Apparently, constantly being asked, “You do understand that a movie musical is something you could really fall flat on your face doing?,” was all the motivation director Tom Hooper needed, because he pulled it off; he made a film version of the much-beloved Les Misérables and it’ll likely go on to earn a number of award nods, if not wins.
While participating in press conferences in New York City, Hooper admits, “They were right about the risks.” He explains, “When I made The King’s Speech, no one had heard of The King’s Speech.” Hooper was able to make that film in total privacy and, clearly, that wasn’t the case when adapting a piece people all across the globe hold so near and dear. “I felt very aware of the fact that so many millions of people hold this close to their heart and will probably sit in the cinema in complete fear that we would f*** it up.”
However, Eric Fellner of Working Title, is quick to point out, “If we only appeal to the fans, then, with a budget like this, the film wouldn’t work, so it was really critical that we made a film that had the DNA of the show and worked absolutely for the fans – but also had the potential to break out and create a whole new audience for Les Misérables.”
Even Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of both the stage production and this film, recalls, “The thing I didn’t want to do was, first of all, put anything on the screen just because it was in the stage show.” While Hooper credits the folks behind that show for keeping him from diverging too much, some changes were necessary, and one way Hooper went about figuring out how to most appropriately adapt the material for the screen was by reverting back to the book. “In Victor Hugo’s novel, Jean Valjean experiences two epiphanies. The first epiphany, when he meets the bishop, he goes from this brutalized condition of being an ex-convict where he’s got huge anger against the world, and through that contact with the bishop, he learns virtue, compassion and faith.”
While Hooper does note that the second epiphany – Valjean discovering love when he first meets Cosette – is crystal clear in the book, that’s not the case in the show, and Hooper decided to remedy that through song. Hooper asked his songwriters, “Can you write me a song that captures what this feeling of love is like?” They came back with the song ‘Suddenly,’ a song written to represent that sensation, but also a song written specifically for Hugh Jackman as the new Jean Valjean. Jackman proudly exclaims, “I think I’ll count it definitely as one of the great honors of my life to have these two incredible composers write a song with my voice in mind. I’ll never forget first singing it. I felt like I’d been singing it my whole life!”
Whether the actors really had been singing their whole lives or not, Hooper wasn’t messing around with the live singing method. “Because I was determined to do it live, I needed them to prove to me that they could handle that.” He adds, “Everyone had to go through auditions and they were quite extensive, at least three hours.”
Hooper’s intensity when it came to preparing properly didn’t end there. Even after lengthy auditions, he went on to conduct intense rehearsals. Jackman recalls, “Tom Hooper, from the beginning, told us all there was gonna be rehearsals. I’m not sure any of us expected nine weeks of rehearsals, and I’ve never been on a film where an entire cast signs up for the entire time.” He continues, “We would rehearse full-out. It wasn’t like a halfhearted thing.” Jackman laughs and explains, “[Tom] would, in fact, move his chair often to a very uncomfortably close place.” Awkward maybe, but such up close and personal rehearsals with Hooper made adjusting to the director’s shooting style on set seamless.
Hooper explains, “The one thing on stage that you can’t enjoy is the detail of what’s going on with people’s faces as they’re singing the songs.” His choice to present this story through an unusually plentiful amount of lengthy close-up shots certainly changed that. “I felt that most of the time the physical environment of the actor is not important to the song.” As an example, Hooper references ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ during which Anne Hathaway’s Fantine sings about a lover who betrayed her, something that has nothing to do with what you would have seen had Hooper widened his frame, to capture the distressed hull of a boat.
Hooper goes on to point out, “As I worked on the film, I felt there were in fact two languages of epic in the film.” There’s the more common “physical epic of landscapes” but then there’s also what Hooper calls “the epic of the human face and the epic of a human heart.” In the case of ‘ I Dreamed a Dream,’ Hooper admits, “I shot it with three cameras. I did have some options up my sleeves, but she so brilliantly told that narrative in the language of the close-up.” He adds, “It was so complete as a work that I began to feel like the best way to honor these performances was to have that stillness and simplicity in the moment of the songs.”
