Exclusive Interview: Les Misérables Director Tom Hooper

Few directors have risen so quickly in the last few years within the ranks of filmmakers as Tom Hooper. Having made a name for himself directing award-winning movies for television, Hooper ably got over the dreaded sophomore slump curse by making The King’s Speech as his second feature. That went on to win multiple Oscars two years ago, not only for Best Picture but also for Hooper himself, which must have contributed to his decision to drive himself to take on the even bigger challenge of directing a film adaptation of the stage musical Les Misérables, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublilstage based on Victor Hugo’s novel set in 19th Century France

The film version stars Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to 19 years in prison who is released, but not before he finds himself at odds with his jailer Javert, played by Russell Crowe, who begins a lifelong vendetta against the hapless prisoner. Years later, Valjean encounters a seamstress named Fantine who has fallen upon hard times, played by Anne Hathaway in a performance that’s received her numerous accolades and awards nominations already. Valjean agrees to take care of Fantine’s daughter Cosette, and nine years later, when they’re living in Paris, they get caught up in the fight by a group of revolutionary students against the city’s military rule.

Clearly, there are a lot more characters and storylines to contend with for Hooper compared to the relatively simpler three-character three act structure of The King’s Speech, but Hooper once again knocks one out of the park getting absolutely amazing performances out of every one of them, which is why the film has received equally high praise from those in the industry.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Hooper to talk about his first large-scale movie musical spectacle, and we were happy to learn that the fame and recognition brought on by The King’s Speech hasn’t changed Hooper at all since the last time we spoke.

ComingSoon.net: I didn’t realize until I spoke to Eric (Fellner, producer) that you were filming this in March of this year.
Tom Hooper:
Yeah, I finished shooting in–God, I can’t quite remember–but it was in June or mid-June.

CS: Wow. That’s a fast turnaround. I guess you’re used to that from doing TV.
Hooper:
Yeah, I don’t know. In the end, you just have an instinct about when the right time is to release a film and my instinct was that Christmas is a good time and you stand or fall by these instincts. I’m not sure how rational it is. It was just the sort of feeling I had that it was a good time to bring the film out into the world.

CS: How far along were you in post-production before you realized that?
Hooper:
It was always the intention. It was more like were we going to press the eject button, but no, it was always the plan to release it at Christmas.

CS: The movie really feels like a classic movie musical. It reminded me of “Camelot,” “Cabaret,” a lot of those.
Hooper:
Oh cool.

CS: Did you actually go and study some of them?
Hooper:
I did. I quite enjoyed having an excuse to go back and watch some of the classics. I particularly loved watching “The Sound of Music” again, which I haven’t seen since I was a kid, and also really found it interesting how it had a similar structure to “The King’s Speech” in that you’re in this personal story, and then suddenly the Second World War comes on and you’re going, “Oh God, of course. That’s why.” Suddenly the jeopardy jumps and the way the war ambushes the narrative stakes and creates this kind of intensity for the personal stories to play out, I thought it was interesting. But yeah, I saw “Cabaret,” and actually I’d never seen “Cabaret” until this–which I can’t believe–that was amazing. “Fiddler on the Roof,” I’d never seen and I saw it. I managed to get hold of an actual print of “West Side Story” and screened it for just me, which was kind of really cool. So yeah, it was good going back, particularly to the glory days of the musical and looking at what the old masters did with the form.

CS: One of the interesting things about “Les Mis” is that it’s more of an opera than a musical, because everyone’s always singing. It also an interesting pace because one of the biggest moments of the musical, “I Dreamed a Dream,” the song everyone knows, takes place a half hour into it. I was curious how you approach that knowing that you’d have to still be true to that?
Hooper:
That’s a very good question because I’d actually forgotten about this, but I felt like one of my biggest challenges going in was handling the fact that the film did something that’s quite antithetical to classical movie construction – if you think about the kind of Robert McKee version of what a film is. Very central to classical film construction is your protagonists remain your protagonists through the whole film. Here, you have a doubling of your cast size halfway through, and your heroes, Jean, Valjean and Javert, drop back quite severely in the second half. I remember slightly struggling with this when I saw it as a musical, but on film terms I thought, “God, the worst thing would be if the audience gets halfway through and kinda goes, ‘Yeah, but we were enjoying that movie. I want to stay in that. I don’t want to see these new guys.’” I felt that one of my biggest directorial challenges was to manage that broadening at the halfway mark so that you accepted the diversion of the story from its original simpler focus. So all the way along I was trying to look for ways to bind the two halves together.

