“WHAT’S the point of getting old if you can’t break the rules?”
I have been lucky enough to experience many magical moments in my career.
Discussing Tootsie over a Soho lunch with Dustin Hoffman in 1982 is one of thousands.
Another was just a few streets and 32 years away from there earlier this month.
The press premiere screening of a 90-minute adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot.
A heartwarming and joyous film to be screened on BBC1 on New Year’s Day – 6:30pm Thursday Jan 1.
Starring Dustin Hoffman as Mr Hoppy, Judi Dench as Mrs Silver and James Corden as the (in-vision) narrator.
With a screenplay by Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer, reunited for the first time since The Vicar of Dibley.
Resulting in a classic film to charm both adults and children.
A story of two people alone in their seventies…and a tortoise.
The hour-long Q&A after the screening is my favourite of 2014 to date.
Including a number of thoughtful, poignant and revealing quotes from Oscar winners Dustin and Judi.
For example, Dustin, 77, talking about moments that have changed his life, such as:
“Waking up and realising that you have not been living your life.”
And Judi – who will be 80 next month – on age discrimination.
The Q&A in full deserves a wider audience, which is why I’ve transcribed it all below.
Some 7000 words, with more production photos to be added when they are released. (Now added)
But, in my humble opinion, worthy of your time.
Including reading to the end when there was a truly magical moment on stage in the cinema at London’s new Ham Yard Hotel.
As Paul Mayhew-Archer explains below:
“The whole purpose of the story, really, is to show that it’s never too late. And whatever happens to you, never give up.”
Or as Mrs Silver says: “Grab joy while you can.”
(Dec 28: Updated with more production photos by Nick Briggs and Laurence Cendrowicz)
Richard Curtis introduced the screening:
“I always worry about people introducing things too enthusiastically. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, my beautiful and intelligent wife.’ Oh! So I thought I’d say just one thing about the genesis of the film and how extraordinarily quick it was, in so far as I’m a huge fan of Roald Dahl. I do think he’s an absolute genius and like almost Dickens for our kids. And I’ve read all his…or most of his books to most of my children. And I did just read Esio Trot one day to my son Spike and then the next day started to think about it and it suddenly occurred to me that it was a romantic comedy. And I like those. About two older people. And I’d always wanted to write something about my mum and dad but never quite managed it. And it suddenly occurred to me that might be my personal, particular reason for working on it. Then I thought, ‘Oh I could do it with Hilary (Bevan Jones) who I’ve made two films with and then worked with since Not The Nine O’Clock News and she likes flowers, which is very relevant’, as you’ll see in the film. And then I thought, ‘And then I could do it with Paul Mayhew-Archer, who I did The Vicar of Dibley with, who is the nicest man in the world and has fun hair.’ And then I thought, ‘Well if we get lucky, we could do it with the BBC at Christmas.’
“In fact, the first thing I wrote longer than half an hour was something called Bernard And The Genie, a long time ago with the BBC. So long ago, I was just reflecting it was Alan Cumming who was the star of it, was married to a woman. And he’s now married to a man. And then that same afternoon I thought, ‘We must try and use the music of Louis Armstrong,’ who was my dad’s favourite musician and has this extraordinary mixture of heart and joy. After that afternoon it went through then the normal amazing journey that every film goes through and particularly we were lucky to get the fabulous Dearbhla Walsh on board to direct it, who’s been so passionate about it from the beginning. And then a couple of very good actors, unexpectedly. Although, of course, it’s lots and lots of very good actors.
“And I just want to say one thing – my favourite moment almost of the whole shoot is when James Corden finished shooting the film. I overheard him saying goodbye to Dustin Hoffman. And he said, ‘Dustin, it’s been a lovely experience. I’m going to spread the word. You’re a smashing little actor.’ So maybe Dustin will pick up some other jobs now.”
Charlotte Moore, the Controller of BBC1, added:
“A real jewel in the Christmas schedules. It really is a very special 90-minute drama, adapted by Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer, who have re-kindled their partnership to write Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot for the first time since The Vicar of Dibley.
“It was the highlight of my time on BBC1 so far to turn up one summer morning quite early in Stoke Newington and to walk into this old building on Newington Green and there before my eyes was Dame Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman dancing together. I was transported into a children’s book that I’d read to my children and suddenly there it was before my eyes. It was like stepping out into a story book. What Richard and Paul have done is really capture the magic of the story in a really exceptional way.”
Press Q&A with Richard Curtis / Judi Dench / Dustin Hoffman / Producer Hilary Bevan Jones / Director Dearbhla Walsh / Paul Mayhew-Archer – hosted by Richard Arnold.
Q: Richard – five years you’ve been pondering this tale of love in our dotage, if you like. Why so passionate about it?
