The film THE DANISH GIRL is a remarkable love story inspired by the lives of Lili Elbe/Einar Wegener and Gerda Wegener. In 1926 Copenhagen, artist Einar Wegener [Eddie Redmayne] is revered for landscape paintings. Wife Gerda [Alicia Vikander] is also an artist, less renowned but steadily working as a portraitist of prominent citizens. Theirs is a strong and loving marriage, yet personal and professional epiphanies have eluded them both. One day, on deadline for a portrait, Gerda asks her husband to fill in for a model by putting on a dress so she can finish the painting. The experience is transformative, as Einar soon realizes that being Lili is an expression of her* truest self, and she begins living her life as a woman. Gerda unexpectedly finds that she has a new muse and renewed creative ferment, but the couple soon brush up against society’s disapproval. They leave their homeland for the more open-minded world of Paris. There, it is Gerda’s career that continues to flourish. The couple’s marriage evolves beyond definition, but not without strain. Yet again and again, Gerda supports Lili during her journey as a transgender woman. Through the other, each of them finds the courage to be who they are at heart.
– Focus Features
Director Tom Hooper says, “To me, THE DANISH GIRL shares with THE KING’S SPEECH that theme of the blocks that lie between us and the best version of ourselves – and how we overcome those blocks. The film tells the extraordinary story of Lili Elbe, one of the world’s first people to undergo gender confirmation surgery, and the powerful love story of two people who go through Lili’s journey together. It movingly portrays a marriage going through a profound transformation.”
Writer Lucinda Coxon adds, “I thought of them not only as a couple who loved one another but also as a pair of artists who were always creating together. These two were constantly seeking to liberate one another, and the question became just how much change a marriage could accommodate.”
Production Designer Eve Stewart notes, “I was struck by the tenderness with which the subject was approached and by how interesting it would be to portray their art and how their world was affected.”
“It was the best script I’ve ever read,” responds Hooper. “I wept three times when I read it, and I’m not sentimental. I’ve wanted to make the movie ever since.” He goes on to say, “Our film explores unconditional love, a generosity and compassion that is truly rare. During shooting, Gerda’s standard of compassion was our guiding principle…She is a force of love, helping make change possible.”
Alicia Vikander, who plays Gerda, points out, “There is a delicate emotional intelligence to the stories Tom tells, so if there was anyone who could take on this love story it would be him.”
Eddie Redmayne, who plays Lili/Einar, agrees, “This is a story of authenticity, identity, and courage, but at its heart it is a love story…about the courage that it takes to find yourself – to be yourself. Between the Wars came fun and discovery…and urgency. When you’ve seen so much death and the shortness of life has been underlined, there’s the fact that you only have one shot at your time on Earth. How are you going to live it? Veiled and hidden, or are you going to live a life authentic? Quite often artists can be at the forefront of change…and experimentation and freedom.”
Thus, the perfect fit for Hooper to direct. “There is a rigor to the way Tom works,” says Redmayne. “He will research every option and yet he will then allow a freedom. He relies entirely on instinct.”
The director took a few moments with SET DECOR to talk about bringing this deeply significant true story to life, and the hope to honor all aspects of it…
SET DECOR: The whole film has a painterly quality to it, a visual depth to every scene. It’s rather exquisite…
Director Tom Hooper: Thank you. Since this was a story about artists, we felt it was right to present it not only realistically, but also through a painterly focus, so to speak.
SET DECOR: Could we talk about the importance of the sets to your vision, and of the details…to the set decorator, detail is essential…
Hooper: Well, Eve Stewart and I have a collaboration that now goes back 10 years and a set of 6 films. We started on ELIZABETH I, with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons for HBO, where for five-million, she had to re-create Elizabethan England in Lithuania. There’s little…there is no Tudor in Lithuania [he says wryly]…and she did the most extraordinary job building epic-scale sets for no money. And I still to this day don’t know how she achieved it.
We both come out of this low budget British BBC drama background, and one of her great gifts is she’s incredibly resourceful the way she stretches these small budgets and yet gets the details in, along with the large scale pieces. And of course, the people she brings on are amazingly talented and inspired by her and the material.
SET DECOR: Set Decorator Michael Standish offers, “Eve guides the art department. Once she’s fixed on something, it’s got to look right. We know exactly which object is going to go in what place…In the Denmark scenes, the color palette is refined and minimal especially in the interiors. Lili, when she is living as Einar, works in a slightly darker space.”
Hooper: Yes, exactly. The center of THE DANISH GIRL is the Copenhagen conservatory and the apartments for Copenhagen and Paris, all built in Elstree Film Studios, London.
Early on, Eve introduced me to the paintings of the brilliant Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi. Hammershøi mainly painted scenes of his own apartment or figures standing in his apartment, and it was all in this wonderful, austere blue-grey palette, very Danish. There’s this sense of loneliness and alienation in these canvases, so Eve had this idea of building a set inspired by the Hammershøi paintings. I liked the idea, because there was something in the austerity of the color scheme that helped reflect what it might be like to be Lili living as Einar, to be constricted living in a gender that you didn’t feel comfortable in…And it would make a great contrast to the world of Paris that we move into. If you look at the film and then at Hammershøi paintings online, you’ll see that there are certain shots that really are direct replicas of his paintings. Again, Hammershøi’s palette is a very specific range of blue and grey. Once you’re into his world it’s amazing how rich it is; you find beauty within constraint.
