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Les Miserables - Tom Hooper interview

Les Miserables

Interview by Rob Carnevale

TOM Hooper talks about some of the technical challenges of bringing Les Miserables to the big screen and why he likes to stay loyal to people as well as giving others their chance.

He also discusses the delicate balance of finding the right shots and protecting the actors to give them an intimate environment. He was speaking at a UK press conference for the film.

Q. Is it a different directorial approach to directing a musical?
Tom Hooper: I suppose growing up here and making films and TV in London I grew up in quite a realist, naturalistic tradition where your anchor is real. So, as a if you’re anchored by what is real you become a little unstuck in a musical because people don’t generally sing to each other in real life. So, what I enjoyed about it was the chance to cut some of the ties to what is the measure of what is real when I normally direct and find reality or truth in a different medium. It was an opportunity to be more expressionistic and to operate in a more heightened medium. But what’s interesting is that I deployed a lot of what I know about how to be real in order to ground the musical and its expressionistic side, so that I felt I was in a tightrope walk between grittiness and very, hopefully, carefully observed historical accuracy and a more operatic, or heightened mode of expression.

Q. How did you deal with the limitations potentially posed by filming live musical performances in terms of keeping it visually interesting?
Tom Hooper: One of the central challenges that came out of me embracing live singing actually related to something that’s been talked about less, which is what was important to me was that not just the singing being live but also the accompaniment playing along with the actors live, which we did in the solos and the duets. On the big chorus numbers, we tended to fix off the tempo otherwise it would have been too complicated. But when you have that freedom, like when Anne sung I Dreamed A Dream she was free to make changes in tempo, and choices to sing the song slower or faster, and to change speed.

But what it also means is that you can’t necessarily have one take with another, so when you’re shooting the scene sometimes you have to accept that each take is a unique event and you need all the shots and all the coverage in that one take to tell the entire story and performance, which imposes quite a discipline on you – it means you have to shoot it multi-camera. There were always three cameras running, and sometimes up to six, so definitely within that there is a delicate balancing act between where you’d ideally like to place the camera and where you need to place the camera in order to protect more than one type of shot at the same time.

But I felt in the end what was most important in this case was giving privacy to the solo performance and the actor, to give them the most freedom to invest in the emotional language and the emotions of each scene. And just having heard Anne talk about the depth of the research she had done, I just wanted to put her in a place where she wasn’t going to be compromised in her interpretation.

Q. But you’ve also got to be conscious that you can’t ask for endless takes when actors are giving their all, I suppose?
Tom Hooper: Well, strangely the actors as a group seem to have gleaned that I might not see live singing as a reason to hold back on the number of takes. They all did an immense amount of preparation so that that wasn’t a limiting factor. Hugh Jackman probably was the shining example because he chose to do a one-man show on Broadway… eight shows a week for three or four months to prepare for the film. So, I was very grateful that he took his preparation properly seriously! Not all the cast prepared in quite the same way [smiles] but Hugh felt that a Broadway show was a great place to start. The extraordinary thing was that your point was our big concern. And one of the reasons I shot it in the way that I did was because I thought ‘what if we can’t go beyond take four or five’? Eddie Redmayne in that brilliant Empty Chairs & Empty Tables that he does… that was the 21st take of 21. He sang that 21 times and he would have kept going! That boy wasn’t finished yet. He had been waiting for a year to do this and he really wanted to give it his all. And take 21, as you can hear, has no issue of vocal stamina. He’s in his stride.

Q. Can you talk about the choice of Paco Delgado as costume designer?
Tom Hooper: The first thing I directed after the Academy Awards appropriately was a Captain Morgan commercial campaign where we were in Spain recreating a pirate ship and a war between pirate ships with a large cast. It was one of those mini 60 second epics that you do. It was great fun. I wanted the best Spanish costume designer I could find and Paco is that man and I’ve always admired the extraordinary work he did with Pedro Almodovar. I remember a scene in Bad Education with all those boys in the playground and everyone’s shorts were a slightly different colour and a slightly different cut because he’d obviously worked out that in those days the parents, or the mum, had made the kids’ shorts. So, that unbelievable eye for detail and the richness of each thing appealed to me and he then did an extraordinary job on this commercial.

So, I was working out how to do Les Mis and Eve Stewart, my wonderful production designer, who also worked on this commercial, suddenly said: “Why don’t you think about Paco?” It was a wonderful idea and a stroke of genius. Yes, Paco has never done a film of this size in the UK or the US. But I’m very loyal. A lot of my team have worked with me before. And I’m a great believer in giving people chances. This business can be incredibly conservative about giving people breaks. I know I had to fight endlessly, through a number of barriers, to get any opportunities to direct. You sometimes feel that however much you’ve proved that you can do it, and you weren’t a risk, people still are very risk averse in this industry. But I recognised in Paco that despite his genius there was still that kind of feeling, so I fought very hard for him and I’m so proud of his results.

Read our review of Les Miserables

Read our interview with Hugh Jackman

Read our interview with Anne Hathaway