The last time I spoke with director Tom Hooper feels like centuries ago. That’s because it came the afternoon after his film “The King’s Speech” screened for audiences at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival, before that film would go on to the Toronto festival and explode into the season as an unassuming heartwarmer destined for Oscar gold. It was the calm before the storm, and Hooper thinks back on it now with a hint of longing in his voice.
“I have very fond, special memories of that,” he says, calling from Australia following the premiere of his latest film, “Les Misérables,” in Sydney. “Telluride was amazing because it was such an intimate and relaxed place for that journey to start. Because I remember after that going to Toronto and I have never done that kind of junket process before. I mean, literally, sort of brought to tears from the madness of it, and Telluride was a really lovely place to start.”
As lovely as those modest beginnings might have been, “Les Misérables” was never going to enjoy such a soft start. Propped up at a major studio as its big holiday awards play, coming from a director whose last at-bat drew such considerable Oscar love, based on one of the most successful stage creations in history, the film had expectant eyes on it before it was anywhere near finished. And it was finally unleashed onto the world the day after Thanksgiving to a New York Academy and guild crowd eager to devour it (and boy did they eat it up).
Hooper told the crowd then that he was surprised when he saddled up to the project that no one had ever taken a crack at adapting the stage musical. He said he wanted to tap the same emotion one feels watching the production but in a cinematic realm, and his thoughts on that were focused on how to better capture the performances: with live singing and in most cases tight shots on faces. Nevertheless, he says he’s surprised the latter has received so much attention as of late.
“You can have people writing about the film where they talk about the close-ups and at the same time they talk about the fact that they’re surrounded by people who are crying continuously,” he says. “And it’s as if people don’t make the connection between why people are crying and the close-up. I do think the intimacy of the movie is the thing that you can never achieve when you watch it on stage. And it’s the intimacy that is unlocking these extraordinary levels of emotion.”
It’s an element he says he’s witnessed all over the world as he’s travelled with the film to its various premieres — England, Japan, Australia. But he won’t cop to it being a predetermined aesthetic. It was actually a process that led him to the choice to keep Anne Hathaway’s performance of the song “I Dreamed a Dream” in close-up for the majority of the track. As Hooper was hovering over the editing bay one day, star Eddie Redmayne walked in and asked why he was cutting through the coverage of the scene.
“He said, ‘Why aren’t you using that shot you’re using in the teaser trailer,'” Hooper recalls. “‘There’s that close-up of Anne where you see all the kind of musculature of her neck as she sings up towards the moon and it’s extraordinary and there’s a whole detail that you’re not getting on the shot you’re using.’ And I cannot tell you the difference to the emotional impact of the song. I’ve said to Anne, more than once, ‘You have to thank Eddie Redmayne for the way this song plays because of him questioning it and us going the bolder route of using that shot.’ The very next time we played the film, it made people cry in a way it never had done. And so in fact in the case of ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ that close-up unlocked the song.”
Hathaway’s performance is great in any angle, Hooper says, but “if you start loose you’re kind of saying, ‘Well, the beginning of the song is not so important and the song gets more important as you progress.’ But the very first thing she says is ‘I dreamed a dream in times gone by,’ and when you’re close with her on that line, the beginning is as important as anything else. It’s impossible to make a hierarchy in that song where you say, you know, ‘The key moment’s at the end and the beginning is just sort of a preamble to it.'”
Something else Hooper shows a clear interest in is an overall visual aesthetic that first stood out (and was derided in some snarky quarters) in “The King’s Speech.” He often frames his actors close to the edge of the frame. In his last film, it worked in a thematic sense because the main character was in some ways secluded and trapped by his speech impediment. In “Les Misérables,” it sticks out most in the aforementioned “I Dreamed a Dream” sequence.
“There’s moments where you feel like she’s going to drop out of shot because she gets so close to the right-hand edge of the frame,” he says. “And there’s also an out-of-focus pillar of the boat that she almost hides behind. And that sense of just staying within the frame and being on the edge of it gives the whole shot attention that is different if you just put her in the middle. And I wanted to find a way of having compositional drama in it; and of course, in that song, not dissimilarly from ‘The King’s Speech,’ she is trapped. She has just become a prostitute. So she has become trapped by this decision she’s made. There’s no going back. She can never take this moment away. And the idea of the frame trapping her is absolutely right for that moment because she’s talking about the end of something, the death of something, the death of her hopes and dreams.”
