Tom Hooper on Compromising his Artistic Vision to Make It Work

a scene from the Danish Girl showing Gerda painting her husband posing as Lili

Tom Hooper on Compromising his Artistic Vision to Make It Work 


Besides directing, Tom Hooper is really good at one thing: finding a great anecdote about his journey making a particular film, and sharing it during the Oscars race. I’ve seen The King’s Speech in Los Angeles during that time, and Hooper works his magic and win a crowd, me included. One of the reason it works so well is because he picks stories that are interesting, and the one for the Danish Girl is a great anecdote on the fine line between having an artistic vision and making a compromise to make it work.

The Danish Girl tells the story of two Danish painters, Gerda Wegener, and her husband, Einar Wegener who became one of the first transgender going through a surgical operation at the beginning of the 20th century. A women and a transgender painter in the 1900s? Needless to say, you won’t find a lot of their paintings in museums.

During a masterclass at the Goteborg Film Festival, Hooper explained that during his research, he went to different museums, only to realised that those who had acquired the work of Wegener and Elbe had a tendency to put them in their archival rooms, i.e. far from the public’s sight.

So for him, it was essential to have the paintings in the film. Here is what Hooper says:

“It was funny because I started from a really purist point of view of saying ‘I‘m only going to have the real art in the films, the real Gerda painting in the film, the real Lili painting in the film, I will accept nothing less’. And my production designer and my whole team panicked because it was incredibly hard to find any of the work, it was mostly in private collectors hands, they said ‘Tom, this isn’t practical, it’s expensive, it’s difficult to find, it’s difficult to travel, the transporter, the insurance, it’s expensive…’ and I said ‘No! I’m a purist, it’s going to be the real art.’

So I went on about this for about six months, until about a month before the shoot, my prodtion designer Eve Stewart sat me down very quietly and said ‘Tom, you do realise that in the real Gerda paintings it’s not actually Eddie Redmayne.’

And I said, ‘Yes, that’s true. I apologise I just wasted five months of everyone’s life, and now we have a month left to make all the arts.’

We tried various shortcuts, to try to make it very quickly, enlarging photocopies and painting on the top, image mapping Eddie Redmayne into the paintings, they all looked shit…

And you know how we solved it in the end? We solved it by having Susie Brough, our wonderful portrait painter, and getting Eddie to pose as Lili for real, and she painted the paintings from live in the old fashion way and that’s how we got it right.”

the real painting by gerda wegener

Beyond the good anecdote, I love the fact that it tells so much about the fine line we surf, between standing strong for a tough-to-sell idea, that will cost more money, that will ask to move mountains, and being able to recognise your error, or the impossibility of your idea, and move forward, fast and focused.

And of course, the fact that technology is amazing, but there’s no replacing the good old painting skill.

You can watch the full masterclass below: