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Last Chance Harvey, which is in theaters now, tells the story of a down-and-out, unemployed American father (Dustin Hoffman) who finds late-in-life romance with an overworked British government worker (Emma Thompson). Filmed on location in London, it’s director Joel Hopkins’ valentine to his hometown. We spoke with Joel about his love of London, and why, after living in New York for over a decade, he’s returned to the city.
ANGLOPHENIA: What was it like to shoot in London?
JOEL HOPKINS: Very exciting. To give you some background, I live in London, I grew up in London, so I’m a Londoner. I had been living in New York for about 12 years so when I was writing this film, I was sitting in New York thinking about London. I was a little bit homesick, and I think I wrote a slightly romanticized version of the city.
When I went back and went location scouting, it was great because I was discovering stuff for the first time, things like where the fountains are. When I was growing up, that area used to be a car park and an office for birth and death records. In the last ten years, they’ve opened it up, created a beautiful courtyard, and added these fountains. That was one of the treats of going back and rediscovering my city.
On a practical level, it’s always hard shooting on location in a city, but [in London], it depends borough by borough. Central London, because it has a lot of tourism, they are much more friendly towards shooting. It’s often harder in residential neighborhoods because London, unlike New York, doesn’t have a central film office. You go borough by borough. In the residential boroughs, their main objectives is to look after their residents. So they are less keen on closing down roads, whereas in Central London they are more used to it.
But on a personal level, I was coming back to the city and looking at it with fresh eyes, which was really helpful, especially for this film, which is about an American man (Dustin Hoffman) coming to England. I thought I knew the city, but I really didn’t. A lot had changed.
ANGLO: London has been used as a location for many, many films. How much pressure did you feel to make the city seem different?
JH: Well, I made this film as a sort of timeless romance, and it tonally harkens back to things like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and these older movies. Therefore I wanted to show a quite elegant sort of London; I’m not showing warts-and-all. London is always sort of shown as Paris’ slightly uglier sister, and there are very beautiful and elegant parts to London and I wanted to show those. It was more in keeping with the tone of our film. It’s no accident that I had them (Hoffman and Thomspon) both dressed in beige mackintoshes, and the score is very classical.
ANGLO: How would you compare London to a city like New York, as a film location, as a place to live, etc.?
JH: When I lived in New York, I always lived in downtown Manhattan. I didn’t own a car, and I always walked a lot. Everything was pretty accessible, whereas London is much more spread-out. But I’ve been back in London a year now; I went back to London with the film, and I’ve stayed in London. I’m beginning to find my London mojo again. Getting around is part of the life in London – buses and tubes. It’s harder, but there’s some pleasure to it as well. What they say about London being 52 villages, it’s still quite true. I see friends as often in London as I saw them in New York; you can be there a whole year and not interact with a group of people who are living in another part of the city.
ANGLO: Is London a less welcoming city than New York?
JH: I’ve heard that from American friends who’ve gone to live in London. When I arrived in New York, I very quickly felt like I was apart of it. In New York, it’s quite rare to meet born-and-bred New Yorkers, a lot of the Americans I met had come from other parts of America, so it has more of a transitional feel. London tends to have a bigger concentration of people who were born there. It takes longer for people to crack it and make friends, but once you do, you might make slightly deeper friendships in London. It’s more about going to people’s houses, having dinner, and having a cup of tea. There’s less of a fluid going-out culture.
Next time: Joel’s favorite London spots
See more posts by Kevin Wicks
Kevin Wicks founded BBCAmerica.com's Anglophenia blog back in 2005 and has been translating British culture for an American audience ever since. While not British himself - he was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri - he once received inordinate hospitality in London for sharing the name of a dead but beloved EastEnders character. His Anglophilia stems from a high school love of Morrissey, whom he calls his "gateway drug" into British culture.