I remember the very first draft of the screenplay that I read, the song “Castle on a Cloud” had been cut. I remember thinking the reason you can’t cut that is even though it’s a hard song to pull off, but I understand why Bill (screenwriter William Nicholson) possibly didn’t think it was right, you gotta start investing in this girl because this girl is the thing that binds the two halves together. His love for this girl is the thing that binds these two halves together. That’s why I wanted to put the song “Suddenly” in because it would make such a clear statement about his parental love for this child that it would overhang into the second half and give you payback. All the time I was trying to find ways to navigate our way, but in the end it’s about casting. In the end, when you hit Marius, when you hit Cosette, are you excited by hitting Eddie Redmayne? Are you excited by hitting Amanda Seyfried? I thought I had to have an exceptional Marius and an exceptional Cosette, so you were eager to go on these new journeys. Eddie has a kind of quality where he’s very easy to like, Eddie. He’s easy to sympathize with, and I thought that was essential because you didn’t want the audience spending too many minutes sort of accepting this new character at this point.

CS: It’s funny you talk about “Suddenly,” because I first saw the musical probably 24 years ago and I didn’t even realize that “Suddenly” was a new song because it flowed so well. And yet, most journalists will probably be more cynical about why a new song was added.
Hooper:
That’s really cool. I’m so excited to hear that, because why I wanted to do it is I went back to the book, and in the book, Valjean has these two epiphanies. He has an epiphany when he meets the bishop and he discovers faith and virtue. Then, he has an epiphany when he meets the child and there’s an extraordinary passage of writing, in which Hugo says, “This was the second white apparition Valjean had encountered. The bishop taught him virtue. Cosette taught him the meaning of love.” I mean, this phrase “white apparition” I find very beautiful. But I felt that in the musical, the transformative power of an encounter with love wasn’t clear, so I said to Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, would they write me a song about what it’s like to discover love for a child in a parental role out of nowhere. Like, he’s a middle-aged guy. He never thought he’d experience love. He’s an ex-convict and suddenly, bang, he has this profound life-changing experience. So, that’s how the song came about.

CS: I was curious about how you approached what are essentially arias, each character’s solo moment when they’re in the spotlight. Knowing there are going to be big moments that are important to audiences, did you save some of the big ones like “I Dreamed of Dream” until the end? How do you figure out where to schedule them?
Hooper:
I was inspired thinking about the fact that in a way the songs are like soliloquies and in modern film, you’re not really allowed to have soliloquies. I mean, the convention doesn’t really allow people to just sit by themselves and talk for two or three minutes. It’s a shame. It’s a lost on film that this is considered not realistic enough and you can’t do it. Many scenes sort of end up functioning as quasi-soliloquies, where people confess things to someone listening who doesn’t actually say anything in a scene. It’s kind of trying to be the same as a soliloquy. I felt actually what was most important was how to make those songs feel utterly necessary to the story. I didn’t want them to feel like interruptions to the narrative, I wanted them to feel like these points of emotional and crystallization in the story.

It was a journey to arrive at the right shape, but what I discovered in her scene, which was really fascinating was quite often my brilliant editors Melanie and Chris would really explore the moment before a song. So in “Dreamed a Dream,” for example, that horrible moment where she’s raped for the first time, that there was a little more footage to be used there, or “A Little Fall of Rain,” there’s a whole sequence of Eponine being shot. What I discovered is if you play those moments before the songs too fully, the audience have the emotion before you even hear the song. Part of the key journey I made in editing was realizing that you had to actually quite ruthlessly edit down whatever came before the song so that the song itself was the first moment of stillness into which the audience could then pour their emotion about what they’d just seen, that you didn’t give them the chance to have the emotion until the song. There was a great breakthrough moment because for a while I was watching going, “It’s good, but the songs aren’t as emotional as perhaps they should be. Why is that?” Then I realized it was I was playing the beats out, just like a normal filmmaker would. You could play the beats out with lovely texture before, and then the song feels like an add-on. A lot of it was about protecting the primacy of the song as the place in which the character and the audience experience the emotion.

