‘King’s Speech’ Director: I Used the F-Word as a Taboo-Breaker

Tom Hooper on Colin Firth’s stammer and the film’s dust-up with the MPAA, at TheWrap’s Academy Screening Series

Last Updated: November 23, 2010 @ 4:06 PM

“The word ‘f—’ is not being used in its sexual sense,” insisted Tom Hooper in defense of his inspirational new movie, “The King’s Speech.” “It’s being used purely as a taboo-breaker.”

Hooper was talking about his recent dust-up with the MPAA, which slapped the movie with an R-rating in response to a string of expletives emitted by King George VI, played by actor Colin Firth, during a speech therapy session. (Photographs by Jonathan Alcorn.)

“I cannot see how that scene would cause trauma to any kid who watched it,” Hooper told the capacity crowd at Monday night’s showing of the film at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks, part of TheWrap’s ongoing Awards Screening Series. “Yet there are scenes of violence that I, as a 38-year-old director, have seen in PG-13 movies lately that continue to linger in my head.”

In "The King's Speech," George speaks with a stammer, which hardly inspires confidence in his royal subjects. He therefore seeks the services of Lionel Logue, an Australian who specializes in treating his affliction.

Firth, he told TheWrap’s Editor-in-Chief Sharon Waxman, who hosted the post-screening Q&A, was cast on the power of his performance in a little-known piece for the BBC called “Tumble Down,” which he did at the age of 25. In it, he played a Falklands War veteran with brain damage.

Hooper said the key for Firth to get the stammer right was to concentrate on not stammering – just as the key to playing drunk is to focus on playing sober.

“Colin’s ability to play this psychological and physical block was so extraordinary,” Hooper said. “I don’t even think he realizes he’s done it as well as he has. In some shots you can see the musculature of his neck, he’s really working hard.”

In fact, he said, the strain was so great that toward the end of the shoot, Firth complained of numbness in his left arm. 

Best known for having directed “John Adams” for HBO and last year’s “Damned United,” Hooper said he saw “The King’s Speech” as his most personal project. Like Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who cures the king’s stammer, and is played by Geoffrey Rush in the film, Hooper’s mother hails from Australia. He was raised in London, however, by her and his British father.  

“It gives you a wonderful sense of being an insider and an outsider in your own culture,” Hooper said. “I think part of being a director is being able to be inside and outside culture at the same time.”

In fact, his mother was responsible for calling Hooper’s attention to the material after seeing a reading of “The King’s Speech” put on by a fringe theater group in London. “The moral is listen to your mother,” he quipped to raucous laughter.

Rush, he said, actually saw a script before he did. It was left for the actor in a plain brown envelope delivered on Christmas Day – it was delivered by the same theater group Hooper’s mother had seen in London. Enclosed was a note saying, “Dear Mr. Rush, you don’t know us. Would you like to be in our play?”

The script was written by David Seidler, himself a stammerer. Years before, Seidler had tracked down Lionel Logues, son Valentine Logue, who said his father had kept a handwritten diary – but if Seidler wanted to see it, he had to get the Queen Mother’s consent.

So he wrote the Queen Mother, who responded saying, “Please, not in my lifetime. The memories of these events are still too painful.”

It would be some 25 years before he sat down to write “The King’s Speech,” Hooper said.

Then, nine weeks before shooting was to commence, the grandson of Lionel, Mark Logue, handed over another handwritten diary. It had not been read by any historian or member of the Royal Family. In fact, Hooper was the first outside the family to see it. “It was a treasure trove of information,” he giddily exclaimed.

As a result, “Some of the best lines in the movie are written by King George VI and Lionel Logue,” confessed the director. “Unfortunately they’re not here to be present for the WGA arbitration,” he joked.

Waxman (pictured with Hooper) asked about the portrait of David, George’s older brother, played by Guy Pearce. In what many consider the ultimate romantic gesture, David famously abdicated the throne in order to marry his twice-divorced American lover, Wallis Simpson.

Hooper joined historians in wondering why David insisted on marrying Wallis rather than keep her as a mistress and assume the throne as so many did before him.

“Edward VII had a string of long-term mistresses,” said Hooper. “He frequented brothels in London and Paris and in fact even had a special contraption built for him in a Parisian brothel to support his courtiers in the act of sex.”

He could have co-habited with Wallis for the rest of his life without ever raising an eyebrow. In Hooper’s estimation, he brought the abdication crisis on himself.

Toward the end of a night plagued by microphone feedback, Hooper said, “It’s good in a film about public speaking that everyone’s having such a nightmare saying anything.”

“We did that on purpose,” quipped Waxman.

Hooper jokingly concluded, “It’s all just designed to bring you closer to the film.”