Interview With Joel Hopkins: Seeing London Anew

Travel Interviews: Eva Holland talks to the writer-director of "Last Chance Harvey" about travel and his new movie

01.16.09 | 6:06 AM ET

Last Chance Harvey posterThe tagline for the Golden Globe-nominated film Last Chance Harvey reads: “It’s about first loves, last chances and everything in between.” That’s true enough, but it’s also about the act of travel—its banal discomforts, isolation and potential for eye-opening encounters.

The story follows down-on-his-luck Harvey Shine (played by Dustin Hoffman) as he crosses the Atlantic for his estranged daughter’s wedding in London. There, at Heathrow, he meets Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), another lonely outsider who spends her days collecting passenger statistics, and her free time struggling with an elderly, paranoid mother. The unlikely courtship that follows features standout performances from both leads, and plenty of London eye candy. Eva Holland got writer-director Joel Hopkins on the phone to ask about the movie, which opens wide in the U.S. today.

World Hum: “Last Chance Harvey” takes place in a slightly different London than we—North Americans anyway—are used to seeing on screen. It’s the Millennium Bridge and Southbank rather than, say, Mayfair or Oxford Street. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

Joel Hopkins: You know, when I wrote this, I’d been living in New York for 12 years. I’m a Londoner, I was born and bred there, but I had been living in New York. So I wrote this in New York thinking about London, and I think I was a bit homesick and maybe slightly idealizing it. And then when I arrived there to actually film it and we went scouting, it was very exciting finding new things, either places that I used to go and had changed, or finding brand-new places that I had never been to before. I think I approached it with fresh eyes, and that’s what ended up on the screen.

It wasn’t “OK, let’s not shoot here,” but I think just because I was coming back to the city, I approached it with fresh eyes, and that sort of translated. Like Somerset House, where a couple of key scenes take place. When I was a boy growing up, that used to be a car park and that building around it used to be an office of statistics, national statistics, where they kept all the records of births and deaths. All the civil servants would park their cars in that middle courtyard. And obviously now, they’ve created this beautiful public space, with these fountains, and for me it was very exciting going back and going “Oh my God, look at this, look at this new bit of London.”

I also think that—having said earlier that none of it was deliberate—I often see London depicted as quite gritty, and the movie has a sort of old-fashioned sensibility. One thing I wanted to show was the graceful side to London. So I was very conscious of showing more elegant things. But also, I wanted it to feel real, I didn’t want it to feel fake or whatever, so I was trying to strike a balance. I mean, London’s always I guess slightly thought of as the lesser, not as beautiful as Paris, and I wanted to show that yes, it is [as beautiful as Paris].

Public transit is a huge part of the London experience, but most movies about London—again, at least the ones that make it over to North America—don’t show that. If Bridget Jones ever stepped on the tube, we didn’t see it happen—whereas in your movie, some crucial scenes take place on trains and in buses. Was it important to you to include that aspect of London life?

When I wrote it, it wasn’t conscious, but it must be part of what I experienced growing up. It can be a pain, but it also can be part of what makes up life in London, getting the buses and trains. It’s a system that is much maligned, but it works. I love sitting on top of a double-decker bus and driving around. But also, part of Kate’s character and her life in a way is this daily [commute]—she has to take buses to get to work, and the train, so I wanted to show her life and that’s where it came from. There used to be an old ending where they ended up on the bus, there was a lovely scene of the two of them on a bus, but unfortunately for other reasons it didn’t quite work, so we changed the ending. But it used to be them driving off into the sunset on a double-decker bus.

Your two main characters meet initially and connect at Heathrow. What do you think it is about airports that make them so ideal for chance encounters?

As a writer I’m always looking for situations where people can realistically collide—[where] strangers, in a way, can collide. They’re also very anonymous places in a way; everyone’s on their way somewhere, and I think if you step back from that, if you have two people surrounded by all this, it’s a very nice backdrop because they can step out from all the hubbub. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when they actually sit down and meet in that airport restaurant, something about knowing that outside this restaurant people are getting on planes, getting off planes, it adds a layer that’s rather nice.

I’ve heard the movie described as “Before Sunrise” for baby boomers. I think the two movies are actually pretty different in lots of ways, but they do have that element of romantic serendipity in common. Is there something about travel that shakes us out of our routines? Do you think Harvey could have changed if he’d stayed home in White Plains?

Well I think that travel literally changes our routines, and I do think it is one of the things that helps us experience things differently and be open to change, be more ready to accept change. You know, we’re operating on a different set of rules, and we must be more alive to encounters and things. Travel is a way of getting us out of our little homes, and I think it’s a good thing.

Agreed. Thanks for this, Joel.

Editor’s Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Eva Holland is co-editor of World Hum. She is a former associate editor at Up Here and Up Here Business magazines, and a contributor to Vela. She's based in Canada's Yukon territory.

1 Comment for Interview With Joel Hopkins: Seeing London Anew

Nancy D. Brown 01.16.09 | 4:29 PM ET

I hadn’t heard about this movie until now.  I agree with Joel’s comment that travel changes our routines. Travel does, indeed, get us out of our homes and that is a good thing.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.