Richard Curtis: “Oh, I mean lots of reasons. I wanted to do it because of the Roald Dahl connection. Because I loved it and I really have read those books to a succession of children. And I think particularly as we started to work on it, I was particularly in love with the idea of doing something about love between vaguely, slightly…”
Judi Dench: “Steady…”
Richard Curtis: “…minisculely, older people than me. My mum and dad had an incredibly happy marriage. So, as it were, they did what they did in 1952 or something like that. I remember seeing Judi in A Pack Of Lies (1983), which was the most extraordinary stage performance. Of a really, really sweet and gentle…”
Judi Dench: “She was sweet, wasn’t she?”
Richard Curtis: “…housewife. Not the extraordinary grand and exceptional figure she is. And just thinking, ‘That absolutely just is my mum and exactly how she would react to it.’”
Judi Dench: “It’s about the Krogers. It’s about the spies.”
Richard Curtis: “She’s in the lift and she says that she likes summer best and then spring best and then autumn best. And that, again, would have been exactly that optimistic spirit of my mum. My dad was a much shyer immigrant from Australia, was uncertain of his ground and of his accent and everything like that. So I found just a huge amount in my own life which I managed to put into it.”
Q: The choice of James Corden as the narrator?
Paul Mayhew-Archer: “Well we wanted someone who was very lively and sort of chirpy and a bit cheeky in that sense of the way Roald Dahl is. And also a storyteller that would draw us into the story of these two people. And also it enabled us to…he says, when they get into the lift at the end, he and his daughter at the end, ‘Not the ending you were expecting.’ And it gave us the opportunity to do a sort of Tale of the Unexpected with Roald Dahl’s story. And James has a natural…I’d seen him in One Man, Two Guvnors and he has that wonderful way of drawing an audience in. We thought that would be marvellous.”
Q: Hilary – Dame Judi, Dustin Hoffman…first choice?
Hilary Bevan Jones: “Of course. Absolutely first choice…”
Dustin Hoffman: “I thought Jennifer Lawrence was…”
Hilary Bevan Jones: “No it really was. It was, ‘Well, do you think? Dare we ask?’ And we just thought, ‘What have we got to lose?’ And, my goodness, they both said yes. And I honestly think for all of us it was the best days of our lives. So, yeah. First choice.”
Q: Judi – the appeal of the piece for you?
Judi Dench: “I knew the story. I’ve read it to children. Many, many children. And so I knew the story. And, well…they did say Dustin Hoffman’s name. So, I mean, it could have been Five On A Treasure Island or whatever. It could have been any of those things. It could have been just, ‘Would you like to come and walk down the street and Richard Curtis will watch you?’ I wanted to play Mrs Silver, unconditionally.”
Q: Is is true you got the reputation on set for being a bit of a tortoise whisperer?
Judi Dench: “I do get on very, very well with animals. My family said to me, because we have a lot of animals, they said, ‘Oh, you’re going to come home with a tortoise.’ I said, ‘No, I won’t come home with a tortoise.’ Because a tortoise won’t run towards you with that kind of smiley, fuzzy face, like the cats do and the dogs do. But I did get quite fond of it. Of a little tortoise called Alfie. And my character is too stupid to know it’s being changed all the time. It was Alfie all the time. But it did go into a kind of…after I’d said this poem backwards to it so many times, it went into a kind of stupor and then it yawned. And a tortoise yawning is all-encompassing.”
Q: So this is the first time you’ve form, Dustin, together, in terms of working together?
Dustin Hoffman: “Do you know, I saw Judi in Mrs Brown in the States and I was so taken with the performance – and I rarely do this – I said, ‘Is it possible to get her phone number?’ And I got her phone number and I called her and I start going on and on and on about how brilliant I thought she was in the film. And she keeps trying to interrupt me. And I keep going past the interruption. And finally she said, ‘I really have to be on stage now.’ (laughter) It was between the first and second act that I’d called her cellphone. She was on the West End. So that was the first encounter.”
Q: And you actually own a tortoise?
Dustin Hoffman: “Yes I do. I had another one. I had two. Be careful, because they’ll go underneath the fence. And he made his way out to traffic and got run over. And still lived and we had to put down. Until you’ve had to put down a tortoise…it was sad. But then the other other one has survived. His name is Seventy. Because I got it on my 70th birthday, about 25 years ago.” (laughter)
Richard Curtis: “We wanted to put on the credits, ‘No tortoises were harmed in the filming of this. Except by Judi Dench.’”
Q: Dearbhla – the perils of directing. How many tortoises were there?
Dearbhla Walsh: “There were 60 live ones and 40 models. And then a few reproduced ones. We had an animatronic one. We had every version of tortoise. I even wore a tortoise as a good luck charm. The costume lady gave all the ladies good luck charms of tortoises. So Dustin and Judi were so easy and the tortoises – they had such demands, they just needed to rest. Dustin and Judi turned up on set at eight in the morning and worked without breaks, through meal breaks, the whole lot. Never any demands. Just would do it again and again. And the tortoises had to have their breaks…we had a tortoise wrangler, an absolutely wonderful guy called Mark who just was…”
Dustin Hoffman: “You have to tell, you talked to him about was he married?”
