The Kings SpeechCast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Spall, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon
Director: Tim Hooper
Running Time: 110 minutes
Synopsis: The Kings Speech tells the story of the relationship between Britain's reluctant King George VI, plagued by a nervous stammer, and the unorthodox Australian speech therapist who helps him. .
Release Date: 26th of December, 2010
The story of this production begins in the 1940s with the war. As a child, screenwriter David Seidler suffered from a profound stammer. Listening to King George VI's speeches on BBC radio during and after the war inspired him to think that if the King could cope with a stammer, so could he. As a result, George VI, the stammering King who had to speak, became a boyhood hero and role model for David Seidler, and ultimately the inspiration for this film.
David Seidler started researching King George VI while at university, reading Wheeler Bennet's biography. But it was not until he wrote "Tucker; the man and his dream" for Francis Ford Coppola that he felt the confidence to write a film about the subject closest to his heart. Renewing his research, this is when David Seidler first encountered the name Lionel Logue. "I started getting tiny blips on the radar screen of the name Lionel Logue. Not much was ever said about him in the various biographies of the King, but I could smell a story. I did a bit of detective work in London and came up with an address for one of his sons who agreed to meet me." Valentine Logue told David Seidler that he had some of his father's papers, but David Seidler should check with the Queen Mother before proceeding. The Queen Mother - George VI's widow - wrote back to him to ask him not to write the film in her lifetime as "the memories of these events are still too painful." David Seidler, out of respect for her, waited.
Finally in 2005 he sat down to write, and wrote the first draft in stage play form, as an exercise in discipline, to keep the story focused on character. As it was many years later David Seidler was no longer able to find any members of the Logue family so the Logue papers remained unread.
Immediately there was interest in the stage play in London. And here chance intervened.
Geoffrey Rush had the play script posted to him unsolicited through his Melbourne letterbox by a London based Australian assistant returning home for Christmas. Despite this unconventional approach, Geoffrey Rush read it and loved it. Geoffrey Rush said he wanted to do it as a film, not as a play.
The director Tom Hooper came by the script entirely by the fact of being half English, half Australian. The director's Australian mother Meredith was invited by North London Australian friends to an unrehearsed play reading in a London fringe theatre of the yet to be produced play "The King's Speech", having never been invited to a play reading in her life before. Impressed by the play, she nevertheless saw it as a film, and asked David Seidler to send the script to Tom Hooper. David Seidler was already a big fan of Tom Hooper 's HBO work, and Tom Hooper was knocked out by the script.
Meanwhile producer Gareth Unwin had optioned the play as a film and taken it to Iain Canning and Emile Sherman from See-Saw Films, who, as they run an Anglo-Australian production company were perfectly suited to this material. Having worked with Geoffrey Rush on "Candy" and "$9.99", Emile Sherman was delighted to be working with the actor again on the company's first UK production, and Iain was fresh from the success of "Hunger" and "Control".
Tom Hooper met with Colin Firth about playing the role of the King and was immediately convinced. "Everything I read about King George VI showed that the King had this indestructible core of niceness at the centre of his being - I feel the very same way about Colin Firth, he has this extraordinary moral compass, humility and kindness that I strongly felt made him perfect for Bertie. And going right back to Colin Firth's role in "Tumbledown", his extraordinary performance of a physically and emotionally damaged veteran of the Falklands war, I had been a long term admirer of his ability to dramatize vulnerability with compelling force. He also immediately brought to bear his remarkable intelligence on the role, taking on the complexity of the history with great flair."
The production then had the good fortune to discover through its research that Lionel Logue had a grandson living in London, Mark Logue, who still had Logue's papers, all unpublished and never seen by any historians of the period. They included a diary detailing his working relationship with the King, fragments of an autobiography, even the King's medical report card! Immediately the script was rewritten to include gems of information from the diaries.
Helped by this treasure trove of information Tom Hooper and Colin Firth immediately began work researching the King's stammer, watching all available archive of the King and meeting contemporary speech therapists.
