AT: Then Anne Hathaway's singing blew the exhibitors away at CinemaCon.
TH: It was extraordinary, the reaction. That was the thing that gave Universal confidence in this approach, which was great. To their credit Universal let me make my case and backed me doing it that way. So many things flowed from that. What I realized in creating your "Avatar" alternative universe, it was all about convincing them to accept the storytelling.
AT: You created a rather stylized, fake world for them to sing in.
TH: Again, Eve Stewart, my production designer on "The King's Speech" and "Elizabeth I," created permission for people to communicate through song, aided by heightening the world we're in, so not necessarily trying to persuade people that the world communicated through song was exactly like our own. I felt I'd grown up in the realistic school of filming, that this was one of the few opportunities in my life to break some of the ties in my own work between realism and style. Generally speaking when I've worked before, the test of what is true is what is real. With a musical of course, the test of "what is true is what is real" is going to fall down straight way, because people don't sing to each other. I am sure of what truth is --emotional spiritual psychological truth or realistic truth-- so you end up navigating a constant line between gritty realism and expressionism. The role of realism is to anchor the artifice of people singing, to make it feel visceral and believable. But I also wanted the audience to enjoy the possibility of a more operatic vision on film.
AT: Like that epic opening scene.
TH: The opening scene, to a high extent, he looks like an actual convict, very gritty, you end on top of him. It's a combination of gritty realism of the look and the scale of the numbers pulling in unison idea. It's proportion, an operatic epic idea.
AT: Jackman told me he had to sing the exterior end of his song 27 times, holding a high note, because of a swooping camera crane shot.
TH: The bit at the very end was complicated with a steadicam operator running backwards who had to climb on a rig backward and fly in the air. It was a tricky shot to get right, for Hugh the technical demands were formidable. I feel like it was more like 17 or 18 takes, though it might have felt like 27 to Hugh.
AT: Hathaway nailed her song in eight?
TH: We used take four.
AT: But your "Elizabeth I" star Eddie Radmayne needed 21 takes for "Empy Chairs, Empty Tables"?
TH: He came up basically each time he sang the song devastated. What he worked out was rather than cutting the camera, you did it a second and third time, starting from where you ended. At the end you start slowly over time, spread yourself, break yourself down on the last take. So he has a blotchy and wrecked and grief-stricken quality when he sits down. It was interesting how different actors got to the place they needed to get, they all come up with different solutions. He'd do three takes in a row.
AT: You go up close on the singing except with Russell Crowe as Javert. Is it because he isn't as strong an actor-singer that you pull back to the roof tops of Paris?
TH: Because I felt in his battle with himself he was invoking the physical universe, when he sings to the stars he sees in the night sky, they're a justification and a guide to his actions. On the other hand, "I Dreamed a Dream," nothing in the song relates to where Fantine is when she sings it. it's about her past, the man who betrayed her, where she is at the time is irrelevant. With Javert he invokes the cosmos, we needed to see where he was. Also the end point of the songs is his physical decision to commit suicide, the whole thing is showing his relationship to heights, being on the ledge felt like a important theme, to physicalize the way he's flirting with self-destruction, put him somewhere where he pursues the risk he's taken.
If you embrace live singing as I did in the moment, you embrace imperfection. Even with Anne who is extraordinary musically there are imperfections; a studio would edit 100 takes together to form this prefect version. Yes, if you sing it all live and use the voice chords you'll hear a difference in the quality of her voice. I was willing to make that trade to have the live voice.
AT: Why the long takes?
TH: From early on my instinct was that the songs play well in one take with few cuts. I was getting the privilege to sit and watch them in rehearsal to see how they found ways to sell the story through songs and the language of closeups. Watching it with audiences, people are coming out with tears streaming down their faces, people crying does seem an extraordinary emotional response.
SPOILER ALERT When I first saw the musical when Valjean died, passing to other side, and you hear as they sing that last line, "to see the face of god," when they finish that line, the chorus people song starts in a ghostly way, I had a complete shiver up my spine, a frisson went up my body and I started to cry, wept uncontrollably. I thought, 'why am I crying like this?' In Valjean's death scene it was impossible not to think about one day my father is going to die, inevitably. The musical looks death square in the face and says it's possible to transcend that moment through love. Valjean managed to experience happiness in the moment of going, he can leave, because he has done his job. He has left his daugher in love and loved, he can let her move on.
In the end the reason I wanted to do "Les Miserables" is it offers up some way of navigating something we all face. We're here for a limited time, what will save us is love. The only way to handle this thing is to think about the most loving way to do it. The moment when we are most completely destroyed in the film is when it transcends death through that hope, that primal power. That's the reason why the musical worked, and the emotional reason that I gravitated towards it.
The other day a friend came who had lost his dad in October. At the end of film I said, "Oh I'm sorry you had to sit through that, it must have been too painful." No, he told me, "it made me feel better and closer to my father." This musical's old-fashioned catharsis can take people's grief and help to process a little bit of it so they're feeling better and consoled. It has this ability to take your suffering, whether your own or someone close to you, and help to process some of it in the act of watching it. To be able to make a film help people in that way is an extraordinary thing.
AT: Why the new song, "Suddenly"?
TH: What the song does is set up the importance of fatherhood, being a new parent in the film, the transformative power of parental love. The emotions in that song allow the ending to resonate in a new way because you understand from the song the depth of his love for his child, understand that his last act is to accept that his love is holding this woman back and he has to let go. Saving the man that she loves and giving her to him allows him to leave their world having done his job creating the next generation of love for this child.