All about the close-up: interview with Tom Hooper, director of Les Misérables
Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables has received a mixed response from critics. I talked to him about the mammoth task of bringing Les Mis to the big screen.
There was never any doubt that director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables, gift-wrapped with singalong performances from a pedigree cast including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, would arrive with a huge built-in audience. Many of us have seen and loved the musical. What caught some off-guard — perhaps Hooper himself, still basking in the glow of his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech — is the divisive response the film has received from critics.
Some have trotted out the line “if you love the musical, you’ll love the film.” If that’s a ‘rule’, I’m one of the exceptions. I’m a fan of the stage production but found Hooper’s adaptation stiff and soporific. What irked me the most was his decision to shoot almost every sequence just a few feet from his actors, which strips the film of a sense of location, makes it feel more about the singers than the songs. Why not zoom out, widen the lens, soak up the 19th century European settings?
“Because in most cases the songs are not about where the person is,” Hooper said to me shortly before the film’s release.
“If you think about Dream a Dream, she’s talking about this lover she had that betrayed her. She’s talking about her broken dreams. She’s talking about the end of her hopes. None of it relates to the fact that she’s sitting in the depths of a rotting ship.”
Hooper’s responses to my questions were considered and illuminating, and provide a good insight into how he approached the mammoth task of bringing Les Mis to the big screen. However I respectfully disagree with the way he has correlated spatial properties with emotions — and the implied assumption that deeply personal “from the heart” style songs lose something if they are shot from a distance.
Take, for example, one of my favourite scenes from musical cinema: this rousing rendition of Heaven on Their Minds from director Norman Jewison’s hippy-centric adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). The lyrics, dribbling with venom and vitriol, are deeply personal, a fiery expression of one man’s sense of betrayal from a friend and leader.
There is nary a close-up in sight. Jewison takes the opposite route, a suite of stunning wide angle shots capturing entire mountain ranges. But what gives the scene its dramatic oomph comes almost entirely from the lyrics.
Hooper’s approach on a conceptual level was sound, even daring, but stacked the deck against him, and the results drain life out of a boisterous production. What came across most from our conversation was his determination to take full advantage of close-ups: to get audiences out of their seats, as it were, and inches away from the sweat, furrowed brows and ratty looking faces of his actors.
“The great gift of doing this musical on film is the close-up. Because you can finally share with the audience the detail of the emotions the characters are experiencing, which you can never experience on a stage,” he says.
One thing we agreed on – along with virtually everybody on the planet, whether they liked, loved or loathed the film – was Hugh Jackman’s fantastic performance. He’s never been better, or more in his element.
“I literally had a short list of one and it was Hugh,” says Hooper. “If he didn’t exist I don’t think I’d have done the film, because even now I can’t think of another person who would have played that role.”
I canvassed a range of subjects with the Oscar-winning director, including the weight of expectation associated with adapting such a beloved production, the performances of Jackman and Anne Hathaway and, of course, the close-up.
In Hollywood it’s generally a lot easier to get new productions off the ground on the back of recent successes. After The King’s Speech, with a shiny new Oscar, I’m imagining you were sitting around tables with studio executives, brokering deals. What was this period like? Was it an easy segue into Les Mis?
I came to this fairly soon after The King’s Speech. I think I first met Hugh Jackman in May of last year. There weren’t that many projects I was seriously considering, and the consideration is first and foremost creative. For a director you have to fall in love with the material and the story comes first, way ahead of any kind of business consideration. We had a great studio behind it, Universal, so that side of things was relatively straight forward, rather than in an independent movie where you have to piece the money together from so many different people.
Given how great a success, critically and financially, The King’s Speech was, did you get the sense that you were able to call the shots? If you’d suggested you’d like to remake, say, Waterworld, do you think people would have listened to you and taken you seriously?
I think they would have listened to me but I don’t think that kind of success means you can then write your own to get into a crazily un-commercial movie. You’ve always got to get the balance right in filmmaking between commerce and art. You are in the end spending a large amount of someone else’s money, so you need to be able to make a proper case that there is a possibility of getting their money back. I take that financial responsibility quite seriously.
On the subject of responsibility, you were locked into certain creative obligations when making Les Misérables. What I mean by that is it’s much harder to remove things, isn’t it, because people tend to notice if their favourite song has been cut out.
