HBO Films

Elizabeth I


Interview with Tom Hooper


Tell us about Elizabeth I and what made her so special.

Tom Hooper

What's so fascinating about Elizabeth's life is you can't divorce the private from the public in that every private decision has massive political and public implications. And so she's always the woman without a private life. And it is what distinguishes her so hugely from modern leaders and politicians.

If a modern head of state in the UK or America has a child, that isn't necessarily going to alter the course of political history in that country. But for Elizabeth, whether she has a child or not, whether she got pregnant or not, who her lover was, who she married, these are all decisions that had incredibly important political implications.

And one of the reasons I wanted to start the film on the image of Elizabeth submitting to a gynecological examination and the information from that examination going straight into her accounts is to show how important her state of reproductive health was to the political scene.

Because the challenge facing Elizabeth was that without an heir there was a risk of instability because people didn't know who was going to succeed her. And there were various competing factions who were jostling for the position to lay claim to that right. And so one feels she was caught between the desire to make the country more stable through marriage and having a legitimate heir. But at the same time her drive to stay in control as the queen. So whether she could have a child, whether she was a virgin or not, who she married--these were all pressing political concerns.

So the two films look at her two great loves and contrast the wisdom and political sagacity of one with the youthful and impetuous folly of the other, and in so doing you realize that these personal decisions were major national political decisions.

I think also we wanted to show the Queen more with her very intimate circle so that we weren't constantly involved in presenting the Queen as this austere monarch. We wanted to get in the room with her and the people she knew best over the years so that we could see her at her most informal. Her most relaxed. And only have a few moments when we stood back from her as a viewer and see her in all her iconic glory. And I'd say the majority of the film, we give the audience access to this intimate informality. That was my ambition--that when we got to the point of seeing the iconic Queen, we very much felt the woman beneath.

The other interesting thing is that as the most powerful person in England, she was free to take a young lover in the way that typically middle age men take young female lovers. And it's incredibly unusual to reverse the roles that way in this period. But the Queen had the freedom to do it because of her power.

Whether she could have a child, whether she was a virgin or not, who she married-- these were all pressing political concerns.

Talk a little about the sets and costumes and how you developed the look for them.

Tom Hooper

Well, I was very excited to be working with Mike O'Neill because I had done two period pieces with him before and enjoyed his flair and imagination for costumes. I think we felt very strongly that we wanted to mark the different levels of formality and informality that the Queen must have had as she went about her day.

And we had this wonderful set designed by Eve Stewart which afforded us different types of space. So you had the most intimate space of her bedroom, her privy chamber. Then you had the more public space of the presence chamber.

And so we did a lot of thinking about what the Queen would have looked like when she was in her intimate private space and in her privy space. And one of the difficulties with this is that most of the paintings available of Elizabeth are all in her most formal, most iconic, which are designed to help create the myth of the Virgin Queen and help make her look amazing, even alien one could argue.

There's very little information about what she might have worn on a morning when she wasn't necessarily meeting dignitaries or courtiers or anyone outside of her circle. Mike did a lot of research to see what those more casual, informal outfits would look like.

Quite a lot of the film is set amongst her most intimate circle, and so we had this idea that we'd see the big heavy iconic costumes only for particular occasions, like when she meets the Duke of Anjou and she obviously wants to dress up more refined and make a powerful impression. Another example of this is the Tilbury speech when she's wearing armor and making the statement that she's a warrior queen. And then at end of the first film when they're celebrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada where she's wearing that incredible white dress with a huge white ruff, and the Golden Speech at the end of episode two, following on the death of Essex, and a new intimacy with the Queen.

We were always interested in the Queen standing out in any scene that she was in so she always had the most expensive fabrics, the fabrics that caught the light best, the brightest colors. And the people around here always wore more muted colors, and this all just came out of our research, that she didn't like to have the ladies-in waiting upstaging her. And it was part of her awareness of herself as an icon, the management of herself as an icon that she always wanted to stand out visually.


What was it like recreating Whitehall Palace?

