: So the world knew that King George VI struggled with a speech impediment but knew that he had managed to overcome that and give these speeches. And what this story really tells us now, it sort of unmasks this close collaborator, this man Lionel Logue, the speech therapist. Tell us just a little bit about him.

Mr. HOOPER: Well, he was older than the king and he was kind of someone, you know, who grew up, you know, basically being fascinated by the voice. So he was born in Adelaide but moved early in his life to Perth, where he married.

DAVIES: He's Australian.

Mr. HOOPER: He's Australian, yeah. In Perth he taught elocution in schools. He recited Shakespeare and Dickens. He acted a little bit. I think he taught drama and when the First World War came there was this sudden influx of young men returning from the Western front with speech problems, with post-traumatic stress disorder, with shell-shock.

And they literally kind of said oh, you know, well, oh Lionel you're the, you know, youre local guy who knows about speech, so why don't you have a crack at helping these poor young men? And that's what he did. And he basically taught himself through trial and error speech therapy in Perth and developed techniques in order to help these men. And, you know, our film suggests that what he felt was these young men, you know, had lost faith in their voice and he was giving them the right to be heard again, to talk about their trauma and to find their voice again.

And he went to England I think it was 1923 or 1924 and he went because I think on the encouragement of his wife because he felt that, you know, London was probably where it was at in terms of speech therapy and so, you know, he should go and find out more about it. And I think they went not intending to live there but they ended up staying. And he ended up setting up a practice in Harley Street and landing the biggest client of his life.

DAVIES: Right. And of course it's actually King George's wife, who's played in the film by Helena Bonham Carter, who comes and visits Lionel Logue. One of the things that you see in his methods is that he believes it's not a matter simply of mechanics that there is a psychological basis for this and he invades the king's royal privacy by asking questions about what happened to him in his childhood. What do we know about the origins of King George's stutter?

Mr. HOOPER: What we know is that he had a very tough childhood. I mean, his parents were very absent. I mean, it's worth pointing out that children of that class you know, aristocratic children, the norm was you would be brought down at teatime every day and praised in front of your parents for half an hour and that was kind of the relationship. As a very young kid you're basically -you're mothered by nannies.

But the nanny, you know, who he had very early on in life was absolutely in love with David, his older brother and didn't like him. I mean not only didn't like him but neglected him and, you know, didn't feed him enough and caused him, you know, stomach problems which led to, you know, having ulcers and being invalided out of the army during the First World War.

So I mean, what I know about stammering - and a lot of this comes from David, the writer who had this stammer - was that when as a young child you lose the confidence that anyone wants to listen to you, you know, so you've got parents who aren't interested and you've got a nanny who loves your older brother and isn't interested. You lose confidence in your voice and you lose confidence in the right to speak and a lot of the therapy is about saying you have a right to be heard and people should bloody well listen.

DAVIES: Tom Hooper directed the film The Kings Speech, which is nominated for 12 Academy Awards.

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new Liam Neeson thriller Unknown.

This is FRESH AIR.

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