In 2010, British filmmaker Tom Hooper and his film The King’s Speech seemingly came out of nowhere, to gross over $400 million worldwide and win four Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture. For his next project, Hooper decided to take on a film adaptation of Les Misérables, the longest running musical of alltime. In anticipation of the film’s Christmas Day release, I recently enjoyed a nearly thirty-minute conversation with Hooper from Sydney, Australia where he was promoting the film. Here’s what Hooper shared with me about meeting the technical challenges of recording the performances live, adapting such a beloved play, and crafting Les Misérables.
Jackson Truax: Before we get into Les Misérables, I hope that everyone that sees the film and who saw The King’s Speech will also seek out and watch your wonderful first feature, The Damned United. After you had been working in television for almost twenty years, how did The Damned United come together to be your first feature?
Tom Hooper: I had worked with [writer] Peter Morgan (The Queen)on a film for HBO called Longford… It won the Golden Globe for Best TV Film. So we had a really good experience. Peter wrote The Damned United. And I was the first director he sent it to… I was on the John Adams set when I read it… I was really blown away by the script. So it was just me and Peter reuniting to work again.
JT: The following year The King’s Speech was released, which won four Oscars and grossed over $400 million worldwide. How did the success of that film and winning the Oscar for The King’s Speech change your life or career?
Hooper: I remember someone once said to me, “The reward of success is more work.” I felt I needed to get back to work quite fast… You get a bit paralyzed if you keep waiting for the perfect film and worrying whether you’ve found the perfect film. So I was already considering Les Misérableswhen I was doing promotion for The King’s Speech and traveling with the film. I had the novel in my bag and was secretly reading it and considering it. I suppose when you’re lucky to have that kind of success, it certainly allows you to take a risk with your next film. I didn’t want to be conservative and try and do another, similar film… I wanted to stretch myself or do something very different. And what could be more risky, more different, than doing Les Misérables?
JT: The conventional wisdom is that once a director wins the Oscar, at least on their next film, they’re essentially given the keys to the kingdom and can make whatever movie they want. Was that what you experienced?
Hooper: Whether you win the Oscar or not, there aren’t suddenly, magically a larger number of great scripts out in the world than there were the day before. So in that sense, the difficulty of finding great material remains… But I felt very lucky to find this bit of material. This is the word’s longest-running musical… One of the great musicals that had never been made into a film. It was a really interesting opportunity. So I certainly felt lucky to be able to have that conversation. And if what happened to me at the Academy [Awards] helped, then that’s fantastic.
JT: From what I understand, your initial vision of the film included casting Hugh Jackman (X-Men) as Jean Valjean. Why was having him in that role so important to you?
Hooper: My shortlist for that part, it was: Number One – Hugh Jackman. Number Two – Please refer to Number One. I still, to this day, don’t have a second choice. I think Hugh had this extraordinary combination. He’s a bona fide musical theater star who’s had hits on Broadway and in London’s West End. He’s also a serious film actor. Plus he’s got the…physique to play this legendarily strong character. But also, he’s also got this gentleness of spirit… He’s a very nice man at his core. And Jean Valjean is a very spiritual character. Within the first ten minutes of the film, he’s brutalized by his life as a convict. But then he discovers his faith…deeply felt from within by some kind of inner grace. I always felt Hugh has a kind of grace about him that made him right for the part. And Valjean is a tenor part. So it’s quite high in the male voice. It’s very hard to find people who can sing that high and have that kind of physique that he has. Really, I don’t think I would have made the film if Hugh Jackman weren’t in existence.
JT: One of the phenomena surrounding this film is that you had some of the greatest actors in the world auditioning or being considered for these roles. When you have a variety of remarkable artists all wanting to play the same role, how did you approach making these seemingly very hard decisions?
