BEYOND THE BARRICADE: Director Tom Hooper Talks Choosing His LES MIS Cast, Deciding on Live Singing, and More!
Christmas can't get here fast enough, because that's when LES MISERABLES hits the big screen. The movie, directed by Oscar winner Tom Hooper, features Hugh Jackman as 'Jean Valjean', Anne Hathaway as 'Fantine', Russell Crowe as 'Javert', Amanda Seyfried as 'Cosette,' Eddie Redmayne as 'Marius,' Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as 'the Thenardiers.'
Hooper recently chatted with the press about choosing his all-star cast, making the decision to have them sig live, and more! Check out his full interview below:
Tackling this huge, internationally loved 27-year old hit musical, what did you see as having to change or drop and what did you want to add, when you decided you wanted to transfer it to film?
I went back and reread the Victor Hugo novel. I just think it's an extraordinary work of genius, and I found it very inspiring. What I loved in the book, Victor Hugo's novel is that Jean Valjean experiences two epiphanies--the first epiphany is when he meets the bishop. He goes from this brutalized condition of being an ex-convict, where he has this huge rage against the world. And through that contact with the bishop, he learns virtue and compassion and faith, and he starts to live life with a compassionate engagement with the world. And then when he meets Little Cosette, he discovers love for the first time. Here's this guy is in his late middle age, he's never been in love or loved, and quite out of the blue, he experiences parental love for a child and it absolutely overwhelms him and it transforms his life. He dedicates his life all based around the duty and care he feels for this child.
I felt that in the musical, the first epiphany is crystal clear. The second transformation is in the subtext, it's not completely clear. So I went to Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the original creators, and said "Can you write me a song that captures the feeling of 'love is love'?" and they came up with this song "Suddenly." So, that was probably the most important change, and then it kind of colors the rest of the film, because you then understand that having discovered this love for this child, that the greatest challenge Valjean experiences is what it's like to let a child go out in the world and, having been very close to her, to let that child move on. When he sings "She was never mine to keep" at the very end, that's a very beautiful moment that has added resonance because you understand how that could actually come to be.
How do you get these extraordinary vocal performances from these actors that we wouldn't normally think of as singers?
I did a very careful audition process--everyone had to go through auditions and they were quite extensive, at least 3 hours. For actors like Russell Crowe and usually you have to offer a role to them, he's not a habitual auditioner, but I felt like--because I'd determined it was going to be live, I needed them to prove to me that they could handle that. Also, I wasn't necessarily looking for great singers or great actors, but I was looking for people who could act through the medium of song and instinctively understand the necessary shift from when you're singing to a big group, compared to when you're singing to a camera in close-up. There's a sort of necessary minimalism in your acting which I needed to combine with the requirements of serving the song musically - that was what I was looking for. All of those actors proved to me in the audition that they could do this process.
Besides having the actors sing live, there's also many shots that are very close-up, and solo one-shots. Tell me about the difficulties and risks of wanting to shoot like that?
I thought a lot about how to shoot the songs and I felt that most of the time, the physical environment of the actor is not involved with the song. With the possible exception of "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables" where you are literally in the same location and there is a necessary reference to the empty destruction of the cafe, compared to his memory. "I Dreamed a Dream" is an example--she's talking about this love who betrayed her and how it makes her feel, she's talking about a hope...and these are all things you can't find physically in the room with her. If you went wide, you could see the distress, but not something to do with the song.
I felt like having a camera basically doing a meditation on the human face was by far the best way to bring out the meaning and the emotion of the songs. As I worked with them, I felt like there were two languages of epic in the film--the more obvious, physical epic of landscapes as the characters travel through this extraordinary journey, from the naval port of Toulon to the slums of Paris to the revolutionary ball. But, there's also another type of epic, which is the epic of the human face, and the epic of the human heart. And ultimately that way of shooting was in reaction to how good the actors were, because I felt--with Annie, I shot her with three cameras, I did have some options up my sleeve. She so brilliantly told that narrative in the language of the closeup, she took you on a journey from beginning to end. It was so complete as a work that I began to feel the best way to honor these performances was to have that stillness and simplicity during those songs.
The first moment of stillness where all the emotion is released, goes into the song itself, is very key in the cutting. I remember "I Dreamed a Dream," in this shot I spent much more time on the prostitutes and the awkward encounter she has before she sings the song. I realized the risk that the audience has these emotions before the song even begins, and I realized I have to be very concise. So, the first time you can catch your breath with the audience is where the song begins, and then you pour the emotion into the song itself. And I grew up on MTV, I grew up on cut-cut-cut, angle change, angle change, angle change, and I suppose on some deeper level it's a complete reaction to what I grew up with.
