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Tom Hooper On The Magic Of 'Les Miserables'

Dec 21, 2012
Originally published on February 20, 2013 12:43 pm

One of the world's most beloved musicals is now a movie. Les Miserables was spun from the epic 19th century novel by Victor Hugo. It's a story about the desperately poor underclass in Paris.

The protagonist, the ex-prisoner Jean Valjean, is hunted by the merciless Inspector Javert. It's about morality, revolution and, of course, love.

Tom Hooper, director of such films as The King's Speech, for which he took home the Oscar for best director, has brought Les Miserables to life on screen. He tells NPR's Melissa Block that he owes his big-screen career to the musical theater.


Interview Highlights

On how musical theater affected his life

"When I was about 10 years old, I was cast in the school musical. And through that, I fell in love with acting, with theater. And ... two things happened as a result. One is I realized I wasn't a good enough actor, and I let go of the acting dream, thankfully, very young. Secondly, I got drawn to directing and I became hooked on that. And I started making films at 13. So I owe everything to the musical, and I've come, in a way, full circle, which is ironic.

On the choice to have little spoken dialogue

"I did at times feel like I was being drawn to the movie musical like a moth to a flame because I was drawn to the challenge of it. But at the same time I was aware that the possibility of getting burned was high — because, you know, it's an incredibly difficult form. And so, what is the challenge? I think the challenge, the central challenge, is you're creating an alternate reality where people communicate through song. But you have to make this reality utterly convincing or all is lost.

"I began to think, actually, maybe it's more honest to say, no, this is a different reality. This is a world where the primary communication form is singing, and let's own it and be confident about it."

On having the actors sing the songs live

"With this story that's so much about the grind of living, you know, real people suffering, I wanted to, in a way, give the power back to the actors and allow the actors to do what they do best.

"If you're singing to playback, you've surrendered one of the most powerful mediums of acting communication, which is the control of time and pace. ... It's not conducive to really getting to a raw, emotional place.

"The challenge I laid out to all my actors when I cast them — to Russell [Crowe], to Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, to Hugh [Jackman] — was, 'You are all performing these globally iconic songs, and yet you need to make it appear that your characters have invented these songs in these times of crisis — have ripped them from their soul. You are not doing a rendition of a song, you are offering a song as a character does a soliloquy.' And I want to give them all the weapons at their disposal to do this."

On how Les Miserables has affected his directing style

"The thing I've really been trying to grapple with in the last few days is why the film has the emotional effect it has. I mean, there are people who say that they start crying at 'I Dreamed a Dream' and basically don't stop crying — or people cry four, five times, and they make jokes like, 'You made a grown man cry,' or you know, 'It was ugly tears, Tom. It was ugly tears.'

"And I was very affected the other day when a friend of mine told me, you know, a friend of mine lost his father in October and saw the film, and I said, ... 'I'm sorry that you had to, you know, go through watching the movie given the themes of the movie. It must have been very hard.' And he said, 'No, an extraordinary thing happened.' He felt better about the loss of his father, and he felt closer to his father. And that was when I thought, god, there's something fascinating ... going on here.

"And it — I think it also happens in the musical — which is, as you watch these songs, you, in your mind you make connections to suffering in your own life story, or suffering of those nearest and dearest to you, or even suffering that you know may happen, may be coming down the line. You know, we all face the challenge of our mortality ultimately, and the musical has ... this extraordinary ability to process part of that suffering and to make you feel better about it. And it offers a catharsis. I think that's what I'll take forward, is a new understanding of what catharsis means."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

One of the world's most beloved musicals is now a movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LES MISERABLES")

BLOCK: "Les Miserables," spun from the epic 19th-century novel by Victor Hugo. It's a story about the desperately poor underclass in France, about the ex-prisoner Jean Valjean, hunted by the merciless Inspector Javert. It's about morality, revolution and, of course, it's about love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON MY OWN")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) I love him, but every day I'm learning...

BLOCK: The director of "Les Miserables" is Tom Hooper. His most recent film is "The King's Speech," which won four Oscars, including a Best Directing Oscar for Hooper. He told me he had never seen the stage version of "Les Miserables" before he decided to direct the film. But, he said, he owes his career to musicals.

TOM HOOPER: When I was about 10 years old, I was cast in a school musical. And through that, I fell in love with acting, with theater. And I learned, you know, two things happened as a result. One is I realized I wasn't a good enough actor and I let go of the acting dream, thankfully, very young. Secondly, I got drawn to directing and I became hooked on that and I started making films at 13. So I owe everything to the musical and I've come, in a way, full circle, which is ironic.

BLOCK: Well, the whole movie, "Les Miserables," is nearly three hours long. And the whole thing is...

HOOPER: No, no. It's two hours, 29 minutes.

BLOCK: Two hours, 29 minutes.

HOOPER: And it's too important to say that because I can't tell you how hard I worked to get it under 2 1/2 hours, so I'm very pleased to clarify that.

BLOCK: You're proud of that and want that noted. OK.

HOOPER: Yes.

BLOCK: Well, for the record, the movie, which is about 2 1/2 hours long, the whole thing is through song, meaning there's virtually no dialogue in the whole thing. All the lines are sung. And let's take a listen to one scene. This is where Fantine - played by Anne Hathaway - who is very desperate. She's trying to get money for her daughter. She's offered money for her hair, and it's the start of her descent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LES MISERABLES")

ANNE HATHAWAY: (as Fantine) (Singing) Let's make a price. I'll give you all of 10 francs. Just think of that. It pays a debt, just think of that. What can I do? It pays a debt. Ten francs may save my poor Cosette.

