Director's Cut: Tom Hooper on 'Les Miserables'

How do you follow up a film that took you from being a no-name director to a multiple Oscar winner and revered figure in film circles? That was the task Tom Hooper was faced with after the immense success of "The King's Speech," which ended up earning four Academy Awards, among them Best Director and Best Picture.  "The King's Speech" was a black sheep period piece that Hooper said he made "very privately," a luxury Hooper wasn't afforded with his next project: "Les Miserables."

With a huge budget and studio backing -- not to mention some of the biggest names in Hollywood in the cast -- Hooper's newest film adaptation of one of the most beloved musicals of all time has built-in expectations that weren't there for "The King's Speech." We've all heard Anne Hathway belt "I Dreamed a Dream" in the film's trailers by now, but there's plenty of room to hear what the man behind the camera thinks about it all. sat down with Hooper in New York ahead of the film's release and picked his brain on what role he would play in the musical, awards season, and crying in the editing suite.

We've all heard about the cast's intense rehearsal for the film, but how did you prepare? What's different about your preparation, as a director, for a musical?

I had to do a lot of thinking about the form of the musical itself, which is probably different from a normal film like "The King's Speech" — I didn't have to actually think about "how do you do a dialect movie?" in the philosophical sense, it's more about the nitty-gritty of how you do that particular story. I had these big questions of how to do it, and one of them major decisions was whether I do it through song and dialogue. The first draft of the script that I was given was divided dialogue-song-dialogue-song, and there's only been a couple of movies in movie history that are through song all the way, I think "Tommy" and "Evita." I could tell even the marketing guys were nervous about singing all the way through. They thought more people were going to be put off by it. So committing to doing it through song was a big decision, and committing to doing it live, to have live accompaniments so the tempo would change, that was a big decision.

I think working out my methodology and the way I wanted to do it was probably an important phase, while they were rehearsing. That's pretty much what directing is:Making a bunch of huge decisions and hope it works.

Now that you're "Tom Hooper, director of 'The King's Speech'," instead of just Tom Hooper, do you feel more pressure? Expectations for this are really high.

Probably in the sense that "The King's Speech" was a movie I made very privately. No one cared about "The King's Speech," no one had heard of "The King's Speech," the play on which it was based had never been produced, and the story of Lionel Logue no one had really heard because he's sort of been hidden from the history books. It was like a small British film that none of us knew was going to have this crazy journey. This was different. With this, you've got 60 million people who have seen it who all hold this story close to their hearts. I was very aware that I needed to strike a balance between looking after the fans and giving them hopefully a more intense version of what they've experienced, but also looking after people who have no knowledge of "Les Miserables" because I wanted the film to be for everyone, not just for the people who already have a stake in it. That was a delicate balancing act, because with one audience you can assume familiarity and with another audience you can assume they know nothing, and you have to make sure that the storytelling is clear.

Did you watch any movie musicals while you were prepping? Are there any that you think got it right?

I quite enjoyed having an excuse to go back and re-educate myself on the classics. I particularly enjoyed seeing "The Sound of Music" again, which I hadn't seen since I was a kid. It's got an incredible kind of joie de vivre in it, and "Fiddler on the Roof," I'd never seen, I saw that. "West Side Story" I'd never seen, and I got a print of that and screened it in a cinema by myself, which was kind of really thrilling. There was sort of that golden age of the musical. It's interesting why that didn't sustain, but there was that period where all these great ones were being made, and then after that it's more gappy. More recently, I liked "Moulin Rouge." What struck me quite often is that they weren't like ["Les Mis"]. In "The Sound of Music," once, I counted, there's 27 minutes between songs, so they're kind of telling their story as a dialogue story with the occasional song thrown in, and it's not the same as what we're doing here, which is telling a story through song. There were very few examples to look at what we were attempting to do.

When you screened the film at Lincoln Center the day after Thanksgiving, it was the world premiere of the final cut. You said you'd been working on it until 2 a.m. that same day to finish in time. What was it like in post-production working with that Christmas Day release date?

It became increasingly stressful. In the beginning it was like, "Oh, yeah, it'll be fine. Five months? Plenty of time." It's an oil tanker of a film, I can't tell you how complex a film that was to wrangle. I mean, as an example, in the editing room, if you make any kind of a change, you have to re-orchestrate the music to fit the change. So you couldn't just, like, make some changes and then just watch the film — you'd make the changes and then it would be, like, three or four days to even screen the film for it to make sense. Even just the job of all the orchestrations — because we took a fresh look at all the orchestrations, and two and a half hours of orchestrations is a lot to do. But instinctively I felt like this Christmas was the right time to release it. What did I base it on? Just gut instinct, but that's a lot of directing: just going with your gut instinct.

When I saw the movie, everyone was sniffling at the end of "I Dreamed a Dream." Did you become immune to these kind of cry moments while filming?

