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.

Les Miserables

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.