Transforming The Danish Girl Into Film

The Danish Girl explores unconditional love, a generosity and compassion

The Danish Girl is the remarkable love story inspired by the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, based on the book by David Ebershoff with a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon and directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables).

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Tom Hooper

Tom Hooper won an Academy Award for directing The King’s Speech. As well as a Directors Guild of America Award. Mr. Hooper was recently again a Directors Guild of America Award nominee for directing Working Title Films’ Les Misérables. Among his other features as director are The Damned United, and Red Dust. Mr. Hooper had an unprecedented run of success at the Golden Globe Awards with his works for HBO, which won the Golden Globe for Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television three years in a row for Elizabeth I, Longford, and John Adams. At age 18, he wrote, directed, and produced the short film Painted Faces, which premiered at the London Film Festival; it was released theatrically and later shown on Channel 4. At Oxford University, he directed theater productions starring his contemporaries Kate Beckinsale and Emily Mortimer, and directed his first television commercials. His first film, Runaway Dog, was made when he was 13 years old, and shot on a Clockwork 16 mm Bolex camera, using 100 feet of film.

‘’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,’’ says Tom Hooper.

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.: ‘’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,” says Eddie Redmayne (who won an Oscar for his performance in The Theory of Everything).

The Danish Girl was David Ebershoff’s debut novel.

David Ebershoff

The Danish Girl was David Ebershoff’s debut novel. First published in 2000, the book won the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction and the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and was a finalist for New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award. It has been translated into nearly 20 languages. He has written three books since including his most recent novel, the #1 bestseller The 19th Wife.Mr. Ebershoff has taught writing at Princeton University, New York University, and Columbia University. He is currently Vice President, Executive Editor at Random House, where he edits a wide range of award-winning fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Out Magazine has twice named him to its annual “Out 100” list of influential LGBT people.

First published in 2000, the book won the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction, among other honors. It has been translated into nearly 20 languages.

Producers Gail Mutrux and Anne Harrison, and executive producer Linda Reisman, have been working on the film for over a decade.

Gail Mutrux optioned the book in 2000 and began developing the film version, bringing on Linda Reisman in 2003.

In 2005 Anne Harrison joined the project with the mandate of getting the screenplay adaptation written, for which Lucinda Coxon was soon hired.

‘’When I read it, I realized that Lili’s remarkable story had been swept away by the tide of history,’’ says Coxon. ‘’Hers was an incredibly important moment, and one I’d not heard about at all. After reading the novel, I researched the story a little further. What I was particularly struck by was that this was the story of a marriage, a love story between two artists of courage and imagination. And I suppose what appealed to me was telling a universal story through something highly particular. For example, when Gerda and Lili – when she was living as a man – make the decision to leave Copenhagen for Paris that is not only about their seeking out a more liberal society; it’s about when anyone grows up and leaves their home for the wider world. 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.’’

Linda Coxon

Lucinda Coxon writes for film, television, and stage. Her feature screenplays include Wild Target, starring Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt, and Rupert Grint; and The Heart of Me, starring Helena Bonham Carter, Olivia Williams, and Paul Bettany. She collaborated with Guillermo Del Toro on Crimson Peak and more recently adapted Sarah Waters’ novel The Little Stranger for film, to be directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Her four-part version of The Crimson Petal and the White, based on Michael Faber’s novel, was screened to critical acclaim on BBC2 and received a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Miniseries. Her stage plays include What Are They Like? (National Theatre); Herding Cats (Theatre Royal Bath and the Hampstead Theatre), for which she was a Theatre Award UK nominee; Happy Now? (National Theatre and 59E59Theaters in NYC), for which Ms. Coxon received the Writers Guild of Great Britain’s Best Play Award as well as Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Award nominations. She is currently adapting Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth for Working Title Films, and writing a new play for the National Theatre.

‘’If you’re writing an adaptation, you have to love the material to begin with but then you need to take ownership of it. I did make departures from David’s book to go closer to the original history, but I think the essence of his book is absolutely present. The characters had been developed and brilliantly fleshed out by David in his book, which was a gift to me.’’

After casting director Nina Gold recommended Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay to him, director Tom Hooper read the script and came on board the project.

Says Hooper: Nina said, “I know of this great unmade script.” I fell in love with the script as soon as I read it, which was in 2008 when I was preparing The King’s Speech. It was the best script I’ve ever read. I wept three times when I read it – and I’m not sentimental. I’ve wanted to make the movie ever since.

‘’One challenge was that this is such an intimate story between two people that opens out into something with enormous ramifications. Their lives together were insular until they weren’t.