You’re right, that’s an interesting point. I’ve never directed something where there were so many un-cuttable scenes. There’s no way you could make Les Misérables and not have Dream to Dream in it. So one had to approach the film from the point of view of knowing that you needed to make these iconic songs utterly essential to the structure and the story, so that they would never feel that you were keeping them for the wrong reasons. Much of that was about casting the right actors to deliver these songs.
Did that obligation weigh on you? Knowing that it could be hard to keep everything in there and also sustain pace and momentum. Because the film is very long and –
It’s not that long. It’s under two and half hours, which is shorter than the most recent Batman movie. I worked incredibly hard to bring the time down because I didn’t want to make an overlong film. It probably runs five or ten minutes shorter than the actual musical, with more material in it.
With regards to the way you’ve framed the film, one of the things that struck me as quite odd, and something that didn’t work for me, was how closely you shot it to the actors. Most of Les Mis feels like it was filmed a few feet away from their faces. It was obviously a deliberate decision –
I’m interested – why did you find that unusual? The close-ups aren’t any different from a normal movie. Is it more than you’re not used to seeing singing that close up?
It was more about a sense of location, or a lack of a sense of location. I thought that you framed most of your scenes in a way that was more about the singers than the songs.
I see what you’re saying. That’s because in most cases the songs are not about where the person is. If you think about Dream to Dream, she’s talking about this lover she had that betrayed her. She’s talking about her broken dreams. She’s talking about the end of her hopes. None of it relates to the fact that she’s sitting in the depths of a rotting ship. In the same way, in the soliloquy with Hugh Jackman, he is talking about his relationship with God. He’s talking about what the bishop has done. He’s says things like “I’m reaching but I fall as the night is closing in.” His lyrics are about his relationship to faith and morality and his past and being a convict. Again, not about where he specifically is. So I felt the best guide to this world of the characters’ imagination was the human face.
But isn’t it worth remembering that in theatre, the entire set is always within the audience’s view yet the musical still feel deeply personal. So that’s fundamentally changing the way –
And the great gift of doing this musical on film is the close-up. Because you can finally share with the audience the detail of the emotions the characters are experiencing, which you can never experience on a stage. On a stage, even if you’re in the front row you’re 30 feet away and the musical has to do much more work to carry your emotion. Conversely, there’s the song Empty Chairs, Empty Tables that Eddie Redmayne does. That’s one of the songs where he does reference where he is, and therefore we do pull wide and we do see him standing in the desolation of that cafe…it kind of depends on the song, and I would always try to find the right choices to reflect the nature of the song.
Hugh Jackman is fantastic as Jean Valjean. When you talk to a director about casting they often reply with answers like “I could never imagine anybody else in this role.” Is that 100% true? Could you imagine anyone else playing the part?
No, I literally had a short list of one and it was Hugh. If he didn’t exist I don’t think I’d have done the film, because even now I can’t think of another person who would have played that role. It’s very demanding. It’s a tenor part, so for a start not many men who can sing can sing that high. So you need a guy who can sing high but is one of the strongest guys you’ve ever seen, because in the film he’s legendarily strong. To have that kind of singing ability and that kind of musical theatre training is so rare. Hugh is a bona fide musical star as well as a bona fide film star. And then he has a kindness at the centre of him. He really is an extraordinarily kind human being. Having been through 13 gruelling weeks and under a lot of stress, he never snapped at anyone. He’s always gracious to the crew and he’s a great leader of men. There is something about that gentle soul he has that was quite appropriate to the spiritual journey his character goes on.
Anne Hathaway went through a bold physical transformation for her role as Fantine. I read that she ate nothing but two strips of oatmeal paste a day for weeks. Did you ever think holy hell, is she going to be OK?
Yeah, I was worried she went too far, so I was always trying to tempt her with little dainty morsels of food.
Did you consider for any of the roles not casting an actual actor, per se, but a singer?
I did, and I definitely auditioned people who were more singers than actors. But the problem is that it’s hard to find singers who know how to hold a cinematic close-up. Film stars are film stars for a reason…it’s a very rare gift that great film actors have. I realised that when you’re in close-up having someone sing beautifully who couldn’t act, it would not work.
That goes back to what we were talking about before, doesn’t it, about your choice to frame everything so close to your actors. So you wouldn’t have had an option, in your mind, I assume, to cut away to locations and show the rain falling, the dark alleys…
I do think the shooting style was a response to how great the actors were. Probably the greatest compliment you can pay an actor is an unbroken three minute shot of their face.
Les Misérables is currently playing in cinemas nation-wide.