With Les Misérables in cinemas this week, the British director reveals how he set about bringing the world's most famous musical to the big screen.
Tom Hooper was the name on everyone's lips after the British filmmaker fought off stiff competition to claim the Best Director crown at the 2010 Oscars for his jubilant regal drama The King's Speech. Now, he may well be on the verge of a historic double. His adaptation of Les Misérables, starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe, has been divided critics and smashing box office records Stateside. Hooper sat down with LWLies recently to discuss the challenges of bringing the world's most famous musical to the big screen, and why Hugh Jackman is the man.
LWLies: A new Les Mis adaptation has been in the works for years, why was this the right time to retell the story and how did you become involved.
Hooper: I started having conversations [about directing Les Misérables] around the time The King's Speech was coming out. But like you say the project has been in the works for many years. I've got this great list at home on TriStar headed paper from 1993, with possible directors' names on it. It's a fax that a friend of mine managed to track down somehow. It's got names on it like 'Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets)', as if you need clarification who Martin Scorsese is, and then 'Peter Weir (apparently likes music)'... Kubrick's name's on there too.
So by the time you were attached was it a fresh slate or was there already a kernel of what the film would be?
To be honest I didn't really want to say I'd do it until I'd figured out how I was going to do it. I spent about six months working out how I'd do it before I said yes. That involved seeing the show four or five times, seeing a new production in America, reading the book, talking to Cameron [Mackintosh] and the other producers. So after that I had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted to do. Casting was the tricky thing. I wanted the yes to be provisional on finding the actors because it's so casting dependant. I remember thinking that really, apart from Hugh Jackman, I had no idea who we were going to cast. For a start you need a tenor singer, of which there are not many, you need someone who's a great film actor, a great musical theatre actor, has the strength to play this legendarily strong character, and has the kindness and grace to go on this spiritual journey, and who's the right age to go from young to old. My shortlist was really just Hugh Jackman.
I met him in May 2011 in New York and that audition really decided whether or not I was going to make the film. What he showed me in that room in New York left me speechless. He showed me how singing could work for the film camera as opposed to on stage. Also, what was really exciting about that audition by the act of singing Hugh was making contact with an emotional part of himself in a way I don't think I'd seen before. When you sing you use the entire body and Hugh has a unique emotional language about his performance. You really see a different side to Hugh Jackman in this film.
So without Hugh Jackman...
I would have walked away. He was the key to unlocking this story.
You mention revisiting the stage production and also reading the book. How much is your film an adaptation of the latter?
There's a lot of changes in my film that are inspired by the book. An example of something that I brought to it that isn't in the stage production is when Valjean gets distracted from dealing with the Fantine argument in the factory. There seemed to be no good reason to me in the musical or indeed the book, so I had this idea that maybe what motivates the initial time jump is we go to that time when Javert arrives and sets about introducing himself to the major of the town, and maybe what distracts Valjean is seeing Javert in the factory waiting for him. What I liked about that idea is that his past becomes in part responsible for the of descent of Fantine, and therefore his guilt is more justified. It's his burden to carry.
There's a new song, 'Suddenly', which was inspired by the book, when Valjean first meets Cosette and feels this strong paternal love for the first time in his life. I think Victor Hugo writes something beautiful like, 'This was the second white apparition that Jean Valjean had encountered; the Bishop taught him virtue, Cosette's taught him the meaning of love. So I went to Claude-Michel Schönberg and said, 'Can you write me a song for Valjean to capture what this experience was like.' I was working in the medium of music and lyrics for the whole journey.
Can you explain a little bit about the process of live sound recording, and the decision behind it?
The tradition typically in musicals is that all the actors go into a recording studio, lay the tracks down in advance and then lip-sync to playback. I personally find that very fake and artificial. How ever well it's done I always know when it's not real. I rang my agent Doug when I was first considering the project and said that he wasn't really in a place to advise me because he doesn't like musicals. I thought, "why are there people who don't like movie musicals? Could it be because of the tradition of lip-syncing to playback; is that what turns people off and if I bring in live singing will I bring in people who feel the genre's not for them?' That's one reason I did it, the other was for the actors. Great acting is all about being in the moment, having control of time. Those little hesitations that actors do are central to selling the idea that they're not repeating something they've learned but that they're inventing it. The great challenge in Les Misérables is that you're singing globally iconic songs so you need to create the illusion that the characters are pulling the songs out of their souls. Anne Hathaway's not singing a version of 'I Dreamed A Dream', she's inventing it in that moment.
What do you love about movies?
I think... I think it's their transportive power. At its simplest it can just be escapism, but at its most powerful it can be catharsis. Films can take suffering in your life or of those around you and somehow process them in a way that can make you feel better about things, even if for just a moment. The thing I loved about Les Misérables was catharsis, that it would confront people with tremendous pain and leave them feeling that their pain has in some way been dealt with by the story. That's the power of narrative. That's what's always attracted me to storytelling.
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