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‘Les Miserables’ Director Hooper Digs Into His Musical Audacity, It’s Like ‘Avatar’ or Shakespeare

'Les Miserables' Director Hooper Digs Into His Musical Audacity, It's Like 'Avatar' or Shakespeare

Tom Hooper sounds sniffly. He calls it “flying related.” He’s calling me from Japan, where he’s about to attend yet another premiere of “Les Miserables.” “I have yet to manage to show the movie to our own Royal family,” he says. “Now I’m showing it to the Crown Prince of Japan.”

“Les Miserables” is a tour de force dramatic musical, no holds barred, a tearjerker. It’s also a huge Christmas hit–all over the world–despite its two-and-a-half hour running time. Star Hugh Jackman drew cheers at a recent Screen Actors Guild screening; they were the perfect target demo: fans of the global hit musical, willing to embrace high-voltage heart-on-sleeve emotion in moist close-up.

Hooper’s goal was to pull every audience member into every tic of feeling. It’s too claustrophobic for some folks –including film critics who have both embraced and resisted the film. But they neither represent worldwide moviegoers nor Academy voters, who may be more inclined to recognize the director’s sheer audacity. Hooper digs into just how and why he chose to tell this story this way, below.

Universal co-chairman Donna Langley had tried to do a film version of “East of Eden” with Hooper and Imagine. Soon after Hooper won the directing Oscar for Best-Picture “The King’s Speech,” Working Title’s Eric Fellner and Langley, who has long collaborated with them on their smart-house movies, convinced Hooper to do “Les Miserables.”

I asked Langley why he was the right man for the job. “Looking at his body of work– from ‘Longford,’ which was a small movie he directed in the UK, to ‘John Adams’ and then ‘The King’s Speech’–he’s an incredible storyteller both visually and narratively,” she says. “He has respect for the material, but he is an entertainer, he’s interested in elevating the story in the most sophisticated way. And ‘Les Mis’ needed a visual style;  I was so impressed by what he did on ‘The King’s Speech,’ from a visual standpoint, from the production design to the camera-work, on what could have been a TV movie, which was in fact dismissed as such by many studios and financiers. He finds a way to tell an intimate story but put it against a big epic backdrop. On top of that was his ability to get incredible performances out of actors.” 

Going in Hooper was not a fan of the original musical, but when he went to see “Les Mis” onstage it moved him, and he was intrigued by William Nicholson’s script, which featured spoken dialogue as well as songs. Both Universal and Working Title had to agree to let Hooper turn the movie into an all-singing musical, which is rare ( “Tommy,” “Evita”) with the actors singing live from a solo piano accompaniment in their ear buds. He was backed by rights holder and theater impresario Cameron Macintosh, who mounted the original musical 27 years ago.

Hooper was working with a modest budget, by Hollywood standards, of $62 million. Musical pro Jackman, Anne Hathaway (deemed too old for Cosette, whose mother played Fantine on Broadway) and rock band member Russell Crowe, who had to audition along with everyone else for the film, did not command their usual price. Unusually, the studio did not chase Crowe, so he called them. “He fought for the role and won it,” says Langley, adding that Mackintosh and original composers Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil were integral to the casting process.

Anne Thompson: Do you agree that “The King’s Speech” may have opened the doors for studios making films like this again?

Tom Hooper: I was sitting at the LA Times [directors] round table. Almost all the movies two years ago were all indie movies. Two years everyone said the drama was dead, so given that I am hugely excited if that’s shifted and if “The King’s Speech” made any contribution to that. “Black Swan” also changed the dial. It was a great year for indie movies that got people to rethink whether these films can move people. If they get them right the economics are frankly better than anything else.

AT: Some people think you just threw the musical up on the screen.

TH: In terms of the journey from stage to screen, it’s clear that we’re victims of our own success in the sense that a lot of people think they’re seeing the musical on film and don’t realize the amount of changes we’ve done. It’s gratifying that we managed to pull it off. They’re fairly concealed.

