Les Misérables Q&A

by admin on January 4, 2013


“Les Misérables”

Roger Durling with Actor Eddie Redmayne and Director Tom Hooper

Roger Durling: Please welcome Academy Award winning director, Tom Hooper and Eddie Redmayne. You know what’s amazing Tom, is that I had never seen a reaction like I have seen now – long applause and standing ovation, until you walked in for The King’s Speech two years ago.

Tom Hooper: I love Santa Barbara.

Durling: Speaking of passion and feeling, you directed The King’s Speech, which incited so much feeling from people, and then all of a sudden you have this movie that incites even more emotion and passion. How did you go about choosing this as your follow up project?

Hooper: Well I think it was moments like two years ago in Santa Barbara. I had no idea the King’s speech was going to invoke that kind of reaction. We were just making a small film that no one had ever heard of, from an unproduced play that no one had ever seen, about a historical moment that didn’t even make it into the history books. But when I travelled around with that movie and got that response, it made me feel that for my next film, I wanted to find a very emotional way of connecting with the audience and to be able to stay in that zone and find something that could maybe move people even more. Because that was the most gratifying thing of the whole process, how it made people feel and how people felt connected to that story was the biggest, most exciting thing. I thought what was interesting about Les Miserables was that combination of an extraordinary story and these extraordinary characters expressing themselves through the medium of song with this amazing music that would offer a heightened reality in which emotions could be more strongly experienced and that’s what drew me.

Durling: That was my follow up question. In theater, musical theater, and on stage, it’s a heightened sense of reality and film in particular, is extremely realistic. Was it challenging trying to translate the musical onto the screen?

Hooper: It was a huge challenge. I think in many ways, it was a performance challenge because you can’t deliver the songs like you do on a stage when you’re belting them to the back of the room. We had to reinvent this musical so that it would work with the intimacy of the cinematic close-up. So my search began to find those actors who were not only great singers and actors but most importantly could act through song in the medium of the cinematic close-up. The challenge I laid down in the auditions was, I want you to show me whether you can tell the story of this song, you know your life story, your personal story in a way that just holds the close-up. Where I don’t need to go anywhere else because you’re able to take me on that journey and act that story through song and I was lucky enough to find this extraordinary cast who were able to do that, particularly this man sitting next to me.

Durling: Eddie, you’ve acted on stage and in film, now this process of singing with a close-up, what was that like, I mean you’ve acted in movies but this must have been completely different.

Eddie Redmayne: Firstly, can I thank you all for that response. I can’t tell you we all-the one thing that bound this production was that although it was on an epic scale and it was a big studio movie, all the people involved felt as if it was an intimate passion project. We all loved Les Mis since we were kids. Everyone, every actor, had their own story attached to it and so the expectation of Les Mis fans felt vast and intimidating but also our own sense of expectation felt vast and intimidating so to hear that response from you here, I cannot tell you how overwhelming it is. In relation to the idea of the theater and film world colliding, that’s what made this experience so unique. Theater and film feel like they should be very close and yet, I feel like they’re wildly divided. And seeing how those two worlds met on this was extraordinary. One of the things we had to do was reevaluate having worked on stage and a bit on film was to try and reevaluate how to approach it. So one of the things we did in our vocal training, in the four months sort of leading up to starting the film, was not only to gain the stamina to be able to do twenty or thirty takes of a song, but also, which was interesting because even for the musical theater actors a lot of whom, the students, and a lot of the guys in the film are musical theater actors, even they only have to do one or two shows a day maximum if they’re playing in the West End or Broadway, so for those guys too, you had to change the musculature in your vocal chords. The other thing was being able to sing and give volume and passion to something without contorting your face. So in order to be able to hold a close-up and not send you guys repelled by this sort of gremlin grimace, I remember long hours with my vocal coach in which the exercises were very extreme. But what was quite hilarious was that often a lot of the vocal stuff we had to do wasn’t even about singing, it was about changing the back of your tongue muscles. So I was demonstrating some of these excercises the other day and someone said, “It’s a bit like The King’s Speech, basically.” And it sort of was, very odd.

Durling: Tom, how much of an adaptation did you have to do once you got the script? It’s also all sung-through, did you ever consider switching it to part-singing, part-acting?

