Pretty much from the moment it was announced that Tom Hooper, who had just won the Oscar for directing 2010 best picture winner "The King's Speech," would be helming a new film adaptation of "Les Miserables" for Universal stuffed with stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Amanda Seyfried and Sacha Baron Cohen, the project has been expected on Oscar ballots. But a strange divide has materialized since moviegoers finally began to see the epic musical in recent weeks -- as if a barricade were being erected between audiences and critics, between the film and its prize-filled destiny.
Despite the four recent nominations each from the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild -- and excited chatter about Hathaway's dynamite performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" -- "Les Miserables" has incredibly strong competition for the top five slots in every Oscar category. Voting is open until Jan. 3, and "Lincoln," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Life of Pi," "Argo" and "Silver Linings Playbook" continue to thrive with both their audience and critical constituencies in a way that "Les Mis" hasn't. And Hooper has been even less in play for the director noms in recent weeks.
While the nakedly emotional material has undoubtedly been connecting with audiences -- a globally known property, "Les Mis" grossed $18.2 million Christmas Day, the second-best holiday opening ever -- reviewers have been much more critical, with special condemnation reserved for some of Hooper's biggest directing choices. Early on, Hooper and the other filmmakers decided to perform the movie entirely in song and to record those songs entirely live to camera, and everything else followed from that: the production design, the camerawork, the framing, the editing.
The morning after the film's Australian premiere, Friday, Dec. 21, Hooper got on the phone with Indiewire to address many of these criticisms and to explain the thinking and strategies that went into each decsion. Whether this in-depth look at his creative process changes any minds in the critical ranks -- or in the Academy -- would be difficult to measure, but it does provide exceptional detail on how he and his crew approached the daunting challenge of turning one of the stage's greatest successes into an emotionally satisfying big-screen experience.
I’m a little worse for wear. It was amazing. Again, the consistency of this extraordinary audience response happened again. They clapped 15-16 times during the film. And at the end the people are just destroyed by it. You turn around and see these faces are completely ravaged by tears and people are saying they can’t speak, "just let me sit here for a few minutes quiet for a bit." It’s pretty overwhelming. And the Aussies kept saying, “You know, mate, we don’t clap in films.” [laughs] The men aren’t famous for showing their emotions very much. So to get the Australian male to cry is a big deal.
You’re part Aussie, right?
I’m half Australian, my mom’s Australian. She comes from Adelaide. It was nice. We had Russell and Hugh there, so it was like two-and-a-half Australians.
Did that premiere have any special resonance for you or Hugh or Russ?
Yeah, the Sydney crowd went wild when Russ and Hugh went onstage to introduce it. It was very sweet, we had it at the State Theater, which is the oldest cinema here. It’s amazing Art Deco. Across the top where they put the film title they had: "Welcome Home 'Les Miserables.'" And it was the longest red carpet I think I’ve ever walked down. They closed the entire street.
We all know the “Les Mis” story, it speaks for itself, and the performances are pretty universally fantastic. It almost surely will do great at the box office. But I want to ask about a few of the ways in which you demonstrably struck away from the stage musical version. What was your approach to the backdrops when it came to the wide shots of the city? What was your aesthetic approach to that? And was it all CGI or did you do composite matte shots as well?
Very early on it became apparent that shooting in Paris for real would be very tricky to pull off partly because the Paris of this film, of the 1830s, was largely knocked down and rebuilt by Haussmann in the 1850s. So the Paris that we know, which has that kind of regularity of gray is a more recent thing. Paris at that time had a lot medieval buildings and particular slum areas that were narrow, higgledy-piggledy, and actually a lot of color was used on the buildings, not that uniform gray that we associate with Paris now.
Sorry for interrupting, but did you just use the phrase “higgledy-piggledy?” Could you please give me a definition of that?
It means irregular. No two buildings are the same. On top of that, just thinking through the live singing, imagine putting Russell Crowe on a real Paris bridge at night next to the Île de la Cité where Notre Dame is and expecting to have any kind of control or ability to record live sound without heavy traffic noise. Early on, it was clear to me that if I was going to prioritize live singing and make the freedom that the actors would have if we sang it live at the center, I needed to look at how I approached it physically with that as a guide. If Russell had just been standing there not singing, one could have gone to Paris and angled the camera and then maybe adapted it. So, the biggest decision was to build the central street where the students build the barricade as a set and then to do it inside instead of outside. I thought about it a great deal, because it was one of our biggest expenditures, building this set. One of the things I realized is the biggest chunk of singing happens on that street. You’ve got very delicate songs like “Bring Them Home” and so it felt like a sensible idea to be able to compose that street in terms of its aesthetic but to also know that we could capture live singing. Also, most of the barricade scenes happen at night, which meant that we would be on night shoots for probably three weeks to do all that. The way it was scheduled was it started at the beginning of the summer so we had very short nights, and I didn’t think they would be able to sing at their best. It just didn’t seem very smart. And the battle in the book famously happens as dawn breaks, so you’ve got this kind of low sun coming up, which would be very compromising to stage a battle at dawn outside because you’d just get half an hour. In England, dawn is gray and non-apparent. [laughs]