Les Miserables: Interview with Oscar Director Tom Hooper

Fittingly, the stars were aligned during the search for a director.

The director, Tom Hooper, sought out the project even before the astonishing global success of his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech was generally released. When Hooper heard that Nicholson, with whom he was working on another project, was also crafting an adaptation of Les Misérables, he felt ready to tackle it.

Hooper says: “A light bulb went off in my head. I thought it a really interesting idea.” Hooper had not seen the show but knew the music well and was intrigued by the period in which it was set. He wasted no time in going to see the musical. “I saw it on a very hot day in August. There were those three or four moments where the nerves in my spine were set on fire, and it was extraordinarily emotional. I was struck by how unbelievably addictive the melodies were. Having seen it once, I could not get them out of my head. Claude-Michel had tapped into something very deep with the melodies, their patterns, the structures and the motifs.”

Hooper met with Hayward, who was still Working Title Films’ head of production. “It was one of those great serendipitous moments that Tom came to see us just at the time Nicholson had delivered the script,” she says. “He read it, loved it and knew he wanted to do it.”

Agrees Fellner: “Tom Hooper was our first choice. He was the only director to whom we ever gave the screenplay, and from the moment he signed on, it has been a thrilling ride. He is passionate, obsessive in the detail, incredibly hard-working and deeply committed.”

Hooper reflects that he was drawn to the material on many levels: “One of the things that was so exciting about doing The King’s Speech was the emotion it provoked in audiences around the world. It made me very much want to make my next film with a subject that would provoke even stronger emotions.” Moved to tears while reading Nicholson’s script on a flight from London to Los Angeles, Hooper knew that he had found his next film. “With the combination of how the musical made me feel and the effect the screenplay had on me, I thought there was an amazing opportunity to work in a very emotional way. I was drawn to the combination of this extraordinary story and the transcendence and pull of the music.”

In spite of the powerful material they were inheriting, the filmmakers needed to go back to the story’s original source to fill in some of the gaps that appear seamless on the stage but would not be invisible on the screen. Says Hayward: “The book has been a great inspiration for Tom. It was a deceptively difficult adaptation, and whenever we encountered problems, we went back to the book and the answers were there. Bringing in some of the great story elements to fill the gaps without affecting the overall architecture and integrity of the score has been one of the most enjoyable challenges as we embarked upon the adaptation.”

Hooper concurs: “It’s a colossal and masterful work, and it was a great joy to have an excuse to read it and go back to it in adapting the material. The musical has been interpreted in a unique way for film. It’s something Cameron, Claude-Michel and Alain all empowered me to do from the beginning. They didn’t just want a filmed musical; they wanted me to reinterpret it to make it work for film. That’s one of the things that has been so exciting. Claude-Michel’s music is so brilliant and Alain and Herbie’s lyrics so strong that they have allowed for that interpretation. There is tremendous elasticity in the work, and like all great literature, the language allows you to play with the meaning and the pace.”

The first draft of the screenplay that Nicholson wrote was divided into dialogue interspersed with songs. Shares Hooper: “All the new story material that Bill had come up with and the story material I wanted to add from the book, Bill wrote in the form of spoken dialogue. Yet, the musical itself is through-sung. After a great deal of thought and reflection, I decided that I wanted to honor the musical’s through-sung form. I wanted to create an alternate reality on film where people communicate through song. So at that point, we welcomed the musical’s original creative team—Claude Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Herbie Kretzmer—into the process of creating the screenplay as we asked them to write entirely new lyrics and create a new musical structure and a new song [“Suddenly”] inspired by the spoken dialogue Bill had written. It was a hugely exciting moment where we re-created the original conditions of the musical’s creation in order to interpret it newly on film.”

There was another major attraction for Hooper when he considered a filmic adaptation of a fully through-sung musical. He explains: “I wanted to take a risk and do something very different in a different genre. From the beginning, what excited me was the idea of doing it live. I don’t think I would have done it if it turned out not to be possible to direct the film live, because no matter how good the synchronization is of actors singing to playback, an audience can tell that there’s something unreal about it. It doesn’t feel connected to what is going on the screen.”

With Hooper’s passionate assurance that the actors would sing live, Mackintosh had no doubts that they’d discovered the right director for the job. He comments: “The only way you can make this music work is by capturing it in the moment. That was one of the first things Tom said when he gave me the reasons why he wanted to do this. Plus, he loved the Les Misérables of it. With most of the other directors I’ve talked to over the years, they’d say, ‘I know how to do this song or that song; what I don’t know how to do is have Les Misérables sing.’ But that is what Victor Hugo’s novel is about; it’s about all of us, not just the story of Jean Valjean and Javert. I knew the moment Tom had grasped that, that this actually was the person who was going to find his own way of making the story and actually putting us all to work.”