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'Unknown': A Suspenseful, Action-Filled Mind-Bender

Liam Neeson plays a botanist-turned-action-star in Jaume Collet-Serra's thriller Unknown. Critic David Edelstein says the tricky thriller takes viewers on a hell of a ride while letting Neeson shine as an action star.

05:41

Other segments from the episode on February 18, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 18, 2011: Interview with James Franco; Interview with Tom Hooper; Review of the film "Unknown."

Transcript

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James Franco: On Balancing His Many Passions

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

Our first guest, actor James Franco, has a big night a week from Sunday. He's
co-hosting the Academy Awards ceremony, and he's nominated for Best Actor for
his performance in the film "127 Hours."

But Franco is a guy who likes to stay busy. He played a young Allen Ginsberg in
the recent film "Howl." He's been studying art, film and writing at places
including Yale University and Rhode Island School of Design, and last fall, he
published a collection of short stories.

Franco got his start on the TV series "Freaks and Geeks," he co-starred in
Spiderman, starred with Seth Rogen in the comedy "Pineapple Express," and in
the movie "Milk," he played Harvey Milk's boyfriend. "127 Hours," directed by
Danny Boyle, who made "Slumdog Millionaire," is based on the true story of a
hiker who is trapped for days after his arm is pinned under a boulder. In a
gruesome sequence, the film shows how he amputates his own arm to free himself.

Terry spoke to James Franco in October.

TERRY GROSS, host:

So why did you want to put yourself through the kind of agony, mental agony,
that you'd have to experience acting this role?

Mr. JAMES FRANCO (Actor): You know, I actually was very attracted to the
challenge of doing a movie that, you know, involved being isolated for all that
time. And it's, it was unique not only because I don't work with, you know, for
most of the movie, I'm not working opposite other actors, but I'm in one spot.

And so it's not even like "Castaway," where he had that whole island to walk
around on. Like, I'm in, I'm just in this canyon and I can't, you know, I can't
move.

And on paper, and especially, you know, working on a project like this with
Danny Boyle, it all sounds, you know, really great and, like, exciting, kind of
new kind of filmmaking. But that doesn't necessarily translate into a movie
that people want to go and watch.

And so - and I was aware of that, and Danny was certainly aware of that. And
that was kind of the challenge that he wanted to take on, you know, and if you
know his films, they're not slow films. They all have pace, they all have great
energy. And he's very interested in making movies that are full of life.

I guess, you know, the making of the movie was really, you know, a case of
Danny and I and the DPs and the writer and everyone, you know, really working
together to make this very static situation into something incredibly dynamic.
And I...

GROSS: Yeah, I've read reviews that say yes it's - he's pinned by this boulder,
but it's really very entertaining.

Mr. FRANCO: It's a very unique film experience.

GROSS: Here's what I want to know. Like, what is it like to wake up every
morning when you're shooting the film and say: What's ahead of me today - oh
yes, pain? I endure a lot more pain.

Mr. FRANCO: Well, I didn't think I would go crazy. Danny kept warning me before
we did it, he's like, yeah, James, you're going to go crazy. I think he wanted
to prepare me. But yeah, he'd say yeah, James, I think you're going to go a
little crazy in this canyon.

And he prepared for that in some ways. You know, we had a -it was an incredibly
fast shoot. I worked six-day weeks. Danny worked seven-day weeks for two months
because there were two DPs. And so Danny would just, you know, switch between
the crews. And I think Danny designed it that way because he knew not only
would I go a little crazy, the whole crew would go a little crazy just working
under those conditions.

But on one hand, I had an incredible experience cause I was working with Danny
Boyle, you know, and then these two incredible DPs, Anthony Don Mantle(ph) and
Keekey Chadiak(ph). And so I was working with, you know, all these guys that I
loved, and I had a great relationship with all of them.

But yeah, I was stuck in - you know, we shot a lot of it on a set, but the set
was not like a normal set. You know, usually if you shoot on a stage, you build
a set so that it can be taken apart so, you know, cameras can move in for
different angles that, you know, you normally wouldn't get at a real location.

But they didn't build the set this way. They built it so that it couldn't come
apart. And so, really, I was isolated every day in this set, and the way that
it kind of worked, a lot of times it was easier to just stay in the set while
they, you know, would change the camera setups.

And so, for the first month of shooting, I actually didn't even, I didn't see
half of the crew. I just saw, like, I really just saw the DPs because they
operated the cameras and then heard Danny's voice over this little speaker that
they'd built into the wall of the canyon.

And it kind of did drive me a little crazy. I think one of the things that
saved me was I was still in school at the time. And so I had all this reading I
had to do for school. So I'd bring my books and stash them under the boulder.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And between setups, I would read my books, and I think that helped
me a little bit.

