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The Spoils: 'Les Miserables' Director Tom Hooper Answers His Critics

Photo of Jay A. Fernandez By Jay A. Fernandez | Indiewire December 26, 2012 at 3:34PM

A divide has materialized -- as if a barricade were being erected between audiences and critics, between the film and its prize-filled destiny. Hooper got on the phone with Indiewire to address criticisms and to explain the thinking that went into each directorial decision.
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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.

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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.

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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.

How did the premiere go last night?

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]

Is there an actual sunrise in England?

Sometimes. It’s been written about. So then the great thing is that meant we could also create a design for the street that was what we needed. And Eve Stewart, who’s such an extraordinary production designer, came up with this wonderful plan where the student café was like a sort of mini-Flatiron Building, which was folding in upon itself so that the building was structurally falling to the right and the roof is kind of bending over so you get this feeling that the students’ building has a kind of precariousness to it. It’s thin and vulnerable and about to topple over. And it also created a central focus point for a lot of the wides in scenes like that. So “On my Own,” which is heading towards where Marius lives, you’ve got this sort of iconic shot of that café. So it gave it also a great focus point. It also reminded me, the way it’s situated, of a ship, which is a big theme in the film, a recurring theme of the sea and ships. You have Hugh hauling the warship in at the beginning that’s been damaged, and then Hugh getting released from prison underneath the bow of a warship, and then Fantine going back down to a ship. So [the Flatiron design] was a way of reminding people of that visual theme.

"I find it hilarious that you can read reviews where they mention the close-up, but at the same time they mention that they were sitting in a row where people around them were balling with tears, and they don’t see there’s a connection."
But then everything over the rooftops is CGI?

Yeah. Probably the best example is “Stars,” where we built this rooftop aerie for Russell, and we see the eagle and built the whole top there. And then basically when you look beyond him, that’s CG. But what we did is something very believable. We did a LIDAR scan of Notre Dame, which means we did an entire geometric scan of the building from all sides, which is accurate down to a hundredth of a millimeter or something. It’s very precise. So we scanned Notre Dame and then we did a very extensive photo mapping of Notre Dame in different kinds of lights. Then basically you build a wire model of Notre Dame in 3D using the LIDAR scan, taking information about the lens that you’ve chosen in order to get the right angle and the right distance from Russell. And then you project onto it all the various photos of Notre Dame that you’ve taken. The textures that you’re seeing are not generated in a computer, they’re actually taken from hundreds of different photos in the appropriate angle and the appropriate light. And then for the front of Notre Dame, nowadays there’s a big tourist center, while in those days there were higgledy-piggledy medieval buildings. So there we photographed every old medieval building in Paris that still exists and we also photographed and took scans of the street set we built, different building types. So we didn’t shoot in Paris, but an amazing amount of the shots when you see Paris involve photographic mapping and geometric mapping of actual Paris in order to create it. But it also allowed us to do things like: when Russell is committing suicide, when we started shooting we shot the close-ups first and the master camera was on a crane, and what that allowed Russell to do is every time he got to the end of the song he was flinging himself off the set we built for the bridge. So 20 feet down to foam at the bottom, so he could do the entire song, even the jump, each time, which he wanted to do.

Did you make him do it a few extra times, just to screw around with him?

I think he probably sang and jumped off it 20 times. Maybe it wasn’t 20 feet. It was enough to clear the set so it was dramatic. And Russell had this very interesting idea that in the show Javert just sings and jumps on the note of the music. Russell thought it was interesting to finish singing and actually have a moment of human connection and silence before he jumps, which I think is very effective because it makes it much less melodramatic than to jump and sing, which is a musical theater device.

The visuals came off to me as a kind of hybrid meant to take advantage of some of the things you can do with cinema but still feel somewhat stage-like?

