A successful director working predominantly in British
television, Tom Hooper was striving to build a reputation in film in early
2008. Sure, he’d helmed “Red Dust”
four years back. But despite starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Hilary Swank, the
crime-drama drew little notice. Then, the English auteur came upon Lucinda
Coxon’s adapted screenplay of a historical novel that translated the true story
of trans woman Lili Elbe’s painful transition into a tender love story between
Elbe and her wife, painter Gerda Wegener. Enchanted, Hooper was eager to make
“The Danish Girl.” But funding for such a taboo topic was hard to
come by. After all, this was before the sea change of trans awareness that hit
in waves thanks to the advocacy and openness of celebrities like filmmaker Lana
Wachowski, actress Laverne Cox and athlete Caitlyn Jenner.
Hooper put “The Danish Girl” on the back burner,
and built his cachet with a pair of heralded biopics, “The Damned
United” and “The King’s Speech,” as well as the musical epic
“Les Miserables.” Seven Academy Awards and big box office numbers later,
he regrouped and set about finding the perfect pair of performers to bring this
incredible love story to life.
The casting of Swedish ingénue Alicia Vikander as Gerda was
met with resounding praise, as she had awed audiences with poignant turns in
“Anna Karenina” and “A Royal Affair.” But when “Les
Miz”s rising star Eddie Redmayne was announced as Lili Elbe, criticism
arose over a cisgender man playing a trans woman. The determined director stuck
by his actor, and dedicatedly created a drama that’s earned praise out of
Venice and the Toronto International Film Festival.
With “The Danish Girl” finally making its
theatrical debut, Hooper spoke with Indiewire over the phone about the film’s
long journey to the screen, its casting controversy, aims of advocacy, and how
the Male Gaze informed Lili’s story, Hooper’s shot choices, and Redmayne’s
What attracted you to
I just fell in love with this script. I think Lucinda Coxon
wrote possibly the best first draft I’ve
ever read. I read it in late 2008. It moved me to tears, and what really moved
me was the love story at the center of it. At its core, the film is a portrait
of a marriage going through a profound transformation. And it’s really an
exploration of unconditional love, because the couple love each other that way.
You feel that Gerda keeps loving Lili with such
force that it creates a space where this kind of change might be possible at a
time — in the ’20s — where it’s unprecedented, unthinkable, unthought of. So
that really moved me.
In some ways, it’s been a seven-year journey to kind of
honor that in the way I’m trying to make the film.
You mention you’ve
been working on this for seven years, what kind of research did you do in that
Well, Eddie and I did a lot of reaching out to the trans
community here in London and America. I had an incredibly inspiring couple of
hours with Lana Wachowski, thanks to Eddie Redmayne working with her on
“Jupiter Ascending.” Lana was really generous with her insight and
ideas and knew quite a bit about Lili Elbe and Gerda. And for example, she gave
us this great idea about using the Art Nouveau period as a backdrop to the
emergence of Lili. That this revolution in design where the masculine in design
was rejected, the straight line rejected in favor of a curve and the feminine
and this explosion of color. It’s almost
like the revolution of the visual arts in the twentieth century is this sort of
backdrop to the greater shifts in the culture that were happening. And she gave
great psychological insight.
April Ashley, who is a famous trans woman in London, she was
a really celebrated model in the ’60s, and she gave us insight into the kind of
older trans perspective. Through Lana we had a great reading list. The book “Conundrum” by Jan Morris
I found really inspiring. It’s a book about transition…it talks about the idea
of the yearning for greater unity even after
transitioning. She still thought there was an even greater kind of coming
together that she could aspire to. We had some great transgender advisers on
the set…who we could ask any questions that come up.
In the film, Einar and
Lili are discussed as if they are two distinct people. Is that something you
found to be a common element of transitioning?
No. It’s interesting, I found it to be an uncommon element in terms of the modern
language and the modern way of talking about it. But where it comes from is
Lili Elbe’s diary, which she left behind and became the basis of the memoir
“Man Into Woman.” And Eddie and I took a lot of advice and talked a
lot about if we would keep this. And
we felt that actually, in the 1920’s when there was no language to describe what
she was going through — you know the word transgender wasn’t in use — it was her
way of making sense of it, of explaining it to other people. That inside there
was this battle between her masculine
side and her feminine side. And so it was really in honor of the language that
the real person used that we kept that.
You’ve directed a
number of biopics, but how is this one different in that it bears the burden of
representation for a subject matter that — as you said — didn’t really even have
terminology in Lili’s lifetime?
In some ways it’s different because (“The Danish
Girl”) is based on a novel. The script is an adaptation of a
fictionalization of the story. David Ebershoff’s novel makes it very clear that
it’s highly fictionalized. Though interestingly, we…brought it back closer to
the real story. In the novel, Gerda
is called Greta and she’s actually Californian. And in the script she’s Danish
as in the real story. It’s a mixture of fiction and fact.
We commissioned some new research into Lili and Gerda, but
there was precious little available for us. It’s quite hard to find facts and
information on. What I felt was most important in the end was honoring her role
as transgender pioneer or a pioneer of the transgender movement, and
communicating her courage. I mean, this is a time before antibiotics, before
the invention of penicillin, when the risks of infection were high, and the
consequences fatal. The more I worked on the period’s setting, the more I
realized not only the risks and the courage, but also the pain she must have been in to be willing to take those risks.