I was quite interested in living very intimately with the Queen and only occasionally stepping outside and seeing her in the classic iconic way that she's come down to us through the centuries.
Tom Hooper

I was very excited to recreate Whitehall as accurately as possibly because when I began working on the films I turned up through research some great old maps of Whitehall, and drawings and sketches relating to that period. And I began to ask myself why don't we just build exactly what we see here? What would be the reason to invent something, and wouldn't it unlock secrets and truths about Elizabeth if we did get it absolutely right?

And it was very exciting because the set designer Eve Stewart absolutely embraced this concept and we embarked on a very ambitious project of a very faithful recreation of the Palace of Whitehall on really quite an immense scale.

And I think one of the things we unlocked through that is this sort of realist truth of her surroundings was what I'd call the hierarchy of space in her palace. In studying the layout of Whitehall, which is the main London palace, we realized that the way space was arranged was all about what level of privileged access you had to the Queen. And so we built a continuous interior set that allowed me to show the way space was charged with hierarchy.

As you come into the palace you go through a public area, which pretty much anyone can gain access to. And then you come across a guarded entrance to the presence chamber which is the big yellow room with the famous hallway painting of Henry VIII above Elizabeth's throne. And the presence chamber was sort of like the first level of access to the Queen; this is where she would meet dignitaries and ambassadors, where she would be consulted about petitions from commoners, so it wasn't public, it was controlled but when she was there she was always on show. It wasn't a very intimate circle.

Then as you passed through the doors of the presence chamber, you come into the privy gallery which is a long gallery with rooms off and this is her privy or private space. This is a space which really only her ladies in waiting, her lovers, and her privy counselors have access to, and we're very careful in the film to never show anyone other than those characters in this space.

And off the privy gallery, you have the privy chamber which is a meeting room a bit like the presence chamber but much smaller, much more intimate. And this is where she receives only her most intimate circle. And then you have this whole suite of rooms leading up to her bedchambers: her music room, her study, the bathing chamber which is where she bathed and her bedroom. And obviously no one of her counselors would go to any of her bedrooms. The only males who have access to her bedroom suite were Essex and Leicester.

And the more time I spent studying the period, the more I realized was that the arrangement of the space was absolutely key to understanding the monarchy and by defining what rooms you got access to, it defined your status.

And so I was very interested in connecting all this up and making a coherent presentation of the world. And out of this came a desire to use the steady camera extensively in the film because it seemed to demonstrate that this tension in space required the camera to be able to fluidly travel with Elizabeth through any room she might wander. So we could connect up these rooms because obviously if you keep filming one room and a character walks out and you cut and pick up in another room, you don't understand the relationships. And there were some wonderful shots where the steady cam shows the way the parts connect together.

So really what was driving me was to create a tremendously strong sense of geography, that every door led somewhere, to create a sense for the audience of a virtual reality tour through the past rather than a sort of pantomimic version of the past where famous actresses dressed up in costumes and you don't for a moment think you're back in that reality. And I felt capturing the physical space accurately was tremendously important.

And also I wanted to rather than visualize the world through the prism of the threat that faced her, I wanted to show the world that she was fighting to protect. In other words, a world of tremendous finery and beauty that came out of her tremendous wealth. And this was the lifestyle that she was aiming to protect through dealing with the threats that faced her. And it was a world of tremendous beauty.

What's interesting is there's not a lot of squalid London in the two films. And that was a conscious decision because I think she did everything in her power to avoid them. She wanted to live in a world of color and beauty and the finest things in life.

One feels she was caught between the desire to make the country more stable through marriage and having a legitimate heir. But at the same time her drive to stay in control as the queen.

You used computer generated imaging to recreate several sets. Tell us about that process.

Tom Hooper

We made extensive use of CGI. And the shot I'm most proud of is when we go into the River Thames and we see London laid out before us. That shot was literally the grassy banks of a Lithuanian lake. There was not a single building there, and we created the whole of that view through computers. So CGI was also a very exciting way of realizing that world.

It's also incredibly exciting as a Londoner to be able to say, well what did London really look like, and let's create some wide shots where we really see London in the 1580s as it looked then. And what's so exciting for me as a filmmaker about the use of CGI in this film was the chance to go back into the past, and finally properly show people what London really looked like back then. For me, that was tremendously exciting.