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.”