"A lot of speech problems stem from children feeling their voices are not heard. That no one cares what they say and that makes them increasingly hesitant about being able to speak," says director Tom Hooper. "Bertie was afflicted by this stammer at a time where people considered it a sign of mental weakness. He had a really bleak upbringing. His father King George V treated his sons like recalcitrant naval cadets with himself as the commanding officer. There was a complete lack of any emotional connection with his parents and as a left-handed child he was retrained to be right-handed, he had bowed legs and was retrained by having to wear metal splints for years. I am sure his stammer came from all that. This is the story about how this man overcame this to become a great king. He was probably the most reluctant king in history."
Tom Hooper continues, "This is not a story about a man who wants power - this is a story about a man who will give anything not to be king. He absolutely deep in his heart does not want the job and Lionel Logue is the man who helps him get through this incredible fear of taking on that responsibility."
Geoffrey Rush was inspired by the relationship between the King and Lionel Logue, "You can see in film footage of Prince Albert how much inner turmoil is going on in his life as somebody who hasn't got a comfortable control of their voice, particularly in public. But when he bursts a smile, you can see his warmth, in some ways the story takes on a Shakespearean dimension because you get the big outer world and you get a very good look at the inner life of the man."
For David Seidler too the heart of the story is about being heard and having a voice. "Bertie is the second son. His brother David is immensely popular, he could speak beautifully, he could handle the microphone brilliantly, he was good looking, he was dashing, he was stylish and he was everyone's Prince Charming. Poor Bertie was shy, stammering and stuttering, but a family man. He was deeply in love with Elizabeth, they had two beautiful daughters and he just wanted to be left alone. He knew he had to do the occasional royal duty but they were very minor. Until the occasion of the closing of the Wembley Stadium Empire Exhibition. It was just heartbreaking, he absolutely freezes he just can't do it. Bertie understood that for privilege you pay the price of duty. I think Churchill chose his word perfectly when Bertie died. Churchill presented a wreath of flowers with just one word on it: 'Valour'."
Tom Hooper takes up the story. "He had seen every top speech therapist and doctor and got nowhere. Lionel Logue was the last record card in the box, he was the maverick and what saved Bertie is their friendship, more than the talking cure. When he broadcasts Logue is in the room with him and he tells Logue the speech like you would tell a friend a speech. It's really a story about that friendship."
Geoffrey Rush explains of Logue "He got into speech therapy when he started to work a lot with soldiers returning to Australia from the front in Europe who were suffering from shell-shock and were verbally locked. He knew a lot about anatomy and muscle therapy and breathing exercises. He pioneered an almost psychotherapeutic approach. He knew the problem was not simply a physical one, that there was something, mostly around the age of four or five, some kind of trauma in the child that creates stammering. It's unblocking that that gives a little bit of edge to Lionel trying to get inside this royal persona who is very formal and stamped by centuries of tradition."
Tom Hooper was eager to tell the well-known story of the abdication from an unusual angle. "One of the reasons why this appealed to me was it is such a subversive look at the abdication. It's the "B" plot in history, the abdication crisis and Wallis Simpson being the "A" plot. It's not general knowledge that the man helping Bertie was Australian. I wanted the film to have a modernity and not to be stuffy and traditional."
For half-Australian Tom Hooper, the fact that Logue was Antipodean was immensely important, "There is something in the Australian culture that is very democratic, that's anti-hierarchy, anti-class, and it's someone coming with that kind of relaxed energy that could break through all the problems created by Bertie's class and his incredibly austere upbringing. As the son of an English father who went to boarding school from the age of five after his own father died in the war, and an Australian mother, I know from my upbringing a little bit about the story of an Australian unpacking the effects of a tough English childhood!"
Geoffrey Rush adds, "The relationship between Bertie and Lionel is fuelled by the unlikelihood of them meeting. There's something that's really intriguing about that cultural and class gap between this unknown figure from Perth, finding his way into the upper echelons of into the English royal household. Australia would have been a fairly unknown quantity in the 20s and 30s to most English people and they probably had a slightly, shall we say imperial attitude to the Australians. The film looks at the contrast between their families, there is a more open, easier feel to the Australian lower-middle class family as opposed to the pressure that Bertie feels."