GROSS: So what's the difference between what you saw when you were cutting off
your arm in the film and what is actually in the film, what you see when you
see yourself in the film?

Mr. FRANCO: What do mean, like...?

GROSS: When you were doing the shoot, and you were amputating your arm, what's
difference between what you saw on the set and what we see in the film?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, obviously I didn't really cut my arm off although, there were
some scenes where, you know, the character tries - he makes many attempts to
cut his arm off and do various things to get out.

And in some of the takes, Danny asked me to just kind of saw at my arm with a
dull blade, like, you know, because that was the thing is, you know, Aron had a
knife, but it was a dull because he had never used a knife before. He had never
needed it before, and so he never even thought to sharpen it.

And so there were times when he attempted to saw his arm off with a dull blade.
And Danny said: Well, why don't you just try and do it?

And so there were times when I was doing it on my own arm, and that led to, you
know, some minor permanent damage because, you know, they built, you know,
these great effects guys, they built this arm that had all the, you know,
musculature inside and veins, you know, all the veins were in place and nerves.
And so I really could just go at it.

And the way we shot it is, you know, we did like these 20-minute takes for -
you know, and we did that throughout the movie. You know, we'd do these very,
very long takes. And so and we did that for the amputation scene.

And so I was just cutting away, and, you know, the arm was going through. And I
actually, Danny told me afterwards that the effects guy was saying to him, you
know, whispering in Danny's ear, like, you know, he's not going to be able to
make it all the way through. You know, there's certain things in there that
are, you know, going to prevent him from cutting all the way through.

So but I actually did. I went all the way through, and I surprised him and
everyone. And actually, the first time I went through the arm, I fell back and,
you know, fell on my back, or my butt. And so I actually made it through. And I
think part of that take is in the film.

GROSS: So is it horrifying to watch yourself actually amputate your arm
onscreen?

Mr. FRANCO: I thought that I would have more trouble with it. I've actually
recently just watched back a documentary that a friend of mine from NYU made
about the filming process. She was there for the whole thing.

And she has this scene in it where I actually have just got into this, the part
of, you know, the actual cutting. And I say to Danny: Gosh, I'm getting a
little lightheaded. I think you're getting very genuine reactions because all
this fake blood and, you know, this prosthetic arm is so real, it's making me
lightheaded.

So I guess it was realistic enough, looked realistic enough that it was having
- I was having psychosomatic reactions to it, and...

GROSS: When you were filming it.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, when we were actually filming it. And so, you know, in some
screenings, people actually applaud at that moment. I've never experienced,
like, anything like that in a movie, like in the middle of a movie, like,
they're applauding.

And so it's a difficult thing to watch, but it's also something that I think
people want to watch because you've gone down the road with this guy so far
that you want him to get out.

GROSS: Right.

DAVIES: James Franco, speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're listening to Terry's interview, recorded in October, with actor
James Franco. Last year, he played a young Allen Ginsberg in the film "Howl,"
named after Ginsberg's first published poem. It was a groundbreaking work that
evoked Walt Whitman but with the stories, language and rhythms of what became
known as beat poetry.

Here's Franco from the opening of the film, playing Ginsberg reading the first
lines of "Howl" in his first public reading at the Six Gallery.

(Soundbite of film, "Howl")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FRANCO: (As Allen Ginsberg) I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed
by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the Negro
streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for
the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high, sat up smoking in the
supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities...

GROSS: That's James Franco, portraying Allen Ginsberg in the new film "Howl,"
and in that scene, he's reading an excerpt of "Howl." Well done.

Mr. FRANCO: Thank you.

GROSS: I mean, there's no film here unless you can convincingly get Allen
Ginsberg's cadences because so much of the film revolves around you reading the
poem "Howl."

So, what was it about Allen Ginsberg's voice that really stuck out to you, that
made you think, okay, this is what the voice is, this is what I built the voice
around?

Mr. FRANCO: I guess, you know, he has a bit of a New Jersey accent. I guess
that's what it is, or, you know, it's kind of an East Coast thing. And there is
an alternation - he alternates between kind of great exuberance and I guess,
you know, this kind of sympathetic tone, you know, depending on what section
he's reading. And so I tried to find out how he'd be responding to each section
and then, you know, deliver it accordingly.

GROSS: How familiar were you with Allen Ginsberg's poems before preparing to
make the movie?

Mr. FRANCO: I was pretty familiar. I'd read a fair amount of them when I was
younger. It seems that people of a certain age, you know, young people,
especially young men, usually come across the Beats. And me and my friends, I
and my friends certainly did, and so...

