One of the dividing lines between same-old and must-see is a filmmaker willing to take a huge risk in pursuit of the new new thing. In this case, Tom Hooper had the balls to do what Peter Bogdanovich failed at so memorably with "At Long Last Love"--have his actors sing live on set. Hooper had newer technology. While Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced to a live orchestra, Hooper had a pianist on set watching a monitor, accompanying the singers live, tuning in to their rhythm and cadence, as they acted while they sang. They could hear the piano in their molded ear pieces. The score was added later, but the singers did not have to sync to a prerecorded track. When Hooper recorded multiple harmonies separately, the actors had to count to a marked tempo track.
Hooper admitted that he was so struck by the way audiences all over the world responded to "The King's Speech" --a movie that in many ways paved the way for the plethora of strong adult pictures in the market right now--that he wanted to "try to find a story as, or even more, emotional," he said at the Q & A after one of the first SAG member screenings Thanksgiving weekend, packed with "Les Miserables" fans. "That way of energizing people is so satisfying. 'Les Miserables' is a story where you feel the music with a heightened emotional reality. Live singing became a passion of mine."
A lot of people tried to talk him out of it, Hooper said. And Eric Fellner, co-chair of Working Title, admitted to me that they were not sure if it would work until they saw the finished film. "Good acting is being in the moment," Hooper told his target audience. "It's the pure language of the present. Arthur Miller said that if you sing to playback your choices are predecided, you don't have freedom in real time. Acting is generating the illusion that you are creating these lines from your soul, inventing them." This way, Hooper argues, his actors were allowed to become emotional, and control the tempo, which was "vital to the process."
Any stage musical fan has seen this show more than once, knows the score, and recognizes the degree of difficulty not only for the filmmakers but the actors. These actors prepared. They had to. Their voices wouldn't have lasted otherwise. Thus Hooper auditioned every actor including Jackman and Russell Crowe: "No exception," he said. "They had to not just be able to sing but act and hold a closeup, they had to turn it into storytelling. It was exciting at early auditions to meet a man who showed me how it could be done. Hugh Jackman was on a short list of one for Valjean. Hugh sang around a piano at a three-hour audition. I realized he unleashed a huge power when acting through song. You allow an entire different, hidden self to emerge."
Jackman brought a spirituality to his role as Valjean, says Hooper. "He'd go through tough times, tired, under pressure. He's kind of saintly, always gracious, never snaps, he's a great leader, has inner grace as a human being. To be a good man is a lot of hard work. To practice being good is a daily struggle. He fundamentally understood that inherent conflict and brought it to the role." Hooper added a new song for Valjean about what it's like to become an unexpected parent, written by the musical's original writers.
Hooper bores in on these actors with two cameras, one up close, in long often uninterrupted takes-- Hathaway could win an Oscar for singing Fantine's tour-de-force "I Dreamed a Dream" with no cuts--because he couldn't do the standard coverage. Even so, he told me after the screening, some numbers went as long as 15 and 21 takes. "We didn't do them all right away," he reminded. "Maybe we'd do a turnaround." Hathaway nailed hers in eight. Even onstage, a performer doesn't do the same song over and over. But they do sing many songs a night, eight performances a week. (Hathaway talks about singing her role here.)
The theater-trained actors do best, especially Jackman as the embattled Valjean and Brit film rookie Samantha Barks, who traveled for four years with the show as Eponine. Hooper saw her in the show two years ago but went through the arduous process of making her beat out the intense competiton for the role. "This girl is fearless," he said. Many of the cast are drawn from the ranks of "Les Mis" vets.
"Mamma Mia!" star Amanda Seyfried does fine as Cosette--even without three days of pre-recording and fixing to make her sound better. "This is completely me," she said. "I had to keep my voice in shape. It was so overwhelming and liberating, it's another level of emoting...it gets you to a place beyond the music." She prepared on her own for four months and had three to four weeks rehearsal. The actors went through their voice exercises en route to set every day.
"They prepared like you wouldn't believe," said Hooper. "But you can't be perfectionist." The trickiest thing was getting the actors to sing powerfully while keeping their faces relaxed, not contorting grotesquely in intimate close-up.
Hooper seems to have less confidence in the performance of Russell Crowe as Valjean tormenter Javert, who is physically threatening and gets out the songs, but doesn't do much with his performance--he's playing the gendarme sympathetically--so Hooper pulls the camera out and has him walk along various impossibly high parapets above Paris. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter offer welcome comic relief as shady innkeepers in sequences very similar to Carter's in "Sweeney Todd," to which this musical can be compared. Hooper worked with Eddie Redmayne six years ago on "Elizabeth I," and gave the actor the chance to improve his singing. Redmayne gives a breakout performance --he's in demand now, as the next young Brit leading man. He could land a supporting nod. You'll see him everywhere.
"Les Mis" is yet another movie this year that heads for stylization visually while it seeks emotional truth. "Anna Karenina" and "Life of Pi" also fall into this category. Hooper filmed on soundstages in London with five cameramen dressed as peasants as his actors scrambled to build the Paris barricades with real furniture thrown out of windows on an elaborate 350-foot-high Paris set. "We had ten minutes of stock in the cameras," recalled Redmayne. "'Build a barricade! Action!' It was anarchy. We didn't know where the cameras were. Complete fear. It was makeshift, we pieced together what we could. It was wonderful and terrifying." Hooper used what they built. He also shot on location in France.
The emotional intensity of "Les Miserables" doesn't work for everybody; it sends some running out of the theater. Thus the so-called steak eaters in the Academy may not go for this. But musicals have historically done well, from "Oliver!" to 'Chicago." Academy attention will also help propel the film at the global box office.
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