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'Les Miserables' Director Hooper Digs Into His Musical Audacity, It's Like 'Avatar' or Shakespeare

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 29, 2012 at 6:25AM

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 not managed to show the movie to our own Royal family," he says. "Now I'm showing it to the Crown Prince of Japan."
'Les Miserables': Crowe and Jackman
'Les Miserables': Crowe and Jackman

It's a new recitative, the scene is sung, an adaptation of the melody in the show, with a lot of new lyrics, weaved in and out. Setting up the man's suicide, we see his willingness to self-destruct. We see he's a man of honor, how tough he is on other people, he's not an evil man. This is a man who's incredibly hard on the world, not malevolent. He would not be interested in promoting his own survival and success.

Victor Hugo is a great humanist. What's interesting in the book is that Javert is not a bad guy. In one great passage Javert grew up with a father who was a convict. He could fight society or protect it. He chooses to protect it. It was 50/50.

AT: How did you make these musical changes?

TH: The process by which these new ideas became musicalized is unlike anything I've ever done. Nicholson and I want to put this new scene in from the book, it's important, we get excited, write the scene. He would write his version, try rough lyrics, write the dialogue that would be said between the men. The scene is sent to original show writers Claude-Michel and Alain. Claude-Michel would work out the melody that would be the carrier of the dialogue and the number of lines expressed, while Alain would write the lyrics in French, which he does best, to the right number of lines, then he sits down with the original show English lyricist Herbie Kretzner, who does a rough translation of the French lyrics to the music. Then I sit down with Herbie and Alain and work on the nuance of the meaning of the lyrics and the Nicholson dialogue.

It was an extraordinary collaboration process which I never thought about when I agreed to do a musical. A melody exhausts itself after a certain amount of time, when you go beyond 9 or 12 lines, the melody starts to become repetitive. We'd be trying to work out how to do a scene, judging the melody and the emotion, whether the melody is too short to express the thoughts we put into the scene.

In some cases, we go back if's too short and we can't say all things we need to say, or it's too long, 16 lines, and we need something more simple, it's repeating itself to fill the time. It was an incredibly delicate dance between the music always being written, with the dialogue, wiring the music and lyrics always together.

AT: With a book musical there's always a challenge of how to introduce singing, which screenwriter Bill Condon solved on "Chicago."

TH: In every other movie musical besides "Evita" and "Tommy" the music alternates between dialogue and singing. There's one 28-minute stretch in "The Sound of Music" before the next song. They added dialogue to all-sung "Sweeney Todd." The first decision to embrace this change and do it a different way was because if you alternate between dialogue and singing, there's a constant gear change between. Why start singing? Why the fuck do it? 'Now it's time to sing' brings artificiality. Condon solved it brilliantly by the device of the songs being a fantasy inside her head. It's a contract you make with the audience every time, that you go to fantasy when you go to a song.

Les Miserables Hathaway
'Les Miserables'

So I went to see Baz Luhrmann: 'can you find the contract you make with the audience to allow this shift?' There was not an obvious device or logic deciding one or the other. In "Les Miserables" we use singing to communicate in the every day sense. We began to think, maybe just declare yourself, in creating the world, the people's primary form of communication is singing, and commit to it and not be ashamed or embarrassed. From the beginning, embrace this world with confidence and allow people to suspend disbelief even better.

AT: It's like immersing yourself in another world, like Pandora or Middle Earth.

TH: Yes, with "Avatar" you create an alternate universe. You need to love that universe and commit to that universe, find people with confidence communicating in this way. We generate sentences on the fly, they're just like us just brighter, they can do Shakespeare, accept that after a minute they speak in a particular way. Forget about it and the ear attunes to it.

AT: Did you test it on audiences?

TH: We had an exciting moment, an informal test in September in LA, with 14, 15-year-olds in the audience. After a few minutes they forgot the singing. I realized it had helped.

AT: The studio marketing guys didn't feel that way at first, right? They took some convincing?

TH: Yes. They were difficult. I remember meeting the marketing guys, they told me point blank in terms of the film being successful that singing on film made people uncomfortable. They did not want to trumpet the singing from the rooftops because some people would be put off. The trailers for "Sweeney Todd" had no people singing. It was a big battle, a challenge to convince the studio that rather than running from the singing I was embracing it, that it would solve the problem.

This article is related to: Les Miserables, Tom Hooper, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Interviews, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.