GROSS: What did it mean to you when you read them?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, it's funny. I'm actually in a class right now at Yale where
we're - it's about the Beats and about, it's about literary coteries. So, it's
about the Beats and about McSweeney's and Dave Eggers. So I'm re-reading all of
those books that I read for the first time when I was in high school.

And I think what really struck me was how, you know, there were these young
guys and they were, you know, looking for a new way of writing. Most of them
had gone to Columbia or some other Ivy Leagues. And they had great teachers,
but they were trying to break away from what they had learned in school and
were looking for new ways.

And they really had no models. So they were just supporting each other and
encouraging each other, and that's how they made it, or that's how they found
these new ideas. And so, I think that was really inspiring for me as a young
man and that idea of just the search and having, you know, artistic friends
around that could support me, and maybe that would be enough.

GROSS: So your part in the movie alternates between reading the poem "Howl" and
being interviewed, and we don't see your interviewer. You're there alone on
screen, talking alone into a reel-to-reel tape machine as the interview is
being recorded.

So, is this gathered from different transcripts of interviews, or is this based
on one interview with Ginsberg?

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, so I guess there was a lost interview that he gave to Time, I
think back in the '60s. And Ginsberg had been in Tangiers, and they flew him
out to Rome, and he gave this interview, and it was lost. They didn't - I guess
it was too racy, and they didn't - they never published it.

And no transcripts exist, but Epstein and Friedman decided that they were going
to use that idea for this interview, and it would be the lost interview. But
the way that they created this interview was they compiled, you know, bits from
interviews that Ginsberg had given his entire life.

Everything that I say in those interviews, you know, everything that is said in
the courtroom scenes, all of those are based on, you know, things that people
actually said.

GROSS: Okay, so I want to play an excerpt of the interview. And this is him
talking about something that happened between him and his therapist that
changed his life. So, here's my guest James Franco, in a scene from "Howl," in
which he's being interviewed.

(Soundbite of film, "Howl")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FRANCO: (As Ginsberg) In San Francisco, I had a year of psychotherapy with
Dr. Hicks(ph). I was blocked; I couldn't write. I was still trying to act
normal. I was afraid I was crazy. I was sure that I was supposed to be
heterosexual and that something was wrong with me.

And Dr. Hicks kept saying: What do you want to do? What is your heart's desire?
So, finally I said: Well, what I'd really like to do is to just quit all this
and get a small room with Peter and devote myself to my writing and
contemplation and (BEEP) and smoking pot and doing whatever I wanted.

He said: Why don't you do it, then? Well, I mean, what'll happen if I grow old
and I have pee stains in my underwear, and I'm living in some furnished room,
and nobody loves me, and I'm white-haired, and I have no money, and breadcrumbs
are falling on the floor? And he said: Ah, don't worry about that. You're very
charming and lovable, and people will always love you.

What a relief to hear that. I very soon realized that it was all a fear trap,
just illusory.

GROSS: James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in an excerpt of the new film "Howl." So
we've talked a little bit about getting the voice for Allen Ginsberg. What did
you to do try to look like him because you're not the first person who comes to
mind when you think of what Allen Ginsberg looked like. And most of us, when we
think of what Allen Ginsberg looked like, think of him in his later years, as
opposed to when he was in his 20s, because he wasn't as visible then.

I mean, you got the glasses. You got his trademark glasses from the period.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah, that was key. Well...

GROSS: Did that help, having the glasses?

Mr. FRANCO: It certainly helped. Well, I had a similar reaction when they asked
me to do it. Actually, Gus Van Sant was the first person to bring the project
to my attention.

I was in the middle of filming "Milk" with Gus. And Gus is an executive
producer on "Howl," and he said - you know I knew Rob and Jeff because they
had, you know, worked on the documentary, "The Times of Harvey Milk," which,
you know, we all watched to prepare for "Milk."

And so I knew who they were, and Gus said, you know, they have a movie about
Allen Ginsberg, and they want you to play Allen. And I thought, really?
Because, you know, like I said, I loved the Beats. I had been reading them
since I was about 15. And I - ever since I got into acting, I always dreamed
about, you know, doing a movie about the Beats. But I never thought that I
would play Allen. I always thought, well, sure, I'll be Kerouac or Cassady. And
- but I was being offered Allen.

And so I thought, well, will I be of service to this movie playing Allen? I
mean, can I really do that? And so I did, you know, I went back and looked at
some of the photographs of young Allen, and then I thought, well, it's not that
far.