You kinda think you're immune and then it gets you again. The last day of the final mix I was doing a rebalancing of "I Dreamed a Dream" and I just found myself weeping and mixing and weeping and mixing, and I just thought, "This is like some crazy cliche of what directing 'Les Mis' would be like, that I would be crying and sound mixing on the last day."

OK, so you can direct a musical, but can you sing?

I did some karaoke in Japan two nights ago with Annie [Hathaway] and Amanda [Seyfried]. I did "Help" from The Beatles, which seemed to sum up what I've asked for in the last few months, a lot of help from a lot of people. I'm not great, no, but I'm ok.

If you were in "Les Mis," what role would you most want to play?

I suppose I would want to be Marius, mostly because he doesn't die. Pretty good reason!

Is this a long-held dream? Were you a "Les Mis" fanatic before signing on to the project?

No, I wasn't. So one of the nice things was getting the chance to discover it. With the musical, I not only discovered the show, but I went back and familiarized myself with the original piano demo that Claude-Michel Schönberg made, which was just him with the piano, singing all the parts all the way through. The French version I heard, and then I went and read the book for the first time. The book was genius, it was an amazing work of art, and was a source of constant inspiration for the whole thing. Victor Hugo is a very special writer.

Had you seen the musical at all?

I went to see it, I was working with [screenwriter] William Nicholson on another project, and he mentioned that he had been asked to adapt it, so I went to have a look at the musical, and then during the whole period of promotion for "The King's Speech" is when I was quietly and secretly thinking about doing "Les Miserables." I was carrying the book around in my bag wherever I went and reading it on the plane and sneaking off to Chicago to go watch the new production. There was sort of the journey of working out how to do it before I said yes. I went on this journey of working out my plan while I was talking about "The King's Speech."

So it sounds like you were sort of courted for it.

Yeah, I think Cameron Mackintosh wanted me to do it. The show being what it is, I knew that Cameron would have to be satisfied that I had the right instinct for it. So I approached my meetings with him as if they were a pitch, even if they weren't. I don't know if they were a pitch or not, but I approached him with a lot of preparation because I knew how important it was to him and to the fans and that I had to do my homework.

How many times have you seen it now?

About six, I think, in Chicago and London.

Do you like to watch your movies with an audience?

I love watching my movies with an audience, because it offers you the chance to come out of your head and see it as an audience member. There's something about sitting in an audience where you see it fresh. That's the best thing because quite often, after all the work you do on a film, you can't really experience it like it's meant to be experienced. Sometimes with audiences, you get caught up in the momentum and the emotion.

Are you happy with "Les Mis"? You finished editing it so recently that it seems like it may still be hard to watch without wanting to make changes.

I'm still happy with it. I find it hard to let go of, because I've been in production until last Thursday, so my whole mode is how do I make it better, how do I make it better, and eventually you have to accept that you have to say goodbye and send it off in the world and go "I can't and I shouldn't touch it anymore." I must admit that the reaction [at the first screenings] did help me feel that it probably was finished.

Did you expect that much applause?

God, no! I remember in "The King's Speech," in a couple of the premieres, people clapped after Bertie finishes his speech. There was applause, and I was like, "Wow, I've never heard applause." And that was once! In [the first screening at Lincoln Center's] Alice Tully Hall, I think there was like 12 or 14 applauses. It was insane. From the moment he ripped the paper up and threw it to the winds, it was kind of surreal.

Now that you've already won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars, do you feel less pressure to succeed in awards season?

I don't know if I felt pressure last time, because I didn't really expect, it all felt like more than I expected. It's hard to feel pressure about something that you don't really expect. This time, I haven't really thought about it because I've been so insanely busy finishing the film. The most important thing, at the moment, is being focused on releasing the film properly and making sure the marketing is good and really focusing on protecting its release into the world, because so many thousands of people put so much love into it that I want it to be well looked after. It's always exciting for a film to be put in that kind of conversation, so that's fantastic.

Is there anything about being on the awards circuit that surprised you?

The nice surprise was how much camaraderie developed between me and the other filmmakers, like me and Darren and Fincher and O. Russell and the Coens. It was much less competitive than I thought it was, and the nice thing is that I've gotten to know a group of filmmakers, some of them my contemporaries, really well, and that was a sort of nice thing that came out of it. Because filmmaking is a very lonely business. You don't tend to hang out with other directors at all, because why would you, so the awards season was an opportunity to get to know some directors more than superficially, so that was great.

Have you seen any of the other movies that are in the awards race?

Not a single one. I was hoping to go to one tonight. "Life of Pi," I want to see, yeah. I did a roundtable with Ang Lee, he's such a charming and sensitive soul, I'd love to see that.

Where do you go from here? What's next?

On holiday. Can I go away and lie down for a very long time?