He continues: “A lot of filmmakers avoid the edges. And I understand why. But I like having actors have a strong relationship with the edge of the frame. As filmmakers we have to work with the box, you know? We have to work with this picture inside a black box, which is the edges of the cinema screen, and I often like invoking the finality of it rather than pretending it’s not there.”
Further to the film’s visual storytelling, Hooper says he was keen to constantly tread a line between gritty and heightened realism. He wanted it to be a visceral experience, which in part informed his decision to have the actors sing live during the production. “The singing really grounded it in something bodily and physical, but at the same time, the license allowed me to create a more expressionistic universe,” he says.
He also wanted to constantly conjure the power of the state, which is exemplified by the massive, damaged warship a group of slaves — through quite Biblical imagery — are hauling out of the sea at the beginning of the film. “It’s like a wounded animal being brought in and it shows the state is vulnerable, that it can be attacked, that it can be destroyed,” he says.
Similarly, there is also the film’s very first image, starting underwater, in the dark, before hitting on a tattered, drowned French flag and ascending from the depths. It’s an image of revolution, Hooper says. And that idea of ascension was also at play in his visual ideas throughout.
“There’s a theme of height in the film,” he says. “I mean, not only do we go from under the water to up in the sky, but you’ve got Valjean, released from prison underneath the great shadow of this huge boat and then he goes up the steps to freedom, leaving Javert in the depths. And then later, he goes up the mountain to a little mountain village where he finds God. So he ascends to find the light. Later, when he releases his parole document, the camera ascends further up into the air, up to the clouds, up to where we feel God exists, you know, behind a break, behind a tear in the cloud. And then these little bits of parole ticket fail to ascend all the way and get dragged back down in the rain, back down into the mud, back down to Russell Crowe, back down to his nemesis, back down to what’s stopping him. Fantine later descends down steps to become a whore and ends up inside the bowels of the boat, surrounded by water, when she’s forced to be a prostitute. And then when she’s saved by Valjean, she’s lifted up the steps to freedom. That was an intentional motif.”
While “Les Misérables” is a unique entry in the canon of musical cinema, Hooper nevertheless had his touchstones along the way. The first that comes to mind for him is Norman Jewison’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” which he found particularly inspiring. “Sacha [Baron Cohen] suggested we watch it for the Thénardiers section,” he says. “I feel like some of ‘Master of the House’ is an homage to what Jewison did.”
Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” was another. “It’s one of the very few sung-through musicals ever made,” he says. “As far as I can tell, there’s ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,’ there’s ‘Tommy’ and ‘Evita’ are the only ones that have been done. And I loved in ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’ the combination of singing with very mundane worlds. I mean, it begins with car mechanics, with a guy who’s changing for the end of the day’s shift to go out, and it’s sort of very ordinary. The combination of a very ordinary world with singing was really interesting. It really works and it’s delightful. I found that very inspiring.”
And speaking of “Evita,” Hooper has plenty of praise and appreciation for Alan Parker’s work. “‘Bugsy Malone,’ when I was kid, had a huge influence on me,” he says. “Whether it’s ‘The Commitments’ or ‘Fame,’ which is extraordinary looking back at it again, he was influential.”
“Les Misérables” is coming along at a particular time in the world. Things like the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street and 99% movements and just the overall socio-economical status quo are significant identifiers of the era. The depiction of the June Rebellion in “Les Misérables,” to say nothing of its overall study of social states, makes it a particularly rich piece of material for tapping into the zeitgeist in some way.
None of this was lost on Hooper when he set out to develop it for the screen. He was overwhelmed by how timely it was, in fact. “Not only do we have sort of widespread anger about rising economic inequality to an unacceptable degree,” he says, “but we’ve also got the real beginnings of very active student protests at St. Paul’s in London and obviously the Occupy Wall Street movement. And every day we have images of revolution on our front pages because of what’s happening in Syria and the shifts the Middle East.”
The thing that struck him the most, though, was how Victor Hugo’s original novel — which he went back and read before prepping the film — is so passionately motivated by real anger at the level of poverty Hugo saw around himself.
“And 150 years later, we’re still in a world with unacceptable levels of poverty,” Hooper says. “It’s sad to me that, unfortunately, his lament remains as true as ever. ‘Les Misérables’ is the great anthem of the dispossessed. It’s the great cry from the heart of those who suffer, and giving voice to that anger from the people is key.”
“Les Misérables” is now playing in a theater near you.