Now that Les Misérables is expected to surpass its opening-day box-office expectations by $5 million-10 million, director Tom Hooper could pretend that adapting the beloved musical for the big screen was a walk in the park — but he'd be lying. On Thursday, Hooper spoke to Movieline from his Sydney, Australia hotel room and, as he watched a massive tanker navigate Sydney Harbor, likened the challenge of directing the film to piloting an unwieldy boat through a very tricky channel.
"It was an extraordinary dance between musical structure and filmic structure," Hooper explained in a revealing interview about the making of Les Miz. The Oscar-winning filmmaker, who's expected to snare his second Best Director nomination on Jan. 10, talked at length about his reasons for making the movie and the challenges of pacing and editing a film that is essentially sung through from beginning to end. He also addressed criticism that he relied too heavily on close-ups in the film, divulged Eddie Redmayne's technique for attaining such exquisite sadness in his performance of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" and answered the burning question of the day: whether Anne Hathaway or Hugh Jackman is a bigger musical geek.
Movieline: When I saw Les Misérables in New York, I was surprised by the audience’s passionate reaction to the movie. After certain scenes and songs, they were applauding and cheering as if they were actually seeing a live performance.
Tom Hooper: It's quite extraordinary. I've never sat in any cinema or any premiere, or any screening of one of my films and seen a response like this. It’s like you're at some kind of happening, some kind of out-of-body experience rather than a movie. I was at the Tokyo premiere with the Crown Prince of Japan on Monday. It was quite a formal screening and the audience went kind of crazy. The Japanese broke into a standing ovation at the end, and I was told that for people to stand in the presence of the Crown Prince without him having gotten to his feet first was a total break of protocol.
Since you had the foresight to make this movie, what do you think is causing audiences to react so effusively?
Actually, I want to ask you: What about the movie connected with you? I’m very interested.
Oddly enough, I’m not a big fan of movie musicals, but I liked that Les Misérables wasn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, especially in a year when Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, which I also admire, are these relatively cool procedurals. I also thought that your decision to have the actors sing on camera paid off. There are some honest, raw performances in Les Miz and, as a result, the movie ends up being quite a cathartic experience.
Yes, I think that’s the word. I always get asked, “Why did you do this film?” The very first time I saw the musical, the ending was what made me want to do the movie. There’s that moment where the hero of the story, Jean Valjean (Jackman), has just passed away and you hear the distant sound of “Do you hear the people singing?” — like an angelic chorus. I had a bodily physical reaction and was crying. I remember thinking what, why am I reacting this way? I was crying about my dad.
My dad is alive and well and — but I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that this moment is going to come with my father. A few years ago, he went through cancer. He recovered, but when he was facing it, he told me, “Tom, I want to master the art of dying well." And I said, "Dad, what on earth do you mean by that?" He said, "When I pass away, I want to do it in a way that’s as compassionate to my family as possible and that limits the pain they suffer. These words came to me when I was thinking about the end of this film. I thought, what’s extraordinary about Les Misérables is that it looks death square in the eye and says that if you navigate that moment with love, it’s possible to achieve a kind of peace.
Valjean finds peace through his love of Cosette.
He has loved this girl furiously since he met her and been a parent to her. Not only that, he's rescued the man who’s going to marry her. He’s passed the duty of loving her on to someone else so he can leave this world knowing that she’s cared for and protected. And in the moment of his death, he’s able to tell his story. He’s able to say that this is the story of a man who turned from hating to love through Cosette. It’s like the line from “Finale”: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It basically says that the only way to navigate our mortality, which we all face, is through love. And I think there’s something incredibly true about that message.
But I think the thing that makes Les Misérables special is that it offers so many different ways in emotionally for people. It holds up a mirror to either your own suffering or the suffering of someone close to you, and it manages to process that suffering, leaving you feeling better about it by the end of the film.
I’ll agree with you there. Over the past year and a half, I’ve lost a couple of friends and some people who played crucial roles in my life. So, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was pretty devastating to me, but I didn’t come out of the theater feeling depressed. I felt like I’d let something go.
So much of filmmaking today is avoidance basically. It’s distraction, avoidance, irresponsible fantasy. Les Misérables is somehow not that. It manages to go to the tough places. It’s escapism with a moral compass, and I’m not quite sure people are aware how difficult it was to actually get the film to do what it does.
