Joel Hopkins: “Since I’m a great believer in people’s innate goodness, my films have a positive atmosphere”

“Hampstead” is the latest feature and a highly acclaimed British-Belgian co-production directed by Joel Hopkins, one of Britain’s most sought after and respected filmmakers. It’s his fourth feature film so far, and as it turns out, he still tends to work with Academy Award-winning actors. After collaborating with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, both two-time Oscar winners, on “Last Chance Harvey” (2008), and with Ms. Thompson again on “The Love Punch” (2013), he has now cast Diane Keaton (Oscar for Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” 1977) in “Hampstead.” Keep in mind that these three actors total an astonishing number of fifteen Academy Award nominations and five Academy Awards. So, as far as Mr. Hopkins is concerned, when you work with the very best as he does, you also are one of the very best.

Brendan Gleason and Diane Keaton in “Hampstead.” Photograph: Nick Wall / Cinemien

As the screenwriter-director of “Jump Tomorrow” (2001), “Last Chance Harvey” (2008), “The Love Punch” (2013), and now “Hampstead” – only as a director since this film was based on Robert Festinger’s script – Mr. Hopkins once again demonstrates his magnificent ability as a storyteller by introducing another heartwarming and mature romance between two elderly people, characters played by Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleason, who star in an uplifting story set in London’s community of Hampstead.

Only a few days ago, Mr. Hopkins was a guest of honor at the Film Festival Oostende in Belgium where the premiere of “Hampstead” was one of the festival’s highlights. The man was welcomed with open arms, and during the interview I had with him at the Thermae Palace Hotel in the coastal city of Ostend, it only took a minute to realize that in terms of human values, Mr. Hopkins really knows what he’s talking about, as time and time again, his audience is in for such a treat when he introduces his characters just brilliantly and unfolds the story in a most appealing way. American filmmaker Sydney Pollack once told me, ‘I like to do character driven stories about people and relationships.’ And that’s exactly what we recognize in Mr. Hopkins’ oeuvre as well.

Mr. Hopkins, it’s wonderful to see that in “Hampstead,” as well as in your previous films, you take the time to focus on characters who are in their sixties, who really care about each other, friendship or a relationship is something that’s really valuable to them, and it’s all done in style in your intimate and mature comedy-dramas. Is that your true niche?

Well, it’s not a conscious decision. There are people who find my films too gentle. You know, sometimes when I read a bad review, my heart sinks and I get quite defensive. So then I wake up in the morning, and I think, ‘Maybe I have got to be cooler and should make a film with whatever I’m not doing, like action, violence or whatever.’ Because I know my films are not for everyone, I’m very conscious about that. But for the particular stories I try to tell, it seems like the right environment to tell them. In my own life though, I swear, I’m probably a lot less gentle than I am with my films [laughs]. But I’m a great believer in people’s innate goodness in a way, and much less in baddies. Even if I have a sort of baddie in my films, I try to find a human quality to that character. Since I write my screenplays as well – with the exception of “Hampstead” – I tend to write stories looking for the positive in people, because I like people, I enjoy them. So that’s why my films have a positive atmosphere. Some people say my films are old-fashioned, but there are enough people who respond to them to make me want to keep working in that sort of arena. But to be honest, it has worried me, and I’m not at all old-fashioned myself. When I am writing a script or making a film, I try not to think too much about that, I just want to tell the story.

For “Hampstead” you didn’t create the characters, since you didn’t write the screenplay. To what extend was this film different to you?

It was interesting. On a practical level I quite enjoyed on this coming to it sort of fresh, with my own input. I was also very collaborative with the writer and heard what he had to say. The practical process was a little less neurotic [laughs], whereas when I write the script myself, I live with the story and the characters for a long time until I start shooting and get the chance to make it real. Somehow that’s a little bit tougher, but when you have written something, you’ve done a lot of work during that writing process – a lot of directing notes have come into your head, so this time I had to catch up a bit and work harder as a director to own the story. But now, I’m desperate to write again. I am writing in fact something that I’ll direct.

Does that mean the gap between “Hampstead” and your next film will be shorter than usual?