Hooper: It’s an interesting question because the very first draft I read by William Nicholson, who wrote “Gladiator” and Shutter Island, he had taken the understandable approach of breaking it down to dialogue interspersed with songs. In doing that, he’d aligned himself with the tradition of the movie musical. I mean, I think there are only two sung-through movie musicals to my knowledge and one is Tommy and the other is Evita. One of my first decisions I had to make was do we honor the sung-through version of the musical which is pretty much like an opera, or do we go with Bill’s instinct and divide it up. I felt that my whole being was focused and invested on this idea that I was creating an alternate reality where people communicated through song and how do you make it utterly convincing so that you guys relax within minutes and just go with the story rather than being constantly conscious of the fact that they’re singing. That’s why it’s a high stakes game doing a musical because if it’s not utterly convincing then all is lost. There’s no other way of putting it. The tricky thing when you alternate is that you are setting up two realities. A normal dialogue realism reality and a singing reality and those gear changes are very hard. (In song) I mean, if suddenly I was going to sing to you about why I did the script this way you might wonder why the hell, I’m choosing to sing right now. I mean you would wouldn’t you? Why now? And so I began to think about it and ask for a lot of advice. I went to see Baz Luhrmann and I asked Baz what he felt and he said, “Well Tom, it’s tricky because unless you’ve got a contract you can make with the audience that gives you permission to transition from one to the other, it’s a very tough thing to do.” We talked about Chicago and how the device of going inside her head gave you the chance to go into the musical form but there didn’t seem to be a device like that in this. So in the end, I thought maybe the braver thing to do is to say, No this is a world where people primarily communicate through song. And we’re going to have the confidence to do it and hope that by not constantly changing, people would relax.

Durling: And then also there was the bold choice of the fact that all the performers sang live and filmed and recorded live. How did that come about?

Hooper: Well that became such an obsession of mine that I got to a point where I said I’m not doing the film unless I can do the singing live. This is because of two things. It’s partially because of how I react to the movie-musical where even with the great musicals, I still find myself regularly having to reforgive the film for lip-syncing. However well it’s done, however convincing it’s done, there’s a part of you know that knows it’s fake. Because the one thing we spend a lot of time doing is watching peoples mouths when they speak. That’s what we do as human beings. So we instinctively know when they’re not really producing a sound. I didn’t want that barrier between the audience and the story, particularly in an emotional context. I mean musicals, when they’re light hearted or comedic, it’s easier to forgive this because the film isn’t asking you to take its world totally seriously. But this is a film that demands you to take these lives and this suffering seriously. So I didn’t want that barrier. But secondly, more importantly I wanted to give the power back to my actors. Great acting is about being utterly in the present tense and in the moment and to do that, you need to have freedom in time. What I mean by that, you know the great challenge I laid down to Eddie with Empty Chairs I said, “this is a world famous song but forget that, I want you to create the illusion that you’ve invented the song, that Marius writ this song out of his soul in the moment and you are the sole author of it and it’s never been said before until now.” To do that, actors might need to take a moment for an emotional thought to hit their eyes and sing about that. If they start to cry, you need to hear that in their voice, even something as simple as when you begin. Eddie could sit there and he’s starting acapella, he can sing when he’s ready to sing, if it takes five seconds or a minute. In playback it would be like, “Alright, Eddie, the camera’s running ok and four, three, two, one…no. you’re late. Cut! Cut! Cut! He’s late, start again.” And it’s a very tough medium. When you’re singing to playback, you have to match what you did before to the millisecond and the other thing that, Hugh Jackman, who had done one musical before mentioned was that most actors don’t like listening to the sound of their voice. They’re very self-concious about their performance and then you have to suffer hearing this performance that you don’t even like again and again all day going “Why did I do that?”

Durling: Eddie, can you explain to the audience how you felt throughout this process? Am I understanding that you were the one who was dictating where the music would go?

Redmayne: Yeah, well I’ll start by explaining what the technical process was. We had an earpiece in and about twenty-meters off set was an accompanist playing an electric piano, which was playing silently in the room but was feeding into our ear and the accompanist was watching playback, and it meant that we controlled the song instead of the song controlling us. So if we decided to slow down, the accompanist would go with us and if we sped up they would follow us too. In post-production the pianist was removed and accompanied by this seventy piece orchestra and various things came with that. The first thing being that the unspoken heroes of this film are the accompanists, there were two of them called Roger and Jen, who were so sensitive. Take after take they would have to adapt to how we were changing and be completely alert and they were basically the other character in the scene. The other problem was, you would hear this slightly tinny piano in your ear and sometimes when you sung loudly or with passion you would be singing louder than what you were hearing and since you didn’t have the support or the sort of romance of this huge sweeping orchestra, you kind of had to imagine and picture that. Often, there were moments when you felt like you had to leap off into a void. But at the same point, I will never forget singing Little Fall of Rain when Eponine is dying and we’re in this huge studio in Pinewood, massive sets, hundreds of people there, and there was complete silence. It was myself and Samantha, the extraordinary actress who plays Eponine, literally at this distance, singing into each other’s eyes in this whisper and it was one of the most extraordinary feelings because it was this complete stillness, and weirldy the most real experience I’ve had on film.

