Hooper’s dream job
Director Louise Hooper tells DQ about her rise from arts documentaries to epic fantasy dramas, shooting Netflix’s secret The Sandman episode and creating series to suit her own surrealist imagination.
Icelandic musician Björk and Netflix’s epic fantasy drama The Sandman may not appear to have much in common, but together they represent the eclectic, imaginative and often heightened and stylised work of Louise Hooper, bookending her rise from arts documentary filmmaker to high-end drama director in little more than a decade.
Starting her career helming BBC Arts documentaries, Hooper worked with subjects including David Lynch, Helmut Newton, Arthur Miller, Attenborough and Björk. Then seven years ago, she began to shift into television drama, first on soaps such as Holby City and Casualty before taking on episodes of Vera, Cold Feet and Lucky Man.
In 2019, she shot all four episodes of ITV drama Cheat, in which Katherine Kelly’s university lecturer takes on Molly Windsor’s student when the latter is suspected of plagiarism. Then the following year, she also directed four-parter Flesh & Blood, a family drama in which three siblings must come to terms with their mother’s new love interest.
More recently, Hooper has begun to explore fantastical stories that appeal to her own sensibilities, helming two episodes of a pair of Netflix series – The Witcher and The Sandman – that launched either side of season seven of the BBC’s incomparable dark comedy anthology Inside No 9, for which Hooper directed two episodes.
One of 2022’s most eagerly anticipated series, The Sandman has become Netflix’s number-one show since its debut on August 5, featuring in the streamer’s top 10 in 93 countries. And fans were given an unexpected treat a fortnight later with the release of an extra episode, Dream of a Thousand Cats/Calliope.
Based on Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series of the same name, The Sandman is set in a world called the Dreaming, where the Sandman, Master of Dreams (aka Dream/Morpheus), is captured and held prisoner for a century. His absence sets off a series of events that will change both the dreaming and waking worlds forever.
To restore order, Dream must journey across different worlds and timelines to mend his mistakes, revisiting old friends and foes and meeting new entities – both cosmic and human – along the way.
Hooper directed The Sandman’s S1 finale (titled Lost Hearts) and then the live-action segment of the two-story bonus episode (Calliope). Both were filmed on location and at Shepperton Studios, where the show’s dramatic and expansive sets were constructed by production designer Jon Gary Steele.
“I loved the comics and had known about them for a long time,” Hooper tells DQ. “I know Neil had been thinking about ways to get this made for such a long time, and of course Allan Heinberg, the showrunner, is a fantastic collaborator and a brilliant writer. So all of those things came together.”
Having just worked on The Witcher before joining The Sandman, “there’s something really exciting about being in that world, in that machine where you’ve got the most beautiful ideas and costumes and fantastic heads of department,” she continues. “It is just this absolute labour of love with these really talented people telling brilliant stories.
“The whole idea of The Sandman is it’s so layered and multifaceted and you’ve got endless different philosophical ideas and absolutely fantastic dialogue. Then obviously the imagery from the comic books is so exciting for me to take as a launchpad for how I’m going to direct it. Sometimes we did homages to the frames and were quite nerdy about it, getting it absolutely accurate, and other times we took the essence of that and then choreographed something different. But it was irresistible. How can you not want to do something like that?”
Gaiman turned down numerous opportunities to bring The Sandman to the big screen before going with a series adaptation. To ensure the Netflix show was the adaptation he and the fans wanted, the writer would frequently speak to showrunner Heinberg and the directing team – Jamie Childs, Andrés Baiz, Hisko Hulsing, Mairzee Almas, Mike Barker, Coralie Fargeat and Hooper – about the direction of the project, while images from the comic books would be pinned to office walls.
“Everything was from the comic books,” Hooper says, “and then it’s like, ‘OK, well, let’s do this, but with a slightly modern twist.’ It was about everyone loving it, knowing it and being immersed in it, and then there’s a talented bunch of people bringing their own ideas to the table.”
Though she only filmed the final two episodes, Hooper says her time on The Sandman was as “exciting and stimulating” as directing all four episodes of a miniseries. “It’s a different prospect, going into a big machine like The Witcher and The Sandman, and what’s exciting is you’re given this incredible set of parts – a huge budget, fantastic sets, fantastic costumes and a fantastic cast – and your script obviously is different to everyone else’s, so you’re just thinking, ‘What is the best version I can do for The Sandman episode 10 or for Calliope?’
“You have the same ingredients whether you do a limited series or you come on to a big show. You’re just basically saying, ‘How can I interpret this to the best of my ability?’ And that’s a real thrill. It’s exciting. I love it.
“Of course, what’s interesting about The Sandman is there’s a throughline through each episode but there are also lots of different stories and lots of different characters, so you are quite free to storyboard and create new images and ideas.”
Taking charge of Lost Hearts, Hooper had the unenviable task of bringing the season to a conclusion, with story threads involving a dream vortex – the single greatest threat to the Dreaming – and a confrontation between Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) and rogue nightmare The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook).
