Director Tom Hooper on ‘The Danish Girl’ and What It Taught Him About Love
On a surprisingly warm November afternoon in Manhattan, eight journalists sat in the small backroom of the Bowery Hotel’s Gemma. Seated for lunch, we awaited director Tom Hooper’s arrival to talk about his seven-year effort in bringing transgender pioneer Lili Elbe’s story to the big screen in The Danish Girl.
The title of the film refers to Elbe, born Einar Wegener, a painter and the first woman to undergo successful gender-reassignment surgery. Everyone from Nicole Kidman to Charlize Theron was originally attached to the role, but it ultimately went to Eddie Redmayne. Although a controversial casting choice, Hooper has said his Les Misérables star was was first person that came to mind when he read the script. “There’s something in Eddie that is drawn to the feminine,” he told The Guardian after the film’s Venice debut. But Redmayne doesn’t play the only Danish girl here; as much as this is his film, it’s also Alicia Vikander’s. The Swedish actress who’s dominated movie screens this year with six films portrays Gerda Wegener, Einar’s wife who painted her husband as Lili.
During the lunch, Hooper shared stories about meeting Lana Wachowski, who recommended a pile of reading materials on the subject matter, and hearing various trans women’s real-life stories. The night before the luncheon, at a special screening of the film, Redmayne told me he’d met with multiple trans women to prepare for the role. “Everyone I met said, ‘There is no question I won’t answer in order to educate you.’” Hearing so many real life journeys, Redmayne realized, “There’s no one trans story. Everyone’s experience and life is different.”
After the luncheon, I sat with Hooper to discuss the film, which has been 15 years in the making since producer Gail Mutrux first optioned David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel the film is based on. Hooper broke down some of the film’s most intimate scenes, the line that challenged his and Vikander’s expectations and what Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay taught him about love.
Some of the film’s most powerful scenes adopt Lili’s perspective of her body, such as Redmayne’s mirror scene and when Lili poses for Gerda with the ballet dress. What was the inspiration behind getting into Lili’s point of view in those moments?
I suppose I was interested in the idea that there’s a point where she’s almost seeing herself disconnected from herself. She’s looking at her own legs in the shot, in the scene where she puts the stockings on, and there’s something slightly disembodied about it in the sense that she’s seeing her own body, but in a new way. In the scene with the mirror it’s like that. Of course the scene explores a repulsion of the body, but it also explores seeing a beauty in the body. So kind of using subjective camera while we’re in her eyes was, which I use very sparing in the movie, but it was a way of traumatizing that sense of defamiliarizing the familiar because of her relationship with her body.
You can see that on Redmayne’s face in that scene, Lili’s mix of almost horror and pain at her outwardly male body and then joy in finding a sense of herself in the mirror.
Yeah. I was thinking about that at lunch in relation to the score, but in terms of his performance, that balancing of anxiety and joy, or pain and joy. I always feel like directorially that was one of the key things to help Eddie with. I didn’t want it to ever lapse into the tragedy of transgender or [having] the audience kind of mistakenly think it was just a journey into the dark. I wanted the whole time to hold on to that hope that comes from the intonation of joy in finding some of yourself or unblocking yourself or revealing yourself. I think that’s what’s so complex about the journey because it’s a sort of, the journey, the transition promises a release from anxiety, but there’s also a release into a tremendous amount of anxiety to get to that place. So it’s navigating those two things.
Was that complexity in Lucinda Coxon’s script or did you come to discover it through researching trans stories?
I think it’s what I came to learn through meeting members of the community and through what I read. The book that I found most inspiring was Jan Morris’ Conundrum. It’s exquisite. It should be part of the canon of great literature. Yes it’s a story of transition, but it’s one of the great pieces of writing ever. When she’s young early on in life she talks about this sense of a search for greater unity with the world, or a search for beauty or glimpses of contact with a sense of greater unity with the world. Then later at the end of the book when she’s done the whole transition and she’s living happily as a woman, she still says, “Maybe there’s an even greater belonging I can achieve. I’m still haunted by a sense there could be an even greater unity that I could be part of.” And that idea, something that was sort of pulling you that maybe you could never even arrive at, that was a very power thing in the feeling of the movie.