Durling: Tom, The Casting. I read somewhere that you made all of the actors including Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway audition for their roles?

Hooper: I made Russell Crowe audition. I think it’s good medicine for the man. I mean, it’s out of respect to the fans and what this is, I didn’t want to take anything as an assumption, so I made everyone audition including Hugh, because it wasn’t just if they could sing or act but whether they could master this particular challenge of acting through song in a cinematic way. And I felt very strongly that I shouldn’t think myself into a place where I’m directing Les Miserables, come what may, and the producers had to take a deep breath. And I said, ‘I’m not going to do it unless the cast exists and they may not exist in this moment of time, there may not be those people out there.’ And the truth is, I’m very lucky because my short list for the part of Jean Valjean was you know, Number one, Hugh Jackman and number two, please refer to number one. If Hugh didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have made the film. He had that combination of being an extraordinary actor and an extraordinary singer with a real musical theatre background and training, who had the extraordinary strength, to play this legendarily strong man, and who has the kind of grace and kindness in him to play this very spiritual part. Most of the film, you know, he’s had this spiritual conversion, he’s a man of faith, going through the world with the guidance of that faith. Hugh had these particular qualities and he was the right kind of age so I feel so lucky for Hugh. Not only does he have that creative extraordinary power within him, he’s also an amazing leader of people and amazing leader of team. In thirteen weeks this man never said a sharp word to anyone, he was always gracious, and sometimes you meet people and think they’re very nice but maybe they’re political. But this guy was nice to his core, to an extraordinary degree. He was also a great leader of this ensemble I had, which I’m very grateful to him for.

Redmayne: Just to add in with the auditions, they were brutal. But by the end, I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was like a really horrible vicious episode of American Idol or X factor. You literally sat there doing the audition behind a panel of judges, with Tom, Nina Gold, the casting director, the composer, the lyricists, the producers, Cameron Macintosh, the theater producer-I mean all that was missing was Simon Cowell. And I have a newfound respect for people who go on those shows.

Durling: And you’d worked with Tom before of course?

Redmayne: This is true, I worked with Tom about seven years ago on an HBO piece called, “Elizabeth the First” with Helen Mirren. In my last audition, I was a bit of a whippersnapper and just starting out, Tom goes, “Eddie, last thing, can you ride a horse?” to which I responded to with, “Uh, yeah!” Cut to two weeks later, we’re in Lithuania where we’re shooting it. I’m atop this huge stallion having spurs attached to my feet and there are 45 Lithuanian horse stuntmen behind me, I’m meant to be leading a charge and I’m wondering at what point do I admit that I’d never been on a horse before in my life. I’m genuinely too humiliated to do anything about it so, Tom calls action and I sort of nudge the poor horse who then goes off at 100 miles and hour and I almost kill myself and half the crew and Tom emerges from behind Helen Mirren whose in a huge Elizabethean dress on a balcony and he takes his loud speaker and goes, “You’re a bloody liar Redmayne!!” So, there are moments in the film you just watched in which Marius is meant to get on a horse with a flag and that was Tom’s decision to make that day in rehearsal entertaining in a sadistic payback for all those years ago. So yes, we had worked together before.

Hooper: So you can imagine what ran through my mind when I had my first meeting with Eddie to discuss Les Miserables and I said, “Eddie, you can sing can’t you?”

Durling: Tom, can you talk to us a little bit about the design of the film? You talked about this heightened realism and everything was slanted in the sets and the fragility of everything in the café where Marius is and the doors…It wasn’t just me right? Everything is kind of slanted…

