Tom Hooper took the bold step of shooting his Les Misérables adaptation with live singing. The director tells Michael Rosser about how the method gave power back to the actors.
“Christmas Day wasn’t quite as relaxing as usual,” says Tom Hooper with a laugh. While many were tucking into turkey, the director was “tied to the BlackBerry” monitoring the opening of Les Misérables, the $61m adaptation of the hit musical that Hooper spent more than a year bringing to the screen.
The work paid off and its Dec 25 release by Universal in the US broke records. Taking $18.2m, it scored the highest ever opening day for a musical and became the top weekday Christmas opening of all time. “It surpassed all our expectations,” says Hooper.
The film went on to break the $100m barrier in just 13 days, making it the fastest musical to pass the milestone in North America. Released in the UK on Jan 11, it had made $27.6m after two weeks.
This success is vindication for Hooper, who took something of a risk following up Oscar-winner The King’s Speech with an adaptation of a beloved musical, seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries.
“The success of The King’s Speech gave me the confidence to step out of my comfort zone,” says the London-born director. “So often, with film-making, you live in some kind of relationship to the formulaic. What is joyous about directing a live movie musical is that there was no formula, no movie that had done what we were planning.”
Hooper first heard Working Title Films was planning to adapt the musical in early 2011. “I thought how extraordinary it was that the world’s most popular musical had never been made into a movie - and that I had never seen it on stage,” he recalls.
The director had been “fascinated by the French Revolution” since directing mini-series John Adams for HBO in 2008, which dealt with the American Revolution. This new opportunity to explore it on film sparked his interest.
“I went to see Les Misérables straight away and had one of those experiences in the theatre where the music has a very visceral effect,” says Hooper. “The scene at the end when you hear The People’s Song coming in an echoing chorus gave me shivers and I began thinking about how I could adapt it for the screen.”
He went back to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel - “a towering work” - and carried a battered copy of the book throughout the six-month promotional tour of The King’s Speech, taking a particular interest in the material missing from the musical that could be included in a film.
Hooper then met with producer Debra Hayward, then at Working Title, before meeting Les Misérables theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh to discuss ideas that included having actors sing live on camera. “I almost can’t remember having the idea because I feel like I wanted to do it that way from the very beginning,” recalls Hooper.
“I think it was in response to my own feeling about the movie musical. I experienced a sense of falsity or artificiality with lip-synching to playback. I wanted to make the movie musical more democratically powerful for a large audience rather than ghettoising it to just people who like movie musicals.”
Hooper was convinced by initial tests with Hugh Jackman, who plays lead character Jean Valjean, and says: “I had him in to sing three songs in his normal clothes at Pinewood and it was extraordinary how people accepted the singing as a form of communication instantaneously. It gives power back to the actors.”
The film shot from March to June 2012, with a cast including Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne. Filmed almost entirely in the UK, with a little in southern France, the production used locations in Chatham, Greenwich, Portsmouth and Northamptonshire as well as spending six weeks in Pinewood Studios.
Throughout the process, Hooper remained aware that a film with live singing was a gamble. “The great challenge when you do a movie musical is that you’re creating an alternative reality where people communicate through song. But this alternative reality has to be convincing and it’s a high-stakes game. If it’s not convincing, all is lost.”
Les Misérables has secured eight Oscar nominations, including for best picture, but Hooper was not among the best director nominees. The film also has nine Bafta nominations and won three Golden Globes, for best comedy or musical, best actor in a comedy or musical for Jackman and supporting actress for Hathaway.
As for what’s next, Hooper has “no idea”. However, he adds: “I like the idea of doing something different and surprising people again - if I can.”