Tom Hooper

Les Misérables has been touted as one of this year’s awards season contenders – something that director Tom Hooper knows all about. Two years ago, he took home the best director Oscar for The King’s Speech.

Hooper was recently in Sydney to promote Les Misérables (along with star Hugh Jackman). I was lucky to get 10 minutes on the phone with him to talk about the Oscars and the mountain of work behind the film.

You can listen to a 4 minute extract from the interview by clicking here.

Matt: I need to start off by thanking you. Two years ago, I put $200 on you to win the Oscar for best director for The King’s Speech. This is the first time I’ve had the chance to thank someone that I’ve actually backed at the Oscars, so thank you Tom!

Tom: So what odds did you get?

Matt: I got $3.50.

Tom: Oh wow.

Matt: Yeah, it was early on. When everyone thought The Social Network was going to win but I had a hunch that The King’s Speech would come through and so I’m very grateful for that.

Tom: I’m very glad to have made you money. It was obviously the thing that was driving me. (laughs)

Matt: We’re about to go into another awards season and I wanted to ask one question about the Oscars. What’s it like there when you sitting in your seat, they’re reading out the nominees and envelope is about to opened? What goes through your mind?

Tom: The thing that would probably surprise people is that no one knows the results. Some people think that everyone knows but it’s actually the best kept secret in Hollywood.

What becomes really stressful over that weekend is the fact that if you win, you have to stand up and make a speech live in front of half a billion people. That fact becomes more significant than whether you win or not. Particularly for someone who is not an actor, it’s hard to do that.

I remember Ricky Gervais gave me some great advice. He said if you’re lucky enough to win, concentrate on getting to the microphone without falling flat on your face. If you can manage that, congratulate yourself and then think “well I’ve done that, how bad can it be?”

Matt: Well let’s talk about Les Misérables which is your follow up to The King’s Speech. It’s hard to think of a project that would carry more in terms of public expectation. So many people have seen this around the world with different actors in various formats. It’s such a wonderful musical. What convinced you to take it on?

Tom: There was something very special about being given the chance to do this. It’s a worldwide phenomenon that’s been going for 26 years and 60 million people have seen it. So many people hold it very close to their heart.

I just thought it was an amazing privilege to get to tell a story that so many people hold dear in this way. I felt that I had a double duty (1) to really work out what people love so much about the show and try to nurture that and protect that, and (2) to think about all the people who haven’t seen the show or don’t think that musicals are for them and somehow bring them into this experience so that they can also enjoy this great story.

Matt: Can you remember when you first saw the musical yourself?

Tom: I was one of the few people on the planet not to see it as a kid. I saw it two and a half years ago. I’d heard a rumour that they were thinking about making it into a movie and I thought that maybe I should go and see it.

I had this extraordinary experience in the theatre, particularly at the end. There’s this scene where Jean Valjean in sort of passing to the side and the crowd starts singing “The People’s Song” like an echo and I got a complete shiver up my spine and was moved to tears by that moment.

It got me thinking about my dad and the thought that one day he’s going to pass away and how am I going to feel about it. The power of the musical is the way that you connect it to the themes or worries that you have in your own life. You cry for the characters but also for things that you’re thinking about.

Matt: Many would already know that you made the decision for the actors to sing the songs as they’re performing – as opposed to them miming stuff that was recorded in the studio. It’s a great idea but how hard was that in reality? Especially in the action packed scenes where people are running all over the place and there are guns going off?

Tom: It was all about preparing. Filmmakers have experimented with this in the past. Alan Parker in The Commitments did the band songs live. What’s not been done is a sung-through musical live and so there was a great deal of preparation to make this dream come true. There was an amazing collaboration between the people on the crew to make it work.

Matt: I’m thrilled to see two Aussies in leading roles – Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. Did that take some convincing with the studio? Russell isn’t exactly known for his singing skills.

Tom: I’m half Australian in that my mum is from Adelaide. I cast an Australian playing the English King Edward VIII in The King’s Speech so I’m very open. I don’t need any persuading about how brilliant Australian actors are.

Once you’ve cast Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and you’re looking for an actor who the audience might believe could crush this guy and getter the better of this guy, it’s a pretty short list. If you’re going to say “who could get the better of Wolverine?” then you can’t help be thinking of Gladiator.

Matt: Yes! That’s well put. How did you come across Eddie Redmayne? I know he’s done theatre before but I didn’t realise he had such a beautiful voice.

Tom: I worked with Eddie about seven years ago making a mini-series called Elizabeth I which starred Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. I cast Eddie as a young rebellious aristocrat and it was one of his first screen roles. He was utterly brilliant in this film and I’ve been quite good mates with him ever since. I’ve seen a couple of these plays that he’s done where he’s won a Tony Award and an Olivier Award.

He heard that I was doing Les Misérables and so he recorded himself on an iPhone from a trailer in Texas. He sang “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” a cappella and sent it in. That’s when I discovered he had this extraordinary voice. I was so thrilled because he’s one of the nicest guys going around and he’s a great actor.

Matt: One of the things that struck me about the film was the cinematography and the close-ups when these actors are performing their solo numbers. We’re are right there in their face and really do feel the emotions that they’re going through. Was that always your intention with that style? The solo with Anne Hathaway was particularly good.

Tom: It’s interesting that you ask that. I didn’t say to Anne “this is one camera, it’s a big close up, there are no cuts, do it one take, action.” From the auditions onwards, I felt I was casting actors were able to “hold the camera” in this way and were able to tell the story and sing these songs using close ups.

When you’re doing a musical the old fashioned way where you’re lip-syncing to playback, I don’t think that any actor would be able to lip-sync perfectly unbroken for 3 minutes. So the way you get around that is to shoot them wider and you keep cutting. Because if you cut then you can slip the sync of the shot and you make the illusion of the sync better. It forces you down a heavily edited route.

When you’re live, there’s no reason to disguise a sync problem because there isn’t one. You can let the camera meditate on the actor and put them right in the centre of it.

Matt: The challenges of adapting a novel into a movie have been well documented and it takes a lot of condensing. How does it work with a musical because Les Misérables the musical is three hours which is similar in length to this film…

Tom: The film is 2 hours, 29 and a half minutes long. I need to say that because I can’t tell you how much I worked to get it down under 2 and a half hours. Some people say it’s almost 3 hours and I go “noooooo, I spent weeks in the cutting room getting it under 2 and a half hours.”

Matt: Was that part of the deal? Did it have to come in under a certain length?

Tom: No. I just felt like I didn’t want it to be a marathon. I wanted it to be something that you’ll go back to again and again. I think 2 and a half hours is a good length for this kind of story. It’s a huge story with a huge number of characters and there’s a lot to pack in but I wanted to make it at a pace that’s entertaining and never drops the ball.

Matt: Did you have to do a bit of trimming from the musical? Cut a few songs and scenes?

Tom: We ended up only having to cut one song from the show which is called “Dog Eat Dog”. As I got to know the musical well, I realised that there were little ways of doing cuts inside songs that were quite stealthy. We managed to save and protect almost all of the music which is fantastic because the music is so great and so loved.

Matt: I’ll finish up by asking one last question - where to from here in the career of Tom Hooper? Have you got another mammoth challenge lined up?

Tom: I think the best thing for me to do would be to sleep. I’ve never worked so hard making a film. I cut my sleep right back to get it done and I worked every, every hour while I was awake. It was a massive, complex film and it’d be nice to stop and rest for a few days.

You can check out my review of the film by clicking here.