[Laughs.] It’s not out of choice. There was a huge gap between my first film, “Jump Tomorrow” [2001] and “Last Chance Harvey” [2008]. I had made a short film that did very well on the festival circuit [“Jorge,” 1998], it got me recognized, and I got the opportunity to do my first feature very quickly, much sooner than my contemporaries at film school. I was quite young, and was attached to lots of big projects that didn’t happen. But then the years went by and I couldn’t get my second film financed. I went up for the job to direct “Nanny McPhee” [2005], Emma Thompson’s children story, as she really liked my first film, so I got this interview to direct, but didn’t get the job. I came second, apparently [Kirk Jones directed the film]. But Emma said, ‘Joel, I’m a big fan of yours, I love your first film, and I’d love to work with you in the future.’ So I wrote an outline for “Last Chance Harvey” with her in mind and showed it to her. ‘That’s fantastic, I can’t wait to read the script,’ she said. Then after I had written it, I got it to her, she liked it, and she sent it to Dustin Hoffman. That got things going. But by then, I had spent a lot of years responding to the industry, being sent scripts, getting involved in projects that almost happened but they didn’t. I just thought it would be better to sit down, write something, and when I had come back to myself and focused on a new idea of my own, I got “Last Chance Harvey” made. In the meantime I’ve managed to slowly shorten the gap between films: when I make a new film, it seems to be closer to the last one. So I got to keep that up. Between “The Love Punch” [2013] and “Hampstead,” there was a three-year gap, more or less, so I’ve got to get my skates on [laughs].

How did you work on the set with Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleason, since I suppose both have entirely different acting styles?

I think that’s why I partly got this job, because in “Last Chance Harvey” I had the same thing on that with Dustin and Emma. Brendan wanted to work a lot on the script, he made lots of notes which I worked with him on and we incorporated them into the script. Once we had done that process, he wanted very much the script as a sort of a bible, so basically he wanted to shoot the script. He was very precise, also precise with his pauses, while Diane was probably the opposite. She likes to ad-lib and add things. About a week into shooting, Brendan came up to me and said, ‘I can’t. Everytime I put in a pause, she’s filling it with her own words.’ He was really worried and getting frustrated, so I said, ‘But Brendan, that’s the movie in a way, you are playing this old couple and you’re two very different people who come together. The tension that you’re feeling is the dynamic in the relationship.’ I then showed him a scene that I had cut together where I felt that it was really working – which is quite dangerous halfway through a shoot to let anyone of the actors in, because if they then don’t like what they see, it sort of gloom and doom. But I was confident that he would see it was working, and it calmed him down. One of the biggest challenges for a filmmaker is to bring different acting styles together, especially if your story is about two quite different people. Dustin and Emma played very different characters in “Last Chance Harvey,” and I think it is appropriate that they also have different styles. It can lead to great energy on the set. So rather than it being a problem, it can assist the product in the end. But there are always practical things that you have to resolve. The trouble with making stuff up, or with improvising… you can do it if there’s just the two of you talking and walking down the road, then I think you can try it, because the other person can respond right away. When we did “Last Chance Harvey,” Dustin would do these great little moments, until my editor called me and said, ‘He’s doing a lot of great things, but we’re not getting the coverage. He’s doing it in that take, and then later on he’s not doing it again.’ So that’s often the problem and the challenge with improvisation. When things are not planned, it’s sometimes hard to use those things, especially since my style is quite formal: generally, I’m not hand-held and jump-cutting.

Diane Keaton as Emily Walters in “Hampstead.” Photograph: Nick Wall / Cinemien

You always work with the most talented actors. Mike Connors who played the title character in the TV series “Mannix” [1967-1975] once told me this story about a then unknown Diane Keaton whom he worked with in 1971: ‘When she appeared on the set of her episode, the whole company crew fell in love with her. So off-beat, she put a smile on your face to watch her work. Everybody knew right away she would become a star, she had this off-beat, goofy quality.’ Do you recognize that, and do you remember your first meeting with her?

Yes, she’s absolutely fantastic. The first time I met with her, I flew out to Los Angeles to have tea with her at some hotel, and she arrived with a big hat, I think her nails were painted black, and she had a lot of big chains around her neck. She looked exactly how I thought she would, quite iconic, in a style of her own. Maybe one projects this, but having made a film with her now, I got to know her a bit, and she is very Annie Hall. I think a lot of that film was her character. She’s very bright, changes the subject very quickly, and she’s very charming. We all adored her. In “Hampstead,” I was literally using her in every frame of the film. We didn’t have as much money as we needed, and I think it was quite challenging for her considering the length of our days, for example. I really thank her for sticking with us and staying till the end. She’s very loyal, and I like her a lot. It’s thrilling for me to get to work with all these people.

Is it easy to convince American stars such as Dustin Hoffman and Diane Keaton to come over to England and work there on an independent feature?