You know, young Allen, most people think, you know, when they think of
Ginsberg, they think of the older Ginsberg, the heavier and balder and bearded
Ginsberg. And that would've been a stretch. But the younger Ginsberg is
actually kind of close to my build. We have similar, you know, coloring. And he
had hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And so, and by coincidence, I was hosting "Saturday Night Live" at
the time, and they had just won an Emmy for makeup. So I brought in a picture
of young Ginsberg. I brought it to the makeup department, and I said, hey, you
guys, you know, make people look like other people all the time. How would you,
if I was going to do a sketch on SNL about Ginsberg, how would you make me look
like this?

And they said, well, actually, it's not that hard. You just kind of comb your
hair over, and you definitely need the glasses. His ears stick out a little bit
more than yours. So they kind of pushed my ears out. And it was like, oh,
voila. It was almost enough.

And so I told Rob and Jeff about the ear thing. And so for half of the movie,
we didn't have any prosthetic built at that time. So we just put, like, some
weird Play-Dough behind my ears and stuck them out.

And that was kind of it. I mean, I had to get the mannerisms down, but the look
was pretty good.

GROSS: You've been making these movies while studying at Columbia, NYU,
Brooklyn College, now you're studying in two places, the Rhode Island School of
Design and Yale. It's like the college version of extreme sports or something.
Do you know what I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...doing like so many different colleges. How come so many?

Mr. FRANCO: Well, now I, you know, I kind of narrowed it down. It's not - the
schedule isn't quite like that right now. But, yeah, the past two years, I was
at a lot of places. And I guess I just thought, you know, yeah, I am a little -
I have an addictive personality and when...

GROSS: Do you? Do you?

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah. I think I do. So if there's something I like, it's hard for
me to, you know, say, to not engage with it fully and to the - I guess to the
point of doing, you know, physical harm to myself or whatever, or mental harm.

But, on the other hand, I loved it and I was, you know, by going to all those
places, I got to work with, you know, all of my favorite writers and, you know,
I got to work with great filmmakers and, you know, do projects that I'm very,
very, very proud of.

DAVIES: James Franco, speaking with Terry Gross last year. His film "Howl" is
now out on DVD. A week from Sunday, Franco will be co-hosting the Academy
Awards ceremony, where he'll be on hand to see if he wins the Best Actor award
for his performance in the film "127 Hours." And he'll be back in the second
half of our show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening
to Terry's interview recorded last year with actor James Franco. He's co-
hosting the Oscar ceremony this year, and he’s nominated for Best Actor for his
performance in the film “127 Hours.” Among his many roles, Franco has a
recurring part on the ABC's soap opera "General Hospital.” Here's a clip from
the show where he plays a strange artist named Franco.

(Soundbite of ABC's "General Hospital")

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) You cut your hair. You hurt yourself. Are you okay?

Unidentified Actress: (as character) What are you doing here?

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) Well, I just came to deliver the last six roses. I see
you put the other 60 in a vase. Nice display, very artistic.

Unidentified Actress: (as character) What do you want?

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) I'm very fond of the number 66. I just like saying it,
66, sounds dirty.

Unidentified Actress: (as character) Why would you send these flowers to me?

Mr. FRANCO: (as Franco) You and I spent some very special time together. I hope
you haven't forgotten.

Unidentified Actress: (as character) No. Of course, not.

Mr. FRANCO: I told you, I think about you. I have. And I know that you want to
be loyal to your boyfriend and I respect that. Loyalty is hard to come by these
days. I just hope that our performance didn’t damage your relationship.

GROSS: So I'm afraid we're going to run out of time soon and I want to be able
to ask you about the time that you spent acting on "General Hospital...”

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah.

GROSS: ...which was such a surprise to everybody. You are such a good actor and
I think a very serious actor, even though you’ve done comedies, you’ve done
them really well...

Mr. FRANCO: Thank you.

GROSS: ...so I consider that part of serious acting.

Mr. FRANCO: Right.

GROSS: And not to cast dispersions on soap operas, but it's just a different
style, you know?

Mr. FRANCO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So why did you want to do an afternoon soap, and was it their idea or
your idea to do this?

Mr. FRANCO: Oh, it was my idea. And, you know, I mean yeah, people can look,
you know, often look down on soap operas as inferior kind of entertainment, but
I was thinking in a different way at that point. I had just read this book by
this guy name Carl Wilson, who has since become a friend of mine and he wrote
this book about Celine Dion. And he, you know, wasn’t a fan of Celine's, but he
decided that he was going to investigate why. Why does he feel superior to
Celine's music? And he didn’t come to any definite conclusions but he figured
out that well, Celine's music means something to some people and gives a lot of
people, I don’t know, strength, hope or whatever you get from music. But it's
working for some people.

