Director Tom Hooper Talks LES MISERABLES, Making the Decision to Have the Actors Sing Live, the Difficulty of Editing the Movie Down, an Extended Cut, and More

     December 29, 2012

Now playing is director Tom Hooper’s fantastic adaptation of Les Miserables.  Loaded with great performances and top notch filmmaking, Les Mis is absolutely a contender for all the year end awards and it would shock me if Anne Hathaway doesn’t win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her incredible work as Fantine.  Her one take rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” was incredible and it’s the type of performance that’s unforgettable.  For more on the film, here are five clips, Matt’s review, and all our previous coverage.

At the NYC press day, I did an exclusive interview with director Tom Hooper.  We talked about why he wanted to make Les Mis after The King’s Speech, the reasons he wanted everyone singing live on set, how the first cut was almost four hours, his thoughts on doing an extended cut, the challenges of editing it down to two and a half hours, what might be on the Blu-ray, and so much more.  In addition, with Hooper doing such a great job on his first two movies, I’m pretty sure every studio would be willing to make whatever he wants to do next, so I asked his thoughts on comic book movies, would he be willing to take on James Bond, and more.  Hit the jump to either listen to the audio or read the transcript.

As usual, I’m offering two ways to get the interview: you can either click here for the audio or the full transcript is below.

tom-hooper-les-miserabesCollider: How are you doing today sir?

Tom Hooper: I’m good, thank you.

I’m going to start with congratulations.

Hooper:  Thank you.

Coming off the success of King’s Speech, you win Best Picture, you win Best Director, you have the juice you can do basically whatever you want.  I would imagine everyone’s offering you stuff; the stack of scripts is crazy.  Les Miserables, is it your first choice?  Is it the thing that you went after?  Or was it something you just hear was available?

Hooper:  Well, the secret story that was going on while the whole King’s Speech thing was happening was I was seriously considering Les Miserables, going on a journey of discovery about Les Miserables trying to work out if it was the thing that I wanted to do next and that that involved me seeing the show a number of times.  I disappeared off from New York to Chicago to see the new production.  And I was reading the book, I was carrying the book around with me during all the King’s Speech craziness and it was sort of my anchor in that slightly mad time.  I think I felt like when I was fortunate enough for the industry to give King’s Speech that kind of recognition I should use it to take a risk or be bold or stretch myself and not retrench into some kind of conservative next choice.  And I think a movie-musical, one can safely say, is about the riskiest next choice you could do.  Hugh Jackman calls it the Mount Everest of filmmaking. 

I kind of know what he means in the sense that even when I see the film now I can still see all the pitfalls that I could have fallen into.  I think it’s a very demanding form of filmmaking because you’re taking on a mode of communication that’s not our mode of communication.  You’re creating a world in which people communicate through song.  You’re not taking advantage of the naturalism of spoken dialogue so you’re taking a step into unknown territory or into a different style and success is so dependent upon whether you can make the idea of a world where people communicate through song natural, vital and visceral so that you just enter into the story, accept it and go on the journey as you would in a normal movie. 

Something that you did that was unexpected was people singing live, was there ever a time where you thought you were going to do it the more conventional way or was you’re immediate thinking to have people sing live?

les-miserables-russell-croweHooper:  No, I was so passionate about doing it live, I made it clear that I wouldn’t do the film unless I did it live.  That was my level of belief that live singing was the way to go for this particular story.  It came out of a lot of thinking about the musical form, partly it was personal, but even in the great musicals I have to get over the lip-syncing issue; I have to forgive the lip syncing issue.  I feel a slight feeling of embarrassment when people lip-sync unless it’s done absolutely perfectly.  And I didn’t want any of that falsity in this film.  I wanted it to be very real.  I also kept thinking that if this is a world like ours but where people communicate through song, then why wouldn’t you record the singing like you would record dialogue?  Why would it be different? 

But most importantly it was about acting.  Great acting is all about being in the moment, being in the present tense.  The combination of live singing and live pianos, because that’s the other pretty important thing that the accompaniment was live, gives the control back to the actor.  And they have all the control that they would have in any other film, so if they need to wait a fraction of a second for an idea or an emotion to form in their eyes before they express it, they can.  If they get emotional and they need to stop for a beat, they can.  If they cry and they need to take that through to the end of the song, they can.  If you’re lip-syncing to play-back a lot of your brain is focused on matching to the mini-second this decision path you laid down three months before, which is quite antithetical to the process of acting.  So I wanted to hand the power back to my cast.  Obviously that required me getting a cast who were actually able to do live singing because you really have to be able to actually sing properly to do it that way.  But I wanted the film to feel real and visceral.  I remember on the very first day of shooting was up on the mountain with Hugh Jackman and we were filming that moment where he sings “freedom at last how strange the taste.” I had the camera on the shoulder because we were quite a skeleton crew up the mountain and I remember just hearing the cold in his voice, because it was below freezing.  You could see the condensation and you could hear in the quality of the voice, the cold.  That to me was thrilling; I thought this makes it visceral, it doesn’t feel fake, you’re not hearing some studio vocal overlaid on a mountain top.  That moment on top of the mountain, where I had the music channeled in my earpiece so I was kind of moving with the music and him that crystallized a lot about me feeling like this was the solid way to go.

les-miserables-samantha-barksI think you might have permanently changed the musical genre based on the way you did this one.  I love the way it was live and I agree with everything you just said and I think there is a falseness, you’re exactly right.  The actor, when they can do it in the moment, is believable.  I spoke to Eric and he said the first cut was four hours.