You know, I am amazed at the drive they still have at their age. Considering all the success they had for so many decades, their desire to get on a plane and make a film for not huge budgets… the hunger they still have is wonderful. I found it amazing at the time that Dustin hadn’t played a leading role for some time. He told me, ‘I play cameos now, you know.’ So he was very excited to do a romantic lead. I also think he was quite nervous to play a leading role again, but he really dived into it, so that was just fantastic. When we were filming “Last Chance Harvey,” it took me some time to realize that he was actually quite anxious, you know. I think I underestimated that. And don’t forget that this man had won two Oscars, while this was only my second film, and yet he was willing to play the romantic lead in a romantic film. But their hunger for the work continues, it really amazes me.

Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman and screenwriter-director Joel Hopkins on the set of “Last Chance Harvey”

I really do believe your movies appeal to all generations, don’t they? When I went to see “Last Chance Harvey” in the theater almost ten years ago, I still remember it was filled with young people, let’s say the age group 18-30 years, along with a minority of people in their fifties or older. The fact that also young people go out to see your work, that says a lot about the quality of your movies and how well your non-action and non-violent work is appreciated. Would you agree with that?

I think I’m fortunate in the marketing. Distributors like to be able to market a film and it’s easier to know who they’re marketing the film at, and how they’re going to spend their advertising money, on radio, on gardening shows – whatever. If they decide on an age group that it’s aimed at, then they can push the marketing money in a sort of one direction and that’s considered to have more impact. It all has to do with who can or will go out and enjoy it. “The Love Punch” [2013] seemed to be doing very well with teenage girls and slightly older people – that’s a very nice group. I love it when a family can go out and enjoy it.

What I also admire about all of your films, is that the music is almost a character on its own. After I had seen “Last Chance Harvey” for example, I bought the CD right away on iTunes. And after all these years, the soundtrack still is on my cell phone and I still listen to it. The score of “Hampstead” is also a wonderful bonus, don’t you think so?

Well, there were moments in “Hampstead” when I thought we used a tiny bit too much music. But maybe it’s just me, because I’ve seen the film so many times now. The composer on “Hampstead,” Stephen Warbeck, had done fantastic work in the past, like “Shakespeare in Love” [1998, which earned him an Academy Award]. He’s a tunesmith and he can knock out a very memorable tune, and that’s what I was looking for – a tune you can hum, really, and that’s also what he has delivered. But my one worry was it was too recognizable, whereas in “Last Chance Harvey,” Dickon Hinchliffe’s score is a little bit less – I’m not a musician so I don’t know the exact terminology – it’s a less obvious tune in a way. But it’s a fantastic part of the process getting to work with these wonderful composers and musicians. I love it, it’s a real treat.

Film Festival Oostende, Ostend (Belgium)
September 11, 2017

FILMS

JUMP TOMORROW (2001) DIR Joel Hopkins PROD Nicola Usborne SCR Joel Hopkins (also short story ‘Jorge’) CAM Patrick Cady ED Susan Litterberg MUS Jim Kimbrough CAST Tunde Abebimpe, Raul A. Reyes, Alan Gryfe, Amy Sedaris, Arthur Anderson, Leisa Heintzelman, Natalia Verbeke

LAST CHANCE HARVEY (2008) DIR – SCR Joel Hopkins PROD Nicola Usborne, Tim Perell CAM John de Borman ED Robin Sales MUS Dickon Hinchliffe CAST Dustin Hoffman, Emma Tompson, Eileen Atkins, Kathy Baker, Liane Balaban, James Brolin, Richard Schiff, Tim Howar, Wendy Mae Brown

THE LOVE PUNCH (2013) DIR – SCR Joel Hopkins PROD Nicola Usborne, Tim Perell, Clément Miserez, Jean-Charles Levy CAM Jérôme Alméras ED Susan Littenberg MUS Jean-Michel Bernard CAST Pierce Brosnan, Emma Thompson, Timothy Spall, Celia Spall, Louise Bourgoin, Laurent Lafitte, Marisa Berenson, Olivier Chantreau, Ellen Thomas

HAMPSTEAD (2017) DIR Joel Hopkins PROD Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae SCR Robert Festinger CAM Felix Wiedemann ED Robin Sales MUS Stephen Warbeck CAST Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson, Lesley Manville, Jason Watkins, James Norton, Simon Callow, Adeel Akhtar, Hugh Skinner, Alistair Petrie