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.