That tactic also came in handy because, as Jackman laughs and notes, “All of us had done a version of the song where there’s snot coming out of our noses.” Okay, it wasn’t all about the snot, but Hooper’s close-range shooting style certainly amplified emotion, especially when one of his actors would shed the perfect tear. Hathaway went as far as to work with a voice teacher so she’d be able to produce “the belt sound” while keeping her face totally relaxed. Hooper also outs Hathaway, revealing, “She knew she was gonna cry when she did ‘Dreamed a Dream,’ but she also knew that she wouldn’t want to experience how to hold a pitch for the very first time on a film set with three cameras running and discover that she couldn’t do it,” so Hathaway actually practiced crying while singing.
Hathaway herself offers up a different perspective, equating crying and singing to a pulse, something that’s truly emotional and not mechanical. “It’s a vein that you follow. In my case, there’s no way that I could relate to what my character was going through. I have a very successful, happy life and I don’t have any children that I’ve had to give up, or keep.” She laughs and continues, “This injustice exists in our world and so every day that I was her, I just thought, ‘This isn’t an invention, this isn’t me acting, this is me honoring that this pain lives in this world,’ and I hope that in all of our lifetimes, like today, we see it end.”
Helping to ground the performances further was the fact that they weren’t singing with that expansive orchestra we hear in the final feature. Samantha Barks who stars as Eponine explains, “We all have an earpiece in our ears and we can hear the piano, but the piano is in a box just off set.” Les Misérables’ Marius, Eddie Redmayne, is quick to add, “The sort of unsung heroes of the film, in some ways, were the two accompanists, Roger and Jennifer. We would have one scene and then go off and someone else would come in. They had to play every single take flawlessly and with the most stunning sensitivity.”
Considering part of the appeal of recording the songs live was to make singing and acting simultaneously an organic process, should the actors feel like pausing where they may not have paused the last time, the pianists had to adjust, pausing with them. Redmayne reiterates a term used by another cast member, calling the pianist pair “the other character in the scene.”
Yet another tactic used to up the emotion was hair cutting – real hair cutting. When a reporter offers up a question from a younger fan – “Did you really cut your air and are you sorry?” – Hathaway laughs and replies, “I did cut my hair and I’m only sorry when I get to spend time with Amanda Seyfried whose hair is so beautiful.” But in all seriousness, Hathaway continues, “I thought if it was a painful experience watching her hair cut, then watching her teeth get pulled would be really painful, and then of course when she becomes a prostitute I just thought they’re going to be with her, feeling that alongside of her and as an actor it was great to be able to authentically communicate a physical transformation.”
Jackman recalls that Hathaway even went as far as to agree to shed blood to do the moment right. “Her stylist is a man, but obviously in the film was dressed up in a dress because you needed an actual hair stylist to cut her hair, right? So if you notice man hands in a dress you’ll know why, and I remember Annie saying, ‘Now by the way, if you end up cutting my scalp and there’s blood, fantastic! Let’s go for it!’” Even though Jackman went through a major transformation to play Jean Valjean, cutting his hair as well and losing a significant amount of weight, he’s eager to continue to give Hathaway more credit for she had to do the same in a shorter period of time.
While Hathaway does deserve the praise, she wasn’t about to let Jackman get away with his “nice guy thing.” Hathaway announces, “I just want to make sure that I impress upon everyone in this room, I don’t want you to walk out of here charmed by Hugh Jackman.” And on a more serious note, “He was absolutely our leader, so I just don’t want his nice guy thing to distract you from the fact that he is a deep, serious and profoundly gifted actor.”
Jackman may have been the group’s leader, but Hathaway also notes that Javert himself, Russell Crowe, was key to bringing the group together and turning the cast into a family. “Honestly, the person who I think was the beginning of the glue that we wound up developing isn’t even here unfortunately and that was Russell [Crowe].” She remembers Crowe regularly inviting the gang over for drinks and singing.
“That was such a key part of the process because, up till that point, we were in rehearsals with each other, we’re very serious, we’re spending all day crying, but then, in between, I don’t think we’d gotten to the point where we thought of song as a way of communicating with each other.” She adds, “It made me so much more invested in the totality of the film. Being in a small part of the film that I am, I could have easily just gone home and forgotten about it, but I cared so much when I left. I needed to know, how did ‘On My Own’ go? ‘In My Life,’ how did that turn out? I think it really cemented the bond between us and now we kind of say we’re Camp Les Mis.
It may have been a joke, but as Redmayne suggests, 24601 tattoos for the whole gang really should be next, right?
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.