“The Danish Girl” is a fascinating example of a well-made and timely movie—that took 15 years to get made— that makes some people just a tad uncomfortable. Partly it’s because we’re dealing with a true story that is among the first recounted cases of a confused and desperate transgender woman who pursued surgery at a time when no one knew if it was safe. And partly it’s because writer Lucinda Coxon, director Tom Hooper and actors Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander mine all the drama they can from this tragic story, more than celebrating the blossoming femininity at its heart.
In the end, Hopper and his team created a glossily beautiful movie. It’s about artists, after all, and so the filmmakers opted to render their period milieu as gorgeously as possible. That’s why, despite not being applauded by early year-end critics groups (it’s at 73% on Rotten Tomatoes), the movie is in the running for awards nominations for its actors as well as production design, costumes and score.
I sat down with the writer, Lucinda Coxon, the producers Anne Harrison and Gail Mutrux, and the director Tom Hooper after a screening at Sneak Previews.
Anne Thompson: Explain just how early this story comes in the history of transgender people. Einar/Lili was someone who didn’t have a clue what was going on. Gail, you picked up the book first?
Gail Mutrux: I first heard about it and optioned it in 2000. In terms of where it comes in transgender history, it’s early. She possibly was among the first, because there was someone else who had gotten the operations maybe, a few months before. There was an institute in Berlin that was like the Kinsey institute, and they were doing some of the operations.
So it took 15 years? Anne, when did you come to the project?
Anne Harrison: I came in around 2004, so four years after Gail… And yeah, it was a subject that was difficult for people to accept. I came in and we hired Lucinda and got by 2007, this AMAZING script that she wrote, and people recognized that it had real power, but they always backed off. The world was just completely different than what it is today. It’s just amazing, you know, where we find ourselves now.
So Lucinda, you came on in 2004? And how many drafts of this do you think you wrote?
Lucinda Coxon: There were drafts that I wrote just so I could try and get the script to the right place, and drafts I wrote because directors came in and I wrote drafts for them — and when Tom came in, Tom had read a draft that was “pre-other directors,” so it was in a purer state. And I did another draft for Tom, and we reverted to the draft we had before… So if you add them all together it’s definitely double figures.
So Tom, what was so challenging about this? What was the degree of difficulty?
Tom Hooper: Well, I had read Lucinda’s script late 2008, when I was in early pre-production of “The King’s Speech,” and at the center of it was a love story. In some ways, the difficulty was getting it made rather than the material. But it was extraordinary, it was the best script I had ever read, when I read it then… But it took nearly, I suppose it was 7 years before, or 7 years had passed to get it made. I definitely felt, back then, it was hard to finance, hard to get made — and the fact that now, it’s a zeitgeist film, shows the enormous shift in acceptance of stories centered around trans people since then. And thanks to shows like “Transparent” and “Orange Is The New Black.” Quite often in my experience, both in television and film, directing is knowing what the script can teach me. For me, I think the greatest challenge was not wanting Lili Elbe to be “other-ed” by the way I made the film. I wanted the audience to be connected to her, and her decisions, all the way through. So that at the end of the story, you felt that Lili’s emergence was necessary and inevitable… And it didn’t feel strange to the audience. That was, to me, the most important thing.
The movie raises the question of a “dual identity.” I don’t know a lot about the psychology of transgender people, I don’t know that it always manifests itself in this sort of “schizophrenic” way… if you like. That may be the wrong word.
LC: The word ‘schizophrenic’ is a strong word. Obviously Einar Wegener lived and presented very persuasively as a man for a very long time, and then went through a period of transition, which was fairly gradual. He was very mature when he began transitioning, this wasn’t somebody who at the age of 14, you know, suddenly felt that he might be a woman… In fact, this was someone who came to it later in life when he was already married. There was a memoir—we’re not really sure how accurate it is— but at one point Lili says “I’m going to describe my experience as if I’m two different people… I’m not two different people but I don’t know how else to make it clear” — and I think that was really key, that was the only way she could articulate the experience of having gone through being Einar to being Lili. And when she was Lili, she was emphatically NOT Einar anymore. So there was a need for gender purity in her, that I think had to be reflected in the script.