With things like Transparent and Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out, trans narratives are finally being talked about in the mainstream. How did you ground this modern progress of discussing gender in a 1930s context where such language didn’t yet exist for the community?
It’s so interesting because Eddie and I, and Lucinda, did debate about whether we somehow needed to update the script or take account of the modern language, not just the language but the conceptual framework of how [things] have shifted. We in the end thought every journey of transition is unique to the individual and the best thing to do is try to honor this journey of transition within [Lili's] time and, where possible, to use her language. Because it felt disrespectful to kind of modernize it because that wasn’t her experience, and it felt central to her experience. It was the lack of a language and the fact she had to find her own way of saying things. It might be jarring, in some ways, to a modern trans audience, but this was her experience.
A good example would be in Man Into Woman, [Elbe's] memoir. She talks about Lili and Einar in the third person, talks about this battle of Einar and Lili and Lili had to win out. Einar was getting smaller, Lili was getting bigger. You wouldn’t write about the trans experience like that now because you would say, “Well she was always a woman” and you wouldn’t describe it as a battle between two identities. But this was how she was making sense of it, and probably this is the way she found that she could communicate it to other people so they might have intonation of what she’s going through. So I thought for me to change that would be quite disrespectful to her because those were her words. I suppose I ended up thinking I should really try to tell the story from the perspective of the 1930s. Of course there’s a lot of drama in being true to it because you release the dramatic potential of someone struggling with this when there wasn’t a language. If I’d given her that language then in a way she would’ve navigated it perhaps in a different way. So I think it was not only true to her but true to the kind of drama in her.
How do you think that will affect how the film reaches larger audiences outside of the trans and LGBT community?
I don’t know. It’s a good question. I suppose because [Lili and Gerda] are discovering it for themselves and finding a way to express it for themselves, it does allow an audience that maybe isn’t familiar with a story of transition to go on the journey in a very step-by-step way because the characters are kind of figuring it out as well. So you can kind of experience it as they learn about it.
How did you approach notions of gender and sexuality in the film?
It’s interesting because… I still feel like I’m in the middle of thinking about it. Of course we’ve learned that gender and sexuality are distinct, but you know, what intrigues me is, was Lili under pressure? Was Lili pressured by a [dualism] that meant that if she wasn’t the man she had to be, a quote “normal woman” and a “normal woman would love a man,” and therefore to validate herself as successfully having transitioned she would obviously have to desire a man. But was her sexuality more complicated? In today’s world, would she have just carried on living and loving with Gerda? Because you could be married as two women and that’s possible. And in those days it was unthinkable.
I do think there is a very complex relationship between, there can be a complex relationship between sexuality, gender transition and the desire for validation. And that can be not a clear-cut area. I mean people sometimes say to me, “I’ve looked it up and Gerda’s bisexual. Where is that in the film?” To which I get a bit disappointed by [because] I think it’s pretty obvious in the scene where she goes to bed with Lili and Lili is wearing a slip and Gerda is utterly openly to the woman in her husband, and is aroused by it. It’s more Lili that closes that down, not Gerda. So I think the bisexuality, which is not a historical fact, it’s derived, I think the film does acknowledge that. In some ways, in the sex scenes I was trying to explore – I feel like in the act of sex it can be so intimate, that people can reveal themselves in ways they may not reveal themselves outside the act of sex. I tried to use a couple of those moments of sexual intimacy to allow Lili [open up to Gerda].
In both The King’s Speech and Les Misérables your framing style puts the characters at the edge of a wide shot. It feels very suiting to Lili’s journey here. Is that just a part of your style, or was there a specific reason in using it again here?