Within the space of 12 months in 1936, Prince Albert experienced his father's death, a crisis in the British monarchy that led to his brother's abdication in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson and his own accession to the throne.
The abdication crisis was probably the nearest the monarchy came to collapse in the twentieth century. "It was a huge crisis in the validity of the idea of the monarchy," points out Tom Hooper. "Monarchies between the wars were collapsing all over Europe. This story is set against a background of the decline of British Empire, the decline of the idea of kings having the right to rule and a time of incredible technological change that was transforming the very idea of monarchy."
This coincided with the birth of radio as a mass medium. King George V had made the first Christmas broadcast in 1932 starting a tradition that continues to this day. As Tom Hooper puts it, "King George V says in the film that the royal family has become actors and this fundamentally changes the relationship between the king and his subjects because it becomes about performance, it becomes about whether through giving a great speech they can project the right kind of image of the monarchy." So it is a supreme and dramatic irony that Bertie became king right at the moment radio took off as a mass medium, in that small window of time when it was a live medium only, you couldn't pre-record and edit out the stammers.
Elizabeth (Bowes-Lyon), played by Helena Bonham Carter, who married Bertie, was very supportive of her husband. As Colin Firth explains,,"One thing everyone agrees on is that he drew on her for support probably as much as anybody. There's a picture which I think is very eloquent of his dilemma and of their relationship, which is of him in full regalia in Canberra, Australia about to speak, sometime in the 1920s, and you can see the rictus of terror, not just in his face but in his entire posture, staring at the ground as if he is starring into the abyss. She is next to him and everything about her seems to be saying, "it'll be okay, I believe in you, you'll be fine." She was clearly very devoted to him and very committed to helping him with his problem. She was the one who went to find Logue, and she participated in the sessions and the exercises. So she's critical to him overcoming his situation, and he clearly adored her."
Having studied photographs from the time, Colin Firth found huge differences between the pictures taken of Bertie and his family and George V and his children, "Just from looking at the images reveals immeasurable difference between that generation of the Royal Family and the previous generation. George V and Queen Mary are terribly rigid, there is no warmth at all, and there certainly is no family interaction in those pictures. But whenever you look at pictures of George VI and Elizabeth with the two girls, they're looking at each other and there's this physical contact, and you can see that there always seems to be a warmth on his face, or some sort of twinkle, whenever he is looking at the girls."
Helena Bonham Carter adds, "Everyone said that he could not have been King without her. It was through her support and her strength. He was not equipped in his personality or suited to being King in any way, and he knew it. It was more than just the stammer, he was terribly shy, he was under-confident. Physically he wasn't that strong and he wasn't made for a great public role or responsibility. She was from a very posh Scottish family and she was perfectly equipped to play a part as a public figure. Together they could do it. He drew upon her strength and her confidence and her fortitude. It was a real partnership and it was a very good marriage."
It was essential the historical facts were as accurate as they could be. David Seidler explains: "It was a big issue with Tom Hooper, so I heavily researched the period. The only gaps in our knowledge were what would have taken behind closed doors in the consultation room between Lionel and Bertie, but I based those scenes on what I knew about Logue's techniques and other speech therapy techniques that were around in that era and also from what he wrote in his diaries." David Seidler also drew heavily from his own experience of undergoing speech therapy in the 1940s and 1950.
"There is a Hollywood tradition that is pretty casual about historical fact," adds Tom Hooper. "This is recent history for a lot of people still living and it's about the Queen's father and so I have tried to make it as accurate as I possibly can."
