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Les Misérables: a revolutionary new approach

For the veterans behind Les Misérables, it was a film of firsts – including the bold move to capture actors singing live on set. Wendy Mitchell talks to the team that brought the iconic musical to life on screen.

Lyricist Alain Boublil calls Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables “one of the most beloved novels of all time, sitting right there next to the Bible”. More than 60 million people in 42 countries have seen the stage show that Boublil helped create.

So the pressure was huge to get everything right with the first big-screen adaptation of such a beloved musical. The film team includes Oscar winners, the UK’s most successful film producers and a theatre legend — but they were not resting on their laurels. “We approached it with humility, because it’s a big undertaking on something as great as this,” producer Debra Hayward says.

She continues: “It was a bit of a first for all of us: the first one I was producing on my own [after she left Working Title Films in 2011 to become an independent producer], the first Working Title musical, the first time Cameron Mackintosh had done a film, Tom Hooper’s first musical, the first time many of the cast had sung on set, and the first time some of the singers had acted. That gave the creatives a strong sense of community.”

Director Tom Hooper, who chose the project as his follow-up to Oscar-winner The King’s Speech, calls it “the experience of a lifetime”.

Although the prospect was daunting, Working Title co-founder Eric Fellner had no doubt he wanted to bring Les Misérables to the big screen. “The themes in the book have lasted a century and a half because they are universal themes and they are timeless. Revolution — very much in the air in various places around the world now — love, forgiveness. Plus the score is just amazing, it keeps bringing people back again and again and again.”

The story, if you are not among those 60 million fans, is set in 1800s France and follows Jean Valjean, a man who suffers for years in prison for stealing bread to feed his family; he breaks his parole to start a new life, but is pursued by the policeman Jalvert. Along the way Valjean tries to redeem himself by helping down-on-her-luck factory worker Fantine and then caring for her child Cosette. Cosette grows up to fall in love with a revolutionary, Marius, who Valjean tries to protect from harm.

The film has an appropriately large scale despite its somewhat modest budget. Fellner says: “We were trying to make a huge movie for a budget that wasn’t big enough: about $61m. And going in you know it’s two and a half hours of screen time.” (The official running time is 160 minutes.)

Hayward adds: “We were hamstrung by the money we had, but that made us inventive and think outside the box. Bizarrely it worked to our advantage to be inventive.”

Claude-Michel Schönberg, who composed the original stage musical and collaborated on the film, was impressed at what the team was able to deliver. “The first day I arrived on the set — where we did the first scene of Les Mis, in the big dry dock, I thought, ‘My God, what we have done!’ It was 600 people working on it, I didn’t realise the scale of it.”

From the outset, the creative team knew that the film had to feel different from the stage version. Mackintosh, the theatre kingpin who brought Les Misérables to London 28 years ago, says: “[The aim] was to make a movie that happened to be a musical rather than filming our show.”

Perfect harmony

This wasn’t the first attempt at a Les Misérables film. Soon after the show opened on Broadway in 1987, a film version was planned. At one point, Alan Parker was attached to direct a version for TriStar, and then later there were talks with Bruce Beresford and Oliver Stone.

Yet in 2009, Fellner learned from a social acquaintance working with Mackintosh that the film rights were available, and he was immediately intrigued. His Working Title partner Tim Bevan says: “Eric is interested in musicals and here was a dream piece of intellectual property. It’s been established in the marketplace for more than 25 years and 60 million people have been to see it.”

Mackintosh, whose stage credits also include The Phantom Of The Opera and Miss Saigon, thought that Universal-backed Working Title was the perfect partner — after all, the company has made more than 100 films that have grossed more than $5bn worldwide. Mackintosh started working with Hayward, then Working Title’s head of production, to develop the film.

They brought on Oscar-nominated screenwriter Bill Nicholson (Gladiator, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) to adapt the screenplay. Hooper was confirmed to direct in 2011, and the musical’s original team of Boublil, Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer were also brought into the fold.