Dearbhla Walsh: “When we went round all the various pet shops looking for the locations, they weren’t as I imagined from my childhood and my experience of being in pet shops. And, of course, health and safety now means no animals can be kept in the windows of pet shops as we remember growing up. Mark ran an exotic pet shop just outside London so I went out to him one day and, oh my God, there were exotic animals all through the pet shop. He brought me round to his house, his back garden had the owl from Harry Potter, there were tortoises the size of this table, there were ferrets…then he took me through his house and I said, ‘Mark. Are you married?’ And he said, ‘I was.’ (laughter) Jilted because of a tortoise.”
Q: You just light up when you see Mrs Silver, particularly with the costumes as well. Did you have a hand in that, Judi?
Judi Dench: “Yes, I loved all that. Very unlike me, which is heaven. It’s not so much fun looking like yourself. And in that red wig and all this costume, I did feel like Mrs Silver, not like me. What a relief. And then I was offered one of these dresses – that white, flowery dress. And they said, ‘Would you ever wear it?’ I said, ‘Wear it? Of course I’ll wear it.’ Well, of course, it hangs in my cupboard and I look at it and I think, ‘When am I ever going to wear that?’ (Laughter) Well, not looking like this. Yes, if I got that kind of all red wig and I was all anyhow like that, I might give it…”
Dustin Hoffman: “They altered the costumes to look like the drapes, (curtains) right?”
Dearbhla Walsh: “There aren’t many people that can…she’s dressed at times like one of the Von Trapps. She’s wearing the curtains and she looks absolutely remarkable. Pulls it off…”
Q: Dustin – the dance moves?
Dustin Hoffman: “I was taking lessons from a choreographer. I’m not a dancer. I’m nowhere near it. And I thought after the first two lessons, ‘This is not going to work.’ Because we were supposed to shoot the last two days, I think, in Battersea, the full blown thing. And I said, ‘I’m not going to be ready. Not even close and you don’t have anyone else to double me. So you better get one.’ And then we had a lesson together and Dearbhla just became enchanted with the way we were just naturally doing it. And so it wasn’t a problem because I wasn’t supposed to know how to dance. And she’ll (Judi) dance your socks off, this one. Oh my God. Great energy.”
Judi Dench: “Energy is all I have.”
Q: And the chemistry as well, Richard, obviously hit the ground running?
Richard Curtis: “Oh yeah. It was such an exciting thing. They were both unbelievably sweet to work with and very different kinds of actors. It was kind of extraordinarily frustrating in a way because for the first four weeks they weren’t in a scene together, were you? The construction of the way we made the film was very like the film. So Judi was at one level and Dustin was at the other level and they never got to be within…almost not in the same shot, except for one really wide shot, for a month. So for all of us the final scene was when he comes down to her flat and she comes up to his, were like they were happening for real. We’d been so longing to see. It was a bit like De Niro and Pacino who never appeared in the same shot in Heat. We were just longing to prove that they’d both be there at the same time.”
Paul Mayhew-Archer: “And Dustin had four days when he was just with tortoises all day. That’s enough to send anyone slightly bonkers.”
Dustin Hoffman: “I did prefer those over Judi, though.” (laughter) You’ve never smelled anything like it. 60 tortoises. I’m telling you, that tortoise poo. That was the real thing.”
Q: They were all there? They weren’t added later?
Dustin Hoffman: “No. They’re there. No CGI for us. Actually it was good for me because, as I said, I do have a tortoise and I learned, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get home and give it some strawberries.’ Because there were some delicacies I didn’t know that they loved. I loved watching them eat.”
Questions were then opened up to members of the media in the audience:
Q: Judi – Mrs Silver in the film, when the Christmas tree is up, she said, ‘When you get older, if you can’t break the rules, what’s the point?’ Both of you – do you feel that way in your own lives?
Judi Dench: “Well I think it’s quite fun to break the rules at any time. I don’t think it necessarily matters that you’re getting that dreaded word: ‘O-L-D-E-R.’”
Dustin Hoffman: “We’ve always been that way.”
Judi Dench: “We’ve always been like that from the beginning. So I think it’s good not to conform, actually. But I don’t think it’s good to do it…I think consciously not conforming is not on. But I think if you don’t want to toe the line and you want to break the rules, go ahead. I think.”
Richard Curtis: “One day I made the mistake of saying to Judi that I thought she looked a bit more like the Quentin Blake drawing in the book than Dustin did. Because it’s very Arthur Lowe, the drawing. But Judi took enormous offence to this and pointed out that the woman had a pointy nose and she didn’t look anything like that. And the next day she gave me a little gift. She said, ‘Here’s a little present for you Richard.’ And it was a photocopy of a picture of her from the book, coloured in. And it just said, ‘Dear Richard, you’re fired.’ (laughter) So…she does behave badly.”
Q: Judi – did you have fixed ideas about how the characters would look?