The unpublished Lionel Logue diaries made an enormous contribution to the accuracy of the project. "The great gift of this film was to uncover the diaries," says Tom Hooper. "I can't stress enough what an amazing discovery it was. As a resource these previously confidential documents and letters explained their relationship and were invaluable. Generally when you research a story you find things that are true are more unusual than if you had invented them. For example the famous photograph of Bertie and the microphone in his navel kit sitting at his desk in a grand room turns out to be fake. It's posed. They didn't do his speeches as King in this grand scenario; he did it standing up at an old school desk with the window open with his jacket off; all details that we found through the diaries. The picture of him looking very regal at this desk is basically a PR picture. Research often leads you to a more unusual and interesting understanding of history."
Geoffrey Rush points out that Mark Logue was also able to show the filmmakers a number of photographs of his family. "They showed the family in a domestic setting, as well as with the royal family, which helped a lot in terms of the feel and look of the character. The research has been very meticulous. More often than not in historical films people take a lot of dramatic license. There is something about this particular story and this time, between the First and Second World Wars where the reality and actuality of what went on is so intriguing. If a line comes up that Tom thinks is historically inaccurate in its reference but seems dramatically more valuable he'll eliminate it as what truly happened resonates more. I read quite a few books out about George VI and they were real page-turners, there is so much of interest going on. People thought that with the rise of Bolshevism, Stalin and Hitler, the various monarchs of Europe could be reaching the end of their existence. The presence of royal life might disappear."
Colin Firth also researched the period thoroughly and came to appreciate Bertie's public speaking. "There is archive footage as well as audio of the speeches to listen to. I paid a lot of attention to those, not to impersonate, but to get what information I could about him and to somehow adapt that to what I was doing. It's interesting, not so much what the stammer sounded like, it was how he struggled against it that interested me, how he tried to deal with it. When he hit one of those blocks when he was speaking publicly, you see him gathering himself, you see the attempt to calm himself, and that hesitation, feeling like an eternity with thousands, or in the case of radio broadcast millions, of people hanging on every word. Reading a bit was enormously helpful in understanding what he was up against and to understanding why his fear must have been so overwhelming. He really did draw the short straw in terms of what was going on in history at that moment. His father was the first king ever, certainly the first King of England, to have performed a live radio broadcast. Every previous king in history didn't have to worry about live radio, and every other future monarch would have the protection of edited and recorded footage. Bertie had to sit in front of a live microphone and speak to the whole Empire."
The monarchy had little function other than symbolic. Colin Firth came to think of Bertie as heroic. "He has no constitutional power, he can't levee a tax, he can't declare a war, he can't appoint a minister. His job is to speak. And when he speaks the nation believes he speaks for them, and that's the symbolic value of his existence. If you feel you can't speak then you're pointless. There is something heroic about the fact that he took it on with considerable courage, and the fact that he never really was 'cured', because he never completely overcame the stammer. But he managed to reach people, people respected the way he spoke to them, there was something sincere in his tone and when he said 'I'm speaking to you as if I were able to cross your threshold into your living rooms and speak to you myself', people felt he meant it. There was something important going into a war about having a leader that had those qualities. His adversaries were the best in the business. If you want to talk about rhetoric they don't come much more effective than Hitler and Mussolini. In contrast, when you hear the appeal to the very humane ideals that George VI talks about, in the tone that he talks about them, it's incredibly convincing."
Colin Firth continues, "The September 3rd 1939 speech when war is declared that we hear in the film, he says some things that are extremely resonant of what the values were behind the reasons for going to war. Talking about Nazism, he said that 'this is an ideology, which can't be allowed to take hold, and if it's stripped of all its disguise then it's exposed as the mere primitive doctrine that might is right.' There's something about his tone that was very consistent with what he was saying. There was a quiet humanity about him which I think won people over, it didn't happen overnight and it took him quite a while to convince people he was a worthy alternative to his brother."
