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Inside the Fight to Bring 'Les Mis' to the Screen

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The project came to Fellner’s attention in 2009, when he had lunch with Nick Allott, the head of Mackintosh’s company. Intrigued, Fellner (Love, Actually; Pride & Prejudice) soon found himself in his colleague’s plush Bedford Square offices. But even with Mackintosh in control, obtaining the rights wasn’t easy.

“Contract negotiations for a piece of material famous like this can take a long time,” explains Fellner. “We started talking about a deal in late 2009 and only concluded it toward the middle of 2011 — and some amendments were still going on into the shoot.”

Through all the years Les Mis was in development at TriStar, no screenplay had been written. Now Fellner, Bevan and their head of development, Debra Hayward (who would leave the company to produce), engaged William Nicholson, the Oscar-nominated writer of Gladiator.

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“People think screenwriters write dialogue, but the main thing you do is create a coherent story structure — and we already had a very fine piece of work,” he notes. “The first thing I said was: ‘Whatever we do, it’s got to look onscreen like the thing they have seen in the theater. Do something different, and we mess it up at our peril.’ ”

After discussions about whether to retain the original’s almost operatic conceit — the entirety of the story is sung, without spoken sequences — Nicholson got to work and within six weeks had a draft that retained the structure of the story, adding brief dialogue scenes to sharpen emotions and plot. Fellner and Bevan were thrilled. Now all they needed was a director.

Coincidentally, Nicholson had been working with Hooper on Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (which since has been shot by Justin Chadwick for a 2013 release). At this point, in late 2010, Hooper was just cresting the wave that would carry King’s Speech to four Oscars — for picture, director, screenplay and best actor Colin Firth.

Following a relatively small film, the lure of a musical on this scale proved irresistible. “After King’s Speech,” says Hooper, “the thing that became most clear was that I wanted to make something, if possible, even more emotional.”

But the director insisted on two major conditions: first, that the film be stripped of even the few new dialogue scenes; and second, that the singing be done live. “I was wrestling with the question, Do musicals seem a little bit fake because people are singing? Or is it because they’re lip syncing?” he asks. “And my hunch was that the tradition of singing to playback made it slightly unreal.”

When the producers agreed, Hooper committed, and Universal gave the movie a greenlight. Now Hooper commenced auditions as the film headed toward a March 19, 2012, start.

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Jackman was the first actor to express interest in the role of the convict, Jean Valjean, who flees Inspector Javert (Crowe). “My agent, [WME’s] Patrick Whitesell, had called me before Tom was even signed,” he says.

Around June 2011, Jackman and Hooper met for a full-scale audition one afternoon in New York. What started with the star singing three or four of Valjean’s songs developed into a veritable workshop. “This was the first time it went from being an intellectual idea to a reality for Tom,” says Jackman. “After three hours, I put up my hand and said, ‘I gotta put my kids to bed!’ ”

There was some question whether Les Mis would clash with Jackman’s commitment to The Wolverine, but Whitesell managed to juggle his schedule and even got him enough time for a monthlong road trip across France to discover his character’s country.

Hooper then sat down with other actors. His audition with Hathaway was laden with emotion, given that her mother had played Fantine (the young factory worker who succumbs to prostitution) in the original U.S. road show.

“There was resistance because I was between their ideal ages for the parts — maybe not mature enough for Fantine but past the point where I could believably play Cosette [Fantine’s daughter, later embodied by Seyfried],” she remembers. “And I did what I do when I really want a role: I got fiery and told my agent, ‘Just get me in the room.’ ”

As with Jackman, a three-hour meeting between the actress and Hooper ensued. “Then I sat on pins and needles for a month; when my audio was played for the higher-ups, they responded,” says Hathaway with relief. Now she immersed herself in the role, hiring a researcher who led her to books on sexual slavery and losing weight in two stages (she lost 10 pounds over three weeks before the shoot and an extra 15 pounds during production as her character degenerated). “I just had to stop eating,” she says, “all for a total of 13 days’ shooting.”

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Jackman also had to shed weight to portray the gaunt convict seen at the film’s beginning — he dropped 15 pounds before bingeing and adding 30 more to mirror Valjean’s burgeoning success. “I was eating anything I could,” he says. “If ever there are any outtakes, there’s a lot of me burping.”

Crowe initially was reluctant to take the role because he felt “it wasn’t something that suited me,” until he was persuaded by Hooper to turn “my reservations into my responsibilities.” He then undertook exceptional research, watching nearly all the previous film versions (with Charles Laughton, Anthony Perkins and Geoffrey Rush, among others, as Javert). But his real breakthrough came when he visited Hugo’s home in Paris, where he spoke to a curator.

“She told me about [19th century detective Eugene Francois] Vidocq, a man who had been both a prisoner and a policeman, the man credited with inventing undercover police work when he established the Brigade de Surete,” an early investigative unit of the French police. This was the person, says Crowe, on whom “Hugo had based both Valjean and Javert. So the source for both characters was one man. That was very influential.”

While he and the other actors were preparing, the crew began scouting locations in France that could substitute for Paris, only to find that the City of Light no longer resembles that of the book — which spans the years 1815 to 1832 — thanks to a vast reconstruction project that destroyed whole swathes during the 1860s.

“In the novel, the buildings are described as very tall, very perilous, very medieval — and we weren’t finding that,” says production designer Eve Stewart, who spent six weeks scouring France before deciding to construct sets at Pinewood Studios, just west of London. “The hardest was probably the main street. It was about 250 feet long, and we had to build the houses so you could run in and out of them. At the height of it all, I had around 20 plasterers, 40 carpenters, 40 steelworkers and 40 painters.” With rotting fish and seaweed shipped from Scotland to create a feeling of grit and grime, “It was probably the smelliest set I have ever been on.”

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Before shooting, the actors gathered for an almost-unheard-of sevenweek rehearsal period. “Everyone knew what we were doing could not be done lightly,” says Hooper. “You need a huge amount of voice training to do several takes. That was a big question: Would they have the stamina to do take after take of different setups?”

When filming commenced in March, he found they did. Still, “I don’t think any of us fully realized what the casual comment, ‘Every take is sung live,’ would really mean,” quips Crowe, who did 40 takes of one song back-to-back. “When the voice started to show some wear and tear, it also underlined the character and the emotion of the moment.”

After a skeletal crew was sent to Gourdon in France to shoot Jackman wandering the mountains, filming shifted to England and the British coast, where a massive early sequence takes place with scores of convicts dragging a ship into port while being doused with waves. “It was 12 degrees, and the water was coming straight off the ocean,” sighs Jackman. “We were there for three days.”