Hooper: What I found is that the combination of the singing and the acting that I required, and the ability to act through song in a cinematic way…for the medium of the camera… It was…really hard to find people who offered that perfect combination. There were a lot of people who auditioned. And a lot of people were brilliant. But it was hard to find people at the level that I was looking for. Anne Hathaway (Brokeback Mountain), Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn), Samantha Barks (TV’s Groove High) were really standing out from that process. In particularly because I was committed to doing the film live, I knew that had to find people that had the singing ability for real. There could be no tricks later on. One of the things that’s really hard to do…is to serve the score musically. To sing it, to find the power in your voice that you need to serve these songs, while keeping the necessary stillness in your face, and the necessary intimacy and minimalism that a film camera requires. It’s technically hard to do. In “I Dreamed a Dream,” to do the belt voice that song requires, and also keep your face very still for the close-up.
JT: Helena Bonham Carter is someone you’ve worked with before, with great results, in The King’s Speech. When casting Madame Thenardier, was she the first and only choice for the role? Or was that another audition process?
Hooper: Well, Helena Bonham Carter’s played The Queen twice. So it’s very hard to say “No” to the Queen… What I learned from Helena on The King’s Speech is that she has a very good comic eye, but she always makes the comedy very grounded in truth and quite real. I felt that with the Thenardiers, I didn’t want them to be too slapstick… They needed to feel that were from the same world…and bring the comic relief in. And I felt that Helena had this particular ability to balance comedy and realism.
JT: You were not the first director to try and adapt the musical of Les Misérablesinto a film. Why do you think you and your film succeeded where other failed?
Hooper: I don’t know whether any of the other directors went as far as starting to adapt it. I think they all had conversations with [producer] Cameron Mackintosh. I know that Cameron was keen to wait a few years before he made the film. Because he didn’t want the film to decimate the box office of the musical… I think what’s challenging about Les Misérablesis the combination of the [musical] form with the gritty realism of the story. Because quite often, what is the film’s permission to use the musical form is a kind of lighthearted story or a frivolous story or a comedic setting. This is unusual. It’s about very real and very tough suffering… It’s very emotional. It’s very gritty. But it uses the musical form. And it’s also historical. I think that combination scared people off a bit.
JT: The entire film is really grand and massive in scope, yet always feels very intimate at the same time. How did you achieve those two things and sustain both in equal measure throughout the film?
Hooper: I wanted to make an intimate epic. And the most important thing about it was more of these moments of intimacy than the huge scale. The thing that I found with the audience reactions in the past couple of weeks is that the emotions it provokes are very, very strong. I think that’s because of the way these characters are revealed in an intimate way. It’s like you’re just having a one-on-one experience. It’s the one thing the musical on-stage can never do. You can never get the close-up on-stage. You can never see the detail of what a character is going through… When I shot some of the songs like “I Dreamed a Dream,” I didn’t necessarily assume I was going to use these close shots. But in the editing, and when I was screening the film, the emotional power that’s revealed…it was so much more powerful than when you’re wide on the actors… So we kept gravitating toward this very intimate way of revealing these songs.
JT: From the outset, how did you balance staying true to the stage play and pleasing its global audience with the need to create a new cinematic experience? How did you navigate how far you could go in either direction?