One of Tom Hooper's strengths as a director is his direction of actors. Many have won awards for their work with him. "I always seek out the best actors I can and I've been blessed to work with some extraordinary actors over the last few years. I feel very fortunate to work with Colin Firth. As an actor he is a very interesting package. He has an incredible rigour about the text, we had a three week rehearsal period and there wasn't a line that he said that we didn't pick apart discuss, analyse and improve if we could. His command of the subject and Bertie's story was pretty formidable by the time we started shooting. He brings a wonderful specificity to the role; his body language, the way he speaks, he studied the way Bertie stammered very carefully. He has risen to the challenge and succeeded, as you really care for this man. This film stands or falls by the amount you care about his fate."
Tom Hooper wasn't looking for impersonations of his real life characters. "It is incredibly important that none of the roles feel like a caricature. Physical appearance similarities are only part of it. The most important thing is to capture the essence of the person."
Producer Iain Canning, having just executive produced "Control" and "Hunger", was keen to find a director that would be able to balance the historical facts with a real flair for story-telling.
"What really impresses me about Tom Hooper is his energy and approach." Iain Canning says, "If you look through his work he has constantly avoided cliché. He does this through an incredible attention to detail and research process that bring his work to life. We are able to understand the characters as human beings rather than as people in history books."
Helena Bonham Carter was Tom Hooper's first choice to play Elizabeth, The Queen Mother but she was filming the final Harry Potter film and technically unavailable.
"I pursued her ruthlessly," says Tom Hooper. "The number of things that got in the way and made it practically impossible to cast her you wouldn't believe. We had to completely reschedule the shoot, work weekends in order to make it work but we did everything we could and I am so pleased because she is so brilliant in it. When you see footage of the real Queen Mother you realise how much she has caught her spirit. She is very great in it and has a wonderful wit and mischief."
Her wit and strength of character are particularly revealed in her relationship with Winston Churchill, played by Timothy Spall. "It's a battle of wits and they're both politicians," explains Helena Bonham Carter. "She knew all about power and she knew what people were doing. She is suspicious of Churchill at this point in the proceedings and it's witty, she's witty. She is the archetypal woman behind a great man, but she has been written with wit and her contained intelligence is interesting. I was simultaneously filming Harry Potter and playing a witch screaming a lot and being very physical so it was nice to play the opposite end of the spectrum and rein it in."
Helena Bonham Carter was attracted to the duality of the character. "It's always tricky to play a historical person, you have a responsibility and you have to be polite and respectful. She's got this very soft sweet somewhat vague gentle exterior, but underneath there's this whole other personality. Everyone in the public eye has to develop a bit of a front in order to protect themselves and that interested me. Cecil Beaton described her as a marshmallow, but one made with a welding machine."
Helena Bonham Carter and Colin Firth enjoyed working together, their different approaches exemplified by the day they got stuck in a lift together. "Don't get stuck in a lift with Colin Firth," advises Helena Bonham Carter. "I knew he was claustrophobic and I could feel his pain. But I thought "Actually this is quite useful as it's like being with Bertie, someone who is deficient, emotionally vulnerable, fragile and needs protecting." It was a really small lift, to give him credit. We were very intimate!"
Colin Firth jokingly responds. "Sadly Helena Bonham Carter's supposed to be playing someone that is very supportive of me, but she finds that quite difficult. Whenever I'm stammering if I catch her eye she's usually looking at her watch or yawning. Fortunately when the camera is on her she looks delightfully supportive." He adds, "If I had to choose somebody to get stuck in a lift with she comes fairly high on the list because she's amusing, attractive and very small."
Geoffrey Rush boarded the project at the film's inception. "Geoffrey Rush was the reason the film happened as he championed it from the start. It is such a good fit for him, it's a perfect role. He was a passionate advocate of getting the film made from the beginning. There are lots of things in the film that he wrote. I don't think I have ever worked with an actor who with his endurance and stamina and persistence of enthusiasm" says Tom Hooper.
