British Director Joel Hopkins


Joel Hopkins is very sorry, apologising several times throughout the interview for ‘drivelling on’. But he has little reason to apologise. The director’s latest film, Last Chance Harvey, was nominated for two Golden Globes and stars a dream cast including Oscar-winning actors Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.

HOPKINS wrote the screenplay after a meeting with Thompson and went away thinking ‘that doesn’t happen every day. I should try and do something with that’. The outcome: an unconventional, well-paced romance set in an elegant, golden and quirky London; assets usually associated on film with New York.

Our capital is most certainly the star of the film, with the South Bank becoming the Paris for last chance romantics. Hopkins explains that this new side to London on screen was completely intentional: ‘My goal was to try and make it feel quite real but at the same time quite grand. And all of that does exist in London, it’s just there’s lots of other stuff. I think that perhaps the attraction was to set it in London for the very reason that it’s not the obvious place for a sort of romantic tale of two people walking around and talking and falling in love.’

Where were you born and bred?

‘I was born and bred in London but I wrote this in New York. I grew up in north London, the Camden area, but I went to film school in New York as a post-graduate in ’94 and I stayed there until 2006, so I was there for about 13, 14 years.

‘I was kind of homesick for London when I wrote this. I was literally sat in a room in New York and, I guess, idolising London a bit and I think that slightly shows in the film. It was always a sort of plan to hark back to a – I always want to find a better word than ‘old-fashioned’ – but it was like a timeless romance and we were trying to look for a very elegant backdrop… and I think London is very elegant.’

What so inspired you about Emma Thompson that you wrote the screenplay for her?

‘I wrote it for both of them really. Just on a purely practical level I was trying to get a job and I went up to direct Nanny McPhee for Emma and I met her for that and I didn’t get the job but she saw my first film, Jump Tomorrow, as a sort of audition piece, and she really responded to that and really liked it but said “sorry Nanny McPhee’s not for you but I’d love to work together”.

‘So I sat down and basically thought up a character that she could play, and I guess because I was living in New York at the time the sort of Anglo-American thing was an obvious… that’s what was on my mind and in my life so the Harvey character grew quite quickly afterwards.

‘Then I saw her and Dustin in Stranger Than Fiction where they both had quite small parts but good parts, so I emailed her knowing obviously that she’d know Dustin saying “how about Dustin” and she said “great idea”. And I knew that’s half the battle, I knew I could get the script to her and that she would eventually hand it on to Dustin. And I managed to get both actors on board without any sort of agent, which can really bog things down. And then I went to the studio with the script and them attached, so I was in quite a strong position. And that’s quite rare, so when we did go to the studio it all happened quite quickly.’

How difficult was it to shoot in central London, and how did Londoners respond?

‘Somewhere like Somerset House is quite containable and we had a short window we were allowed to do what we could and we had the square to ourselves.

‘South Bank, it’s a great place and a place I’ve always loved. There’s always something going on so quite often you’re just one of many things that’s going on down there. Because of the river we were allowed to have a little bit of the South Bank that we could sort of cordon off and have Dustin and Emma walking along the railings and we could control it and put our people in and around them, so it was fairly controllable there.

‘The hardest ones were things like Trafalgar Square, and we actually shot in Piccadilly Circus which didn’t end up in the movie. Those were just a day of a reduced unit where we just sort of ran around grabbing things. Basically you had two takes and then it was over, which was fine we only needed two takes, it was just non-dialogue shots of them walking across Trafalgar Square and you did it once and then people started to turn around and then by the second time everyone was taking photos and staring into the camera.’

Which area of London do you find most romantic?

‘I know Hampstead Heath very well and it’s stunning at the moment with all the leaves turning and I’m enjoying this quite balmy – is balmy the right word I don’t know, mild? – I’m finding it really quite romantic right now. I’m just a bit cross about the days getting so short.’

What do you miss about London when you’re away?

‘Well I’m here quite a lot, but I have been away recently. I mean it sounds trite, but I guess a sort of a network of family and friends. London I just feel very rooted here. Obviously it’s big and there are lots of things that frustrate you about London, but it’s the closest you can get to living in a fast, vibrant city but also it’s a family city and it has this sort of social structure.’

Where would you recommend anyone in London visit at least once?

‘Actually I went for a swim the other day, in Hampstead ponds, which I haven’t done in a long time which I thought was lovely. It was bracing, and that was really pleasurable. We’re living near to Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill is beautiful but Primrose Hill – the view from there is rather special with the zoo in the foreground.’

First published on The London Word, November 2009.
© Abbey Stirling