I sort of played with that more in the first half of the film where – I always have this sense that the frame a lot of the time, we as filmmakers are taught to make the frame visible or [that] you don’t want the audience to be conscious of the frame. But part of me thinks we are putting a face in a box and sometimes it’s interesting to make the character communicate with the edge of the box. So you’re using the fact that it’s a confined space to say something about the emotional life of the character. I think Lili living as Einar is constricted in so many ways and to use the frame to sort of remind the audience of the constriction is one way of doing it. The very controlled Danish color palette, the austerity of a very tight range of blue-grey shades, the starkness of [Einar's] side of the art studio compared to Gerda’s messiness. All these ways, [Redmayne's] costume with a high stocked collar that he’s trapped in, they’re all ways of saying the same thing that this is someone who, this is a woman not comfortable living as a man.
Did you ever want to add or change something in the screenplay to explore a deeper aspect of the story?
Yeah. At the end of the peep show scene in the novel it’s explicitly sexual. I think in the script there was an indication it was reaching a sexual climax and Eddie and I, through rehearsal, felt that although the structure of the scene would mimic a climax, it wasn’t actually about arousal at all. It was about freedom in this private space, which was meant for the exploring of sexual desire. He was commandeering that space to be free as a woman. That was for Lili to use that space for that. So that wasn’t an example where we thought actually subverting the expectation that she’s going to get off on it. The whole thing was non-sexual. The girl in the peep show had the kind of pleasure of not being objectified, of sharing a femininity rather than playing into what the male gaze would normally want her to do. She was playing into a female gaze who wanted to learn from her. I found that very beautiful, that kind of subversion of what that scene might have meant.
What was it like working with Alicia and directing her as Gerda, who is both a supportive wife but hurting over losing her husband?
Alicia’s got a great big heart. It’s very generous and has a real life force. As an ex-ballet dancer, [she] has a real discipline. I felt like she had a lot of qualities that Gerda had, but I remember saying early on, “I don’t want our set to feel like Eddie’s doing this great transformation, great reinvention of himself, and I’m just asking you to be a version of Alicia. I want you to push yourself to take yourself into as unfamiliar a place for you.” Early on we discussed this idea, Gerda kind of front-footed and very high energy at the beginning and quite dominant, and having that slightly kind of masculine body language. That all evolved out of this conversation that I didn’t want to be lazy with Gerda and very detailed with Einar and Lili.
The scene where Gerda comes back and finds [Einar] at the table [dressed in women's clothing as Lili]. The line in the script was, “How are you?” and Alicia, quite legitimately, argued against that, saying, “That doesn’t express the pain I would feel in that moment of betrayal if I’d known [Lili had] been living a secret life without me.” [We] pushed ourselves to keep thinking, “Let’s just imagine Gerda is more generous than we are, more loving, more compassionate. Let’s just imagine she’s so beyond us that, what would that person do?” And [Alicia] was brilliant at allowing herself to be stretched. I think she embraced this notion that we were playing a character who was beyond us in these functions of compassion and selflessness and we have to keep pushing, not limit Gerda because of our own modern preconception of what compassion might be. And that in that case [we] end up realizing that line was the key to the scene. There was no need to cut it. It was actually the heart of the way Gerda sees the world. The first thing she would feel, she didn’t see, “Oh my god, my husband’s dressed as a woman.” She didn’t think, “Oh I’m betrayed.” She thought, “My husband is in pain. How can I help him?”
Did you find that a lot, where the script exceeded your own expectations of what the story or characters were doing?
Yeah. It was like the script had a lot to teach me about love. The heart of love is genuinely caring about someone else more than yourself. I know people say that, but to actually live that is another thing entirely. I found Lucinda really, through her script, taught me a lot about that kind of selfless love, which is not a state of victim, it’s a state of beauty.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Danish Girl opens November 27.