Colin Firth reflects on working with Geoffrey Rush, "He's quite fantastic in that he never lets an obvious choice get through. He didn't want it to be about a stiff member of the Royal Family and a crass Aussie who has no idea how to behave. Which you could make a kind of comic dynamic if you wanted to - Crocodile Dundee meets the Duke of York, and he wasn't interested in that. He made Lionel much more textured, he made him vulnerable and complex. He gave Logue a real thoughtfulness and warmth. Geoffrey Rush's created a very loveable character who cares deeply about helping the people he is dealing with. He's completely committed to it and he genuinely grows to love Bertie. Like all relationships which are meaningful, they're not smooth, they fall foul of each other, and they misunderstand each other, and they have rows, and they make it up again. He is such a rigorous worker, I found it quite contagious. I'm pretty lazy under normal circumstances, but he managed to persuade me that it was exciting to work every moment of every weekend, and through the evenings."
Tom Hooper and his producers assembled an impressive ensemble cast. Hooper thoroughly enjoyed the experience. "It's thrilling to be working with one of Chaplin's stars, his muse Claire Bloom. That was a huge thrill and to have Claire Bloom alongside Michael Gambon, alongside Derek Jacobi, alongside Guy Pearce, alongside Jennifer Ehle, alongside Tim Spall alongside Anthony Andrews. The strength and depth in the casting is really tremendously exciting. For me as an actor's director it was a pretty joyful experience getting that group of actors together."
His actors were equally impressed with their director. Geoffrey Rush felt that Tom Hooper had a refreshing viewpoint. "He has a wonderful, fresh historical perspective, so you don't feel you're tramping around the pitfalls and clichés that can be attached to that kind of biographical film. He is much more interested in these very public and very famous characters as flawed. He has tried to get a real sense of what that kind of celebrity and leadership meant in that period."
Colin Firth adds, "Tom Hooper doesn't let anything happen just because it's the easy choice. As a result what he gets on the screen is very richly textured, he never gives in to clichés. Tom Hooper is a fiercely intelligent and imaginative director who is fastidiously devoted to getting to the root of every problem the story poses. There's this constant sense of investigation, 'is there something more interesting to be found?' The chase is never over. But also of you as an actor, 'can I get something more interesting?' Is there something up your sleeve that you could provide that gives this more texture or something that might surprise us here or something that is too obvious that we should pull back from? He is not in any way didactic, he has very strong opinions, and can be quite stubborn about them but he is every bit a collaborator. He loves to harvest ideas from his actors. It's quite exciting to be invited to collaborate to that extent, because it puts you at the heart of the process. And you know Tom Hooper will not give up until it's as authentic and as interesting as it can possibly be."
The film was shot over 7 weeks in and around London. Tom Hooper was delighted to be able to film so close to home. "It's been seven years since I've been able to shoot at home. I have recreated London in Lithuania, I have recreated London in Richmond Virginia, I have recreated London in Budapest Hungary and it's quite nice sometimes to recreate London in London!"
Almost everything in the film was shot on location apart from the interior of Logue's apartment which was a set at Elstree Studios. Tom Hooper explains, "It's a real London film, we used Lancaster House, Portland Place, we used Drapers Hall, the wonderful Guildhall. We actually shot out in Green Park opposite Buckingham Palace. I grew up in London and it was great having walked through Regents Park for ten years to finally film in it and get out of my head the way I always planned to shoot in it."
For Geoffrey Rush, London was another character in the film. "Most of the film happens inside rooms, behind closed doors. The story line happens mostly through the winter. Tom Hooper really wanted the authenticity; he got really intrigued when he kept on reading about the "peasouper" fogs." The one anecdote Tom Hooper heard from his 90 year old neighbour was that sometimes the fog would be so thick in the 1930s that if you were in a taxi, you would have to get out and walk in front of it to show the taxi the way because the driver would only have two metres of visibility. Geoffrey Rush: "Tom Hooper has really gone for that atmosphere. He wants the exteriors shrouded in a kind of gloom that is a metaphor for what is hanging over Bertie's life."
Tom Hooper was insistent that the film not be dry and as a consequence it is infused with humour. "The film is very funny indeed and although a serious subject, it's told with humour. It's a very witty script but it's also very powerful and moving film - the best way to move people is to get them laughing first so they relax and they open their heart to the story."