So, this married couple love each other very much. And Gerda is assertive and strong, a bit bossy with Einar.
TH: Yeah, I was interested in the idea of sort of pushing both roles, not just in Lili’s role, but I thought it was interesting to allow Gerda to be a very strong woman — for centuries, men have always told women how they want their gender to be constructed, and the 1920’s were an amazing period, so I felt there was something interesting about allowing the central female role in the film to have this kind of strength.
There’s exciting fluidity in the sexy scene where Einar’s wearing Gerda’s slip, and she’s surprised. There’s a part of me—and I know we all respond to transgender in different ways— that wanted there to be a way for the two of them to stay together even if Lili was a woman.
TH: I do wonder whether that couple in today’s world would have stayed together as two lesbians. I know it’s incredibly important to distinguish between gender and sexuality. The film (I hope), does that — but I feel that Lili’s assertion that she was a heterosexual woman was part of her desire to show she was normal, and to normalize who she was. In the same way that her desire to have surgery reflects a kind of binary culture where if you were not a man you needed to be operated on to become (fully) a woman. One can never know of course. In today’s world you could be married as two women, and that was not possible in the 1920s. It’s an interesting speculation — I certainly felt, and I hope you got it from the same scenes, that Gerda’s character was completely open to the feminine in her husband… So, I do feel that Gerda was open to that, and in some ways, Lili may have picked Gerda because she was completely open-minded to her femininity.
Gerda gets to be a painter, and becomes creative and authoritative, and Lili can’t paint… And that was interesting.
LC: Yes it’s a very curious and intriguing shift, and it was one of the things that I was really struck by when I first looked at the story, that Gerda’s career takes off when she starts painting Einar as Lili. And so there is a sense in which she’s made a deal with the devil, and Lili starts to feel like a character they’ve invented who gets out of control… But I hope that actually, what one is seeing, is that that process is both of them growing into who they really need to be. And it’s actually a period where Lili is being revealed through Gerda’s increasing confidence in her art.
TH: The film obviously has to answer the question: how in the 1920s, when the word “transgender” does not exist, how it could be that this transition could emerge at this moment in history? And I think it’s because of two things: I think it was because of an extraordinary love story, an extraordinary love that the couple shared, where Gerda was so open to her husband and so non-judgmental and wanted her happiness almost more than her own… But it was also art — the artist’s way of seeing, the brilliance of Gerda’s vision that she could see and get excited by this side of her husband, this feminine side and explore it through her art that also created this amazing space.
AH: I was just going to say, the other thing that’s interesting from Lili’s point of view, is the sense that she no longer is an artist, but there’s this sense of sort of self-creation in becoming who Lili is — so, you know, the shift of the roles is, I think, beautiful…
But you feel sad for Gerda that she’s lost her mate, her friend, her support, and I felt bad for her that she couldn’t have him ANY way.
LC: Well, transformation is always concomitant with loss. The flip-side of that is, catastrophe is also birth. And what Gerda ends up with is a relationship with Lili and a kind of new, and more open future. She is part of one of the most extraordinary human stories that I’ve ever come across — and that brings us satisfaction.
TH: What makes it a great love story is that question of: do you love someone enough, support them enough even if you know you might lose them as a result? When you love so selflessly, that you put the other person completely ahead of yourself — even to your own detriment… That’s unconditional love.
LC: I think that’s right, but also one of the things that was challenging and exciting about writing Gerda is she is someone who is both fantastically good and assertively good — radically good. Someone who is not a victim, not passive, who’s goodness is about courage and a vision. I think she’s a great role model for us all in that respect.
So where did the paintings come from?