Movie musicals are difficult to 'get right' - were you nervous about that? How did you approach that aspect?
Hugh Jackman says that the movie musical is the Mount Everest of filmmaking, and I kind of know what he means. Even when I watch it now, I still see things that could've gone wrong.
But in terms of LES MISERABLES, I was in fact more surprised that it had not been made, that in 26 years something that people have responded to with such passion and emotion hadn't been turned into a film. That was a bigger surprise to me, but I did think a lot about whether this was the right time to tell this story, whether it was timely and I felt in the end, at that moment, that there were so many people hurting around the world, because of social and economic inequity and inequality. There's such anger against the system, whether it's the protests on Wall Street or in London at St. Paul's, the size of what's happening in the Middle East. LES MISERABLES is the great anthem of the dispossessed. It does have its inspiring message, that we can all rise up collectively, together, to better our situation. I felt there was something inspiring about that message at this particular time, that a lot of people in pain, and also what's beautiful about that message is that it teaches you the way to collective action is through passionate engagement with the people who are around you. It starts with the person next to you.
I think fans of the original show will be really glad to see Colm Wilkinson and Frances Ruffelle--why was it important to you to pay respect to the history of the show itself, and also use theater actors still working, like Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit?
I thought that it would be nice if there was a way of honoring the legacy of the show, and it being actually the right choice for the film. There was something great about Colm--the first thing we shot was that journey through the wilderness in Prague and the next thing we shot was his scenes as the Bishop and so the start of this journey of this film was a start with Colm.
Colm had such generosity toward Hugh--I remember Hugh was worried about how he was going to sing something, and Colm just said the only way to do it truthfully is to do it the way you would do it, please don't try to copy me or emulate me, that's not the path to success in this. Also Colm was a massive expert on the book, he knew the book literally backwards and I think that inspired Hugh to treat the book as his Bible. He would carry it around on set and read it, every night before going to sleep, I thought he got that from Colm. This idea that the man who inspired a new Valjean was the original Valjean, I knew something that the show would recognize, and then Colm turned out to have this wonderful--we cast him as the Bishop and he had this wonderful graciousness, he had a kind of inherent quality of soul that made the character work, and Colm has that, he's a very generous man.
Could you compare and contrast a little, your vision of the story with Hugo's vision of the story, and what you took from him?
I was inspired hugely by Victor Hugo. I talked about one example, which was the force of love in the film. Physically I would say that the whole idea of the opening came from the novel, because it was only from the novel that I learned that the main way they used convicts in that period was as slave labor, to build and repair the great naval arsenal, of the French navy. What I expected we'd be doing was the idea of we'd see them pulling a damaged warship out of the sea. I liked the idea of starting with this image of state power with the warship, but also seeing the vulnerability of state power, that the warship can be destroyed or be harmed. And so you both see the power of the system and the fragility of the system, but that whole setting I find very inspired by Victor Hugo.
Another example would be--I suppose in my head when I wrote the screenplay, I imagined the barricades back with the students would be--it's going to be massive, everything's going to be huge in this movie. What's so striking about the novel, was how intimate and how small the barricade is, it's just a side street in the slums, there's only 30 students. It was almost a shock of intimacy when I read it because I kind of naturally wanted to make it, but there was something moving about that intimacy because it's just a domestic street but there are people behind every facade. There's a moment in the film when the students are losing the battle, they start banging on the doors trying to escape and the households won't let them out. They're aware that there are numerous ways to escape but no one will open the door and that's very exciting.
The other thing I suppose I got inspired by from the book, and also by Charles Laughton's performance in one of the original versions of the movie, was the scene where Javert goes to see the Mayor--he says there's a crime against you because I've reported you, you are the convict, Jean Valjean. I've discovered I'm wrong and therefore you have to press charges. And the idea that this man would fall on his sword that early in the story, that he inhabits such a code of honor, he lived by the law, that he did wrong by his own standards he would be willing to destroy himself, such was his code of honor. I found that very intriguing because it stops Javert from being 'The Bad Guy.' You have this deeply honorable guy, almost Japanese levels of that sort of honor code, and the rigidity of that code is almost his undoing.
To what extent did you consider fan expectations or did you really just follow your own vision and what you thought was right?
Well, I thought it was hugely daunting, and when I made The King's Speech, I'd never heard of The King's Speech. I mean, even historically, the play on which it was based significantly had reduced...and I was making it in complete privacy, without any expectation that it would go on the journey it went on. Whereas this couldn't have been more different.