Judi Dench: “No. I didn’t have any fixed ideas until I read the script. And then you try and fit into that. And, hopefully, you do.”
Q: Dustin – watching you dance with Judi, I was reminded of another time when you were dancing on film with Tom Cruise in Rain Man. I was wondering whether you made the same connection yourself? Or are there any comparisons between Dame Judi and Tom Cruise, in the dancing sense?
Dustin Hoffman: “They smelled exactly the same.” (laughter) The first thing I said when I held Judi, I said, ‘You smell just like Tom Cruise.’ I don’t think I thought of Tom once.”
Judi Dench: “I never thought of him (Tom) once. But it’s like that question of…when I was at Stratford all those years and we’d be doing four plays at Stratford, or five. And people used to say, ‘Don’t you get the plays muddled up?’ Well you simply don’t get them muddled up because they’re all different plays, you’ve all got a different part, you wore an entirely different costume, it’s a different mindset for it all. And therefore nothing really ever overlaps much. Does it?”
Dustin Hoffman: “Well, you just finished doing what before you started doing Esio? Something, right?”
Judi Dench: “Marigold.(The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)”
Dustin Hoffman: “Yes. And then after Esio immediately you stayed there working for Mr Weinstein.”
Judi Dench: “I did. Tulip Fever. Yes, I did. For half an hour.”
Dustin Hoffman: “And then I gave you a BAFTA in Los Angeles and you came out for one day because you had to get back to doing a Shakespeare.”
Judi Dench: “The Duchess of York. Take ‘em while they’re offered.” (laughter)
Q: (From me, as it happens) A question for Judi and Dustin. Looking back, can you recall a role or roles where you really felt that you began to come out of your shell and really grow as actors?
Judi Dench: “I think you learn from every single thing you do. And I’ve always liked doing the most different thing from the last thing I’ve ever done. I loved playing Cleopatra because people were openly rude about me playing the part when they heard I was going to play it. So the challenge of that was absolutely tremendous. And then you play one thing…now the last thing now I would want to play is anybody like Mrs Silver. The last thing. And then suddenly getting a part like Barbara Covett in Notes On A Scandal is a kind of gift. Absolute gift. You think, ‘Oh, another kind of stimulus. Something else to get hold of. Some other person to find out about and try and portray.’ I’ve never done a part where I haven’t learned something new in it. And I remember Michael Williams, my husband, and I did Diary Of A Nobody in the theatre. And we said, ‘This is very short and we’ll just do this and then we’ll go home and it’ll be absolutely wonderful.’ Well it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever, ever, ever done. Ever done. So things always present a challenge. I think. Always. And the more challenge it presents, the better you feel. And the more miserable you are.” (laughter)
Dustin Hoffman: “If I may, the first thing I want to say, just listening to Judi, is that what makes Judi so extra-ordinary, I think, more extraordinary than other extraordinary actors, is this blend of character and herself. So that the character never…so-called character…never runs away from the actor. So that she blends herself. She’s in there. Every molecule of herself. So when you’re watching this flamboyant, I think, this flamboyant Mrs Silver, and there she is sitting there showing Alfie (the tortoise) these photographs and she starts talking about her husband, Judi comes through there. And it’s chilling. And you won’t get, for my two bucks, you won’t get better acting than that. Where you see this blend. It just gets you. She just allows you right into her bone marrow, as it were.”
Judi Dench: “And you don’t do that, I suppose?” (laughter)
Dustin Hoffman: “All I try to do – I just said to my wife, because it is true, maybe we’ve talked about it…that it’s by hook or crook that you become successful. In this business it’s a freak accident, I always think. We know the longer we live so many talented actors that just weren’t at that place at that time and just wind up much less fortunate than we are. So I start in this part, ‘Well what if that didn’t happen to me?’ I could see myself…I guess that’s what it comes down to…can you see yourself alone? Can you see yourself just living alone? And I could see myself. I could see it right now. I mean, this has all been a dream anyway, right?”
Judi Dench: “We imagined it.”
Dustin Hoffman: “I think I’m going to wake up with tubes coming out and I’ll say, ‘You mean I really didn’t become a star? I’ve really been unconscious for 50 years?’”
Paul Mayhew-Archer: “It was amazing, actually, because Dustin would sometimes creep up and say, ‘Isn’t she absolutely wonderful to work with?’ And then Judi would creep up a few minutes later and say, ‘He is such a dream to work with.’ But I have no idea whether they told each other, actually.”
Dustin Hoffman: “We didn’t talk. We just fondled.” (laughter)
Dearbhla Walsh: “Just to say that it was a real life love story. In the sense that I, as the director, I wanted to fall in love together. Dustin is a naturally very shy person, surprisingly. And Judi is so naughty and has so much joie de vivre and has such a sense of fun. And Dustin would turn around and say, ‘God, isn’t she brilliant? Isn’t she wonderful?’ We’d be up 30 feet in the air and Judi would be about 15 feet in the air and we’d run between upstairs and downstairs. And then when we rehearsed the dance, Dustin just stood there rooted to the spot and just watched Judi, watched Mrs Silver. He said, ‘There’s no acting here. Isn’t she just…’ As she wove a spell around. So it was just such a real life love story, I think.”
