Calibrating POVs in a Unique but Universal Love Story

The latest film by director Tom Hooper is the story of not one but two Danish women, soul mates who navigate two extraordinary transitions. While The Danish Girl is foremost about the trailblazing gender reassignment of the painter Einar Wegener as he becomes Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), it also movingly amplifies scenes from an unconventional marriage of kindred spirits.

Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) met Einar in art school and, as in the novel on which the film was based, ignited her own career by painting Lili. Balancing the pair's intertwined paths—Lili's expression of her true self and Gerda's struggle to understand their evolving relationship—was the primary challenge for editor Melanie Oliver, Hooper's long-time collaborator. "This is as much Gerda's story as it is Lili's," she says. "Lili had to be selfish to make the decision to be different and that was very tough on Gerda. They were like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; Patti allowed Robert to be the artist he became. They always loved each other but ultimately couldn't be together any more. This film was a balancing act of giving an equally special person, who gave Lili her freedom, her own voice."

Known for heavily researching his period dramas and using the narrative's emotional tension to set up his framing, Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Misérables, HBO's John Adams) gave Oliver multiple options from which to cut each scene of The Danish Girl. "Tom is all about psychology, and what he does is create a lot of pressure on the scene," says Oliver, whose credits include Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, Les Misérables and Hooper's Longford and Elizabeth I for television. "He shoots from many different angles and never conventionally shoots the close-ups, then mids, and so on. He will change and mix it up all the time. For me, it's always about literally piecing it together."


Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne on set.

While there are never any storyboards on Hooper films, the director, his production designer Eve Stewart and cinematographer Danny Cohen, BSC, referred often to the palate and composition of works by Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (like Hammershøi, Hooper and Cohen offset their subjects in the wider frame) but also to the vibrant later paintings of Gerda Wagener, themselves subjects in the film. "On set, Tom just goes out and creates an atmosphere," says Oliver. "Danny and Tom get on really well in that sense in that they make everything very ambidextrous on the set. From all those angles then come many, many ideas, and for me, it's about sifting through them." 

The artwork and the bohemian lives of the characters also informed the film's painterly tone, says Oliver. "Tom wanted the film to have a beauty to it and I think he achieved that. I was involved during the various camera tests and I definitely preferred the softer look to the harder one," an echo of Hammershøi's muted brushstrokes, "but the design I leave to Tom, Danny and Eva."

Oliver worked closely with Hooper on the story's emotional beats and tonality, describing her approach to the material as like working on a documentary. In one of her favorite scenes, when Redmayne's character watches and mimics a striptease behind reflective glass, Oliver had many subtly different versions to consider.

"Obviously the choreography had been worked out in advance, but as it was being filmed, Tom kept pushing it to go further and further," she says. "In the edit suite, the film was always about trying to calibrate it and ground it in the humanity. He never wanted Lili's transition to be read as the portrait of a disease. He always wanted it to be more empowering than that. I think it's one of the reasons why I work with him as much as I do: he brings so much subtext to his films. We then have to work out how much of the subtext are we going to put in. It gets complicated because so much footage is shot."


Director Tom Hooper with Eddie Redmayne on location in the Nyhavn section of Copenhagen.

Oliver cuts on Avid Media Composer and routinely works with a single assistant. "I'm comfortable working that way, but because of digital workflows, nobody turns the camera off anymore," she laments. "That makes going through the rushes an increasingly intense process. But I'm quite intense in the the way I go through it and piece it together. I've always found that I've never had a preconceived idea about where I'm going to start. I literally start from the first shot and keep working forward. With this film, I really tried not to cut around as much but ultimately, I needed to track whatever idea developed in the story as it evolved on set."

From her suite in Soho in London, Oliver sent cuts to Hooper on set (sound stages outside of London and on location in Copenhagen) within the day. "We'd have an involved dialogue about how the scenes are progressing," she says. "I think it's really important to have that feedback. When I worked with Joe Wright (Anna Karenina), we'd screen rushes together and I must admit I miss that. But Tom and I talked every night and talk during the day. Actually, I prefer to cut the rushes without knowing too much of what happened on set. Once you know a preconceived idea you just go hunting for it. I try to look at them in a fresh way and find things he'd never thought of. Tom is not prescriptive like that, in the way that other filmmakers are who need it to be exactly how they thought it. He's also pretty generous if I'm committed to something. He's just rigorous about trying to make things work on every level, and that's pretty admirable to come across these days."


Vikander's handling of Gerda made the edit particularly rewarding, says Oliver. "Alicia's a fiercely intelligent woman who really rose to the occasion. It's a hard role, more than a supporting one, and I think she did a magnificent job. Her compassion really comes through. When Lili says in the hospital, 'You heard my wish,' that still chokes me up. Gerda is quite an extraordinary person and Lili was lucky she had someone in her life who could allow her to explore this path. It can't have been easy."

That relationship, says Oliver, is what elevates the story beyond its topical subject matter. "We tried not to approach it with any preconceived ideas about transgender transitions, so we were learning all the time. Tom's approach to filmmaking is incredibly democratic as well. He's always interested in preaching to the non-converted. He wants to talk to people who haven't necessarily come across this subject and he wants to challenge that. But it's got to be authentic. We screened a version for a woman who had worked with us on Les Misérables and was transitioning at the time and who had very, very similar experiences to those reflected in the film. She was very moved by it, and asked me how I cut it. 'We all have journeys,' I told her.

"For me, the film had to be about people. It's not just a transgender story. It's about two individuals and it's about choices. We all strive to be ourselves and universally I think that's what Tom is so good at. And I was certainly interested in mining that bigger theme in the film."