Joel Hopkins tailors Last Chance Harvey for Hoffman and Thompson

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      WHISTLER—If there’s one thing movie directors always say about their casts, it’s that they got exactly the actors they were looking for. But that can’t be true, or why else would Kate Winslet keep getting Nicole Kidman’s parts (and vice versa)?

      When London-born Joel Hopkins talks about snagging the stars of Last Chance Harvey, however, he is not exaggerating. The heartwarming film, which opens Friday (January 16), was written expressly for Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, who here play transatlantic lovebirds.

      “The whole thing grew out of my relationship with Emma,” the affable Hopkins says over drinks at a hotel bar just minutes after his sophomore effort has made its B.C. debut at the Whistler Film Festival.

      Previously, Hopkins was best known for well-received if poorly distributed 2001 indie feature Jump Tomorrow, based on his own earlier short effort, 1998’s Jorge, and shot with an international cast in New York City, where he was finishing film school at NYU.

      That trajectory led him to be considered as the director of the Thompson vehicle Nanny McPhee. The gig never materialized, but after numerous meetings, a friendship did, and Thompson was ready to get involved with a project the young filmmaker was designing for her. After Hopkins caught the British star in a Broadway play opposite Hoffman, he became determined to capture that peculiar chemistry on-screen.

      “Emma saw my first film and really liked it. She wasn’t just being polite—you can tell these things. When I met her in New York, she said, ”˜Sorry, the job’s not yours, but I’d really like us to work together.’ Because I was living in New York and was quite homesick for London, I liked the idea of two people being from very different backgrounds and who sort of unwittingly wake each other up.

      “What’s great about stories dealing with Canadian, American, and British characters is that you have all these surface similarities, but then you can play with so many small, nuanced differences.”

      When he got his first draft of the tale to Hoffman, the veteran actor started firing back plenty of suggestions.

      “He got more and more involved without ever quite committing to the project,” he recalls, ruefully. “But then, as you see, he finally signed on.”

      Once he booked the leads (who also worked together in Stranger Than Fiction), the director had to fight a bit harder to fill the lesser roles. He went to bat for Toronto’s Liane Balaban to play Harvey’s daughter, whose impending marriage sets the story in motion.

      “The studio was pushing everyone from Elizabeth Banks to Gwyneth Paltrow, which I thought rather absurd, given the size of the part.

      “In any case,” concludes First-Choice Hopkins, “I had loved Liane in other things and thought it was important for her to, you know, actually look like she could be Dustin Hoffman’s daughter.”