I think when you talk about the importance of detail, the finish of the walls was so critical. I think Eve was responsible for finding that amazing room in THE KING’S SPEECH with that distressed wall, which shows the power of a flat surface and how if you get the right finish, something so simple can be so cinematic. So we worked a lot with getting that right and comparing with Hammershøi’s look. We had his books and paintings around for the team to reference constantly.
SET DECOR: There’s a particular, almost iconic, shot of a loaf of bread next to a pitcher on the shelf—an homage that is almost Vermeer-ish, but does have that Scandinavian light…
Hooper: Happy you noticed that. I’m also a great fan of the Dutch masters, since back when I was a student. The first flat I bought in London, I had reproductions of Vermeers and the Dutch paintings just in clip-frames on my walls. So there are some references to the still life tradition. Hammershøi always linked back to Vermeer, so there’s a love of that genre. And the Dutch section of JOHN ADAMS [HBO mini-series] is my love letter to that school.
For the Paris section, we were very much inspired by the wonderful director Lana Wachowski, whom I had the great fortune to meet for a couple of inspiring hours with Eddie Redmayne.
[Editor’s note: Redmayne had worked with her and her brother on the film JUPITER ASCENDING. See the article in Film Decor.]
Lana knew the story well and felt she owed a great debt to Lili and Einar. She said to me, “What if you use the revolution of Art Nouveau as a backdrop for Lili’s emergence? Because that is about the rejection of the masculine and the straight line, embracing the feminine, the curved line, the floral and explosions of color.”
I suggested this to Eve and her eyes lit up, and she said, “Well, ironically, Tom, the best Art Nouveau architecture in Europe is not in Paris, it’s in Belgium, in Brussels, to be exact. And also, they happen to have one of the best tax breaks in Europe, so let’s go there.”
The producers, and I was one of the producers, were constantly worried that we didn’t have enough money to add a third country because we were already in Copenhagen [Denmark], we were already in London [UK], but Eve fought with passion for the importance of that look, inspired by Lana’s words. And here she was absolutely right. She pointed out, “If we’re trying to do France in London, we’d never have money to build a restaurant or Hans’s office. We’d never have the money to dress the sets substantially. But if you go to the right location, you set the camera up and you have massive visual hit and you don’t have to spend masses of money to build. I mean, you have to get there, but once you get there…” So that’s where she’s very smart.
SET DECOR: And then you’re putting in the dressing, and making it yours… Standish mentions…“The color palette becomes more full and ebullient for Paris, especially with the success of Gerda’s paintings of Lili. It’s like a flower blossoming after being nourished…”
Hooper: Yes, that’s it. And, you know, this was a film under $15-million, shot in four countries, and I think Eve and team had 56 sets to dress. So she’s a magician to me, and her team is extraordinary.
The other thing of course that we should talk about is the production of the art. I mean, if you talk about the set decoration, the most important set decoration in there is the art. And there’s a funny story…I said to Eve, “I want to be purist about this. I want the real art. I want the real Lili paintings.” She looked a bit ashen and said, “Well how are we to get them? How are we going to pry them out of the hands of collectors? How are we going to insure them? And to transport them is going to cost a fortune, and we can’t do it.” And I’m like, “I don’t care. I want the real things, I definitely want the real things.”
About a month later, she sat me down and said, “You do know that the real Lili paintings don’t look like Eddie Redmayne?” And I’m like, long pause and then an expletive. So we started to do our own Lili paintings and we had our amazing team led by Susie Brough, the lead painter, and we tried to cut corners and do it fast. We would blow up copies of the Lili paintings, matte them out and then project the image of Eddie’s face into them, but they still didn’t look quite right.
And you know what the key was? The key was to get Eddie to sit as Lili for Susie and to do it the old school way, and that’s when the paintings came alive.
SET DECOR: And your presentation of of Gerda creating these paintings, sometimes shot from behind the canvas, through the painting, was brilliant.
Hooper: Lovely. That was great. Danny lit those in this wonderful way where you could see through the canvas and it created more…particularly the first time Gerda is driven to paint Lili, slightly against her judgment, and it creates a beautiful suspense, because you don’t see the full image until you actually come around.
SET DECOR: Yes, and you also see that burst of movement and the purity of the artist. It’s just a stroke, a line…but we are given privilege to see how an artist creates that and then how the lines evolve into an image and a presence…
Hooper: I have to say, my first short film, the first proper short I made as a professional with a professional crew working for free and professional actors working for free, I was 18 years old and it was called PAINTED FACES. I shot it in an art studio and it was about an artist whose subjects come out of his paintings and take control of him, and in the end, the painter becomes the subject of the painting and one of the characters has become the artist. So for me, this film was sort of going back to a theme of painting and of artists.
SET DECOR: Other than the obvious, the paintings for THE DANISH GIRL, can you tell us an aspect of the set dressing or element of the set dressing that stood out for you?
Hooper: Well, with the attention to detail, even the bedsheets in the Danish apartment…normally they would be white pillows and white sheets and a perhaps black throw. Instead, they’re all these exquisite Danish blues that work with the set.
SET DECOR: And the crocheted edges and linen texture in the grey-blues compared with Paris where it’s all brocades and silks and lush colors.
Hooper: Yes, there was a certain austerity to Copenhagen that made me understand where Lili was coming from when she lived as Einar. The lushness of Paris, where both Lili and Gerda blossomed individually, and then the beautiful, crisp white of the hospital in Dresden—our sets throughout the film reflected Lili’s and Gerda’s courageous journey together…