And so he decided to suspend his judgment and stop looking down on Celine just
because she doesn’t speak to him. And so that's kind of the mindset I was in at
that time and I thought well, why not? Ill just try being on a soap opera.

And so my manager represents Steve Burton, who is one of the stars of "General
Hospital." And so he had some connections to "General Hospital" and he called
them up and said that I wanted to be on the show. And they were very excited to
say the least and they called me up and they said, James, its so great that you
want to be on this soap opera. What do you want to do? You can do whatever you
like. So I said I wanted the character to be an artist and I wanted him to be
crazy and that's what I told them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: And I wanted their version of that. And they gave me the best - I
mean they gave me more than I could've asked for. And...

GROSS: So tell me something that you learned from acting on an afternoon soap
opera?

Mr. FRANCO: So yeah, so then there was just the pure experience of acting on a
soap opera that was also extremely interesting. They have to, you know, you go
through material a lot quicker on a soap opera, but not only that, I was still
in school and so I had to act - I had to do even more material than they
normally do in a single day because they would do all my material on one day a
week. I guess they, it was on a Fridays and I guess they started calling it
Franco Fridays because I'd fly in from New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: I'd get on, I'd wake up at like 4:30, go to the airport, land in
L.A. at about 10:30, go to the studio and then we'd work for like 12 to 14
hours until, you know, about two in the morning. And I would do about I guess
70 to 80 pages of material a day. And usually they only, if they get it,
they’ll only do one take. But that's not just - it's not just one take per
setup. They have four cameras going. So that means one take per scene. So you
just learn the lines, do it, boom, on to the next scene. So its a really, its
kind of exhilarating if you get into the pace of it.

GROSS: Kind of like theater almost.

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Like you’re on live. Yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: It's very close to how they would do the old like "Playhouse 90" or
"Kraft Theatre"...

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. FRANCO: ...you know, television shows in a way.

GROSS: So just one more thing, do you have insomnia and do you use those hours
to just keep working?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is your day longer than mine?

Mr. FRANCO: I don’t have insomnia.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. FRANCO: As you can see on TMZ, I can sleep anywhere and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: I really can sleep anywhere. Although now I'm much more wary about
sleeping in public because I'm sure another picture of me will bring a lot of -
of sleeping will bring a lot of money.

GROSS: It was a picture of you sleeping class, which is, I think, you’re
referring to?

Mr. FRANCO: Yeah. It's actually not class. It's a late night lecture - an
optional lecture at the art school that I was not required to be at, so I
wasn’t, you know, sleeping in class or wasting my opportunity in class. I was
at an optional thing, so I think I had every right to sleep in if I wanted to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANCO: But I, yeah, I can sleep anywhere. I just have a lot to do so I
tend not to sleep.

GROSS: James Franco, it's been great to talk with you again. Thanks so much.

Mr. FRANCO: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Actor James Franco speaking with Terry Gross in October. Franco’s co-
hosting the Academy Awards presentation and he's nominated for Best Actor for
his performance in the film “127 Hours.”

Coming up, the director of “The King’s Speech,” which is nominated for a dozen
Oscars.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Tom Hooper: On Directing 'The King's Speech'

(Soundbite of music)

DAVE DAVIES, host:

The film “The King’s Speech” is nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including Best
Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for the performance of Colin Firth. He
plays King George VI of England, who came to the throne in 1936 and suffered
from an embarrassing stutter. His efforts to overcome the impediment with the
help of an innovative speech therapist is at the center of film, which is
directed by my guest Tom Hooper.

The film was written by David Seidler, who suffered from a stammer himself and
took heart as a child listening to King George's radio addresses. Seidler
became a successful screenwriter and dreamed of writing about the King.
Eventually he tracked down the handwritten diary of the King’s speech therapist
Lionel Logue. Much of the scenes between King George and Logue are based on
this diary.

Director Tom Hooper won an Emmy for his work on the HBO miniseries “Elizabeth
I” starring Helen Mirren. He also directed the miniseries “John Adams.” Among
his other films are “Longford” and “The Damned United.” I spoke with him in
November.

Well, Tom Hooper, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. TOM HOOPER (Director): Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: This film, "The King's Speech," this is one of those films where we
don't have to worry about giving away the story. I mean, it's fairly
straightforward. It's about this very close relationship between the king,
George VI and his unorthodox speech therapist and I thought we'd listen to a
clip here.

The king is played by Colin Firth and the speech therapist, Lionel Logue, is
played by Geoffrey Rush. And this is a moment where the - they've been working
together for some period of time. George VI is now about to be crowned king and
this is a moment where they have cleared out Westminster Abbey so that they can
rehearse and this king can confront the task of making a few remarks upon the
occasion of his coronation.

