After making the well-received low-budget feature “Jump Tomorrow,” British filmmaker Joel Hopkins was among the directors considered to helm the big screen adaptation of the popular children’s book “Nanny McPhee,” starring Emma Thompson.
Hopkins was passed over in favor of the more experienced Kirk Jones (“Waking Ned Devine,” “Everybody’s Fine”), but during the audition process he forged a friendship with the two-time Oscar-winning actress (“Howard’s End”) and screenwriter (“Sense and Sensibility”).
Thompson encouraged Hopkins to write something else for her and gave him her e-mail address. A few months later, he sent her a five-page outline of a story, hoping she would co-write the script with him. Instead, she told him he should write the screenplay himself and come back to her when it was complete. A year later, he presented “Last Chance Harvey,” a romantic drama about two lonely middle-aged adults who find a common bond, to Thompson, and she agreed to star in it.
“I was a little worried about knocking on her door again, but that’s when the fairy tale began and I got the e-mail—which I still have—from her saying, ‘I absolutely love it! Let’s shoot it in the summer,’” he recalls.
She then told him that she would send the script to Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman to see if he was interested in playing Harvey, an American widow, who arrives in England to attend his daughter’s wedding just as he loses his job.
“It was a fairy tale,” Hopkins says of getting both Thompson and Hoffman in his film.
The romantic comedy, in which Thompson plays a jaded airport worker who meets Hoffman’s vulnerable composer character and embarks on an unusual romance, was released in 2008, to moderate success.
Hopkins decided to write another screenplay with Thompson in mind. The result was “The Love Punch,” a romantic crime caper about an ex-husband and wife, who join forces to exact revenge on the crook that stole their nest egg.
Set in Britain and France, Hopkins says the “Pink Panther” comedies and some of the Cary Grant films of the 1950s inspired his movie. After reading an early draft of Hopkins’ script, Thompson suggested some changes and Hopkins made them. Thompson also suggested the casting of one-time James Bond portrayer Pierce Brosnan to play her ex.
“As soon as she said his name, it made me smile,” recalls the filmmaker. “It wasn’t an immediately obvious choice, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it: Her smarts and his charm. Then, there was just the small thing of getting Pierce.”
Hopkins said he knew from the outset he wanted the story to center on a divorced couple whose romance is reignited, but could quite figure out how to bring them together.
“We had to find a reason for them to spend some time together,” he says. “Something goes wrong, and they have to fix it together and have to spend a week together.”
The banking scandals that rocked the financial world served as a convenient backdrop.
“When I was writing it, three years ago now, we were in the thick of it,” Hopkins recalls. “The idea of the rich getting richer and the middle class getting squeezed were making headlines.”
While he was writing the script, Hopkins met with British detective whose primary target was white-collar crime.
“I knew in the context of a 90-minute romp, I would try to hang enough meat onto the bone of the story,” he says. “It’s a juggling act, because if you go into too much detail, then you’re in a different movie. It’s got to be believable enough but it has to move at a cracking pace.”
At the heart of the story is the reconnection of these former lovers, he says.
At Thompson’s suggestion, Hopkins had the couple divorced for a long time so he wasn’t a threat to her in any way. She could sort of take him or leave him.
“That’s what unlocked it for her,” he said. “It was just a small thing. It didn’t involve a big rewrite, but it was a key thing. She’s so smart and it’s those little details that she brings that help.”
Originally, they were going to travel from Britain to Italy, but with some French financing and incentives, the getaway turned out to be Paris and the French Riviera.
“We shot seven weeks in Paris and a week in the south of France,” he recalls, adding, “there are worse places to have to shoot.”
Even the scenes set in London were actually shot outside of Paris, near Disneyland.
Hopkins says, “Disney has developed this one area to make it look like a mock-Tudor English village. That’s why it looks a little ‘Stepford Wives’-like in the beginning. Everything is just a little too perfect.”
Shooting in the Cote d’Azur in southern France was a dream come true for the filmmaker.
“There’s no better place to steal a diamond than in the South of France; there’s a history of that there,” he says, noting that an actual jewel heist had just taken place in the luxury playground before production began.
Cinematically, Hopkins was inspired by the exotic look of “To Catch a Thief,” and for the tone, he looked to films like “His Girl Friday and “Bringing Up Baby.”
“I wanted to hearken back to a somewhat classic time,” he says. “I wanted to present a classic screen couple.”
Brosnan plays an ordinary suburbanite who is swindled out of his life savings by a con man, and wants to seek revenge by stealing the crook’s expensive diamond ring that he plans to give to his fiancée at the tony resort. He is joined on his mission by his ex (Thompson) and their best friends (played by Timothy Spall and Celia Imrie), to carry out the heist at their nemesis’ well-guarded villa.
“I really wanted that foursome to be a believable group of friends,” he says of casting the key actors. “For me, the other success of the film is that that foursome feels real. Tim and Celia had worked together before, and Celia and Emma had worked together on ‘Nanny McPhee,’ so there was a camaraderie there.”
To cement the bond, the day before production started, Hopkins had the actors do a read-through of the script. Afterwards, he sent them out on what he calls “a boozy lunch.”
“That, I thought, was a good way to start,” he says with a laugh. “They all know each other’s work, so there’s a lot of mutual respect so that was fun, and it came off on the screen the way I hoped.”
Hopkins says it was fun juxtaposing Brosnan’s clueless character with his iconic super-spy persona.
“Before I sent him the script, there were even more overt Bond references, but the night before I sent it to him, I scribbled them out,” recalls Hopkins. “I didn’t want to put him off. But he’s a smart guy, and he gets that he’ll always be known as James Bond. He says it’s the gift that keeps on giving. He’s never going to turn his back on it. So he got the fact that he’s playing the antithesis of Bond. He’s a cautious driver and he’s scared of heights, things like that. He got it and was willing to go with it.”
There is a moment in the movie, during the dinner scene, where Brosnan picks up a gun and for a second holds it straight up against his shoulder, close and tight, like James Bond, just for fun.
Though Thompson and Brosnan had never worked together previously, they had run into each other at movie industry events, and had talked about working together someday.
Hopkins says he is now working on yet another screenplay, written with Thompson in mind again.
“The dream is to do one more film with Emma; to have the Emma trilogy,” he says with a chuckle. “This time, I’m trying to team her up with Meryl Streep. By the way, Meryl doesn’t know this yet. My dream is to put those two in a movie together. That’s a movie I want to see. It’s in its early days so I’m just starting to form an idea.”