When I first saw the show, there were so many challenges that struck me in the adaptation. One that hits you straight away is you go from the prologue when you meet the convict and bishop, and then jump forward eight years, he’s now mayor, grown into a successful entrepreneur, but he looks the same. I was aware that Javert, the prison guard turned policeman, is reduced by his inability to see what’s straight in front of him. Javert is just around for eight years and he’s suspicious. How come he doesn’t recognize Valjean?

I also found it hard to believe that this ex-convict become successful mayor entrepreneur in that society, when a fight breaks out in his factory, why was he distracted from dealing with it? There’s no explanation. A number of challenges in this first transition are solved when you make him unrecognizable as the convict when see you him as mayor. So Hugh lost 30 pounds and went on a 36-hour water fast, so his skin was like thin tissue.

AT: How could he perform at that level?

TH: Hugh Jackman is not like normal people. I’d have been ill and lying in a bed, not Hugh. What’s been exciting is people don’t recognize Hugh as the convict. This idea of jumping through time, then we go to the moment when the two men meet again, and find a place where they come head to head. Javert is arriving into town as the new policeman, Valjean is changed. And in order to solve the problem of why Valjean is distracted from Fantine at a key moment, Javert is in the room to meet the mayor, suddenly the world drops out and we realize that he can think of nothing else, he’s going through free fall. Thus the descent of Fantine is directly driven by the confrontation of Javert and Valjean, who has reason to feel guilt and talks about it, but we never quite understood before why he feels so responsible. This theme from his past carries destruction.

AT: Did you get some of this from Victor Hugo?

TH: Some of it. In this particular case, the book in 1100 pages does it differently: many pages of Javert being around with suspicions over a much longer time period. Now an example of an intervention of something inspired from the book put into the musical is a key scene where Javert comes to see Valjean, he’s committed a crime, ‘I thought you were the escaped convict Valjean now discovered picked up somewhere else.’ He falls on his sword, this is not in the musical, it’s imported from the book, it tells you something about Javert. He’s hard on everyone around him, unforgiving, shows he’s as hard on himself as he is on other people, wrongly reports Valjean the mayor, and offers to fall on his sword, admits he’s committed a crime and asks him to press charges.

It’s a new recitative, the scene is sung, an adaptation of the melody in the show, with a lot of new lyrics, weaved in and out. Setting up the man’s suicide, we see his willingness to self-destruct. We see he’s a man of honor, how tough he is on other people, he’s not an evil man. This is a man who’s incredibly hard on the world, not malevolent. He would not be interested in promoting his own survival and success.

Victor Hugo is a great humanist. What’s interesting in the book is that Javert is not a bad guy. In one great passage Javert grew up with a father who was a convict. He could fight society or protect it. He chooses to protect it. It was 50/50.

AT: How did you make these musical changes?

TH: The process by which these new ideas became musicalized is unlike anything I’ve ever done. Nicholson and I want to put this new scene in from the book, it’s important, we get excited, write the scene. He would write his version, try rough lyrics, write the dialogue that would be said between the men. The scene is sent to original show writers Claude-Michel and Alain. Claude-Michel would work out the melody that would be the carrier of the dialogue and the number of lines expressed, while Alain would write the lyrics in French, which he does best, to the right number of lines, then he sits down with the original show English lyricist Herbie Kretzner, who does a rough translation of the French lyrics to the music. Then I sit down with Herbie and Alain and work on the nuance of the meaning of the lyrics and the Nicholson dialogue.

It was an extraordinary collaboration process which I never thought about when I agreed to do a musical. A melody exhausts itself after a certain amount of time, when you go beyond 9 or 12 lines, the melody starts to become repetitive. We’d be trying to work out how to do a scene, judging the melody and the emotion, whether the melody is too short to express the thoughts we put into the scene.

