The Real Events That Tom Hooper Didn't Include in The Danish Girl, and Why
If you haven't seen The Danish Girl, you're missing out. Not only are stars Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander racking up nominations for their performances, but the movie is also greatly entertaining and thought-provoking. The film, based on the book of the same name by David Ebershoff, tells the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first women to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables, The King's Speech) has created a beautiful film, and I got the chance to talk to him before the movie was released. Read below to find out why it took him seven years to get the story to the big screen, what convinced him that Redmayne was right for the part, and what parts of Lili and Gerda Wegener's stories he didn't include. Mild spoiler warning!
POPSUGAR: This movie seems to come in the middle of a flood of LGBT movies. Have you seen either Freeheld or About Ray? Why do you think the time is right now?
Tom Hooper: Actually, the show I've just started watching is Transparent. It's so good, isn't it? It was beautifully written, so I'm hooked on that. The irony of a director going to film festivals is you never get to see any of the films.
TH: I'm looking forward to seeing the films that you mentioned. What's interesting is that I first read this script in 2008, and it was considered — you know — a hard film to finance and a hard film to get made. The fact that there's been this incredible shift, where now people see it as an obvious film to have made shows that there's the beginnings of a seismic shift in the culture. Trans stories have now entered the mainstream in this fantastic way, but the most important thing is what follows from that is hopefully a shift in the experience of trans people — so that there's more acceptance in the culture to the issues they face and more support.
PS: Do you think that played a part in why it took so long to get this movie to the screen?
TH: Probably. I've been involved for seven years. The producers [he says a production company name, but I cannot hear what he says; it doesn't sound like any of the producers listed on IMBD] optioned the book in 2000. So it's been a 15-year journey. I think the fact that it's taken so long is evidence of some of the inherent prejudices against trans stories that people have faced for a long time. So it's great we got it made.
PS: You worked with Eddie before. What was it in him that persuaded you he was the right person for the role?
TH: I first worked with him when he was 22, and we did Elizabeth I about Queen Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren. He rebelled against Helen Mirren and was sentenced to death: I remember he gave this astonishing performance when he was in the trial scene being sentenced to death where he literally started to shake with fear and emotion. He has this extraordinary translucency where you feel like you can see his emotion through his skin. I thought there's something in Eddie that's drawn to the feminine: unusually he played female roles at school — you know, he played the girls roles. He'd been in the production of Twelfth Night playing Violet, so it was quite unusual for an actor to have a body of work of playing women already. I thought it would be interesting for him to explore this latent femininity.
PS: How would you compare his transformation here to his transformation in The Theory of Everything?
TH: I think what they share is his meticulous preparation. He prepared for The Danish Girl full time for a year; he didn't do another movie. With The Theory of Everything, he was very concerned that people who were suffering from the disease felt well-represented by him and he did great outreach to that community of people. With this, I cannot tell you how much he cares about representing this iconic trans character as well as he possibly could. He met many trans men and women, read incredibly academic books about gender theory, and he really understands the responsibility of playing someone who existed — and someone who, in this case, is so iconic in the trans movement.
PS: I think people who didn't read the book might be surprised at how much you focus on their marriage.
TH: I fell in love with this script because, to me, it was first and foremost a great love story — an epic love story and a portrait of a young couple in love, a portrait of a marriage going through this profound change. At the center of it is this love that Gerda has for Lili, where you feel like it's unconditional love that she keeps supporting him through this incredibly challenging and dangerous process. There's something so beautiful about that love that I think is what I wanted to put on screen.
PS: The book itself fictionalizes some elements of the story. Was it more important to you to stick with what was on the page or what happened in actuality?
TH: The inspiration was David's wonderful novel, and David is very careful to say it's loosely based on the characters, and it's a fictionalized account. It was sort of a thing of wanting to pay respect to what David created, but also see if we could bring back a little more of the reality of the story through the research we'd done. I think it's a statement about trans history that there was very little information about Lili Elbe to be found. When I started working, we had to commission our own researchers to go out and do firsthand research, and quite often the information was contradictory, so there are some aspects of her story that remain shrouded in mystery. It's a balance between wanting to be true to what made David's novel great and trying to honor the true story.
PS: In researching the story a little bit, I saw some rumors that Gerda herself was a lesbian and she was more attracted to the feminine side of Lili. Did you find any of that to be true?
TH: Yeah, I'm not sure. I think part of that is she painted these lesbian eroticas. If you google, you'll see there are some great erotic prints she did. I always thought that Lili when she was living as Einar was brilliant in choosing Gerda because she chose the one wife who was actually open to the feminine in her. I wonder whether if they'd been alive now, they would have ended up as two women together. In that period, it would have been unheard of and probably not allowed. There's a scene where Lili as Einar has put on a slip and they go to bed; you can see that Gerda is absolutely open and receptive to his, to her femininity. As an artist, [Gerda] is excited in finding the femininity in Lili as Einar. That's what's so fascinating about the story is this whole transformation happens partly inspired by Gerda's eye as an artist spotting something in her husband that she wants to bring out. The art is very key to it as well.
PS: Given that the story is so much about Gerda, and you have the epilogue at the end where you say she supported Lili through her transformation, is there a reason that you didn't choose to say what happens to Gerda after she passes away?
TH: She married an Italian diplomat and lived in Morocco, but the marriage lasted three years, and the guy ended up actually — from what I understand — taking all of her money, so she ended up living in reduced financial circumstances back in Denmark. I felt that from my research that the love of her life was Lili and if this person had become the love of her life than it would have been important to the story, but I felt like a failed marriage was not as important as this incredible love story.
PS: Aesthetically, the film is beautiful. What inspiration did you take in putting together their apartment and the ballet hall?
TH: Through my wonderful production, Eve Stewart came to the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, who — it's worth googling him — mainly painted his own apartment, and it was all this sort of incredibly restrained, beautifully austere blue gray colors. It's women and men standing alone in these rather empty elegiac spaces. We basically built a replica of Hammershoi's apartment, which is the subject of his paintings, and some of the shots are very close reproductions of Hammershoi paintings that he did. There was something about the austerity of the Danish palette that felt like it reflected what it would be like to be Lili living as Einar and to be restricted in this austere world. Then you get to Paris with the explosion of art nouveau and color. Art nouveau is about the rejection of the masculine, the rejection of austerity, embracing the feminine, the curved line, beauty, floral design, and I thought that would be a great background to show the emergence of Lili.
PS: One character in particular that I was drawn to is Amber Heard's character. What to you does she represent in this story?
TH: She represents, in the first scene, this mirage of the ideal feminine. Amber is so breathtakingly beautiful, and I like that first scene because it appears to be the trope of the man staring at the beautiful woman — the male gaze objectifying the woman, but actually, as the film shows, it's a woman looking at a woman with a very different kind of yearning to do with gender identity rather than the desire to sexual possess her. So I felt like feminine beauty was very powerful for Lili as Einar, but also as a very powerful part of Gerda's art. She not only painted beautiful women — she tended to idealize them. She painted triptychs full of Gerda and Lili together. Yet I also like, in Lucinda Coxon's script, when she speaks, she's earthy and she undercuts this mirage image. She's funny and she helps us touch a permissiveness in certain eccentrics living in the '20s that maybe created a space where this change could happen.