For his third film, writer-director Joel Hopkins (“Last Chance Harvey”) re-teamed with Emma Thompson, casting her opposite Pierce Brosnan as one half of a divorced couple who reunite after the financial future of their retirement years is thrown into uncertainty by an unscrupulous French businessman. A screwball-tinged heist flick that not so much feeds “eat the rich” feelings which might be surging in the zeitgeist at the moment as offer up a divergent, flight-of-fancy caper for the middle-aged, “The Love Punch” plays out like a reimagining of “The Parent Trap” by way of “Ocean’s Eleven,” and minus the kids. For ShockYa, Brent Simon recently had a chance to speak one-on-one with Hopkins — who was on break in Los Angeles, and missing his family and three sons, if not all the attendant noise — about his movie, his working relationship with Thompson and the legendary actress he has in mind for his next film. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: I wanted to start by asking you about the creative process as it pertains to working with your wife, Nicola Usborne, who’s also your producing partner. How do you juggle home and work life, and how early do her opinions on story ideas start working their way into your scripts?
Joel Hopkins: My parents are architects, and I grew up in a house they designed, and I watched them as they worked together and lived together and raised a family together, and it’s always seemed quite natural to try and (emulate that), it’s in my DNA. It’s tough, because if you don’t work together then a film pulls you off for long periods of time and it’s very involving and hard to sort of pull yourself out. You duck into another sort of life, in a way. At the same time, it’s tough, because you never stop — you’re always talking about (a project), you’re both anxious at the same time. (laughs) I don’t know, we haven’t quite cracked it, it’s an ongoing thing. Nicola, on this last one, we’d just had a baby, so she took a little bit more of a backseat during the actual production, but in the scriptwriting she’s always the first person who reads anything I’ve written, the first person to give feedback. It is quite organic — she’ll read an outline, and will be the first person I tell about the germ of the idea. I’ve always pushed her to sit down and actually write with me (laughs), but we’ve never gotten that far. She won’t mind me saying that she’s the editor in some ways — she makes me better, I think.
ShockYa: The press notes make mention of the fact that you always wanted “to make French films in English,” and obviously this film takes place physically in France, but can you speak to what that also means tonally?
Joel Hopkins: I think I said that when I first showed up at film school, and I think then I was in love with movies — specifically things like “Jean de Florette” and “Manon des Sources.” I think I was completely in love with anything French at that point, in my early 20s. (laughs) I think there’s a genre of French farce that I enjoy, and I think there’s a nod to that in this film. I’m a great appreciator of the films of Francis Veber, who is the master of farce — his films set everything up meticulously, and then there’s a moment where they take off, and everything that’s been set up starts to pay off. They’re really hard things to pull off, but when you get it right they can be delightful. …As a scriptwriter, you’re looking for a way to force together two opposites in a situation, and in “The Love Punch” that was a key moment — when I had a reason to bring together two people who were at one point in love with one another and then fell out of love and got divorced.
ShockYa: You’ve obviously had a successful working relationship with Emma Thompson, having directed her in two films. What was your first professional contact with her — you interviewed to direct “Nanny McPhee,” is that right?
Joel Hopkins: That’s true, I was up for “Nanny McPhee,” and I didn’t get the job, I came in second, apparently. But Emma saw my first film, which is actually quite more like “The Love Punch” than “Last Chance Harvey” — it’s a sort of goofy road movie. She got shown it as a sort of audition for the directing job, and she just loved it. So she took a meeting with me and said, “No, this isn’t for you, but I really liked your film, and we should work together.” And I sort of went away in a daze, because that doesn’t happen everyday. So I thought, “Come on Joel, let’s do something with that — Emma Thompson likes your film, and if you write something she’ll read it, you know at least that.” So that was the inspiration to go off and sit down and think of a good story and role for her to play. It was a bit of a fairytale, really. And I think I sent her an outline, because I was sort of dreaming that she’d turn around and say, “Darling, let’s write this together.” (laughs) But she didn’t. She said, “Great, this sounds interesting, I can’t wait to read it, pop back to me when you have a draft.” (laughs) But she liked the idea, and I think even at that point we’d talked about the idea of Dustin Hoffman for the male part — she said, “I know him, if you can write something half-decent I might send it to him,” that sort of thing. About a year goes by, as it does, and I finally get the script out and send it to her. And I still have the email saved, actually — it’s like a four-line email saying, “Loved it, let’s shoot it in summer, I’ll send it to Dustin.” It was a fairytale moment.
ShockYa: Obviously you’ve continued that working relationship with Emma Thompson, but how did you come to cast Pierce Brosnan?
Joel Hopkins: So after “Last Chance Harvey,” even though we both really enjoyed that, I think we both had the desire to do something a little more playful. I think we had a cup of tea and I think she might have mentioned Pierce, which brought a smile to my face. It’s not immediately obvious, but the more one thinks about it the more fun it sounds — you have his charm and her smarts, and it seemed like a nice idea. And I thought, “Okay, now we need a story.” But very early on in filming, it became obvious that the chemistry between those two was working if nothing else, and were a pleasure on screen. One of the basic ideas of the film was to hark back to a more classic era of screen couples, and I do think they have this nice, classic quality on screen.
ShockYa: This may seem esoteric, though hopefully not impolite, but in that interim period after “Jump Tomorrow,” your first film, where you’re working on projects and trying to get things together and years peel away, how do you find the life of an independent filmmaker influences the creative process, which is a separate and distinct thing? In other words, how do you address or deal with that tension between maybe the story that you want to tell in your mind, and elements X, Y and Z maybe making it a more easily financed go project.
Joel Hopkins: As much as possible, I try and avoid — well, I think if you start from a place (where you consider the marketplace), it will actually only get worse from there (laughs), despite whatever intentions you have. So I do try and start from a clean place, in a way — and for me, finding a couple characters that I want to spend a couple of hours with and can imagine in a half-decent story is (that place). It definitely helps me to write for people — if I have someone specific in my head, I go, “Oh, I can imagine them saying that.” You have to be a little careful because you can end up creating Emma-speak or whatever, which can sound a little pat, but she has a way of delivering lines that lends itself to one seeing her deliver a line in a funny way or whatever. So that definitely helps, and I’m not naive — because I wrote both “Last Chance Harvey” and “The Love Punch” basically on spec, I didn’t have a big paycheck in my pocket already. And so to get through it, because you want to feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, it helped to know that there were people waiting to read it, at least — people who I’d pitched the ideas to who thought they were good ideas. That keeps you going. But you never really know, and I keep thinking I might have to get a proper job soon.
ShockYa: What’s on tap next?
Joel Hopkins: Well, to continue, or finish, perhaps — as maybe Emma will say that’s it, go away — the Emma/Kate trilogy, because in both “Last Chance Harvey” and “The Love Punch” she plays characters named Kate, the dream is to find a way to put Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep in a movie together. I want to see those two in a movie together. That’s my starting point. Meryl has no idea this is going on, but I dream big and then see what happens. So it’s in the very early stages, but I’m trying now to flesh out an idea.
ShockYa: Something comedically inclined?
Joel Hopkins: I think so, yeah. Maybe not quite as romp-ish as this one, but they’re clearly both incredibly smart ladies, and if I can find a way to get those two in a room and have them go at each other, I think one could have a lot of fun.
NOTE: “The Love Punch” is in theaters now.
Written by: Brent Simon