Hooper had just one day to film a scene involving Dream and Desire, the brother of Lucifer, the ruler of Hell, because at the close of play, the bright red set would be removed and replaced with something else for the next day’s shooting. “So you’re not really ever following in anyone’s footsteps,” she says. “You’re there for that moment and you have to work with all the HODs to create that new world. It’s deeply satisfying.
“The Dream and Desire scene for me was a real high point. We did that as a real homage because it’s exactly as it is in the comic book. We were trying to make that as faithful as possible.”
Another notable scene involved filming near Chichester, Southern England, with actors Kyo Ra (Rose Walker) and Eddie Karanja (Jed Walker) as they are sucked into a vortex that emerges from the grass beneath their feet. “That was really fun to film because, basically, as a director, you had to say to the actors, ‘OK, you’re falling down into a vortex. You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to twist your body.’ And then, of course, what happens is the VFX and CGI teams do this incredible work with what you’ve set up,” Hooper explains.
Standalone story Calliope follows the titular Greek muse, played Melissanthi Mahut, whom novelist Erasmus Fry (Derek Jacobi) imprisons for decades to get creative inspiration. “Let’s not mince our words, he basically rapes her and takes that muse inspiration and becomes a successful writer,” Hooper says. “Then the next guy, Richard Madoc, played brilliantly by Arthur Darvill, takes her into his house but he’s very reticent, feels more respectful and doesn’t want to do anything to her. He buys her gifts and presents and tries to woo her. But the more pressure he gets from his agent, and the more his ego wants to have success, he does unfortunately also rape her – but we don’t show that.”
That marks a change from the original comics, in which that moment is depicted. For the series, Hooper instead wanted to imply what happens.
“It’s very important to me that Melissanthi, a brilliant actress, shows complete dignity, moral strength and intelligence, and that however appalling the situation, she keeps herself strong. She’s never crying, begging, pleading or being submissive. I’m so hardwired to show women to be strong and intelligent, and I don’t want to have anything where someone feels weak. They can be in terrible situations but they keep their resolve,” the director says.
“I was really mindful of that in terms of her eyeline, making sure it’s equal and strong, with big close-ups. When she and Richard Madoc are in the same shot, they have equal prominence. She’s a goddess and she’s strong, unlike the human weakness around her.”
In television in general, and on a project like The Sandman in particular, Hooper finds “delicious joy” in her preparation, from reading the script and exploring the keys to each scene, to partnering with the designer about the look of the sets and potential camera positions, not to mention those initial discussions with the costume and hair and make-up designers.
“In a way, you’re like a maypole where you’re in between all the heads of departments and you start to bring it all together,” she says. “Then I do a lot storyboarding work, which I really love. You don’t need to get it signed off, but it’s also enjoyable to go to the showrunner and express your images and discuss them.
“It’s about communication, imagination and the fun of passionately bringing it all together. Then on the day, it’s about working with the actors. I’ll always suggest a choreography or an idea but I’ll say, ‘It’s completely up to you, and together we’ll work something out.’ It’s just layers and layers – but it’s not daunting, it’s really fun.”
That atmosphere of fun means Hooper doesn’t ever feel pressured in her work. “There are a lot of people, a lot of money, a lot of expectation, but that’s just the job and that’s what I love,” she says. “You prep it all beforehand and then you have to have fun, because if you don’t have fun and have a happy set, what’s the point? My job is to inspire the whole crew. There are a lot of people, it’s a big old shoot and you want every single person there to be invested.”
Hooper credits her background in documentaries for giving her an insight into the different parts of the filmmaking process and thus easing her move into TV drama. Directing big fantasy shows then became an “intoxicating and irresistible” opportunity that appealed to her “very surreal and strange imagination.”
“It’s just so bonkers and brilliant and the scale is so exciting. They’re completely irresistible,” she says. “The Witcher was a fantastic show to make and then The Sandman was similar. What I want to do next is start showrunning and writing my own ideas, which I’ve got lots of, and to push on making fantastic shows for people.”
After shooting The Sandman, Hooper joined the Inside No 9 team, moving from a series with one of television’s biggest budgets to a show that shoots an episode in just four days. Appealing to her “strange, twisted and surreal” imagination, she found the stories suitably dark and macabre and was able to impose her own framing and composition on both of her episodes. “Nothing is too much,” she says. “It can be super stylised, and that really appeals to me.”
Next up is another Netflix series, Treason, on which Hooper was lead director. She worked alongside writer Matt Sharman (Bridge of Spies) to build the six-parter, which follows an MI6 agent called Adam whose past catches up with him in the form of Kara, a Russian spy with whom he has a complicated past, leading to a difficult relationship between Kara, Adam and his wife Maddy.
Meanwhile, Hooper has a raft of original projects in development under her own Louise Hooper Films banner, unleashing a slate of surreal, unique, female-led thrillers that appeal to her own tastes at a time she describes as a “real golden era” for directors in film and TV.
“There are so many opportunities, so many fantastic new ideas, it’s wonderful,” says the director, who is represented by Casarotto. “The only thing I miss really from documentaries is meeting real people and the fact there’s lots of travel. I also miss having more input into the script, but that’s why that’s the direction I want to take more – developing my own ideas, creating my own new vision and making things that really stand out and are unique. That’s an exciting prospect as I go forward.”