Hooper: I think what people haven’t particularly realized is that there are actually a lot of changes that we made to the musical in order to adapt it to the screen. I think people haven’t noticed how many we’ve done, partly because I had the great opportunity of making these changes with the original creative team that created the musical. So I was working with the original composer, the original lyricists, which meant that the changes were done in the same voice and they were done in the same musical style as the original. So they became more invisible. A good example of a change that we made is…when you watch the musical, when he’s in the factory scene in the beginning, Valjean is distracted from helping Fantine (Hathaway) when she’s in that fight. And there’s no reason really given why Valjean is distracted from paying attention to Fantine. So when Fantine gets fired by the foreman, you don’t really know why Valjean didn’t pay attention. We had the idea that actually, you would start the film with Javert (Oscar-winner Russell Crowe) arriving as the new police inspector in town. And at the very moment Valjean is being asked to pay attention to this fight that’s broken out on the factory floor between Fantine and the other girl, he sees Javert up in the window. And at that moment, his world falls away. And he’s completely in shock. And his head’s spinning. Of course, he doesn’t want to pay attention to Fantine. Because he’s so [shocked] that Javert’s turned up. What that means is Jean Valjean has direct responsibility for the death of Fantine. He has a guilt because he got distracted by Javert. It means his past, when it comes to play, is involved in Fantine’s descent. After that scene…Javert introduces himself… That’s a completely new scene in the film. And the process of creating these new scenes is very interesting. I start with [screenwriter] William Nicholson…writing like a dialogue version of what the scene needed to be. Then I’d go to the composer Claude-Michel [Schonberg] and say “What music do you think we can write this scene on?” He would compose some music… We’d then get the lyricist to write lyrics to this music. Then you’d [say], “Actually, that’s too long and the lyrics are repetitive.” Then [we’d] have to go back to Claude-Michel and say, “Find a new melody or a new musical construction that’s shorter so we don’t need to be so repetitive in the lyrics. So he would compose a new piece of music. And the lyricist would again revisit the dialogue…and come up with a different way of doing it. Writing the lyrics was the most extraordinary process. Basically, William would write English dialogue. Then Alain Boublil would write some lyrics in French to Claude-Michel’s music. Then Herbert Kretzmer…would then write English lyrics inspired by Alian’s French lyrics inspired by William Nicholson’s dialogue, all written to the tempo of the music that Claude-Michel created. I can’t tell you how different this experience was from doing a dialogue movie.
JT: Having the actors sing live has never been done before, at least not on this scope. When you’re filming these scenes in addition to the actors’ voices, other sounds are in the scenes including rain and crashing water and battle scenes. How did you record all the sounds on set, and isolate the actor’s live singing on a vocal track that could be mixed in post-production?
Hooper: I’m pleased you brought up the rain. Because the thing I’m really proud of – I can’t tell you the amount of time we spent trying to create silent rain on-set. It’s never been done before… Rain is not silent. You drop rain down, every drop that hits it makes a noise… We had to do lots of innovations to get the rain quieter so that we could record the vocals well… We eventually came up with this rig, where the nozzle that produces the rain makes water drops that are so small and so fine that it’s almost like a mist. So when the water drops hit the ground, there’s almost no noise because they’re so tiny… In the street scene…a lot of the cobbles have been replaced by cobbles that are made of painted foam. So that as the water hits the foam there’s no noise… Off-camera…almost every surface was covered in dark-colored felt to absorb the sound… The rain in silent, and the irony is that we had to add the sound of rain back in.
JT: What about the crashing waves of the opening scene? Were those also added in in post-production?
Hooper: That was the only scene where some of the shots we couldn’t get live sound. Which is very frustrating to me because it’s the opening scene of the film… In order to create the effect of waves, we had the water-pounders… Then we had dunk tanks dunking about a half-a-tank of water on Hugh Jackman. Then wind machines to create the spray. In some of those shots, to get what we needed there was too much [noise]. The sound wasn’t useable… The only scene where it was almost impossible to do all the way through was the opening scene. I did my best. Luckily, I don’t think it’s noticeable. There’s so much going on. There’s so much water crashing around.
JT:On Christmas Day, audiences will finally have a chance to seeLes Misérables. When the film ends and the credits roll, is there anything in particular you hope audiences might be thinking or feeling?
Hooper: One of the extraordinary things about the journey of this movie is how audiences are responding. And the consistency wherever I’ve shown the film of the emotion it generates, of the applause it generates. At the London premiere, people clapped about twelve times… I’m hoping that on Christmas Day, people will get to go to big cinemas to see the film with a lot of people and have that common experience… I’ve been very struck by how emotional it is for people. People get really caught up in it. Some people cry multiple times during it. I think that’s secret of the movie. I think it connects to a lot of things in people’s lives… There’s something about the film, that it can remind you of suffering in your own life, or suffering of people close to you. But it somehow manages to process that suffering and make you feel a little bit better about it. Or make you feel some hope about it. I think it does that because it talks about navigating these moments of crisis in the most loving way you can. Love is the only way through some of these crises. I think at Christmastime, it’s a hopeful message.