NEW YORK — “Happy Thanksgiving,” director Tom Hooper said by way of introduction to an Alice Tully Hall packed with guild and Academy members this afternoon. He was on hand to present his latest film, an adaptation of the musical “Les Misérables,” his first effort since the Oscar-winning “The King’s Speech” two years ago and one of the awards season’s most anticipated titles.
The film had screened for Screen Actors Guild Nominating Committee members earlier in the morning, but Hooper nevertheless made the crowd feel special with a little white lie. “In case you feel you’re slow to the party, you are the first audience to see the film,” he said. “We finished it at 2am yesterday.”
Being that it’s Thanksgiving week, Hooper — a Brit who noted that he went to his first Thanksgiving dinner last night and “learned the ritual of saying what we’re thankful and grateful for” — said he was mostly grateful to have finished in time for today. The pressure is on in the shortened phase one window for studios to get their contenders out there ASAP, and indeed, Hooper will be on his way to Los Angeles soon enough to do the very same song and dance tomorrow. But he said he was pleased to be able to treat the New York scene first.
“It’s great to show the film at the Lincoln Center, which is really the home of the human voice at its best and most wonderful,” he said. “We’re sitting underneath Julliard. Next door we have great temples to the human voice, and it’s great to be presenting this live-sung musical in this wonderful venue.”
That point about live singing would be a big one during the post-screening Q&A, which featured Hooper and stars Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne. Universal Pictures has already produced and proliferated a featurette playing up the virtues of the practice, which is indeed unique to the genre. But while it presented clear challenges, Hooper said he felt it was the only way to go.
“I wanted to see what I could learn from the masters doing the musicals, and I always thought there was some tiny amount of distance I was experiencing between me and the form,” he said. “I felt in the end that there was a falsity…I think of it as emotional. There can’t be any distance between you and the person expressing emotions through song…Most importantly, for me, acting is all about pure language in the present tense. To act is to create the illusion that these songs, these speeches are produced by the character in the heat of the moment. This gave the actors the freedom to control tempo, maybe to take a tiny fraction of a second to alter an emotion or express it.”
Hooper first came to the project because he had been working some time back with screenwriter William Nicholson on something else entirely. This was before the big ride that was “The King’s Speech.” Nicholson got the call to adapt “Les Misérables” for the screen, and Hooper’s first thought was shock that the musical — which first hit the stage on London’s West End in 1985 — hadn’t been translated to film yet. His second thought was equal shock that he had never seen the theater show himself.
So he went to see the show in August of 2010, a month before “The King’s Speech” bowed at the Telluride Film Festival. And the emotions of the piece really spoke to him.
“There’s a moment at the very end of the film where Valjean is walking out towards the bishop and you hear the ghostly chorus of the people’s song coming in,” he said. “When that moment hit, I felt stunned. I had the most extraordinary physical sensation and I wondered if I could create that same physical power on film.”
He then started the long journey of exploring the material, which led to a reading of the original Victor Hugo novel, which he had never read. “In England I suppose we read Dickens more than we read Hugo,” he quipped. “But it’s a masterpiece. And I began to see things in the novel that excited me for the film. There’s a brilliant moment when Valjean meets Cosette and Victor Hugo writes, ‘This was the second white apparition Valjean had encountered. The Bishop taught him virtue. Cosette taught him the meaning of love.’ I began to think there was this story of twin epiphanies, of the discovery of spirituality and compassion and the transformative power of love.”
That’s also, interestingly enough, what led him to collaborate with the show’s original songwriting team of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boubil and Herbert Kretzmer on the one trackign completely unique to the film: “Suddenly.”
For Hathaway, the chance to tackle the role of Fantine was particularly special because her mother was the understudy for the part in the show’s first national tour. That’s a narrative that starts to write itself in an awards season desperate for a certain kind of personal touch, and she may well win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress despite the role’s brevity. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is a bonafide show-stopper that sent the theater-loving crowd into ecstasy when it concluded (after being captured in one single shot, no less).
“It was great to, as you would in a scene — you learn your lines, you learn your lines, you learn your lines, you forget your lines,” she said, referring to the live singing element. “You forget anyone ever wrote your lines, because they’re yours. They’re just what your character is saying in that moment. It was wonderful to have the freedom to turn your brain off and just live it and let it come out as it did, and it was great to have a live piano there, so that if a particular emotion overwhelmed you, you could ride the emotion out. It was wonderful.”
On that note (so to speak), Redmayne added that “the unsung hero of the film was the two accompanying pianists. Throughout the day I could do one scene but they would have to do five. Their sensitivity and response, that got removed in post-production and got replaced by an orchestra, but they were like the other character in the scenes.”
Seyfried, meanwhile, felt a lot of pressure just to keep her voice in shape. “I was always conscious of how I sounded and how my sinuses were, and all that gross stuff that you keep hearing about, not staying out late, it’s tough,” she said. “After every day that I did my one or two big pieces, I was so relieved and felt like I was glad I cleared them out because I’m just not used to singing so much, and it’s so fragile.” She took a breath and sighed, “I’m just really glad it’s over.”
However, it wasn’t Seyfried’s first experience with the older Cosette. She actually played the part in a recital when she was 15 and studying classical music. “I wasn’t great,” she said, “but I certainly enjoyed the music.” In recalling her first viewing of the whole experience, she said, “I saw ‘Les Mis’ in Philadelphia and I was, like, on the edge of my seat. It was the first time my mom said I sat still for three hours. And it’s been playing in my house ever since.”
Barks also has history with the production — recent history. She played the role of Éponine on stage in London from June of 2010 to June of 2011 and even starred in the 25th Anniversary Concert of the production at the O2 Arena there in October of 2010.
“It’s been a long sort of journey with this character,” she said. “So to take it from the stage to the film has been an incredible experience. It’s completely different, those two disciplines, because [with a film] you’re allowed the intimacy of not coming to play to 2,000 people and you can use the camera to develop more of a range of emotion.” But she nevertheless admitted that it was a “mixed bag,” given the challenges.
Hathaway was also forthcoming about how Hooper’s chosen process put on plenty of pressure. “Some days you’d wake up and the top note is there, and some days it’s so not,” she said, to plenty of laughs.
Hathaway was seven when she first saw the production and, like Hooper, recognized the chills she got from the emotion while watching her mother tackling the role she would one day tackle herself. “Today, to see it on this big screen in this acoustically perfect hall, you guys are the best gift ever,” she said. “Thank you for loving it so much.”
To which an audience member shouted, “Thank YOU!”
Truly, the crowd was over the moon for the film. Particularly for things like the presence of actor Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean on the stage and here takes the part of the bishop. It’s home town turf, of course, but my instinct is it will play just fine for audiences on the west coast tomorrow, too.
And the Best Picture landscape will be shaken up one more time this season. Is this the one to take it all the way, two years after Hooper did precisely that? I’m thinking it might just be, but I’ll get into my own thoughts on it in due time. (Indeed, we haven’t yet gotten to the hilarious duo of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, or even the film’s two biggest stars, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. But perhaps that’s because, in some ways, they’re not the story of the cast as much as the quartet who were on stage this afternoon.)
“Les Misérables” opens nationwide on Christmas Day.