I felt very aware that so many millions are holding this close to their heart, and are probably seeing this in the cinema in the fear that we'd fuck it up [laughter] or harm this experience. I wanted to pay a lot of attention to why this was so successful. The thing that would really strike me--and I would go five or six times [to the stage show], and I would sit there and hear this is my eleventh time I've come, this is my fifteenth time I've come. I thought in the end, people keep coming back because it promises the opportunity to really experience strong emotions and then redeliver, and if anything it delivers more intense emotions each time.
I thought the central DNA I had to protect was the emotional DNA, I had to work out why it was that people were so moved, and try to offer an even more intense emotional experience than the one they had on the stage and I thought the great weapon on my arsenal was the closeup.
The one thing on stage that you can't enjoy was to tell what's going on on people's faces when they're singing these songs, and you have to imagine quite a bit of that. I had to imagine, if I could just put the camera right next to the characters and you have a much more immediate and visceral connection to them, and so that's a great advantage. But another thing and I'm sure it must be unusual for a musical, but for me to do our adaptation with Claude-Michel Schönberg and Boublil, and the wonderful Herbert Kretzmer and Cameron Mackintosh, with the original team who created the RSC show. They were all with me, collaborating again, recreating the conditions of its original production, that is incredibly special, and it kind of meant like I felt like they 'had my back' in the sense that they were never going to let me diverge too far away from the DNA of the show. I learnt hugely from the process, particularly about the way that a musical is constructed, because I've never done a musical before and they've never done a film before, and it was a great kind of cross-fertilization. I was thinking, I would put a lot of gaps between the songs because I thought wall-to-wall music might not work but they explained you actually had to have very little gaps, because the moment you have a gap, you break the game of consequence which is what drives us all through. And those kind of lessons were very transformational.
We all know that the auditions stood on their own but several of the cast member have previously appeared in musicals, and I'm wondering if you've seen any of those previous works--even say, for instance Russell Crowe and his band--and also Sweeney Todd for Sacha Baron Cohen and also if you could just talk about what advice you would have for any director who does work with live singing actors, what you've learned, what's the most important value?
Well, it's a funny story, I was sitting at the Oscars two years ago and was in the middle of this difficult decision about LES MISERABLES. As you remember, Anne Hathaway was hosting and at a certain point, Anne gets on the stage and sings "On My Own" to Hugh Jackman. And we're going...[laughter] there's something very strange about that! My shortlist for Fantine starts with Anne Hathway, my shortlist for Valjean starts with Hugh Jackman, and that she serenaded him--I thought either they've got the most brilliant--they're brilliantly using the Oscars as their auditioning tool.... But whatever happened, it certainly worked, because I think I cast them both!
So yes, that was where I first got to see Annie singing live, and...she's an absolutely fantastic actress, what she has is the utter thing of naturalness about her, which puts you completely at ease. My biggest challenge with actors was finding people who are so comfortable expressing themselves through song that you don't miss them expressing themselves through dialogue. You don't watch them and think oh, I wish they were just using dialogue--you almost so enjoy them expressing themselves through song. Hugh Jackman--I never saw The Boy From Oz which I always regretted, as I'm sure a lot of you have, it sounded like an extraordinary thing. I did see his one-man show and he's since said to me, he claims to me, that the reason for his one-man show was to get himself vocally fit for LES MISERABLES.
I thought Hugh--he has extraordinary ease and poise in doing that sort of production, and it's not an easy thing to do. Sacha has been in Sweeney Todd, and I actually discovered from Sacha that his two songs that he did might've been live, he was obsessed with doing it live and Tim Burton allowed him to. So none of this I felt like sidestepped the audition process because of the context--singing at the Oscars is not the same as the emotional demands of singing this music in the process. It was very exciting.
What was the most important thing you learned? What advice did you have for any directors who work with singing live actors?
My advice is there's a huge amount of technical training and consideration, which you have to do to be free in the moment of creation and just act. I was incredibly impressed that Anne Hathaway, six months before the shoot, was working with Joan Lader, her legendary voice teacher, about how to produce the belt sound which is that very powerful tone, while keeping her face completely relaxed. She knew when the camera is in closeup, she could serve the score with that powerful sound and have that necessary stillness that's required in film acting. That was something she trained to do. She didn't kind of wake up and go, oh I think I'll do this, she practiced it and used the best help she could. She also admitted the other day that she actually practiced crying-singing--she knew she was going to cry but she also knew she didn't want to experience having to hold a pitch for the very first time on the film set with three cameras running and discover that she couldn't do both at the same time.
So the main advice is preparation, preparation, preparation.