And they get into an argument and I'll just mention it makes it easier for the
clip if we - to understand that we note that there's a point at which the
therapist, Logue, has the effrontery to park his seat in the chair where
monarchs sit and we'll hear that. And what really begins the argument is the
king is frustrated and fearful and angry about this situation and he also has
discovered that Lionel Logue is not a doctor and is essentially self-taught.
Let's listen.

(Soundbite of film, "The King's Speech")

Mr. COLIN FIRTH (Actor): (as King George VI) No training, no diploma, no
qualifications, just a great deal of nerve.

Mr. GEOFFREY RUSH (Actor): (as Lionel Logue) Lock me in the Tower.

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) I would if I could.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) On what charge?

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) Fraud. With war looming, you've saddled this
nation with a voiceless king. You've destroyed the happiness of my family all
for the sake of ensnaring a star patient you couldn't possibly hope to assist.
It'll be like mad King George III, only mad King George the Stammerer who let
his people down so badly in their hour of need. What are you doing? Get up you
can't sit there, get up.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) Why not? It's a chair.

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) No that is not a chair, that is St. Edward's
chair.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) People have carved their names on it.

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) That chair is the seat on which every king...

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) I don't care how many royal assholes sat in this
chair.

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) Listen to me, listen to me.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) Listen to you? By what right?

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) By divine right if you must, I am your king.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) No you're not. You told me so yourself. You said
you didn’t want it. Why should I waste my time listening to you?

Mr. FIRTH: (as King George VI) Because I have a right to be heard. I have a
voice.

Mr. RUSH: (as Lionel Logue) Yes, you do.

DAVIES: And that's Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth from "The King's Speech"
directed by our guest Tom Hooper. You can hear Colin Firth and his playing a
royal with a stutter. He has to get this just right. He can't overdo it. Tell
us about developing his character?

Mr. HOOPER: I think the inspiration for his performance for both of us was the
real king. And we found this wonderful bit of archive footage on the Pathe
News, which I think is available on the public site from the one...

DAVIES: The one in Glasgow?

Mr. HOOPER: Yeah, the Empire Exhibition, 1938 and, you know, try as the
newsreel people can to cut away from Bertie so they cut from his close-up to,
you know, spectators in the crowd. They cut to fluttering flags. They cut to
chimney pots all around them. Whenever they come back in this profile close-up
to the king you can see, you just can see in his eyes this longing. He just
wants to get it right.

That's all he wants to achieve and he keeps getting caught in these horrible
painful silences in which he drowns and he stops himself and gathers himself
and tries again and gets caught and drowns in silence. And it's so, it's so
moving that by the end of this three or four minute clip I had tears in my
eyes. And Colin and I saw this and we were both hugely moved. And I'm not sure
how aware Colin is, but I think he's kind of, in an extraordinary way, bottled
the essence of the real king's stammer.

DAVIES: King George VI of course led his nation during World War II and was an
important inspirational figure for his people and had to give all these
speeches on the radio. And it's interesting that he was confronted with this
challenge of conquering his stutter in some respects because of technology,
right? I mean, 30 years before or after he wouldn't have had such an issue
would he?

Mr. HOOPER: No, I mean, what's extraordinary about the whole drama of this
story, it derives from the advent of this new medium, this new mass
communication medium called radio. Because before the advent of radio the king
was a visual icon. I mean, as long as he could wave from a carriage, look good
on a horse, look good in uniform, he could perform the theatrical duty of being
a king which was principally I would say in terms of mass iconography visual.
And with the coming of radio suddenly the king was required to speak, to
connect, and therefore to be effectively an actor.

So you have this guy, you know, who’s the younger brother, who has no
expectation of being king. You know, his older brother gives up the throne to
marry the American Wallis Simpson. He has a terrible stammer and becomes king
right at the moment when this medium has taken off. And, you know, his audience
is not just in England, you know, Britain still has 58 countries in the empire,
so it's a vast, you know, emergent global audience. You know, and he can't
speak.

And even more ironically, it's that, you know, 10, 15-year window when it was
only a live medium. I mean, you could not prerecord. You could not edit, so you
couldn't cheat the stammers out. He had to be a live performance.

DAVIES: When he gave these wartime speeches, was this speech therapist, Lionel
Logue in the room with him? Was he the only one in the room?

Mr. HOOPER: Yeah, I mean, that's what we can tell from the diaries is that, you
know, Lionel Logue was in the room, one on one with the king for pretty much
all the, you know, the wartime speeches. And, you know, one of the thing about
the diaries is it reveals what lies behind, you know, famous imagery.