Q: Could you talk a bit about the logistics of the shooting. The choice of the apartment block was fantastic to look at. I was constantly wondering, did you build a set so that one was above the other? How did you work that one apartment above the other situation?
Hilary Bevan Jones: “We actually did build the apartment. We had a stage in Pinewood, which was fantastic because they’re like gold dust at the moment. We built on a rostra, so that Mrs Silver’s flat was about 15 foot up and then Mr Hoppy’s was up another 15. Obviously we had to find our location first and we found a location in Hackney that we used. But the key thing that Dearbhla realised very early one was that in the book you imagine the flats to be above each other. That wouldn’t work for the actors because they’d be…so you have to step them. So they both had their own platforms to work on.”
Dearbhla Walsh: “The most difficult part of this whole production, I think, forget the tortoises, working with two extraordinary actors, Richard and Paul’s scripts, the schedule etc…I think the greatest challenge was the location. a) finding the location, because when you read the script you don’t think about any of the technicalities of the script. And one of the easiest, most enjoyable scripts to read. And then, of course, when you go out looking, because we always wanted to keep it truthful and grounded in a reality, of course, I can tell you there are only two apartment blocks in the whole of London that actually are staggered apartments. Because when we went looking for them, they just actually don’t exist. And Roald Dahl wrote it obviously with no idea that it would be adapted someday. Because he certainly didn’t make it easy. I think he wrote it…in the pictures, although we’ve stayed very much away from Quentin Blake’s illustrations…but it’s set in a mansion block, which is only three or four blocks. But by virtue of the adaptation from Paul and Richard it had to be at least six blocks high because of the storytelling of Mrs Woo. So finding that apartment block…and we found and lost a couple of them. And then when we found it, because we always thought we’d shoot it for real – apartment balconies by their very nature are on the south facing side of a building. Which, of course, is no good because the light is on it all of the time. Planes going over. And basically there isn’t a crane high enough to shoot it for real. So we did build the apartments. And we built them for real, so they were on extraordinary scaffolding. So literally Dustin and Judi couldn’t…they could not communicate with each other, except on the balconies. There was no kind of little slip hole that we could move easily between the two apartments.”
Hilary Bevan Jones: “We did have one day, one whole day, on location. Just to get some of the bigger views.”
Q: Was that a challenge for the actors – the up and down bit?
Judi Dench: “A challenge on your neck, actually. So tired looking up like that all the time.”
Dustin Hoffman: “The hardest part is that I always get warm. so I always want air conditioning. I said, ‘Do they have air conditioning? Oh Pinewood, they must have it.’ And the guys brought in these great big machines. Because it really was humid. It was hard to keep your energy. And then suddenly by the third day we’re not using them anymore. It took me a long time for me to find out the real reason. And it was because of the tortoises. If they get too cold they won’t act.” (laughter)
Q: Dustin – weirdly, you reminded me of Benjamin in The Graduate, almost 50 years on. There were similarities in the story. Almost losing the woman and the diffidence. And I wondered whether if you had thought of Benjamin at all when you were making it? It almost seems like a re-visit in some ways. And my second question is – why isn’t this getting a cinema release?”
Richard Curtis: “The second one is, it just was never intended for that purpose.”
Dustin Hoffman: “She’s (Judi) been my Mrs Robinson since I first saw her…”
Judi Dench: “Isn’t there something wrong about this, though? Wasn’t she (Anne Bancroft) much older than you?”
Dustin Hoffman: “In real life I was 29 going on 30 when I did it and Anne Bancroft was 35. Which is only five years’ difference. And here, I’m much older than you. (laughter) But no, I didn’t think of it consciously.”
Richard Curtis: “That is the weird thing about film and things that you’ve done, that you’re often the person who’s watched it least. I wonder if an occasion ever happens when Dustin would sit down and watch The Graduate? And yet I’ve watched it with various children three times in the last 10 years. It’s an odd thing.”
Paul Mayhew-Archer: “Yes. I talked to Dustin about All The President’s Men and Dustin couldn’t remember how it ended.”
Richard Curtis: “Badly for Nixon.”
Q: Judi and Dustin – what surprised you most about working with each other, finally?
Judi Dench: “What I liked about it was boasting that I was going to do it, before we started. And now I say, ‘Oh I know him.’”
Q: Was there a lot of jealousy from other people when they heard you were going to be working with Dustin Hoffman?
Judi Dench: “Oh I think so. Yes. Why not?”