Eve Stewart, the production designer, and I had many conversations. We acknowledged from the beginning that we were creating an alternative universe where people communicate through song, and we had to make it actually convincing. One of the great debates is, do you help this alternative universe if it looks and feels exactly like ours, what we call “kitchen-sink realism,” or do you help it if it’s like ours but just a little bit heightened, or a little bit magical realism, a little bit different from our own? And in the end, we felt that very subtle heightening in certain sequences would help the audience be transported from reality, which is much like our own but is not identical to ours. We did navigate both. I’m not sure I would necessarily say it was striving to be theatrical, more striving to have a bit of license with the way we re-imagined this world in order to do things with the visual language that helped the storytelling in ways it actually wouldn’t do if you were making a totally realistic historical drama.

To compare, when I was making "John Adams," I never would have futzed with the way Philadelphia was designed for that first congress in order to create a moment where, I don’t know, John Adams feels overpowered by Philadelphia or John Adams is feeling like he’s failed and suddenly Philadelphia is looming over and destroying him. I basically built Philadelphia absolutely as we know it existed. I think I’ve grown up through quite a very realistic school of filmmaking, with London filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, who have done extraordinary narrative directing in the UK, and then you have Australians I admire like Peter Weir. They’re highly realistic in terms of the physical world. And I kept thinking, well, up to this point the measure of what is true is what is real. But when you’re doing a musical the measure of what is true is not that simple, because they’re singing, which is not real. So the measure becomes not what is real but becomes what is emotionally true, and it becomes a different kind of measure. So I thought it was very healthy for me as a filmmaker to cut some of the bonds that tie you to a certain type of tyranny of realism, where realism is always the judge. To let myself go into a more expressionistic place in the cinema. And to enjoy being expressionistic, to enjoy the freedom of being a bit operatic.

And actually in some ways there was inspiration in the book, because in the book Victor Hugo plays around with quite a lot of patterning. So, even the names, Jean Valjean, Javert, J-V, one of the names is contained within another. He has this awareness of patterns and symmetry, which is true in life as well. There are almost documentary levels of realism in the way he describes the poor in Paris and what Paris looked like with these quite obvious patternings, where you feel like the world’s been organized in a certain way. He also writes from the point of view of absolutely the existence of God. And when God exists, God can benignly affect or otherwise the way things take place and that can be a guiding hand in the way that stories fall out in our universe.

Almost like a film director. It always comes back to God with you guys.

[laughs] I’ll give you an example of that kind of patterning: the theme of heights, descents and ascents. So, the camera literally starts drowned in the sea with a drowned French flag, and it ends looking up at the heavens on the top of a very high barricade. It goes from dark underwater to light and height. Victor Hugo talked about the sea as “measureless misery.” And then you’ve got Hugh standing in the sea, and when he’s released he’s under the shadow of this hydra-like figurehead, and he walks up steps to freedom leaving Javert low still beneath him. And then he climbs a mountain, and on the top of this mountain there’s a little village where he finds God, so there’s this ascent to enlightenment. And then Fantine, when her life starts to go wrong, she goes down steps and she goes underneath a boat where she’s given away to her first client and she is forced into prostitution in the watery bowels of a rotting boat and actually is lying in a coffin bed, which is the old kind of beds that the officers used to use on ships, which is half-drowned in water. And then when Hugh saves her, he lifts her and takes her up steps to freedom, leaving Javert again beneath and below, and again you see the hydra recurring. So all this organization committing to the language of symbolism in the film was something I could do because I was building sets and because I had the help of CGI.

One consistent criticism thus far has been the choice to stay in close on each actor through much of each song. To what extent was that a function of the recording of the live audio? And is there something critics are missing? Do you have an answer to that?

I do find it hilarious that you can read reviews where they mention the close-up, but at the same time they mention that they were sitting in a row where people around them were balling with tears, and they don’t see there’s a connection. The truth is, the only reason I’m getting this level of devastation from people’s response — sometimes people literally can’t speak afterwards for a few minutes they’ve been crying so much. And that’s happening because of the close-up, because of the intimacy of the film. And the reason I know this is because I didn’t assume that the songs would play in tight. For “I Dreamed a Dream” I had three cameras running on Anne — one was the close-up that you see; the master shot, which I intended to use originally, is a loose mid-shot and then the camera tracks in very slowly over the course of the song so probably only the last quarter is close; and then I had a kind of roving steady camera that was more of a long shot. And for a long time in the cut, we had this mid-shot tracking slowly in, which is more of a conventional way that you can build drama.