TH: I wanted to be very purist about the paintings in the film, the real Gerda paintings — I wouldn’t accept anything else. Faced against the clock, we did things like projecting existed paintings into cameras, then would insert Lili (Redmayne) in, and none of it looked good… In the end, the only way of getting it right was to have Eddie as Lili posing, and we did a series of portraits —
They’re wonderful. You’ve got some extraordinary cinematography, production design — talk a little bit about the design of the movie.
TH: It really came out of a series of long-term collaborations… It’s picking up conversations that have gone through a number of films. We’re asking ourselves: how do we push ourselves to not repeat what we made the last time around? The way we achieved the look of Denmark was inspired by the wonderful Danish painter, Vilhelm Hammershøi, who mainly painted his own apartment. They were full of wonderful Danish sort of blue-grey color schemes, and we even built a replica of Hammershøi’s apartment in London — and there was something about the austerity of that color scheme, and operating within the spectrum of one tone… Blues, which to me spoke to the sense of constraint that Lili is experiencing. A sense of claustrophobia, where this person is not wholly comfortable. And then we go to Paris, where I met Lana Wachowski, and she said: Why don’t you use ‘Art Nouveau’ as the backdrop for Lili’s emergence? She said, because ‘Art Nouveau’ is a rejection of the masculine, the embrace of the curved feminine design and explosions of color… So the hegemony of the masculine was ultimately rejected.
And what was the budget? Which I found unbelievable…
TH: Under $15 million. It was a low-budget film, so the truth is that I had to work very very fast. But we had three weeks full-time rehearsal, we did it the old school way: we marked the sets up, we rehearsed chronologically from start to end — that’s the playful space, that’s where we could try ideas out and begin to refine the characters. Most importantly, create a history in the marriage, because if you imagine with no rehearsals, you’d start on day one with two characters that shared this whole life together and it’s very hard to conjure that up.
So $15 million dollars… Producers, what was the challenge here? To get this pulled off? He was demanding a lot…
GM: The heads of departments who worked with Tom were used to working on tight budgets, and they had a lot of experience in period film and television, and had very good connections in London.
Did you encourage your actors to try many different ways of doing this? Did you have a wide range of choices?
TH: Yes, but it was a 44-day shoot in four countries with 186 scenes, so that’s four scenes every day…
So the two male supporting roles, the romantic interests, were they based in any kind of reality?
LC: Well, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a kind of amalgam of characters…
Did she get involved with someone like him?
LC: She remarried. I know it’s too depressing, but I always wanted the end card to say: the man she remarried did NOT last. When you’ve been through an experience like that for someone, it’s very hard for anything else to measure up.
And the Ben Whishaw character? He’s a gay man who wants to have gay sex, presumably? That’s part of what freaks Lili out, right?
LC: Well he’s a sexual, curious individual — he recognizes something extraordinary and different in Lili, and I guess gay sex is the sex that is offered in that time, because of the physical state that Einar is in.
So the contemporary transgender experience is more often, forgive me, full penis, right? Sometimes there are operations and sometimes not?
LC: This is one person’s story, which is really important to remember here. This is somebody who felt that his operations were absolutely necessary to becoming a woman. I don’t know, if in the future, we’ll look back on this and view these operations as barbaric — I think we’re in a time of incredible change now, and everything is on the spectrum… In terms of the way in which people define themselves. They don’t necessarily need their genitals to match.
What kind of research did the actor’s bring to their roles? And what kind of changes occurred when you cast them?
TH: Eddie was incredibly conscientious in his research, and I actually offered the film to him — he prepped full time for a year on this. And his research involved reading extensively… We both fell in love with an amazing book by Jan Morris called “Conundrum,” which was about her transition. What’s amazing about Eddie is that he quickly realized that, because this is such a complex community, the pressure on him was immense. He felt pressure, but when you actually arrive on set with Eddie, despite research, despite the level of anxiety he whips himself into because of how much he cares, when the cameras roll he’s FREE. And he’s not burdened by the research — the mark of the really great actors, is that anxiety doesn’t define their performance.