So for example, it was my birthday recently and my sister gave me a copy of The
Times from the 4th of September 1939, so the day after wars been declared. Now
it being England and we're an understated nation, news of the outbreak of the
Second World War made page eight of The Times. And on page eight there's a big
half page picture of King George VI in his full naval uniform at this grand
ornate desk with these ornate microphones his father used in a very grand and
gilt room, giving the speech that we see at the end of our movie which is
basically the speech he made when war was declared. But we know from the
diaries that this is not true.

He made it in a special room that Logue set up which he decorated to make it
look cheerful with an old school desk that Logue had rescued from the basement
of Buckingham Palace, you know, which he'd hammered wooden stilts on to raise
it up. And the king did it standing up with his jacket off, with the window
open, with Logue in the room one on one.

And, you know, we know, I now know that that image, that famous image of him
giving the speech is complete nonsense. It's a fabrication. It's a piece of
propaganda and that's what, you know, is so lovely about the diaries is not
only did it give us some flavor of that dialogue and their relationship, but it
also, you know, gave these wonderful physical clues with which to get behind,
you know, the surface of the monarch at that time.

DAVIES: So the world knew that King George VI struggled with a speech
impediment but knew that he had managed to overcome that and give these
speeches. And what this story really tells us now, it sort of unmasks this
close collaborator, this man Lionel Logue, the speech therapist. Tell us just a
little bit about him.

Mr. HOOPER: Well, he was older than the king and he was kind of someone, you
know, who grew up, you know, basically being fascinated by the voice. So he was
born in Adelaide but moved early in his life to Perth, where he married.

DAVIES: He's Australian.

Mr. HOOPER: He's Australian, yeah. In Perth he taught elocution in schools. He
recited Shakespeare and Dickens. He acted a little bit. I think he taught drama
and when the First World War came there was this sudden influx of young men
returning from the Western front with speech problems, with post-traumatic
stress disorder, with shell-shock.

And they literally kind of said oh, you know, well, oh Lionel you're the, you
know, you’re local guy who knows about speech, so why don't you have a crack at
helping these poor young men? And that's what he did. And he basically taught
himself through trial and error speech therapy in Perth and developed
techniques in order to help these men. And, you know, our film suggests that
what he felt was these young men, you know, had lost faith in their voice and
he was giving them the right to be heard again, to talk about their trauma and
to find their voice again.

And he went to England I think it was 1923 or 1924 and he went because I think
on the encouragement of his wife because he felt that, you know, London was
probably where it was at in terms of speech therapy and so, you know, he should
go and find out more about it. And I think they went not intending to live
there but they ended up staying. And he ended up setting up a practice in
Harley Street and landing the biggest client of his life.

DAVIES: Right. And of course it's actually King George's wife, who's played in
the film by Helena Bonham Carter, who comes and visits Lionel Logue. One of the
things that you see in his methods is that he believes it's not a matter simply
of mechanics that there is a psychological basis for this and he invades the
king's royal privacy by asking questions about what happened to him in his
childhood. What do we know about the origins of King George's stutter?

Mr. HOOPER: What we know is that he had a very tough childhood. I mean, his
parents were very absent. I mean, it's worth pointing out that children of that
class you know, aristocratic children, the norm was you would be brought down
at teatime every day and praised in front of your parents for half an hour and
that was kind of the relationship. As a very young kid you're basically -
you're mothered by nannies.

But the nanny, you know, who he had very early on in life was absolutely in
love with David, his older brother and didn't like him. I mean not only didn't
like him but neglected him and, you know, didn't feed him enough and caused
him, you know, stomach problems which led to, you know, having ulcers and being
invalided out of the army during the First World War.

So I mean, what I know about stammering - and a lot of this comes from David,
the writer who had this stammer - was that when as a young child you lose the
confidence that anyone wants to listen to you, you know, so you've got parents
who aren't interested and you've got a nanny who loves your older brother and
isn't interested. You lose confidence in your voice and you lose confidence in
the right to speak and a lot of the therapy is about saying you have a right to
be heard and people should bloody well listen.

DAVIES: Tom Hooper directed the film “The King’s Speech,” which is nominated
for 12 Academy Awards.

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new Liam Neeson thriller “Unknown.”

This is FRESH AIR.
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'Unknown': A Suspenseful, Action-Filled Mind-Bender

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Liam Neeson stars in the new thriller “Unknown” as a man whose identity
essentially vanishes into thin air after he's injured in a car crash.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Liam Neeson has his share of triumphs as a serious actor, but
after the 2008 thriller “Taken” was a worldwide smash, every studio wanted to
see him with a gun or knife or any available lethal shard taking out hordes of
scummy thugs. You know “Schindler's List,” now meet Schindler's fist.