There are some scenes in Les Misérables that aren’t in the stage musical. Can you tell me about what went into your decision to make these changes?
There are actually a lot of changes to the screenplay that have gone largely unnoticed. I was working with Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer, who were the original creative team on the musical and when the changes are done in a voice that’s so identical to the way it was originally written, they’re hard to detect unless you know Les Misérables really well. Basically, we disassembled and reassembled the musical in order to improve the storytelling.
One small example takes place in the factory when the fight breaks out with Fantine (Hathaway). In the musical, there is no reason why Valjean is distracted from dealing with the disruption. He simply says to the foreman, “You sort it out.” The first time I saw the musical, I had the idea: what if the thing that distracted Valjean from focusing on Fantine was the arrival of Javert as the town’s new police inspector? In that moment, he sees this specter from his past and the world falls away. He sees nothing else but that. That led to the scene in the movie where Valjean sees Javert in the factor window. By adding this moment, it better establishes the guilt that Valjean has over the death of Fantine.
You upped the emotional impact of Valjean’s relationship to Fantine.
Yes, and it sets up this theme about how the ghosts of the past keep coming back to haunt you. You can never be free of them. And it sets up the whole dilemma where Valjean says, “Shall I finally free myself from this past by just admitting who I really am and facing the music?" But that modification required a new piece of music to be composed that went in the middle of the factory scene that, famously, never had had anything in the middle of it. So then, we had the challenge of creating a new melody that marked the drama of that encounter between Valjean and Javert and, yet, didn't completely fuck up the unity of the factory music.
How do you accomplish that?
You’ve got to pre-decide on the length of the melody that you need to express this thought, and melodic construction is not that flexible. So Claude-Michel says we can use this bit of melody and Alain works its out and gives you, say, 16 lines. But then you realize that 16 lines is too long and that we’re being repetitive. So, you go back to Claude-Michel and say, “Can you make the melody a bit shorter?” He says it either has to be 16 lines or, say, four lines to work melodically in that context. I don't have the freedom to make it, say, 10 lines. So, we would say okay, Claude-Michel would play the piano onto his iPhone and email the recording to us so that we had a guide. And then Alain and Herbie would say what we needed to say in four lines.
It was unlike anything I’ve ever done or will do because there’s this constant dance between how quickly melody exhausts itself and the amount of words you need to make the point.
And I imagine that's just the beginning of the process.
That’s before you get to the edit process. Again, I've never done anything like it. The film is now under two-and-a-half hours, but in September it was running around two hours and 42 minutes. So, you spend a few days in the cutting room and let’s say you take five minutes out of the running time. You can’t just press play and watch your film because it doesn’t play. And the reason it doesn’t play is, wherever you changed the length, the music and the orchestration don’t work anymore. So, in order to see how you feel about the edits you’ve made, the composers have got to recompose all the bits where the lengths changed, and then the orchestrators have got to orchestrate it. We had programmers who basically programmed the music using sample sounds so that we didn’t have to spend money on orchestras. They rebuilt the programmed orchestra and then the music editors fit it to the picture. And then maybe about a week later, I could watch it and see the impact of my changes. It was an extraordinary dance between musical structure and filmic structure.
Imagine what it does to pacing. With The King's Speech, I could vary the pace of almost any scene by taking a second out here or a few frames there. In a musical, once the songs start, you can’t change the pace at all. So it was fascinating to learn how to control pace when you don’t have control of the timeline. You learn that there are points where you can actually take a little chunk out of the music, but in order to do that, I literally had to get to the point where I could read music again and read the score in order to work out what secret cuts I could take.
So, you're leaving me with the impression that making Les Misérables was like solving a Rubik’s Cube because the music and the story were so interwoven that you couldn't just change one aspect of the movie without affecting a large swath of it.
Exactly. You’re navigating whole blocks in the movie where the pace is what the music is. And, therefore, you have to use shot selection and editing to create any variations in that pace. The work involved in getting the movie to run under two-and-a-half hours was incredibly complicated. Not only does the stage musical run longer, we added material. So this movie was like an oil tanker.