Dustin Hoffman: “I want to do a movie and I don’t know if I told these guys, but I want to do a movie with all the CGIs and stuff that can happen today, because I started looking at all of Judi’s stuff when I realised I was going to get to work with her. And that extraordinary Google thing. I mean, my God, you just push…and there’s Judi in her teenage years or her twenties. Equally gorgeous now but I mean stunning. And I said to Judi, ‘If I’d met you then I wouldn’t have let you get away.’ And I must say, there must be a way to do a love story where we meet in our twenties, yet we’re acting as we are now. Does that make any sense at all? Computer graphics or something. Why can’t we look like we did in our twenties? If only we could do it. ‘If Only’. There’s your title. What a scrumptious looking woman right from the beginning and throughout her life, she is. I don’t lie about these things.”
Richard Curtis: “There was a lovely moment by the way…Richard Cordery (Mr Pringle) isn’t here, who I think gives such a gorgeous performance…and the sense of history with actors who you’ve known a long time. There was an incredibly touching moment at our first lunch together when Richard said the first show he’d ever seen in the theatre in London was you (Judi) in Cabaret. And that that was the thing which made him want to become an actor.”
Dustin Hoffman: “I didn’t know that. He’s wonderful.”
Judi Dench: “He’s a good actor.”
Dustin Hoffman: “He’s lovely in this.”
Q: This is a story about hope and love in old age and, in Mrs Silver’s case, in widowhood. What was the appeal of telling that story for you?
Judi Dench: “I can’t hear.”
Richard Arnold: “The appeal of telling this story of love in widowhood…”
Q: …or old age. Older age, sorry.
Dustin Hoffman: “From the moment I got this part and I was in London, I started cutting out all these newspaper things. I’d get a bunch of newspapers in the morning, a lot of them trash. The amount of trash in newspapers you have. We used to have them in New York. Not any more. The Star, The Sun, The…I mean…so much fun. And I was looking at my bulletin board, I got here two days ago, and I just put this one out and put it in my book, ‘Woman, 105, had to wait six hours for the ambulance to come and pick her up.’ And did. And she’d injured herself or something and they picked her up and she’s fine. But someone else in their nineties, someone else 102. It’s another time now. And so I don’t think of it…it’s hard to answer your question. You said ‘old age’ and then you said ‘older age’. And now I’m not even sure ‘older age” works. There’s this guy Manoel Oliveira who’s just finished directing his last film, who’s like this legendary director of movies. He’s 105. So I know this doesn’t occur to someone as young as you but we’re in a rich community right now. So when we eventually do die, we won’t know it probably for about five years.” (laughter)
Judi Dench: “I just think that age is a number and it’s imposed on you. The only time I really got upset was when I was 40, for some reason. I got really upset when I was 40. But after that, I think it’s that old thing that everybody says: You’re as old as you feel. The only thing is it drives me absolutely spare when people say, ‘Are you going to retire?’ Or, ‘Don’t you think it’s time to put your feet up?’ Or they tell me my age. People like to tell you your age. They love it. They love it. And I loathe it. I don’t want to be told that I’m too old to do something. I want to try it first. And then, if I don’t succeed, then I can be told I can’t do it.”
Richard Arnold: “So it’s the presumption?”
Judi Dench: “Yes. Because you get to a certain age then, ‘Oh, well, you mustn’t do that.’ Or, ‘You might have a fall,’ or, ‘You can’t learn the lines.’ Let me have a go. Let us all have a go. Because if there were a cross section of people, say in this room, all of the same age say, 39 or 40, everybody would be totally different. Everybody’s energy would be different. Everybody’s outlook would be different. And it’s not to do with age. It’s something to do with inside. It’s the engine. As long as you can keep the engine going for a bit, you won’t fall over.”
Richard Curtis: “From my point of view, I’ve just suddenly thought, because love was a huge thing with my mum and dad…but I suddenly thought, I’ve been writing all these films about people who were in a position where if it doesn’t work out with Julia Roberts you can go round the corner and Kate Hudson will be there. But I think that the idea of how important it would be if you were lonely when you were older. It actually makes the stakes higher and the rewards more extraordinary. I did feel that trying to write about two people falling in love and finding love when they both have presumed that they wouldn’t, ever, rather than a hopeful and presuming that they will, would make it actually even more dramatic. And I think that of the films I’ve written which have got love in them, this is the finished couple that I believe are most likely to stay together.”
Dustin Hoffman: “There’s a line that Bertrand Russell, I have written down on my bulletin board, when he turned 90 they asked him how it felt. And this is – how many years ago did he turn 90, my God. And they said, ‘How does it feel to be 90?’ And he said, ‘Oh, to be 80 again.’” (laughter)
Q: Judi – it’s not often we see your cleavage. Did you enjoy playing a more sexy side?
Judi Dench: “Oh yeah. Oh, I’ve shown my cleavage for 60 years, nearly. Is that so? Is it very low? Well it’s because you’re looking from above. (laughter) That’s rude.”
Q: Did you relish the chance to play a more sexually forward character than maybe you have?
Judi Dench: “Well, that’s her, isn’t it? She gets on with what she’s got and makes the best of it.”