Do you consider the
film a biopic or an adaptation?
That’s a very good question. Probably an adaptation. Yeah,
I’ve noticed there’s
been a backlash in the industry recently against the word “biopic”
that’s happening a lot this season.
Yeah, where upcoming movies
about real people — in some sense — reporters have been asked not to refer to them as biopics. That
hasn’t been my experience with this film.
I’ve had a very interesting journey because of having the
difficulty of working twice with Peter Morgan (“The Damned United,”
“Longford”), who I think probably did more to reinvent the modern
biopic. I think Peter was very
understanding of rejecting the idea that a biopic should be cradle to grave, or
needs to tell the childhood, and the
teenage years, and a bit of the twenties, and then go the whole way through, even
the sort of classic “Gandhi”-style construction. It was Peter who
realized if you pick the right few
years of someone’s life or the right relationship,
you could distill the essence of a life through a key phase in a life. I think
that structural innovation that he was so brilliant with that made the biopic
work better in a single feature film format.
I wonder in part if
it’s that filmmakers don’t like the word biopic because then people seem to be
more critical of when the film takes liberties from what really happened.
Yeah. I suppose. But I think it’s about stating clearly to
the audience what the relationship is to the subject. I think if you go around
saying, “This is very accurate version of a true story,” then you
should expect people to scrutinize it. If you say, “it’s inspired by”
or “it’s a fictionalized version of it” then you’re claiming the
right to make it work as a piece of cinema by fictionalizing aspects of it. So
I think it’s more about a transparency of intention. Like I don’t begin the
film by saying “based on a true story,” I just begin the film.
You’ve spoken about
how “The Danish Girl” movie takes strides to be more true to life in
some respects than the novel. But I’m curious about the ending, where Gerda and
Lili are together in her final days, where they were not in real life. Can you
talk about that change?
Really I’m going to have to credit Lucinda Coxon for the
ending because the script I fell in love with in 2008 had that ending. We changed
it a tiny bit, but based on the structure that was there. I think the shift
that I made was that I de-emphasized the importance of the Hans storyline. I
didn’t want to feel that there was a love possibility with Hans that could in any way rival Lili. And in fact I wanted
it to even be ambiguous if it even would turn into a love affair (between Gerda
and Hans), rather than a friendship. Because to me — clearly from the research I
did — the love of each other’s lives was Lili and Gerda. So I think I took the script
in that direction to protect the importance of their relationship.
When Eddie’s casting
was announced, there was some backlash. Can you talk about that?
I had the instinct to cast him when I first read the script.
When you read something, you imagine an actor playing it. I’d already worked
with Eddie when he was 22-years-old. He played somebody who rebels in
“Elizabeth I.” Rebelling against Helen Mirren doesn’t play out very
well, and he gets sentenced to death! He was so emotionally raw in that performance
that even then I thought this guy has
extraordinary gifts, and I wanted to a role where I could put him in the lead
of a film. By the time I was in production, I’d actually had him in mind for a
So, I suppose I feel that gender is a spectrum and we all have a
balance of masculine and feminine. The thing about Eddie is he is drawn to the feminine. He has played
women’s parts before. He played girls’ parts in school plays. He played Viola
in “Twelfth Night.” So, he had a body of work playing women’s roles.
I wanted him to go deeper into himself, dig into that feminine side.
When you have an
early reaction like that from the media and online, how does that impact your
process? Is it helpful or hurtful?
I think — you know because we were already in production — I
think it really just reminded me how important
this story was to its community. It reminded me of how conscientious Eddie and
I had to be to honor such an important pioneer of the transgender movement. I
think the community showing that passion over this story only inspired us to be more diligent, be more educated, take greater care, and make the best film we
The film has an
interesting relationship with the Male Gaze. Can you tell me a bit about how
you feel the Male Gaze informs “The Danish Girl?”
I think not even the Male Gaze, but Female Gaze — the Gaze
won’t stop is a key theme. In some ways, the film camera is a form of Gaze that
you give to the viewer with the placement of the camera. And one of the things
that I was interested in was how I could internalize or go inside the artistic
sensibility of these two artists in how I shot the film. I thought about the
idea of how Einar perceives the creation of beauty in his landscapes, in the
wide shot. Gerda perceives beauty in the creation of these portraits of
beautiful women, or these idealized portraits of feminine beauty, so the
close-up. And so I wanted to the pursuit of beauty in the physical surroundings
and in faces to be a part of the pursuit of the movie. In paintings, you don’t
have a tracking shot. I probably use a
more static camera than I usually use to reflect that idea of the artist’s
point of view, the kind of human eye viewpoint.
And then there’s the key moment at the artist’s ball where
you have Lili going out as Lili for the first time and feeling what it’s like
to be objectified by the Male Gaze for the first time. And having been a man,
being spared that, and how the pressure
grates on her, and how it probably creates an anxiety on whether she passes or
whether she blends. And then you have Gerda with Fonnesbech (whose portrait
she’s painting), teasing a male sitter being objectified by the Female Gaze. I
think it’s something Eddie builds into his performance, the idea of Lili’s
self-consciousness, the awareness of being watched. And the more she finds
comfort in, the more security in being a woman, you feel like she’s less
influenced by the pressure of the Gaze.
“The Danish Girl” opens in theaters Friday, November 27.
READ MORE: Review: ‘The Danish Girl’ Isn’t As Groundbreaking As It Thinks