In some cases, we go back if’s too short and we can’t say all things we need to say, or it’s too long, 16 lines, and we need something more simple, it’s repeating itself to fill the time. It was an incredibly delicate dance between the music always being written, with the dialogue, wiring the music and lyrics always together.

AT: With a book musical there’s always a challenge of how to introduce singing, which screenwriter Bill Condon solved on “Chicago.”

TH: In every other movie musical besides “Evita” and “Tommy” the music alternates between dialogue and singing. There’s one 28-minute stretch in “The Sound of Music” before the next song. They added dialogue to all-sung “Sweeney Todd.” The first decision to embrace this change and do it a different way was because if you alternate between dialogue and singing, there’s a constant gear change between. Why start singing? Why the fuck do it? ‘Now it’s time to sing’ brings artificiality. Condon solved it brilliantly by the device of the songs being a fantasy inside her head. It’s a contract you make with the audience every time, that you go to fantasy when you go to a song.

So I went to see Baz Luhrmann: ‘can you find the contract you make with the audience to allow this shift?’ There was not an obvious device or logic deciding one or the other. In “Les Miserables” we use singing to communicate in the every day sense. We began to think, maybe just declare yourself, in creating the world, the people’s primary form of communication is singing, and commit to it and not be ashamed or embarrassed. From the beginning, embrace this world with confidence and allow people to suspend disbelief even better.

AT: It’s like immersing yourself in another world, like Pandora or Middle Earth.

TH: Yes, with “Avatar” you create an alternate universe. You need to love that universe and commit to that universe, find people with confidence communicating in this way. We generate sentences on the fly, they’re just like us just brighter, they can do Shakespeare, accept that after a minute they speak in a particular way. Forget about it and the ear attunes to it.

AT: Did you test it on audiences?

TH: We had an exciting moment, an informal test in September in LA, with 14, 15-year-olds in the audience. After a few minutes they forgot the singing. I realized it had helped.

AT: The studio marketing guys didn’t feel that way at first, right? They took some convincing?

TH: Yes. They were difficult. I remember meeting the marketing guys, they told me point blank in terms of the film being successful that singing on film made people uncomfortable. They did not want to trumpet the singing from the rooftops because some people would be put off. The trailers for “Sweeney Todd” had no people singing. It was a big battle, a challenge to convince the studio that rather than running from the singing I was embracing it, that it would solve the problem.

AT: Then Anne Hathaway’s singing blew the exhibitors away at CinemaCon.

TH: It was extraordinary, the reaction. That was the thing that gave Universal confidence in this approach, which was great. To their credit Universal let me make my case and backed me doing it that way. So many things flowed from that. What I realized in creating your “Avatar” alternative universe, it was all about convincing them to accept the storytelling.

AT: You created a rather stylized, fake world for them to sing in.

TH: Again, Eve Stewart, my production designer on “The King’s Speech” and “Elizabeth I,” created permission for people to communicate through song, aided by heightening the world we’re in, so not necessarily trying to persuade people that the world communicated through song was exactly like our own. I felt I’d grown up in the realistic school of filming, that this was one of the few opportunities in my life to break some of the ties in my own work between realism and style. Generally speaking when I’ve worked before, the test of what is true is what is real. With a musical of course, the test of “what is true is what is real” is going to fall down straight way, because people don’t sing to each other. I am sure of what truth is –emotional spiritual psychological truth or realistic truth– so you end up navigating a constant line between gritty realism and expressionism. The role of realism is to anchor the artifice of people singing, to make it feel visceral and believable. But I also wanted the audience to enjoy the possibility of a more operatic vision on film.

AT: Like that epic opening scene.

TH: The opening scene, to a high extent, he looks like an actual convict, very gritty, you end on top of him. It’s a combination of gritty realism of the look and the scale of the numbers pulling in unison idea. It’s proportion, an operatic epic idea.

AT: Jackman told me he had to sing the exterior end of his song 27 times, holding a high note, because of a swooping camera crane shot.