CS: I wanted to ask about casting the younger actors, who are quite amazing, the two young actors who played the young Cosette and Gavroche.
Hooper:
I’m so pleased you mentioned them because I don’t know if the film would work if you didn’t have an amazing Cosette because the engine of the film is Valjean’s love for this little girl. I remember thinking this girl is so adorable, if you sorta said, “Tom, sorry, you gotta look after this girl for the rest of your life,” I’d be like, “Yeah, sure, fine.” She just had such an extraordinary quality and the story makes a hell of a lot more sense if you have someone amazing in that role. Then, little Gavroche again, he’s hugely important because he’s in some ways your introduction into the revolution seen from a slightly more cynical childlike way. I thought Daniel held his own amongst these amazing acting talents. They both had a fearlessness that I just found really kind of amazing. Like, if I had been a kid with those films stars I’d been completely a ball of nerves all the time.

CS: Maybe because they’re young, they hadn’t seen any of their previous movies so they couldn’t be nervous.
Hooper:
Maybe, maybe, yeah that’s true. They probably didn’t know about “Gladiator.”

CS: I also wondered how you went about assembling a crew for this one because you have a comfort zone with the ones you’ve worked before but you also have a few people you’d never worked with.
Hooper:
Yeah, I always like being loyal where I can and so Eve Stewart did “The King’s Speech,” “The Damned United,” “Elizabeth I.” Danny Cohen had done “John Adams,” “Longford,” “The King’s Speech.” It’s nice because you kind of pick up the conversation with them where you left off, so when there’s a relationship, you feel like you keep growing together. They’re both real mavericks, Eve and Danny, and Danny particularly is a very unconventional human being and artistically unconventional and I like being around their maverick energy. Almost the key person on the entire team was the sound recordist, Simon Hayes, who has just done this astonishing job. I mean, over 99 percent of the vocals are the live vocals recorded at the time, which you’d struggle even in a dialogue movie to have that kind of hit rate of capturing dialogue. I mean, a lot of films ADR 15 to 20% of their dialogue, let alone if it’s singing. Him and his extraordinary team made this whole thing possible. There was a lot of work from all departments. It was very much a team effort, whether it was the costume department making sure they made clothes that didn’t have annoying rustle sounds. All the fabrics were chosen to not make noise. Whether it’s that the sets are made with special floorboards so that they were quiet. Whether it was the fact that we built the outside street where they built the barricade inside in order to protect the sound of such a huge chunk of the movie. There was a lot that went in to protecting the live singing “dream,” and it was a very coordinated effort. I was kind of impressed how everyone spoke to each other while going throughout it all.

CS: It’s amazing you talk about them building the sets around the idea of making them quiet, because you think they’d be more concerned with making them look nice, but to also have to make them quiet, that’s pretty amazing. I also wanted to ask about working with Sacha Baron Cohen, who Helena (Bonham Carter) had previously worked with in Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” a similar period musical that mixes darkness with humor. They really bring a levity to the film’s fairly dark mood. Could you talk about how you decided to do that with those two?
Hooper:
I think I always from the beginning really respected the show’s understanding that it needs to be funny, that “Master of the House” needs to get you out of your head and give you a proper release from these incredibly brutal emotions you’re going through. To me, he was like the number one casting because he’s one of the funniest people on the planet. It took me a few months to get him to definitely say “yes.” Like, it was a long, long pursuit. He was finishing “The Dictator” and had availability challenges. I’m so happy I made it work because what’s really impressive about Sacha is he’s so rigorous about his comedy. I think people have this impression that it’s all just improvisation.

