'Les Miserables'
'Les Miserables'

Tom Hooper sounds sniffly. He calls it "flying related." He's calling me from Japan, where he's about to attend yet another premiere of "Les Miserables." "I have yet to manage to show the movie to our own Royal family," he says. "Now I'm showing it to the Crown Prince of Japan."

"Les Miserables" is a tour de force dramatic musical, no holds barred, a tearjerker. It's also a huge Christmas hit--all over the world--despite its two-and-a-half hour running time. Star Hugh Jackman drew cheers at a recent Screen Actors Guild screening; they were the perfect target demo: fans of the global hit musical, willing to embrace high-voltage heart-on-sleeve emotion in moist close-up.

Hooper's goal was to pull every audience member into every tic of feeling. It's too claustrophobic for some folks --including film critics who have both embraced and resisted the film. But they neither represent worldwide moviegoers nor Academy voters, who may be more inclined to recognize the director's sheer audacity. Hooper digs into just how and why he chose to tell this story this way, below.

Universal co-chairman Donna Langley had tried to do a film version of "East of Eden" with Hooper and Imagine. Soon after Hooper won the directing Oscar for Best-Picture "The King's Speech," Working Title's Eric Fellner and Langley, who has long collaborated with them on their smart-house movies, convinced Hooper to do "Les Miserables."

I asked Langley why he was the right man for the job. "Looking at his body of work-- from 'Longford,' which was a small movie he directed in the UK, to 'John Adams' and then 'The King's Speech'--he's an incredible storyteller both visually and narratively," she says. "He has respect for the material, but he is an entertainer, he's interested in elevating the story in the most sophisticated way. And 'Les Mis' needed a visual style;  I was so impressed by what he did on 'The King's Speech,' from a visual standpoint, from the production design to the camera-work, on what could have been a TV movie, which was in fact dismissed as such by many studios and financiers. He finds a way to tell an intimate story but put it against a big epic backdrop. On top of that was his ability to get incredible performances out of actors." 

Tom Hooper Shoots 'Les Miserables'
Tom Hooper Shoots 'Les Miserables'

Going in Hooper was not a fan of the original musical, but when he went to see "Les Mis" onstage it moved him, and he was intrigued by William Nicholson's script, which featured spoken dialogue as well as songs. Both Universal and Working Title had to agree to let Hooper turn the movie into an all-singing musical, which is rare ( "Tommy," "Evita") with the actors singing live from a solo piano accompaniment in their ear buds. He was backed by rights holder and theater impresario Cameron Macintosh, who mounted the original musical 27 years ago.

Hooper was working with a modest budget, by Hollywood standards, of $62 million. Musical pro Jackman, Anne Hathaway (deemed too old for Cosette, whose mother played Fantine on Broadway) and rock band member Russell Crowe, who had to audition along with everyone else for the film, did not command their usual price. Unusually, the studio did not chase Crowe, so he called them. "He fought for the role and won it," says Langley, adding that Mackintosh and original composers Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil were integral to the casting process.

Anne Thompson: Do you agree that "The King's Speech" may have opened the doors for studios making films like this again?

Tom Hooper: I was sitting at the LA Times [directors] round table. Almost all the movies two years ago were all indie movies. Two years everyone said the drama was dead, so given that I am hugely excited if that's shifted and if "The King's Speech" made any contribution to that. "Black Swan" also changed the dial. It was a great year for indie movies that got people to rethink whether these films can move people. If they get them right the economics are frankly better than anything else.

AT: Some people think you just threw the musical up on the screen.

TH: In terms of the journey from stage to screen, it's clear that we're victims of our own success in the sense that a lot of people think they're seeing the musical on film and don't realize the amount of changes we've done. It's gratifying that we managed to pull it off. They're fairly concealed.

When I first saw the show, there were so many challenges that struck me in the adaptation. One that hits you straight away is you go from the prologue when you meet the convict and bishop, and then jump forward eight years, he's now mayor, grown into a successful entrepreneur, but he looks the same. I was aware that Javert, the prison guard turned policeman, is reduced by his inability to see what's straight in front of him. Javert is just around for eight years and he's suspicious. How come he doesn't recognize Valjean?

I also found it hard to believe that this ex-convict become successful mayor entrepreneur in that society, when a fight breaks out in his factory, why was he distracted from dealing with it? There's no explanation. A number of challenges in this first transition are solved when you make him unrecognizable as the convict when see you him as mayor. So Hugh lost 30 pounds and went on a 36-hour water fast, so his skin was like thin tissue.

AT: How could he perform at that level?

TH: Hugh Jackman is not like normal people. I'd have been ill and lying in a bed, not Hugh. What's been exciting is people don't recognize Hugh as the convict. This idea of jumping through time, then we go to the moment when the two men meet again, and find a place where they come head to head. Javert is arriving into town as the new policeman, Valjean is changed. And in order to solve the problem of why Valjean is distracted from Fantine at a key moment, Javert is in the room to meet the mayor, suddenly the world drops out and we realize that he can think of nothing else, he's going through free fall. Thus the descent of Fantine is directly driven by the confrontation of Javert and Valjean, who has reason to feel guilt and talks about it, but we never quite understood before why he feels so responsible. This theme from his past carries destruction.

AT: Did you get some of this from Victor Hugo?

TH: Some of it. In this particular case, the book in 1100 pages does it differently: many pages of Javert being around with suspicions over a much longer time period. Now an example of an intervention of something inspired from the book put into the musical is a key scene where Javert comes to see Valjean, he's committed a crime, 'I thought you were the escaped convict Valjean now discovered picked up somewhere else.' He falls on his sword, this is not in the musical, it's imported from the book, it tells you something about Javert. He's hard on everyone around him, unforgiving, shows he's as hard on himself as he is on other people, wrongly reports Valjean the mayor, and offers to fall on his sword, admits he's committed a crime and asks him to press charges.