TH: The bit at the very end was complicated with a steadicam operator running backwards who had to climb on a rig backward and fly in the air. It was a tricky shot to get right, for Hugh the technical demands were formidable. I feel like it was more like 17 or 18 takes, though it might have felt like 27 to Hugh.

AT: Hathaway nailed her song in eight?

TH: We used take four.

AT: But your “Elizabeth I” star Eddie Radmayne needed 21 takes for “Empy Chairs, Empty Tables”?

TH: He came up basically each time he sang the song devastated. What he worked out was rather than cutting the camera, you did it a second and third time, starting from where you ended. At the end you start slowly over time, spread yourself, break yourself down on the last take. So he has a blotchy and wrecked and grief-stricken quality when he sits down. It was interesting how different actors got to the place they needed to get, they all come up with different solutions. He’d do three takes in a row.

AT: You go up close on the singing except with Russell Crowe as Javert. Is it because he isn’t as strong an actor-singer that you pull back to the roof tops of Paris?

TH: Because I felt in his battle with himself he was invoking the physical universe, when he sings to the stars he sees in the night sky, they’re a justification and a guide to his actions. On the other hand, “I Dreamed a Dream,” nothing in the song relates to where Fantine is when she sings it. it’s about her past, the man who betrayed her, where she is at the time is irrelevant. With Javert he invokes the cosmos, we needed to see where he was. Also the end point of the songs is his physical decision to commit suicide, the whole thing is showing his relationship to heights, being on the ledge felt like a important theme, to physicalize the way he’s flirting with self-destruction, put him somewhere where he pursues the risk he’s taken.

If you embrace live singing as I did in the moment, you embrace imperfection. Even with Anne who is extraordinary musically there are imperfections; a studio would edit 100 takes together to form this prefect version. Yes, if you sing it all live and use the voice chords you’ll hear a difference in the quality of her voice. I was willing to make that trade to have the live voice.

AT: Why the long takes?

TH: From early on my instinct was that the songs play well in one take with few cuts. I was getting the privilege to sit and watch them in rehearsal to see how they found ways to sell the story through songs and the language of closeups. Watching it with audiences, people are coming out with tears streaming down their faces, people crying does seem an extraordinary emotional response.

SPOILER ALERT When I first saw the musical when Valjean died, passing to other side, and you hear as they sing that last line, “to see the face of god,” when they finish that line, the chorus people song starts in a ghostly way, I had a complete shiver up my spine, a frisson went up my body and I started to cry, wept uncontrollably. I thought, ‘why am I crying like this?’ In Valjean’s death scene it was impossible not to think about one day my father is going to die, inevitably. The musical looks death square in the face and says it’s possible to transcend that moment through love. Valjean managed to experience happiness in the moment of going, he can leave, because he has done his job. He has left his daugher in love and loved, he can let her move on.

In the end the reason I wanted to do “Les Miserables” is it offers up some way of navigating something we all face. We’re here for a limited time, what will save us is love. The only way to handle this thing is to think about the most loving way to do it. The moment when we are most completely destroyed in the film is when it transcends death through that hope, that primal power. That’s the reason why the musical worked, and the emotional reason that I gravitated towards it.

The other day a friend came who had lost his dad in October. At the end of film I said, “Oh I’m sorry you had to sit through that, it must have been too painful.” No, he told me, “it made me feel better and closer to my father.” This musical’s old-fashioned catharsis can take people’s grief and help to process a little bit of it so they’re feeling better and consoled. It has this ability to take your suffering, whether your own or someone close to you, and help to process some of it in the act of watching it. To be able to make a film help people in that way is an extraordinary thing.

AT: Why the new song, “Suddenly”?

TH: What the song does is set up the importance of fatherhood, being a new parent in the film, the transformative power of parental love. The emotions in that song allow the ending to resonate in a new way because you understand from the song the depth of his love for his child, understand that his last act is to accept that his love is holding this woman back and he has to let go. Saving the man that she loves and giving her to him allows him to leave their world having done his job creating the next generation of love for this child.

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