CS: Oh, I know, I know. I’ve heard the stories about how meticulous he is.
Hooper:
This guy’s like, he’s on a mission. He did a number of rewrites to “Master of the House” where he’d layer in all the jokes and all the ideas he had. We probably shot quite a few more than ended up in the movie, and then he was very encouraging me during the edit to record audience reaction whenever I tested it and work out which jokes were landing and which jokes weren’t. But I was incredibly impressed that he brought a kind of rigor to it. As he kept saying, “Don’t swing and miss. Like, you can’t. I don’t want to do the Thenardiers where we look like we’re trying to be funny and not being funny. We have to be funny.” One of the nicest things about the screenings that started last Friday was that reaction to the “Master of the House.” I can’t tell you how pleased that made me because I love making people laugh. It’s hard not to enjoy the sound of people laughing.

CS: “The King’s Speech” did have a lot of humor, while this one seems almost oppressive in how dark it gets.
Hooper:
Yeah, it’s an incredibly important part of the armory, and I really learned on “The King’s Speech” that if you make people laugh, you actually open up even more to being moved. There’s something about how your defenses lower when you laugh, and then the emotion can hit you with even more power. I’ve got great respect and I always want to have some humor in my work.

CS: One of the interesting things you did is you literally created an ensemble where you created a longer than normal rehearsal period before shooting and brought together a group of actors who are all very busy. How hard was it to convince everyone to do this for that to work?
Hooper:
Actually, really, it wasn’t. I mean, often you have scenarios where agents are sort of busy defending their client’s right to not come and not rehearse, but in this case, I think everyone was so scared (laughs) that nine weeks out, they all arrived and they all hit the ground running because I think they all realized that even just the things like the stamina to be able to sing live day in, day out, you need a lot of training to get to the point where you could sing the amount that I was seeking. But you’re right. What was great was there was a feeling of an ensemble, and I thought the actors were all quite generous sharing the techniques that they developed that were helping them because this is in many ways uncharted territory about how to sing live in the language of the close-up and do justice to the music. Anne Hathaway, six months before the shoot was working out how to produce her belt sound, which is the really powerful voice, while being very relaxed in her face and very minimalistic. Other actors would see that and kinda go, “Oh, how are you doing that?” It was a great sharing, which I thought was kind of cool, very collegiate. It wasn’t sort of every man for himself, which is cool.

CS: This is a holiday movie but it’s also awards season, which is something you’ve been through before.
Hooper:
I know.

CS: How are you approaching it a second time around now that you’ve had that experience?
Hooper:
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think actually the most important thing is to remain focused on the importance of opening the film well and paying attention to that. Particularly something like this, where I really want to make sure that I’m just taking such good care of the marketing and all those aspects that go into releasing a film well, and make sure I go to enough other countries that are releasing it. We just went to Japan for a couple of days. In some ways, weirdly, because I’ve just been so busy to the last minute, I haven’t really had time to think about it much. I’m kind of just at the moment still digesting the fact that I actually just finished and I’m not allowed to keep changing it anymore.

CS: That’s funny. The marketing has been great. I live down in Chinatown and the character posters are everywhere and they look amazing, even though I’m not sure that’s the right audience.
Hooper:
Oh, really? Oh wow. That’s so cool. I’ll have to go down there and have a look.

CS: Do you have any idea what you want to do next? Do you think you’re ready to make a contemporary movie?
Hooper:
I don’t know. I mean, I literally have had to put reading any scripts on hold for months. I think, to be honest, I probably need a holiday when this is all done, but I think it’ll be a tough one to follow because “The King’s Speech” felt like a tough one to follow, but this, there’s something- because of the esteem with which this is held in the world, it’s a very particular experience, but I will no doubt find it eventually.

CS: I think you should do a Bond film. Maybe not the next one, but maybe the one after that. I’d like to see your version of a Bond film actually.
Hooper:
Thank you.

Les Misérables opens nationwide on Christmas Day, December 25. Look for our interview with producer Eric Fellner soon and maybe some stuff with the cast before then. You can also check out our updated photo gallery by clicking here.

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