It's easy to see why he's so compelling in thrillers. He's tall and lean and
still, at 58, unbelievably handsome but with a haggard intensity, a quality of
emotional helplessness even at his most physically resourceful.

In “Taken,” his motivation was to get his kidnapped daughter back, and that's
what he did, in a clean, straight line, obliterating anyone in his way without
a wasted motion. An action filmmaker needs only to put him onscreen, establish
the premise and let 'er rip.

We're with him from the first shot of “Unknown” as he stares soulfully at puffy
clouds through an airplane window. He and that sleek blond January Jones are
Dr. Martin and Elizabeth Harris, and they're heading to Berlin for a big-deal
biotech conference.

But when they arrive at their tony hotel, he discovers the cabdriver left one
of his bags at the airport and leaps into another taxi - this one driven by
dishy German actress Diane Kruger, here playing a Slavic immigrant — and Martin
tells her to step on it. And she takes a bad turn, and there's a bridge and a
river and four days later, Martin awakes in a hospital with no I.D. and finds
that no one has been looking for him.

After signing himself out against his doctor's wishes, he talks security into
letting him into the conference's gala ball to find his wife.

(Soundbite of movie, "Unknown")

Unidentified Actor: (as character) Excuse me, Madame, your husband is here.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LIAM NEESON (Actor): (as Dr. Martin Harris) Liz. Oh, Jesus.

Ms. JANUARY JONES (Actor): (as Elizabeth Harris) Excuse me, do I know you?

Mr. NEESON: (as Dr. Martin Harris) What’s wrong? I'm sorry. I was in an
accident. I was in a coma. I didn’t – they didn’t know who I was.

Ms. JONES: (as Elizabeth Harris) Oh, you must have me confused with someone
else.

Mr. NEESON: (as Dr. Martin Harris) Liz, it’s me, Martin, your husband.

Ms. JONES: (as Elizabeth Harris) This is a misunderstanding. I don't know this.
This is my husband.

Unidentified Actor: (as character) You are Dr. Martin Harris?

Mr. AIDAN QUINN (Actor): (Dr. Martin Harris) Last time I looked. Yup. Still me.

Mr. NEESON: (as Dr. Martin Harris) What’s going on here? Is this some kind of a
joke?

Mr. QUINN: (Dr. Martin Harris) You know this man?

Ms. JONES: (as Elizabeth Harris) No.

Mr. NEESON: (as Dr. Martin Harris) Who the hell are you?

Mr. QUINN: (Dr. Martin Harris) Who the hell are you?

Mr. NEESON: (as Dr. Martin Harris) I'm her husband.

EDELSTEIN: That was Aidan Quinn looking smarmy as the so-called real Dr. Martin
Harris. January Jones, meanwhile, is always so blank it's hard to tell what's
going on Liz’s head.

And here's where any discussion of “Unknown” is tricky. Is this an amnesia
story, which means this guy only thinks he's Martin, despite what we saw in the
early scenes? Is it brain-drain sci-fi, like “Total Recall,” or a virtual-
reality mind-bender, like “Inception?” Is he dreaming? Is he dead but doesn't
know it? Is that really his wife or a lookalike? Has he been set up by
conspirators? Was the taxi driver - who has disappeared - in on it? Does any of
this have to do with the biotechnology conference and its sponsor, a prince
from some unnamed Middle Eastern country? Unknowns, unknowns.

Pretty soon I got the sense that “Unknown's” makers were boxing themselves into
a corner and any resolution would be a giant letdown. Well, there is a letdown,
but not a giant one - certainly not enough to keep “Unknown” from being a hell
of a great ride.

The Spanish director, Jaume Collet-Serra, keeps the movie lean and fast and
endlessly upending. And, unlike most modern crash-and-bash action directors, he
stages fisticuffs and car chases you can actually follow: They're full of neat
spatial gags, like the shot in which two cars - one pursued, one pursuing -
make a high-speed hairpin turn in perfect synchronization, or the Hitchcockian
cat-and-mouse prowl through an art gallery amid giant photos of old women's
faces.

“Unknown” also has two marvelous turns by old pros. Bruno Ganz is a detective
whom Martin hires - an ex-East German Stasi officer who is proud of his past
and his reputation as a detail man. We end up rooting for totalitarian
ingenuity. Then the grave and wickedly understated Frank Langella shows up as a
colleague of Martin's from America to sort out the mess - and make a lot more.

My only quibble? Neeson takes too long to stop running away from people who
want to kill him and start wasting them. But when he rises to the occasion it's
a mighty moment. That's the part of “Unknown” that's a known and unbeatable
quantity.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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