Tom Hooper, director of Les Miserables speaks candidly with TheVine
Academy Award winning director Tom Hooper isn’t afraid of a cinematic challenge. Having succeeded in making a smash hit out of stuttering in The King’s Speech, Hooper set his sights on the colossal musical Les Misérables. Victor Hugo’s 19th Century epic odyssey of honour, redemption and revolution has been resounding in hearts on stages around the world for 27 years. And now Hooper has amassed what he calls “the perfect storm of actors,” to bring this musical to the big screen. Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway are amongst the impressive and brave cast who signed up to Hooper’s vision to record the actors singing live.
Hooper sat down with TheVine to explain the passion evoked by Les Mis, as well as making his pitch to those cinemagoers who are wary of musicals.
Tom Hooper, welcome back to Australia. Last time you were here was with the smashing success of The King’s Speech. Now you’ve gone from speech impediments to a musical – so it begs the question, are you a man who likes a storytelling challenge?
Am I a person who is trying to avoid people speaking? You’ve got a [King] who can’t speak, then these guys who aren’t allowed to speak, they have to sing. There’s a theme isn’t there?
I suppose [with] The King’s Speech, I don’t think many people believed you could make a great story about a stuttering king, but I think [with] Les Misérables there’s a few million people who would tell you there’s a good reason to make a film of this.
So what was the more daunting task: taking on Buckingham Palace or the West End?
God that’s a good question. I suppose yes, in the worst case scenario with The King’s Speech you could end up locked in The Tower [laughs]. And the worst case with Les Misérables is [that you’d be] lynched by millions of fans.
It’s funny. It was interesting to direct a film – I don’t think I’ll be in a position again where I’ll be directing a film that so many people hold this story so close to their hearts, and so many people have such vivid childhood memories of seeing it as a kid. It’s very special and I really wanted to honour what it was that people love about the show, and I think it’s about how it makes people feel. People go back to it again and again because it offers them a chance to re-experience these very strong emotional connections and I wanted to find a way of doing an intimate epic which really made this emotional experience even more of a rollercoaster ride.
But you didn’t have that childhood experience yourself?
No, I don’t know why my parents failed to take me and deny me this seven-year-old [childhood] experience. But the good thing about it is because I saw it two-and-a-half years ago, I had the luck of seeing it knowing I was thinking of making a movie of it. So the first time you see a story fresh is always really important, because you have most of your ideas in that first showing. And I got so many ideas in that first time I experienced it because I was in a kind of active dialogue with it, trying to figure out how to make it work for the script. So it was actually rather good, because I didn’t have that nostalgia, [so] I was able to experience it as a new story, fresh. I was able to see the areas where people get confused – and I did get confused in a few places – and I was able to laser in on them and make sure that in the movie no one gets confused.
You’ve again amassed an astounding ensemble cast, but I understand Russell Crowe’s passion for musical theatre took you by surprise?
Yeah I had no idea that he’d started in Sydney in musicals. He did The Rocky Horror Show. So that was such a gift when I discovered that. I mean I knew he was passionate about singing, and that he’d released albums, but I didn’t know that he had this training and he had this affinity to the musical. So it was great to find someone to act opposite Hugh [Jackman] who had that kind of pedigree.
Now Russell apparently walked to his audition and turned up looking like a drowned rat; Hugh denied himself fluids for 36 hours to look gaunt; Anne Hathaway chopped off her hair: what is it about Les Mis do you think that brings out this sort of dedication?
I think it’s probably what it means in the culture. In Anne’s case, her mother was the understudy of Fantine on the national tour, so her childhood was defined by these dramatic moments where, “Anne, your Mum is going to be on tonight playing Fantine!” And she’d race to Washington to hope to get there in time to see her mother play this role.
I was stunned when I was casting how many people came into the room with some kind of personal connection that went beyond just having seen it a few times. There were so many actors who had auditioned – people who had auditioned for Little Cosette, or people who had auditioned for Éponine – some quite big film stars who had auditioned and failed to get into the musical by the way.
Oh really? Can you name names?
No I can’t name names. [Laughs]
Sworn to secrecy. I see. Now the passion the actors bring also applies to you recording them singing live. But I wonder, was there ever a moment where you were like, “My kingdom for some playback!”?
Never. I can’t bear doing stuff to playback. I find it totally antithetical to the process. I like to work in a very spontaneous way. I’m the kind of guy – when we built the barricade – I did that live, for real, in one take, with ten minutes of film, and all the actors and the extras built a barricade for real. So I love creating worlds where you can just let scenes play out for real. And the idea of actors having to follow some blueprint laid down before is, I think, so false.
I mean [for] great acting you need to be in control of the medium of time. Time is one of the great mediums you explore. When you do it live with a live accompaniment an actor can take a moment for an idea or emotion to form in their eyes before they explore it; if they start to cry they can go with it; they’re completely free.
One of great examples of that is of course Anne Hathaway’s astounding rendition of I Dreamed a Dream – but was there ever any concern that you’d burn out voice boxes if you were doing multiple takes?
I think we all worried that there would be some kind of limit on how much people could sing. But the extraordinary thing was they had trained so hard that by the time they came to shoot, they could keep going all day. And not only that, on Friday nights they would go around to Russell’s and they would sing til three or four in the morning. So clearly I hadn’t exhausted them!
Classic! Now you spoke earlier about adapting the story. What were those things you zeroed in on and wanted to make cinematic?
Actually the most important thing I put in the film comes from the book, which is in the book there is an extraordinary passage where Valjean meets Cosette for the first time, and he falls in love. He experiences parental love for a child for the first time; and this is a guy who has been brutalised by 19 years as a convict, who has never been loved, never been in love and he experiences this well we have inside ourselves to love and to love our kids. And it’s a really moving passage that I felt was slightly missing from the musical – or underplayed in the musical – so I asked the original creators of the show if they could write a song to explore this and talk about the transformation that Valjean experiences through the love of this child, and they wrote the song “Suddenly”.
Finally, obviously the fans are going to flock to this film, but what do you say to the people who are a bit wary of musicals?
I want people who are a bit shy of musicals to know that I really made it for them. And I want them to understand that doing it live makes the whole musical a very different experience. I think even I sometimes find musicals a bit embarrassing; when the playback’s not very convincing – when the lip-synch to playback – so doing it live makes a huge difference. But also this story is a very gritty story; it’s very earthy, and it’s got actors who are so natural in this medium. I think already I’ve discovered a lot of people saying, “I don’t like musicals, but I like Les Misérables,” so that’s really exciting.
(Images via FDC and Getty)