‘’We were, in a sense, lucky that the film hadn’t been made sooner,’’ says Coxon. ‘’Tom is an incredibly bold director, and he wanted to make a film that people would relate to. As a writer, you’re always fighting for your script but with these gifted colleagues I found their instincts to be strong and true. This is the moment for our film to reach people.

‘’There are countries today where the culture would not be ready to accept a person’s journey,’’ says costume designer Paco Delgado. ‘’This movie pays tribute to an amazing person but also to the courageous people nowadays who are taking that journey.’’

‘’Imagine what was at stake for Lili. Even now, in the U.S., a person can be fired in over two dozen states for being LGBTQ,’’ says Amber Heard. ‘’Lili was a hero for the self, for the individual; she chose something new. More and more people do that now, but it’s sad and terrifying that there’s so much at risk for them even today.’’

‘’It’s sort of dumbfounding, almost 100 years on from Lili, how little has progressed for what is a civil rights movement,’’ says Redmayne, who committed to portray Lili even before the movie got the “green light” to be made with Working Title Films producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner.

Says Hooper: ‘’From my first reading of the script, I thought about Eddie for the role. I said to Gail Mutrux, “That’s who I want to make the film with.” We had already made Elizabeth I together. But it wasn’t until we were making Les Misérables with Working Title in 2012 that I gave him the script.’’

‘’I was at the Les Misérables barricades, and Tom said, “I would like you to read something.” Tom then got me the script and I sat down to read it, knowing nothing about it. I was profoundly moved, it blew my mind. I found it extraordinarily passionate and deeply felt. I told Tom I wanted to be part of telling this story.’’

THE-DANISH-GIRL-6-1200x678‘’Was I daunted by it? Yes, I was, but I’m daunted by everything! But I have begun to realize that fear of not doing a character or a story justice is a galvanizing thing – it pushes me forward and makes me work harder.Lili Elbe was a courageous woman; she was complicated, colorful, and vibrant. I hoped to be able to immerse myself in her world, to try and get an insight into what she went through inside. The thrill of being an actor is that, with each character, you get to further yourself.’’

Says Coxon: ‘’I was just so happy and relieved when Eddie agreed to star. This was a transformative role, one which needed to be approached with intelligence and delicacy and skill. I instantly knew we would be fine, that Eddie would take care of the character and would be an astonishing Lili. Eddie is so rigorous and disciplined. He did a great deal of his own research into the story, into trans lives’’

‘’That was most important of all for me, meeting people from the trans community and hearing about their lives, their strengths, their realities,’’ says  Redmanye ‘’Lili underwent gender confirmation surgery almost 100 years ago, and people transitioning now know much more than she would have. So, to hear from elder members of the community was to learn of the trans experience 40-50 years ago. Many of the trans women I spoke to described how, before transitioning, in order to survive in society, they created ways in which to live life in their assigned gender. That could involve putting a framework up. Every trans story is unique and individual; there is no one trans experience. But every single trans person I’ve met has talked about knowing, from their youth, that their assigned gender was different from their own identity.’’

the-danish-girl-e1442882751888Says Hooper: ‘’Eddie and I were both hugely inspired by Jan Morris’s exceptional, exquisitely written autobiography Conundrum.’’

‘’Tom and I went through the script intricately in the preparation process,’’ says Redmayne.  ‘’I took a lot of information from David Ebershoff’s book, brought everything together to look into myself – to see what I could find in myself – and made my own choices.’’

Says Coxon: ‘’Eddie had great support throughout the processes from [dialect coach] Julia Wilson-Dickson and [movement choreographer] Alex Reynolds, who worked with him on The Theory of Everything as well.’’

‘’Alex has a wonderful sense of ability, and she knows what I react well to, or don’t,’’ says Redmayne. ‘’The process of working with Alex was about freeing sides of myself up. Although movement is external, this was also internal: freeing myself up to be in a place to access Lili’s story as truly as possible. Physicality is always something I like to get into with a character because it’s a massive part of who we are. Use of hands always interests me. I knew I wanted to show moments of Lili’s true gender, even when she was living as Einar. Was it the way in which she slept? I looked into that.

Says Hooper: ‘’We also needed those little things in the body language that set up the idea of the concealment of the true self. A lot of conversations were about how Lili is a woman and she is living as Einar at the beginning, but we needed it to be a process of finding the true self rather than a new identity being constructed. Eddie’s working with Alex on the body language helped unlock the emotional landscape of the character.

Make-up and hair designer Jan Sewell and Redmayne also worked together on The Theory of Everything and they started exploring the physical notions for Lili almost a year and a half before they started filming.

