An English boy from a loving, successful Anglo-Australian family, Tom Hooper has become one of the brightest British directors. Since he started making his own films at the tender age of 13, it’s not hard to see why.
Born in 1972, to the producer, businessman and Open University founder Richard Hooper and the writer and historian Meredith Hooper, Tom Hooper was born in London and went on to attend the prestigious Highgate School and Westminster School. It was at Highgate that he met the former Royal Shakespeare Company actor, Richard Mortimer, who was the English and drama teacher and Mortimer’s annual school play sparked Hooper’s passion for drama. Although he was initially enamoured by acting, he has stated that: “I killed that dream and thank God, because I’m a terrible actor. Ask any actor who has ever seen me try to act.”
In fact, after reading ‘How to Make Film and Television’ that he found on a school piano, he decided to pursue becoming a director. Supplementing his knowledge with other texts, he made his first comedy film, ‘Runaway Dog’ on location in Oxfordshire with an antique clockwork 16mm Bolex camera. This gift from his uncle only shot 30 seconds of silent footage so Hooper showed his creative flair with using a slower frame rate for maximum footage.
His first success came with a BBC Young Filmmakers Competition where he was runner-up with his short ‘Bomber Jacket’ that was inspired by his own grandfather (Edward Morris Hooper), a bomber navigator killed in action in February 1942, aged 30. He even recalls his father showing him the bomber jacket Edward wore and in the short, he uses his younger brother to discover the jacket and its history. Before reading English at Oxford, he took a gap year in order to finance his first professional short film, Painted Faces. The director Paul Weiland invested in the project, with Channel 4 ultimately buying it and it was screened at the 35th London Film Festival.
At Oxford, he joined the Oxford University Dramatic Society where he directed Kate Beckinsale in ‘A View from the Bridge’ and Emily Mortimer in ‘The Trial’. He also was doing commercial work with adverts and after university, he followed the advice of a friend of his father to not be ‘snooty’ and to be open to directing soap operas or children’s television. Despite his experience and determination at such a young age, it was only the executive producer of ‘Byker Grove’ (1989-2006), a BBC Children’s show, Matthew Robinson, who was prepared to take a chance and let him direct episodes during 1997. Hooper went on to direct award-winning episodes of ‘EastEnders’ (1985-) during 1998-2000.
Directing the comedy-drama series ‘Cold Feet’ (1998-2003) marked Hooper’s move to bigger productions and he moved back to the BBC to direct two costume dramas, adapted from books, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ (2001) by Nancy Mitford and George Eliot’s ‘Daniel Deronda’ (2002). This was a massive success for Hooper with the Guardian’s Mark Lawson praising Hooper for bringing ‘verve and intelligence to television’s most conservative form’. He then received many nominations for his revival of ‘Prime Suspect’ (1991-2006), renamed ‘The Last Witness’ with Helen Mirren.
However, Hooper made his film debut with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Drama, Red Dust (2004) and returned to work with Helen Mirren again for her role in Elizabeth I (2005), which won him an Emmy award. This two-part series and the award-winning television film, Longford (2006), caught the attention of Tom Hanks. Hanks selected him to direct the epic miniseries John Adams (2008) and this brought him unparalleled success: the series received 23 Emmy Award nominations, including another Outstanding Direction nomination for Hooper, and won 13, the highest number for any nominee in a single year. It also won four Golden Globe awards making the miniseries more successful than any other in history.
While this huge success won Hooper offers from studios to direct spy and comic films, he instead concentrated on his own independent feature film of ‘The Damned United’ (2009). Meticulously researched, the film was an adaptation of David Peace’s fictionalised version of the football manager, David Clough’s stormy 44 days at the football club, Leeds United. While the film was well-received by critics, it was controversial with Clough’s family and friends who cited numerous factual inaccuracies. Then, it was Hooper’s mother, Meredith, who discovered the subject of his next film ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010). Initially written as a stage play by David Seidler, Meredith Hooper went to a reading of it and recommended it. As Hooper said in his speech when he won his Oscar for the film, the moral of the story is “listen to your mother”.
He followed this up with the star-studded cast of ‘Les Misérables’ (2012). He again showed a sensitivity to the subject matter of the film, for in ‘The King’s Speech’, he refrained from typical cinematography for historical dramas for instance wider lenses reflecting King George’s feelings of constriction while dealing with his stutter. For ‘Les Misérables’, the actors would sing on camera in order to have more emotional control and could sing in a recitative style. His most recent film, The Danish Girl (2015), has been his labour of love. It’s an adaptation of a novel by American writer David Ebershoff, about Lili Elbe – one of the first transgender women who underwent reassignment surgery in the 1930s. Hooper had in fact been considering the subject from the age of 10. During his mother’s hospitalisation for skin cancer in 1982, a patient in the next bed was one of only two people allowed gender reassignment on the NHS per year. While chatting with Meredith, the surgeon “ended up in tears, admitting that the woman on the operating table had almost been lost”. His “memory of how risky the procedure was, and how powerful the force was in the person wanting to do it, has been with” Hooper “for a long time”. Hooper continued that, “it struck me that if it was that dangerous in 1982, can you imagine the risk Einar [Elbe’s given name] was taking in 1930?”
In a year where transgender rights have been particularly prominent, Hooper’s film is an extraordinary story of such a courageous pioneer and will hopefully spark off much marginalised stories of LGBT figures getting the attention they truly deserve. Hooper’s variety of films have shown that he is not just a storyteller, but he adds a special touch to the tales of those who have been forgotten to create incredibly compelling films.