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 performance.
What attracted you to Lili’s story?
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 time?
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, an adaptation.
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 long time.
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 possibly could.
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.