Q: This film uses some effects to help with the tortoises but in the service of the story. Do you think in films today, too often, the special effects and the CGI gets to overwhelm the story and maybe it’s gone too far?
Dustin Hoffman: “Cynically, people have been starting to say, or been saying, that it’s over, the movie biz as we know it. I remember in the eighties, I was promoting Tootsie in Italy and I got to meet Fellini at dinner. And he was saying then how it is no fun anymore. He could speak English and he says, ‘I make movies. Movie houses used to be cathedrals. You’d walk up these stairs and there’s chandeliers and a big screen. You felt like you were in a palace. Now it’s all in a mall and people come in on their rollerskates and they sit down and it’s very small.’ And look, here it is 30 years later or something and it’s being watched on an iPad. Some guy sitting in a car – my wife and I were walking down the street last night in Ken High Street and there was a guy just sitting in a car watching it. She says, ‘That’s Esio Trot pretty soon. He’ll just be watching it by himself in the car.’”
Richard Curtis: “I saw Interstellar in the IMAX and, of course, that was absolutely amazing. I think it’ll re-invent itself. My little 12-year-old, it’s so amazing the access he’s got to the history of cinema now. For his birthday he got a £50 voucher and we went to Video City and we bought four classic films, one from each decade. I couldn’t do that when I was young. I saw Zulu once and then I didn’t see it again for 30 years and I had to be in that Sunday. So I think the rise of the way that actors like Dustin and Judi are happy to do something like this for the telly is fantastic too. It’s so wonderful that however many million people will definitely watch it on the day that it goes out, if we’re lucky. Things change. I remember Paul Schrader once being asked about the movies. The same thing. And he said, ‘You know, you go with what happens. Madrigals were once hugely popular.’ And they faded away and suddenly…pop music replaced them. So I’m hopeful that as things go down, things are going upward.”
Q: In the film Mr Hoppy talks about 10 key moments that would change your life. Or have changed your life. I’m not going to ask you for all 10 but I was wondering if you could each give me one key moment that has changed your lives?
Dustin Hoffman: “Being born. (laughter) Starting right from there. Well, yes, having an unhappy childhood. That’s what I disputed to myself – Richard, at the very beginning, saying he had wonderful parents or a happy childhood. And I said, ‘He’s lying.’ He’d be the first really creative person I’ve ever met who came from a happy childhood. (laughs) I just think that the more creative you are, the more complicated your childhood and your adolescence. Reaching five foot six and not anything more has changed my life. I kept saying, ‘When am I going to get any taller?’ Well, certainly The Graduate. Because I just hoped to be a character actor, which meant the people supporting the leads. So there’s a kind of freak accident. This is not a consequence but getting divorced from my first wife changed my life. And meeting my second and current wife. Having the children changes your life. But I think more than anything else, waking up – and it is a wake up…waking up and realising that you have not been living your life. And Richard and I talked about this. Because when you’re doing the creative dance, it’s all encompassing. Especially when you’re in those years, your 30s, 40s. And suddenly just putting a brake on it and saying, ‘My work – it should be just my work. It should not be my life.’ That’s huge and I think you can probably say it better.”
Richard Curtis: “That’s sort of what my film About Time was about.”
Dustin Hoffman: “That’s right, yes.”
Richard Curtis: “To do that. But I have to say this was a fun film to make, wasn’t it? We did have quite a good time.”
Judi Dench: “Good fun. Hard work. Very hard work for Dearbhla. Unbelievably hard work for Dearbhla, who had to run between both sets up and down stairs>”
Dustin Hoffman: “How many days did we shoot?”
Dearbhla Walsh: “Five-and-a-half weeks. 30 days.”
Paul Mayhew-Archer: “I have to say, this was a key moment for me. Because Richard invited me to work with him on Esio Trot three months after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And so I had that sense of wondering where my life is going to go and then I had the most extraordinarily happy, fulfilling experience of my life working on this film. And it’s sustained me over the last three years. And actually the whole purpose of the story, really, is to show that it’s never too late. And whatever happens to you, never give up.”
Richard Curtis: “I just thought we’d get you cheap. (laughter) I was surprised when it was full cost.”
Judi Dench: “I suppose a key moment was – I trained as a theatre designer and I went to Stratford and I saw a production of King Lear with Michael Redgrave, way back in the fifties. And I knew that night, I just knew that I wasn’t going to be a designer. It was an enormous stage, it looked like a poppadom. It was a huge circular rough thing and it turned everywhere and became the cave, the throne, every single thing. And I only understood curtains coming down and change the set, and curtains going up. That’s all I had really understood. And suddenly I thought, ‘Oh this is what designing is.’ And I thought, ‘I don’t have that imagination.’ And so it wasn’t like St Paul on the way to Damascus. It was one of those moments. And then I suppose going to Central and getting into The Old Vic. I left Central and went straight to The Old Vic and played Ophelia. And got shot down at a thousand feet. But they went on employing me, which was very good. And that was my real passion, was Shakespeare. So I was there from ’57 to ’61 – and I didn’t mean to make such a long speech. So I got to do the things I absolutely was passionate about. And then I went to Stratford. So I got a real dose of it.”