And one day Eddie Redmayne came into the cutting room, and I showed him the opening and I showed him “I Dreamed a Dream” because he was banging the door down to see something. And he saw it and he mentioned the fact that in the teaser trailer that we edited we used this great tight close-up of Anne and he talked about the way you see the musculature of her neck as she looks up. And he said, "Aren’t you missing a trick not using the big close-up?" We had tried a little bit of it with some edits. And I said, Well, why don’t we just try running all of it? And I cannot tell you, the very next time we screened it, the emotional impact that song had went up about 200%. It was always fantastic, but what it unlocked the next time we screened it was a level of emotion that was completely beyond what we had before.

Anyone sitting down to see it just once doesn’t hear the progression of the editing. I think everyone assumed that that was just your approach from the get-go, that you were just going to shoot two and a half hours in close-up…

Yeah, I think they think I kind of went, “OK, Anne, it’s one camera, it’s a bit close-up, it’s all in one shot — action!” I neither put that pressure on them nor did I presume that the songs would necessarily hold like that.

So it wasn’t a function of the audio either?

The way we got the audio that good was that we had the regular mikes on the outside of people’s costumes. And most of the time with the leading actors we had two, one towards the right shoulder and one towards the left shoulder so that whichever way they turned or favored they were still picked up well. And then when the film was edited, we digitally removed things. The ability to have those microphones in shot and digitally remove them was the secret to our success and the thing that differentiates us from what people were doing in the heyday of the musicals. In the ’60s, even ten years ago, it would have been cost-prohibitive and now it’s really quite straightforward.

And actually, if you look at the construction of songs, in Russell’s songs, both “Stars” and “Suicide,” there are quite a few cuts where we put him in the context of his environment, where we go wide. And the reason for that is that there is this whole theme that he’s subconsciously crossed the edge of the building and he’s flirting with the edge. And we could only get that by putting him in context. And, obviously, in the suicide there’s the whole pull of the drop and the water, which wouldn’t translate in close-up all the time. What I would also say is, in “I Dreamed a Dream,” I suppose the other thing I learned from the process of making it is, cutting wide to her in, however dramatic it was visually, a distressed boat, a decaying boat, would not help you with what she’s singing about. She is singing about a man who betrayed her, she’s singing about the extinguishing of her hopes — everything she’s singing about is not around her, it’s all in her mind in the past. And ultimately the best guide to that emotion is her face.

You added a song, right?

Yes, we did. I don’t think people have any idea how much changing we did to the musical. What happened is, once we made the commitment to having it sung through, you then realize that any changes you need to make are going to need to be made through the books and the music. So every change I did was in the musical form, by writing lyrics. But because I had the original team, the original lyricist and composer, a lot of the changes are invisible. People aren’t even commenting, they don’t even know that they’re there. There’s a slight perception that we just took the libretto and shot it, and that’s true for quite a bit of it. But there were many interventions we did when we converted it to the screen that were simply about making the storytelling better.

Some weren’t even about lyrics. A really good example of something that struck me again last night, which was a change, was in the first battle, Eddie Redmayne is rushing to get a barrel of gunpowder and then get it torched to blow the whole thing up, and a soldier trains his gun on Marius. In the musical, Eponine’s been delivering a message for Marius, and she arrives at the barricade, she’s already been shot and it happened offstage, and she just happened to get shot as she’s walking down the street.

Wow. That makes it motivational, it changes her whole arc. And then the whole song after that is deepened.

And that’s a change that literally no one has even noticed, in terms of knowing that wasn’t in the show. But it completely changes it, and to me the great theme of the film is what we will sacrifice for love, what we will do for love. You have Fantine, who’s willing to lose everything, her body, her life, to try to save her child. You’ve got Valjean, who changes everything for love. You’ve got Eponine, who actually sacrifices herself physically for love. It makes it resonate with the beauty of what people will do in the name of love.

This article is related to: Les Miserables, Tom Hooper, Interviews, Awards