‘’The research was fascinating, because you could do all these little changes as Lili transitions,’’ says Sewell. ‘’There had to be bits where it’s a bit clunky, before she is truly Lili. We start with little bits of make-up to add femininity in, like clear mascara on his eyelashes, and we start to let the hair fall a little bit, adding in little wefts. Eddie and I would agree on subtle things that nobody sees but that make the difference.’’

Says Redmayne: ‘’Hyper-feminization is something that I heard described by some trans women. When you’re first transitioning, you’re allowing yourself to live in the clothing of your true gender. Some people described it as going through teenage adolescence, expressing yourself by putting on perhaps too much make-up or wearing too brash a wig. You have to try and find out your identity.’’

Says Coxon: ‘’Lili didn’t necessarily have to emerge looking like a beautiful woman; as it happens, Eddie looks beautiful as Lili.  But Eddie did have to get at what was in her head, and he found the wit, the humor, and the vulnerability – and what was most beautiful was how he articulates the difficulties of emerging into a new self, being adolescent again in some ways.’’

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Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hooper discuss a scene during filming

‘’I started this experience being deeply ignorant. I didn’t realize that gender and sexuality were not related; I didn’t really understand the notion of fluidity in both gender and sexuality. Every day, everything about the process was an education,’’ says Redmayne. ‘’The people I’ve met, and their experiences they have shared with me, have changed me. And I am so grateful for that.’’

Says Alicia Vikander: ‘’Playing scenes with Eddie, I could lose myself in getting to know Lili, because she was so real. It was a joy working with Eddie because I never really knew where the next take was going to go; I would listen and react so it could be a team play. Gerda realized that their relationship might change, that she might have to let go someone she loved more than anything. It is wonderful how Gerda pushes Lili to make the transition.’’

Says Redmayne: ‘’ll never forget her audition: we read a scene together and I turned to Tom, and he was sobbing. I thought, “Nailed it!” Seven or eight months before filming began, she and Tom and I started having long, long discussions about the characters and about Man Into Woman and The Danish Girl.People often talk about Alicia in terms of her dance background, and her use of poise and posture. But she also has the capacity to tap emotions from somewhere that is so raw that it floors you.’’

Says Vikander: ‘’Gerda cares for Lili, to the point where she wants to sacrifice – and, for her, it isn’t a sacrifice, really, because the love is so evident.’’

Says Hooper: ‘’Gerda is a force of love, helping make change possible.’’

‘’When I read a script, I go on an instinctive, emotional reaction. I read this script in one sitting, barely catching my breath,’’ says Ben Whishaw. ‘’On reflection I realized that it was about something that’s rarely dealt with in a mainstream film. But the themes are universal: it’s about a relationship, and about a person who is trying to be authentic to themselves. . I found the story most powerful and moving as an examination of when one part of a couple says, “I need to change” and how the couple negotiates that. Lucinda’s script shows kindness, hopefulness, and sensitivity – but also how it’s not a walk in the park.’’

‘’Our film explores unconditional love, a generosity and compassion that is truly rare,’’ says Hooper. ‘’During shooting, Gerda’s standard of compassion was our guiding principle, beautifully represented in Lucinda’s script.

‘’I took a personal journey of discovery with Lili and Gerda, and I hope that the audience can as well. A lot of the time I was just trying to keep up,’’ says Coxon.

Terms To Know When Discussing The Danish Girl

Cisgender (a.k.a. “cis”) – A cisgender person is someone whose gender identity (their internal sense of themselves as a man or a woman) matches the sex they were assigned at birth. “Cis-“ is a Latin prefix meaning “on the same side as,” and is therefore an antonym of “trans-.” A more widely understood way to describe people who are not transgender is simply to say “non-transgender people.”

Transgender (a.k.a. “trans”) – A transgender person is someone whose gender identity (their internal sense of themselves as a man or a woman) is different than the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender is an adjective, and not a noun; therefore, “Scott is a transgender man” is correct and “Scott is a transgender” is incorrect. For the plural, “transgender people” is correct and “transgenders” is incorrect.

Transition – Transition is not a one-step procedure; it is a complex process that occurs over a long period of time. Transition is the process trans people undertake to bring their body and their gender expression into alignment with their inner gender identity. It includes some or all of the following personal, medical, and legal steps: telling one’s family, friends, and co-workers; using a different name and new pronouns; dressing differently; changing one’s name and/or sex on legal documents; hormone therapy; and possibly (though not always) one or more types of surgery. The exact steps involved in transition vary from person to person.

Gender Confirmation Surgery – An updated term for sex reassignment surgery, one step in the medical transition process that some trans people undergo. This terminology is preferable to the outdated phrase “sex change.”

 LGBTQ – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning community.