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.