Chance meeting: Joel Hopkins pairs Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson in poignant romance


In 2002, first-time writer-director Joel Hopkins won BAFTA’s Carl Foreman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer for his debut movie, Jump Tomorrow, a modest, amusing charmer about a young Nigerian man trudging to Niagara Falls to fulfill an arranged marriage—only to be diverted along the way by the real love of his life. (He follows a friend’s advice to seize the day, figuring he can always “jump tomorrow.”)

Six years later, “tomorrow” has arrived for Hopkins, now making good on that promissory award with a second feature film, Overture Films’ Last Chance Harvey. It, too, is a lovers’ leap—but the participants are two mature strangers who’ve been around the block.

Dustin Hoffman, eternally the Graduate and a great-looking 71, qualifies for the title role here—a work-hammered schlub who lays his jingle-writing job on the line to zip off to London to escort his estranged daughter (Liane Balaban) down the aisle and learns too late, on arriving, that she has tapped her well-groomed stepdad (James Brolin) to do that honor. Making a sluggish getaway from the ceremony, Harvey misses his flight, loses his job and finds True Love in the form of Kate, a prickly fact-finder for the Office of National Statistics (Emma Thompson). It’s love at first collision, and, with nothing left to lose, they talk themselves into a romantic state.

Hopkins’ characters, young and old alike, go that well-traveled route to the same amorous conclusion, but it has required a while for him to reorient himself. “I made Jump Tomorrow when I was just turning 30,” says the filmmaker, now 38, “so it has taken a bit of time to get this one made, but that has come to be the way of it with second films. We’re all allowed to grow up a bit slower. I think the 40s will be a big one for me. Not a lot changed during my 30s, apart from making Jump Tomorrow.”

Fortunately, Thompson was a vigorous devotee of his only screen evidence, and that fact got him an interview for Nanny McPhee, a children’s film she wrote for herself to play. “She met me as a potential director,” he recalls. “I think I came in second [to Kirk Jones], but she took a meeting with me and said, ‘Sorry, Nanny McPhee’s not for you, but I really liked your film, and I’d love to work together.’ I went away thinking I should do something—it doesn’t happen every day Emma Thompson says that—so I started to think of an idea she could play, and I came up with this character of Kate.”

Truth to tell—and Thompson rushes into the fray to tell it—that Kate comes from an earlier Kate. “This Kate goes way back to my first movie—it was Richard Curtis’ first movie, too—something called The Tall Guy,” she insists. “I made that with Jeff Goldblum when I was 27. It was like 22 years ago, and Joel saw that when he was ten or something, and it inspired him to re-imagine Kate as the older person I played here.”

“I didn’t steal it,” Hopkins wants Curtis to know right off. “There was this wonderful no-nonsense nurse in it named Kate Lemmon, who made an impression on me as a teenage boy. I always wondered whatever happened to her if things didn’t work out, so my Kate is what happened 15 years later. That was one of the germs of the idea.”

The two-different-worlds aspect of the film’s opposites-attract formula came from Hopkins’s own life: “I was living in New York at the time—in fact, I lived here for 12 years—and, being from London originally, I wanted those two worlds to come together in the story. I was very much looking for a story that could show off those bits of my life. So Harvey being an American came quite naturally.”

But that wasn’t initially the case, he notes. “I never told Dustin this, but in the very, very, very first incarnation in the back of my mind, Harvey was Japanese. At the time, I had been writing another script—it’s a three-hander—and in it one of the characters is this Japanese businessman. It’s a film I’m trying to get made called Moonwalk—I haven’t got financing yet, but I’ve got Ken Watanabe—and it’s something that I need to revisit. I wrote it quite a while ago, before I wrote Last Chance Harvey, and I might have the opportunity to make it now after this film. The trouble with a Japanese character here is it would have gotten the film bogged down in miscommunication because their culture and their language obviously aren’t the same, and I didn’t want it to be about—too much about—cultural differences.”

In their careers, Hoffman and Thompson have accumulated a couple of Oscars (one of hers was for scripting Sense and Sensibility), but they’d only spent a total of two scenes together—in Stranger Than Fiction—Will Ferrell being their one degree of separation. It wasn’t until Hopkins saw that film that he knew who’d be the Yank.

“When I saw Stranger Than Fiction, I e-mailed Emma and said, ‘How about Dustin?’ And when I sat down and wrote the first draft, I clearly had these two in mind, and that draft came very quickly to me. I didn’t know them, but they inhabited the roles.”

Thompson immediately warmed to the idea of a reteaming, she admits. “Dustin and I had such a good time on Stranger Than Fiction. We’d done that thing that actors always do—‘Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work together again?’—and it never happens, of course. But this time it did, unexpectedly and through utterly serendipitous routes. What was, I think, amazing was that it felt like something that was meant to happen now. I don’t think we could have played these roles 20 years ago—either of us. It was just one of those things that happened just at the right moment, which is quite rare in our profession, and I’m very grateful for it.”