Hooper:  Yeah, the assembly was just under four hours.

Obviously that has to be like “holy eff” when you sit down and you’re saying to yourself “I’ve got a four hour first cut.” Because a four hour first cut, that’s a pretty long movie.

Hooper:  [Laughs]

So what was it like? Obviously you get rid of your assembly and you put together your directors cut, how long was your director’s cut?

Hooper:  The director’s cut was about three hours.  So I got about an hour out between the assembly and the director’s cut.  I got it to about 2:45 and then hit a bit of a wall because there comes a point at which you’ve made a decision about what songs you’re going to keep.  What’s fundamentally different about doing this and a normal movie is you can’t take time out anywhere you want like it or not.  If you’re editing, say this dialogue that we’re having, you could snip a second out every time I paused, every time you paused take a second out.  You could take a sentence of mine out and leave another sentence.  You’ve got tremendous control on the pacing of our dialogue that we’re having.  If we were singing you can’t just stick your knife in, you can’t take a second out here a second out there a sentence out there because the musical construction falls all over the place.  And I realized in the end that the only way I could get it down any more, and I was very committed to getting it down to 2:30, was to try to become more expert at the detail of musical construction so that I could really understand in terms of bars what was possible and what was not possible. 

les-miserables-anne-hathawayI really thought about it and asked advice from my team and there was a day, in one day on a Sunday I took out twelve minutes in one sitting because I had finally worked out all those musical places where you could cut material out.  And a lot of it was hangers to the show, because in a stage show you have to have introduction music to take you in somewhere and exit music to change the set over.  And I suddenly started to realize that there was lots of music like that that wasn’t essential to the film that we were hanging on to because of the tradition of where it had come from.  I think one of the hugest challenges of this, and any director or editor will know exactly what I mean, is when you musical you surrender a huge amount of the control of pacing because you can’t pace the songs up.  “I dreamed a dream”, you can pick your take but you can’t pace it up, so if that section of the film is sagging for any reason you can’t dig in to that place to do it.  So when I was shooting I was always trying to work out ways of giving myself different gears or different control of pacing through the way I shot stuff if I knew I couldn’t do it in time terms.  It’s a real challenge of the form, pacing something where a lot of it you’re not allowed to touch because of the way music works.

I asked Eric and I’ll ask you, say this film is super successful would you be willing to do an extended cut, because I know what that means and Eric pointed it out, you’d have to really go in and do a huge new score it would be a lot of work, could you ever see yourself doing a longer version of this whether Blu-ray or theatrical?

les-miserables-eddie-redmayne-amanda-seyfriedHooper:  I used to think definitely I would do a longer version, [but] having been through the oil tanker that this thing is, to wrestle it to where we got it, I’m aware that the moment you go, “let’s go back in” it’s not a simple process.  But let’s see how it goes and if we feel there’s tremendous demand I’d always consider it.  It’s difficult because at the same time I feel that I’ve paced it as I wanted it to be paced and do I want to put out in a world a less well paced version?  I’m not sure.  If there’s interest in the community of fans of the musical then I would definitely consider it. 

Is there anything that you would consider deleted scenes that fans can expect on the Blu-ray?

Hooper:  No, because I want to give myself the option of the extended version.

That’s a very honest answer, I appreciate that.

Hooper:  Having also said that I might not do an extended version.

Yea, but it’s good for if there is no extended version in ten years you can release the deleted scenes and have everyone be super happy.  I am curious though if you did an extended version down the road how much longer do you think it could be based on the footage you have?

Hooper:  I’d probably put maybe fifteen, twenty minutes back.  I wouldn’t go back to the four hour spectacular.  

les-miserables-hugh-jackman-anne-hathawayA lot of people don’t realize that the four hour version is the take from beginning to end.

Hooper:  Yeah, and everyone comes through every door and crosses and sits down and does the whole action.  I think the battle sequence was about a quarter hour long in the full version. 

There was so much interest in this.  People were videotaping when you were filming in London any time you were on location three were photos getting out, were you excited by the interest or were you like, “oh please god no more footage get on the internet.”?

Hooper:  It’s strange because when I made The King’s Speech it was a very private process because no one knew what The King’s Speech was at all.  It was based on a play that had never been produced; it was about a subject that people didn’t really know about because the story of Lionel Logue was kind of hidden from history.  This could not be a more different process in terms of how public it was and people wanted it to be even if we didn’t want it to be public.  I suppose the nice thing about it was the feeling that I was making a film that people really wanted.  You must be demoralized when you’re putting all that work in kind of going, “does the world even want this movie?” But there was a real feeling, because of the extraordinary 60 million fan base, that this was something that people were going to be curious to see and had an appetite to see.  There are times when you’re working those insane hours that the feeling that whatever happens there’s going to be an interest what you’re doing does give you more energy and courage to carry on.

les-miserables-sacha-baron-cohen-helena-bonham-carterWhat’s the book that you’re reading right now that you’re carrying around with you?  Maybe I can learn what you’re thinking about for the future.