Dustin Hoffman: “I was able to give Judi her BAFTA in Los Angeles and I never knew when you made your speech that someone looked at you at the very beginning and said, ‘You’ll never be in the movies.’”
Judi Dench: “That’s right. They did. They did. It was an office in Piccadilly, I always remember it. I’m not going to tell you who it was. But, yes. He said, ‘I’m sorry. You will never make a film.’ Because he said, ‘Your face is the kind of wrong arrangement.’ And then it was 32 years later I went back to New York to do the press for Mrs Brown. There’s so many key things. Wonderful things and terrible things too.”
Q: Dustin and Judi – you obviously enjoy each other’s company very much. Did you make the effort and make the time to go out for dinners together? Did you get to know each other socially?
Dustin Hoffman: “I don’t think so. Judi always wanted to but I needed a nap. (laughter) We were working. I don’t socialise when I’m working. I don’t socialise when I’m not working.” (laughter)
Q: Judi – that picture of you when you’re reminiscing about your wedding. Is that a real photo or a mocked-up photo?
Judi Dench: “It was a real photograph with, now, different people around. With an immensely tall husband.”
Dearbhla Walsh: “The moment Judi saw it – that picture is actually from the designer’s parents’ wedding and that’s his grandmother in the background smoking a fag. And we got a picture of Judi, as you do, and this was blended. I remember on the day in the scene, giving Judi the album and she went, ‘That’s awfully like me.’ And I went, ‘It is you.’ She said, ‘It couldn’t be me. That’s not my husband.’ (laughter) And I went, ‘I know. We mocked it up.’ And she said, ‘But it’s so like me.’ So it was extraordinary, the magic of cinema. But we had a moment with Judi because it was her and not her husband.”
Judi Dench: “Well I felt rather bad that I didn’t remember the man…” (laughter)
Dearbhla Walsh: “And her only comment, ‘But she hasn’t got quite enough cleavage.’ But it was your face but not your cleavage.”
Q: Judi and Dustin – I grew up on Roald Dahl books. What do you think of Roald Dahl as an author? What does he mean to you?
Dustin Hoffman: “When did he start writing children’s stories? Because I was already an adult.”
Judi Dench: “I got the chance to go down and sit in that little hut he used to sit in, to write in. Long before we did this. Several years ago. That was very exciting. And I’ve just read The BFG, all those stories, children’s stories.”
Richard Curtis: “The Witches has got to be the best book to read to children. Children cannot believe how cruel that book is. And how frightening it is. I don’t think anyone’s ever read that book to their child and then the next six months hasn’t been haunted by looking at people’s shoes and being suspicious every time you go into a sweet shop. There is a peculiar magic, I think, to his work.”
Dustin Hoffman: “As I said, I never read him, certainly when I was a kid. No-one read stories to me. I read stories to my kids, certainly. The Giant Peach was a favourite. But I certainly didn’t read them all. I was probably working more often when I should have been reading kids’ stories. You get home from work and sometimes your kids are already in bed. And then you’re leaving in the morning before they’re even up. So I can use that as a cop out. But may I just say one thing that was not asked, is that Dearbhla was so well organised and so giving as a director. I’ve never seen anyone more disciplined. You show up and she knows what she wants to do and everything. We felt very comfortable in her hands. It’s nice to thank her publicly. And to also thank these writers because they are first rate. I have a history of not having the loveliest of producers. And by far, Hilary was the most sweetest, wonderful woman you will ever want to work for. It’s probably why she’s not more successful. (laughter) Not ruthless enough.”
Finally, Dustin mentioned the “brilliance” of inserting Louis Armstrong’s music into the film:
“That’s what tilts the whole thing. I asked you (Richard Curtis) where you got that idea from. I can’t remember what you said.”
Richard Curtis replied:
“My dad only had six records. And Hello Dolly was one of them.
“Two of the others were The Sound of Music, different productions.”
The Q&A was over. Or so we thought.
But Dustin interrupted Richard Arnold as he began to wrap up the press conference.
Pointing to his assistant in the audience, Dustin asked:
“Would you give me a phone call, please? Thank you.’
“This is just on the house.”
Dustin got up from his seat next to Judi Dench, placed his mobile on a small table in front of them and waited.
Leaving everyone else puzzled as to what was going on.
After a pause of several seconds, Dustin’s phone duly rang.
Revealing the ring tone to be the same Louis Armstrong song as Mr Hoppy and Mrs Silver dance to in the film.
And with immaculate timing, Dustin asked Judi: “Will you stand up, please?”
Rising from her chair, a surprised, smiling and charmed Judi said: “Oh, he’s daft.”
Dustin and Judi then slow waltzing together on stage.
With not a dry eye in the house.