Hoffman seconds the motion about their chemistry. “Emma and I had this kind of connection. It’s like you meet somebody at a party and the next day you don’t know what it is. Something happened. That’s what happened with us, and it still exists.”

It existed earlier in the press conference when Hoffman duly noted that Thompson, while talking about The Tall Guy, matter-of-factly tipped her age: “ All you had to do was add it up to 49. She not only willingly admits her age, she does it with a grace and pride. That’s unusual, and that says more about Emma than anything else. It speaks volumes for her and the movie we attempted to make with Joel.”

Thompson presses on with that notion: “It probably says more about the fact that we’re not used to that, which seems to be very odd. What are we trying to do to our young people? Are we trying to say to them, ‘Look, that’s the best bit—the bit you’re in right now’—because, if we are, then we’re selling them down the river lock, stock and barrel. You know, if you don’t sell the idea to people—not sell it, but talk about it—the joy of getting older, the joy of accessing yourself, a little wisdom, a little this, a little that, until you’re easier and life is nicer, then I think [it’s a] very dangerous thing to do. As storytellers, we must—must—make sure that we don’t make it all youth-centric, because then they will believe that that’s kind of the be-all and end-all. And we’re already a little way towards that, in this so-called ‘developed world.’”

When a reporter gingerly asks if there was a shying away from physical affection between the two while filming, Hoffman and Thompson jokingly counter by charging wildly in the opposite direction. “We were desperate to show everything,” she eagerly insists. “Every chance we got, we took our clothes off. ‘It’s not so bad. You can shoot from this angle. It’ll be great!’” And he fuels her flame just as aggressively: “There are two frontal sex scenes. I mean, my God, we went all out! I agreed to do full frontal, if [Hopkins] would do a little computer graphic afterwards.”

Reverting to seriousness, Hoffman says the aging aspects of the characters were not why he wanted to do the project. “[Hopkins] wanted to write something for us. He wrote it, and that’s what we are. We had an agreement, the three of us: We’d try not to do so-called ‘character parts’ here. We wanted to recreate that thing we had when we first met in Chicago for Stranger Than Fiction. We didn’t want to lose that.” A measure that they succeeded, Hoffman suggests, is the line that kept recurring at the Q&As that followed screenings: Audiences felt as if they were eavesdropping.

Both stars, says Hopkins, found their roles good fits and strove to make them perfect fits. “I think they saw in these characters the opportunity to play characters that let them draw on stuff from their own lives. Emma and Dustin—maybe Dustin more so than Emma—wanted to do it like that, and I was flattered that I had written something [where] they saw the opportunity in which they could. It’s the sort of film where you can do that because it’s not a complicated movie. A lot of it is two people talking, and you do have an opportunity to explore things like that and do them differently.”

And was it intimidating for the rookie director to direct two major stars? A simple “Yeah!” says Hopkins, “but they were very sweet. In the prep, I had worked quite a bit on the script with Dustin and spent a lot of time with him, so by the time we came to shoot, I was feeling quite comfortable. Then we did a read-through, and I remember it dawned on me it was actually going to happen and I was going to make this film with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, and a bit of a panic set in. But once the thing is up and running, it’s so logistical.”

The film had an eight-week shoot on a medium budget. “For me personally, it was a huge step up—ten times what my other film cost,” notes Hopkins. “It’s interesting with money. Everything moves up, but it doesn’t necessarily mean more money equals more time because everything becomes bigger. Bigger actors require more things—so it felt we were as much under the gun as we were with my tiny low-budget film. Everything sort of equally shifts up, and you still haven’t got enough time. Ang Lee was talking about how, with The Incredible Hulk and that big budget, it was still as run-and-gun as The Wedding Banquet was. You never have enough time.”

In a day of computer-generated special effects and car crashes, Hopkins has brought off that rarest of birds—a love story for grown-ups that addresses the human heart.

“I’m just proud of the piece as a whole,” he says. “I feel it has really come together from all these different elements—the tone and the acting. That’s the goal. All these elements—you’re trying to sculpt them and make sure they all fit. It’s not going to be the best movie around, but it’s a really solid movie. It works, and it feels of a piece. That makes me feel I’ve done my job.”

Last Chance Harvey is the sort of movie Hoffman and Thompson admit they’d pick to see as patrons—and not, she cautions, because they happen to be in the movie’s target market. “Being a mum, a lot of the movies I end up seeing involve an awful lot of fast moving around and noise of various kinds—often very well done—but I rarely go see something that has huge emotional movements where your heart as a muscle moves inside you as you watch. That, for me, is essential about filmmaking. The first movie that made my heart lurch like that was Les Enfants du Paradis [Children of Paradise], and Arletty was 47 or something and Jean-Louis Barrault was 44, so it had nothing to do with age. It had to do with the great, huge movements of the heart.”