Hooper:  I’m not actually reading or carrying around any book at all.  It’s true, it’s a shame because maybe that would be the clue to what I’m about to do.  I’m going to get very self-conscious about what book I pick up now.

I’m a big fan of your work and you are in this amazing position as a filmmaker after delivering King’s Speech and what you’ve done in the past and after the success that this is going to be, especially delivering this oil tanker that could have easily spilled, you brought it to shore.  What are you thinking about and what scripts- I know it’s so early and you need a break, but what are you already thinking about in terms of, “I’m going to be able to make whatever the fuck I want to make and they’re going to let me because of what I’ve done.”?

Hooper:  I don’t quite see it as that, but maybe it probably is. 

No it is that position, let me just point the light out for you, you’re in that luxurious place.

Hooper:  I still think it carries a huge responsibility because you’re still spending a large amount of someone’s money and they still won’t thank you if you don’t get it right.  I think that all those responsibilities I still feel very keenly.  I suppose I do feel inspired to go and do something different again, maybe, because it’s been hugely exciting for the last year and a half to not be living on a daily basis in relationship to the formulaic.  Sometimes when you’re directing, say you’re directing a scene in a car, how many ways in the end are there of shooting a car scene?  There are not that many ways because there are only certain places that you can put a camera to shoot in a car.  And whenever you do it you are reminded of the fourteen other times you’ve shot in a car and you kind of go, “I might do that differently, maybe.” Whereas with this I honestly never felt that I was rubbing up against the formula because it wasn’t very formulaic what we’re doing and I found that incredibly exciting so I suppose there’s a hunger in me to think about something where again I’m freed from a formula, where I’m venturing out in a place without a formula.

russell-crowe-les-miserablesI’m definitely going to throw this out there, I know they’re getting ready to gear up for the next Bond movie is that something you’d even consider?  Also, I want to know your thoughts on the comic book genre, because it seems to be the biggest thing right now in terms of Dark Knight, Avengers; are comic book movies something you’re interested in?

Hooper:  I suppose I’ve always felt like I’ve had a kind of epic filmmaker hidden within me, screaming, trying to get out and John Adams, I suppose, was my first opportunity to paint a world on a much bigger canvas which I felt very grateful for, but in the end there is something about the comic book genre where you get to build a world from the ground up and follow a vision through psychically, which I think is exciting.  I don’t know we’ll have to see.  We’ll have to see.

Ok, you didn’t answer my Bond question though, is that something you would even be willing to talk about?

Hooper:  I would certainly be willing to talk about it; the ten year old in me would think there’s probably no higher honor than talking about that.

Have you had a chance to see Skyfall yet?

Hooper:  No, I haven’t actually had a chance to see any films at all.  I’ll maybe go tonight and see my first movie.  Is it good?

It’s fantastic.

les-miserables-movie-posterHooper:  I’ve heard it’s good.  It’s a great combination, Same Medes and [Daniel] Craig sounds like a really cool combination.

And also Roger Deakins.

Hooper:  And Roger Deakins.  What a hero is Roger Deakins; he’s got an astonishingly good eye.  I think Barbara Broccoli and Michael [Wilson] are making some really interesting choices about who they use at the moment.  I think they’ve reinvigorated that franchise in a brilliant way.

So you would take their phone call?

Hooper:  I’d always take their phone call, they’re very lovely people.

Film seems to be a dying art form because everyone…even Deakins is moving to the ARRI Alexa, Peter Jackson just shot on RED Epic, What are your feelings?  I asked you this on King’s Speech and I’m curious if anything’s changed with you.

Hooper:  Well, I shot on film for this, 35mm and I’m very pleased I did.  I’m pretty tough on the cameras; we were up mountains, we were in water, we were in battles using live gunpowder, the cameras get thrown around a lot, and get knocked a lot.  There’s a lot of handheld.  Film cameras are just really fast and really robust.  We’re doing an IMAX version of the film and 35mm is a fantastic place to go for an IMAX.  Ultimately there’s a part of it that’s not that logical and it’s about emotion.  It’s about the fact that I started making films when I was 13 on a clockwork 16mm camera and even the smell of film brings back childhood memories of loading film up, or sometimes crying because I couldn’t load the film up.  Even when I get to operate just hearing that noise in my ear to me is filmmaking.  But, I know I’ve probably got to let it go. 

I’m familiar with the Bolex myself.

Hooper: It’s fantastic isn’t it?

It’s a magical thing.

For more on Les Mis, here are our interviews with producer Eric Fellner, Eddie Redmayne, and the press conference with Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, Redmayne, and Samantha Barks.

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