Boublil remembers that Hooper said to that group: “‘I cannot do this movie without you, you’re the only ones who know it inside out.’ We knew that we could help with how the screenplay could be developed, it was wonderful to collaborate.”

Schönberg recalls: “We spent practically one year doing preparation. And most of the meetings were in my house in London, because I have all the material from Les Misérables there — the scores, the recordings. We used to spend hours meeting and talking.”

Hayward says the scripting process was not as straightforward as it might seem from the outside. “It’s an incredibly intricate adaptation. It’s not just typing out the lyrics… [Bill has] a maturity that this material demanded.”

Nicholson’s first draft had more spoken dialogue interspersed with the songs, but eventually Hooper decided that he wanted the character’s emotions to come out with only the songs.

The team also returned to Hugo’s original novel for inspiration. Boublil adds: “Tom wanted some moments in the novel to be in the film that weren’t in the stage play, so two or three new scenes are there.”

Eddie Redmayne, who stars as Marius, says of Hooper’s approach to the material: “He has an intellectual rigour but I feel he had read the book and found this extraordinary wealth of extra material and related it to contemporary issues… He always uses this expression about living in the present tense.”

Along the way, the stage music had to be adapted as well. “The orchestration is not the same. In the movie, when people are dying, they are not singing out like on stage. In the movie they are whispering, so we have to reconfigure the orchestration,” says Schönberg.

Also, the team adapted some lyrics and wrote an entirely new song, Suddenly, for the film as well. Boublil says: “It was an amazing moment to write a new song 30 years later.”

Singing lessons

Hooper had never directed a musical and proposed an inventive approach. Les Misérables is the first full feature film that has actors singing live on set, not to playback. It was a game-changer for the whole production.

Normally the actors would have recorded their singing parts before the shoot and then lip-synced to those pre-recorded tracks. Instead, Hooper had them fitted with earpieces listening to an on-set pianist, so the actors could determine the pace and emotions of their singing performances. An orchestra scored the film after the shoot.

Bevan admits that such a new process was a worry at first. “The theory of it was actually more scary than the practicality of it. In pre-production everybody was slightly terrified of it and almost twisted themselves into knots. But like anything on a movie once you settle down into the shooting of it, it was great, and the artists get so much out of the freedom that everyone completely saw the point of it.”

Of course, doing something that has not been done before brought its own special challenges. Hayward remembers: “Even things like make-up and costumes had to be aware of the singing. For instance, we couldn’t have rustling fabrics. Every department had to take it into consideration.” Production sound mixer Simon Hayes spearheaded the efforts. 

Schönberg praises Hooper’s innovative approach: “I was feeling in my gut there is no other way to do it,” he says. “The soliloquy that Hugh Jackman sings, you see the work of his throat and muscle, and you can’t fake that. It’s impossible. I hope that for the future of musical films that’s something that they will try to do.”

Hayward also points out that this approach brings an earthy humanity to the film that differentiates it from the stage show. “It’s absolutely sung to perfection in the stage show, it’s got precision. The film isn’t perfect, it’s really human. You can see the actors singing live, We’re so proud of that, it’s what sets it apart.”

Attracting top talent

Valjean is the core of the story but there are many other juicy parts that drew in actors. Casting was of course crucial, for actors who would feel comfortable singing live, or in one case, for a musical theatre star to venture onto her first film set. Nina Gold, Hooper’s regular collaborator, served as casting director.

Fellner says: “Five years ago or 10 years ago it might have been impossible to make this film because there wouldn’t have necessarily been the actors around that could sing live and bring this story to life in the way that we’ve been able to now. We were blessed with a group of phenomenal actors who also can sing like angels.”

He says that Hooper’s involvement also drew in top names. “It can’t be underestimated having this material and also an Academy Award-winning director attracting the very best talent available for the piece.”

