Tackling Old Big 'Ead: The secret of making Brian Clough live again on screen

Tom Hooper, director of The Damned United talks to Ian Burrell

Tom Hooper's dedication to getting behind the camera has never been in doubt, not since he broke off studying Finnegans Wake for his Oxford finals in order to head to London and shoot a commercial for the video-game company Sega, an advertisement that featured the pop trio Right Said Fred.

It didn't do him any harm. Fresh-faced and lanky, Hooper was the director hand-picked by HBO to make one of the most important television projects it has ever embarked on, telling the story of the founding of the United States and showing it over nine hours during election year. The Englishman rewarded them with the epic John Adams, and in the history of the Emmy Awards no programme has ever been so successful in a single year, harvesting prizes in 13 categories.

For most of the past year, he has been making The Damned United, his much-anticipated interpretation of author David Peace's ambitious attempt to get inside the mind of Brian Clough during his triumphant managerial career at Derby County and subsequent disastrous 44 days in charge of Leeds United.

Hooper, 36, explains why there are significant distinctions between film and book. "What defines Peace's book is hearing the voice inside Clough's head, and we decided early on not to try to do that, because I don't think it's very cinematic," he says, explaining that he and scriptwriter Peter Morgan chose not to try to put Cloughie's inner thoughts into words but concentrate on how others saw him. "In a funny way, the film captures more of Clough's wit than the book does, because like many great comics, they're brilliantly funny in the room and privately incredibly tormented. So I think the film is less dark than the book."

Hooper is glad of that, partly because he has detected an enduring warmth for the outspoken football boss, a feeling that also emerged in the anger some fans felt towards Peace's acclaimed but unflattering portrayal of the man they called Old Big 'Ead.

"If I say to someone that I'm making a film about Brian Clough, their first response is almost always a fond smile," says the director. "I began to think I want to look after the way people feel about Clough. If people have that fondness for him I don't want to trash it."

He has done his research, re-interviewing former stalwart players of Clough's, such as John McGovern, and soaking up the footage from the news archive. "You've got to remember the world Clough came out of – it was really hierarchical, it was about respecting your boss, respecting your seniors," he says. "He was so iconoclastic and burst through all this; he wouldn't be put in his place or be confined by where he came from. I think that's why people love him."

Hooper, who also worked on the HBO mini-series Elizabeth I, is known as a director of period drama and The Damned United fits into this category, notwithstanding the fact that many of its principal characters are still alive. It is an attempt to capture a point of transition in the cultural and social history of Britain, when the streets and football grounds turned from black and white to glorious colour. "It's also about that moment when the money started to come in, and that coming together of big business, sport and celebrity – that tipping point in the game," says Hooper.

Watch a trailer for 'The Damned United'

Clough is played by Michael Sheen, who recently appeared as David Frost in Frost/Nixon, also scripted by Morgan. Hooper says Sheen had no problem in switching roles. "I think he was sick to death of David Frost by the time he came to me and it was joyous for him to play an out-and-out lead. Michael is brilliant on the front foot and the thing about Clough is he's dominating every scene – he still dominates even when he's lost his job."

The secret to Clough's success, in Hooper's view, was that he was able to forge a "very powerful loyalty" in players to whom he had given opportunities. There is "an analogy" in the relationship between director and actor, he says.

But unlike Clough at Leeds United, Hooper also has a gift for winning the trust of those who have long ago established their reputations. Actors such as Jim Broadbent, who worked with Hooper on the Channel 4 drama Longford and who plays Derby chairman Sam Longson in The Damned United. Perhaps more than anyone, Helen Mirren has been pivotal to Hooper's progression.

He first encountered her when directing Prime Suspect 6 in 2003. "You can be sure she personally interviews the director and she watches your work; she's very shrewd," says Hooper. "But we had such a good time on that that she wanted me to direct Elizabeth I."

That was the start of his relationship with HBO. Then when he flew to the Emmys in 2006, to collect an award for Elizabeth I, HBO had a project for him, and not the film about Katharine Graham, the great publisher of The Washington Post, which he had been expecting to make. No, the broadcaster wanted him to put the story of founding father John Adams into pictures. "When HBO entrust you with $100m to tell that kind of story and they are bringing it out at the time of the primaries in the election race, let's just say there's a little bit of pressure to perform," he says.

Starting to research his subject, he was amazed to discover that the ground was not as well-trampled as he'd expected. "This is the creation story and in a country that has such an incredibly strong film tradition it's been overlooked, like this neglected treasure," he says. "A lot of film-makers have been obsessed by the Civil War and have ignored this period."

The fact that Hooper, from London, was an Englishman, was highlighted by American journalists who questioned him on his approach to the project. "When John Adams starts, these guys describe themselves as Englishmen, they say we are fighting for our rights as natural-born Englishmen, they don't describe themselves as Americans," he points out. "The idea of a separate American identity was very late in. You can't say how hard it is to understand that point, because the way American history is taught is that American identity was there from the beginning. In a funny way, me being English allowed me to be excited by this discovery. I think an American director may not have been interested in that nuance."

The series, which features Paul Giamatti in the lead role and was shown on Channel 4, shows that Adams, a lawyer, successfully defended the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre in 1770. "When I first met [executive producer] Tom Hanks, his first big point was don't make the English the bad guys, don't make them these moustache-twirling villains – they have their reasons, just as the Americans did."

From directing theatre at Oxford, where his cast included student actors of the calibre of Kate Beckinsale and Emily Mortimer, Hooper cut his teeth on children's drama Byker Grove, then learnt how to work at speed making episodes of EastEnders in a 10-hour day.

At one point during the discussion, Hooper lets slip that he was with Sean Penn the previous weekend ("just hanging out"). Yet he mentions the Hollywood actor only to make the point that he was "almost more excited" by meeting John Craven, the former Newsround presenter, who has a cameo role in The Damned United.

His next project is a feature-film version of John Steinbeck's East of Eden, which he hopes will allow him to tell the story of another stage in the founding of America. For Hooper, the adventure continues.

The DVD release of the multiple-award-winning HBO series 'John Adams' is out now. The Damned United is in cinemas from 27 March. Watch a trailer for The Damned United at independent.co.uk/film