BLOCK: Tom Hooper, why that choice to have, really, no spoken dialogue?

HOOPER: So, as I was, you know - I did at times feel like I was being drawn to the movie musical like a moth to the flame because I was drawn to the challenge of it. But at the same time, I was aware that the possibility of getting burned was high because, you know, it's an incredibly difficult form. And so, what is the challenge? I think the challenge, the central challenge is you are creating an alternate reality where people communicate through song, but you have to make this reality utterly convincing or all is lost. And one of the things I noticed was that almost all musicals ever made on film, you know, stick to the format of dialogue interspersed with songs.

BLOCK: Sure.

HOOPER: But I did feel that there is a particular challenge in that ear changes, where you go from, you know, one ear to another, you know?

(Singing) If suddenly I burst out singing to you, Melissa...

BLOCK: I would love that.

HOOPER: ...about this interview, you'd think, oh, why now? Why did Tom suddenly feel that now was the moment? And I began to think, actually, maybe it's more honest to say, no, this is a different reality, this is a world where the primary communication form is singing, and let's own it and be confident about it.

BLOCK: Another choice you made was to have the actors sing live on the sets of "Les Miserables." Typically, in a movie, I guess, they would record the songs in the studio and then they'd lip-synch them during filming.

HOOPER: I think it's, again, because of looking at those great musicals, I noticed I was involved in a process of constantly re-forgetting the films for the lip-syncing because whoever did the lip-syncing is, you know it's lip-syncing. You know that she weren't actually singing and there's a kind of falsity or an artificiality about it that - and with this story that's so much about the grind of living, you know, real people suffering, I wanted to, in a way, give the power back to the actors and allow the actors to do what they do best because great acting is all about being utterly in the present moment.

And to be in the moment as an actor, you need to have control over the medium of time. If you're lip-synching to playback, you've surrendered one of the most powerful mediums of acting communication, which is the control of time and pace. You know, I mean, like, you know, playback is all right. So if you could turn over, action. OK. Then it's the four, three, two, one, oh, you're late. You've missed it by just a fraction of a second. Let's go back and let's start again. It's not conducive to really getting to a raw, emotional place.

BLOCK: An example of this and one we could certainly play, "I Dreamed a Dream," which is just a riveting example of pure emotion in the moment of that song with Anne Hathaway singing, Fantine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LES MISERABLES")

HATHAWAY: (as Fantine) (Singing) I had dream my life would be so different from this hell I'm living, so different now from what it seemed.

HOOPER: If you were to watch the takes, you'd see quite significant temper changes between - I think the first take was very slow. The sixth take, she went faster. Take four was the one we chose. But she was in complete control of every aspect of the song. And the challenge I laid down to my actors was, you know, you are all performing these globally iconic songs, and yet you need to make it appear that your characters have invented these songs in these times of crises, rip them from their soul. You're not doing a rendition of a song, you are offering a song as a character does a soliloquy. And I want to give them all the weapons at their disposal to do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LES MISERABLES")

HATHAWAY: (as Fantine) (Singing) Oh, life has killed the dream I dreamed.

BLOCK: You're also filming a lot of these songs, we should say, in extreme close-up. You're very, very close to their faces.

HOOPER: What's interesting is it wasn't - I didn't sort of impose it as I did tell myself all the actors in advance. So with "Dreamed a Dream," we were shooting with three cameras, and then I - well, what she's singing about is not about the room she's in at the time, the song is about her past, about this man who betrayed her, about her broken dreams, about how she feels. The only clue, the best clue, the best guide to that is her face and what's going on in her face. And I always brought up an MTV where shooting singing was about fast cuts.

BLOCK: Yeah.

HOOPER: It was kinetic. It was restless. And it's also a kind of reaction against that. To me, it's a meditation on the face. And it's the greatest compliment to my cast that they held these close-ups.

BLOCK: Do you think when you go on to direct your next movie, which you've already done, do you bring something to it now based on this experience that you didn't know before, that it changes something with how you direct?

HOOPER: Well, that's interesting, Melissa. The thing I've really been trying to grapple with in the last few days is why the film has the emotional effect it has. I mean, there are people who say that they start crying at "I Dreamed A Dream" and basically don't stop crying or people cry four or five times and they'd make jokes like, you made a grown man cry or, you know, it was ugly tears. Tom, it was ugly tears or - and that was when I thought, God, there's something fascinating going on here, and I think it also happens in the musical, which is as you watch these songs, in your mind, you make connections to suffering in your own life story.

And the musical has this extraordinary ability to make you feel better about it. And it offers a catharsis that I find it myself when, you know, when Annie is singing or in Hugh Jackman's final scene. You know, I do well, obviously, and I realized that you - it's interesting, you're not really crying for the character, you're crying for something in your own life. So you're crying for yourself. And I think that's what I'll take forward is a new understanding of what catharsis means.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LES MISERABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) To love another person is to see the face of God.

BLOCK: Tom Hooper, it's a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

HOOPER: Thanks, Melissa. Always a pleasure to.

BLOCK: Tom Hooper directed the new film adaptation of "Les Miserables." You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.