You’ve come in for some criticism in terms of the number of close-ups you use in the movie. What’s your response to that?
I find that discussion interesting. I always give myself options. I didn't assume that the tight close-up was the best way to do a song. So in “I Dreamed A Dream”, there was a close-up of Anne that we used but there were two other cameras shooting from other perspectives. The tight close-ups won out in the cutting room because, over and over again, the emotional intimacy was far more intense than when you go loose. In fact, in the case of “I Dreamed A Dream,” for a long time we were using a mid-shot of her at the beginning of the scene followed by a very slow track and maybe in the last quarter of the scene it was a medium close-up. And then Eddie Redmayne, who’s been a friend of mine since I worked with him on Elizabeth I, said to me: “Why aren’t you using that close-up that you’re using in that teaser trailer?” He was talking about the way you see all the muscles in Anne’s neck work as she sings and the raw power of that, and I thought, God, that’s interesting. So, it was actually Eddie’s suggestion to re-examine that scene, and the moment we put that close-up in, the film played in a completely different way. The level of emotion went up about a hundred percent. So the process of moving toward these close-ups was a process of discovery.
Given the challenges that you faced, is there a scene that you’re particularly proud of?
If I’m honest, it’s the final scene in the movie, because, on paper, the idea of the barricade covered in the ghosts of the fallen could be really corny and awful beyond relief. Instead, it creates this incredible emotion in people who see it. It’s something that I’m definitely proud of because, like The King’s Speech, I always knew that it was all about the end. And with Les Miz, I always knew it was about the way we go from the grief of Valjean’s death to the hope of the fallen. But it could have felt ridiculous, and the fact that we avoid the many pitfalls that existed in that scene is definitely one thing I’m at peace about. I'm also incredibly proud of what Eddie does with “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.’ Anne is evidently miraculous during “I Dreamed A Dream,” but I do think that there’s a balance in the movie that’s corrected by how brilliant Eddie is at that point.
It’s a powerful performance. Do you know how he connected to his grief in that scene? It’s palpable.
He wouldn’t tell me. It’s funny with actors sometimes. One feels that it’s wrong to pry. But he did have a rather unusual idea: Because the song deals with the devastation of the loss of his friends, he suggested that he sing it three times in a row without the camera cutting. That way, the devastation he’d reached at the end of the first singing would become the beginning of the second and so on. He kept pushing himself further and further into the pit of despair.
Okay, so you’ve done the Oscar jockeying, and you won. As we get into the thick of awards season, are you approaching your second time any differently?
As I sit here right now with the film – it's opening in Japan today, it's previewing in Korea and Australia, it's opening in America on Christmas day — I’m incredibly occupied. It's about getting through the next few days. But ask me again when I get through this bit.
Given what you went through for Les Miz, would you do another movie musical and if so, what would it be?
God, I would be open to it. It’s just that this is a very special case. This is arguably the world's most popular musical and that musical version had never been made into a film until now. There aren't that many really great musicals that haven't been made into films.
Have you decided what’s next for you?
I literally have no idea. I did such crazy hours on this film for the last year and a half. I literally worked every hour I could stay awake and, therefore, I haven't been able to read any material or any scripts. So, it's a completely open thing at the moment.
Okay, last question: who’s the bigger musical geek, Anne Hathaway or Hugh Jackman?
Well, without a doubt, Anne is the bigger Les Misérables geek. It wasn’t just that her mother was in the American tour of Les Miz, she was the understudy for Fantine. So these high points of drama marked Anne’s early life. I remember her saying that, for instance, there would be a phone call telling her that her mother was going to go on as Fantine in Washington and could Anne get there from New York in time to see her mother play the role? So there was this idea that Fantine wasn’t her Mom’s right. It was this scarce gift that occasionally she was given to play, and, for Anne the role defined a certain electricity and audacity.
Hugh is different because he’s actually starred in musicals on Broadway and on London’s West End. He’s a bona-fide musical star in his own right, where a lot of Anne’s singing has been in the privacy of her own home or at the Oscars, but not something like [Les Misérables].
It’s not something I can say, but Hugh feels that in a way he’s been a force in revolutionizing the way you do a movie musical. And that’s something I know he finds very exciting because I think he’s a real student of the genre and has seen it from so many different sides.
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