Hooper: No, you’re not on something, it’s ok. I’m blessed with a wonderful production designer called Eve Stuart. She did the King’s Speech with me and this is our fourth time working together and she’s a true maverick who’s got a great eye. What we enjoyed about creating this world was the balance between getting a real gritty realism so that you ground this world in something so real that it makes the singing convincing, particluarly for the beginning when you come up to the dock and you see all the convicts up to their waists in water, holding the ropes in and you see Hugh Jackman’s emaciated frame. I wanted to start somewhere very tough but at the same time we kept talking about how this was a musical and would therefore be a mistake or a shame if we interpreted it as just kitchen sink melodrama and dind’t actually allow for the operatic and the expressionist. For one of the first times in my lfie I had enough of a budget, it wasn’t a huge budget, but enough of one to build much more of the world I was in than normal. I think about half of what you see is built and that gave us a control over the visual idiom. There were certain running light motifs, for example, in the very beginning Hugh Jackman is under the shadow of this boat being released by Javert and there’s a kind of avenging angel in the shape of a hydra on the figurehead of the boat and he walks up steps to freedom and then later when Fantine begins her descent she goes down matching steps and she ends up under the bowels of a boat with a very similar figurehead and is sort of forced into prostitution in the watery depths of the boat. And there’s always this link between, you know, Victor Hugo treats the sea as a sort of metaphor for the penal colonies, says the sea is measuredness misery. So I had this idea of coming out of the sea and ending the film in the light in the sky. Then when Hugh rescues Fantine, he takes her back up the steps. So there’s all these kind of parallels we’re playing and yes there’s sort of, in the street where the barricade happens, we created a sort of flat-iron style café that’s collapsing into its self and it’s sort of a symbol of, you’re absolutely right, the fragility of the student’s cause and the likelihood of failure. And we actually discovered that Paris looks very different from the Paris you go to now. It was full of medieval buildings and had a lot of color in it so we were able to create a Paris that you can’t even see if you go there. Her and our wonderufl costume designer Paco Delgado who has designed for Pedro Almodavar for many years, you know their use of color and their balancing between realism and expressionism I thought was beautiful and I’m very lucky to have them.

Durling: Eddie, the scene in the barricade, not only are you singing and acting and running around but things are flying above you and could you tell us about shooting that barricade scene, you had been building the barricades yourselves right?

Redmayne: You’re absolutely right. It was one of the greatest days of my life. Eve had built this beautiful set in the Richard Attenborough stage in Pinewood and everything was intricate, down to what was in the shops to the iron mongery, to everything. On that day, Tom had, we had maybe sixty peasants? And then the thirty students. Tom had five cameramen dressed up as peasants, the cameras were covered and in disguise and ten minutes worth of film stock was put into these them and Tom said, “Build a barricade, action.” And we went, “What?” and from above us, pianos started falling. Like wardrobes started falling. There was livestock there was, you know, it was complete–the most anarchic, adrenaline feuled, exciting, wildly terrifying, I mean my inner eight year old was having the best moment of his life and what is extraordinary is that you can build a barricade in ten minutes. We all then, the students, we got to the end of the take, sweating and kind of asking, ‘what did we just experience?’ and we came in the next day to start filming next month on the barricades assuming they would have taken our shoddy barricade and replaced it with a beautifully set-designed one and instead they had pinned together our attempt which was wonderful except it became a nice booby-trap for the next month and a half. But it was an extraordinary experience and a lot of what Tom did was to create as real a circumstance as he could and so in capturing the moments, you couldn’t even see where the lenses were and it all felt really real.

Durling: Tom, regarding the changing of the singing, the positioning of I Dreamed a Dream is different from the musical. Why did you decide to switch the order?

Hooper: Well, I did a number of changes from the musical for those who know it, snd they were all inspired by the book. Probably the most significant changes in the book, Val Jean experiences two epiphanies, two experiences of transition. One with the bishop, where he discovers virtue and faith, and the second where he discovers love, when he meets little Cosette. And out of nowhere he had the responsibility for a child and has to be a parent to this child and he discovers, which many of you in the audience probably know, this extraordinary ability to love that just flows out of you when a child comes into your life. And I felt that that wasn’t honored in the musical and was very subtle in the musical. So I asked the composers to write a new song about what it was to discover this ability to love. In particular, from the point of view of a guy who’s middle-aged, who’d been brutalized, and never been loved or loved. And that was the song, “Suddenly”, that you saw. There were other subtle changes, which you’re right, the moving of “I Dreamed a Dream” was one of them. Which was inspired partly because I went back to listen to the original, french rock-opera version of this. Which is actually quite fun and had a different structure to it. I noticed that “Dreamed a Dream” came later in that and the lyricist working on the screenplay had suggested that we look into moving it later and in the show it’s straight off the factory. So you’ve only just met her and you don’t know her particularly well and moving it after the moment where she’s forced into prostitution gives it a kind of bleakness, pain, and rawness, that I find can be a bit overwhelming but it completely changed the way Annie needed to do the song. Because it’s never been in that place before and everyone who had come before her had sung it in context to where it originally is and that’s why she chose to do it in such a way.