Jackman was the first, or indeed only, choice to play Valjean. In addition to his work in blockbuster films such as X-Men, the Australian actor also has a stage background (he is a Tony winner). Fellner says: “He was really excited immediately at the idea of doing it. It’s hard to find people who can stand up and play that on film.” Hooper adds: “He’s the only man who could have done it.”

Jackman showed his dedication to the role in many ways — for instance, before shooting the opening scene when he is a suffering prisoner forced to do heavy labour, Jackman went without water for 36 hours to look even more gaunt.

Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine does not get that much screentime, but it has certainly made an impact (and seems a shoo-in for a supporting actress Oscar nomination.) It is a dream role for the 30-year-old actress. Schönberg notes: “Anne Hathaway’s mother was a member of Les Misérables’ first touring company, so since Anne was seven years old she used to go see Les Mis. It was a big deal for her family.”

Of Hathaway, Hooper says that she was the production’s “collective muse…She’s mastered the art of singing on camera in the most extraordinary way”.

Another Oscar winner, New Zealand born Russell Crowe, who has played in rock bands, took on the role of Javert.

Rounding out the cast are Amanda Seyfried (who showed off her voice in Mamma Mia! The Movie) as Cosette, Aaron Tveit as another student revolutionary Enjolras; Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche and Isabelle Allen as young Cosette. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who had shown their musical chops with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, provide some comic relief as the Thénardiers.

One unknown actress (in film, at least) was Samantha Barks, a theatre veteran and 2012 Screen Star of Tomorrow, who had played Eponine on stage in London. She was perhaps a more risky choice. Bevan says: “She fought for it and was brilliant.”

Redmayne was desperate to join the film, playing Cosette’s love interest Marius. “I recorded myself on my iPhone singing Empty Chairs At Empty Tables and sent it to my agent who sent it to Eric Fellner. That was the start of a fairly rigorous audition process.”

He had sung as a child but was impressed at the level of training he got for Les Misérables: “I learned all about the importance of training the muscles in the back of your throat. I wasn’t just doing singing exercises each day but all kinds of techniques to develop that part of my throat.”

The actors put in a lot of hard work, as Schönberg remembers: “All these big actors were big workers — they were practising and practising and practising.”

It was also a big time commitment because there was an eight-week rehearsal before shooting even started (that is compared with a rehearsal time of one or two weeks for a more ‘normal’ film). Fellner says: “It was a very, very long time. It was almost like making a film twice for many of the actors. They committed a lot of time to it.”

A British production

After that eight-week rehearsal, the film shoot was about 12 weeks. Hooper brought on board his The King’s Speech collaborators including production designer Eve Stewart and director of photography Danny Cohen.

Bevan estimates that 95% of the film was shot in the UK, although there was some shooting in southern France. The UK locations included the Chatham Docks and other sites in Chatham, Portsmouth’s dry dock, the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, the Chapel of Winchester College and Boughton House in Northamptonshire.

There were six weeks of shooting at Pinewood, including on the Richard Attenborough Stage and the Underwater Stage. To get that sense of authenticity on sets, Hooper had nine tons of seaweed shipped in from the Outer Hebrides in Scotland and smelly fish brought in each day from London’s fish markets.

Fellner and Bevan both emphasise how important the UK tax credit was to getting Les Misérables made, and shot in the UK. Bevan says: “On all of these movies the tax credit is integral to them getting made. Even bigger movies like this the difference between the net budget and the real budget is absolutely the tax credit in the UK.” Fellner adds: “It keeps us making films in the UK and not going to Eastern Europe or somewhere else.”

Bevan adds: “It is ostensibly British although the original author is French. Cameron is British and the show originated here, but it is very European. From Working Title’s point of view we want to find intellectual property that is well known worldwide but emanates from the UK — that’s very rare but also very attractive.”

Les Misérables started shooting in March and Universal releases in the US and Canada on December 25 — a very tight schedule for a film of this scale. It opens in the UK on January 11 with other territories to follow.

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