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

"Les Miserable"
"Les Miserable"
 Ruven Afanador

Following other location work in England, the crew moved to Pinewood, where Stewart constructed a 160-foot-long barricade built by rebel students — a structure that has become famous from the stage production’s extravagant creation. Even here, there were problems — like when the extras got out of hand. “Tom whipped them into such an anarchic frenzy, they got carried away and were trying to build the barricade by ripping off bits of scenery,” says Stewart, laughing. “They were even taking chickens from the cages. And a cow we had kept escaping, right in the middle of the revolution.”

At one point, the heat inside the studio caused Seyfried to faint. “There was a physiotherapist on the set, and my neck had been hurting for four days,” she recalls. “I asked if she could work on it, and she said, ‘I have needles [for acupuncture].’ She put two needles in my neck and two in my hand.” Moments later, Seyfried was called on set, with the needles still in place. In her heavy clothes, she “had a terrible feeling” and “woke with Russell holding my feet and Hugh massaging my neck."

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Throughout, she and the principals managed to sustain their voices, something Hooper had feared they wouldn’t and had anticipated by using at least three cameras at all times — sometimes as many as six — with two microphones placed on each lead’s costumes before their digital elimination. (About 200 major CGI shots were used in addition to these minor ones.) The only true disaster he faced was when Sacha Baron Cohen (providing comic relief as an innkeeper who inherits the orphaned Cosette) lost his voice. “He had been working flat-out on The Dictator,” says Fellner. “He was not well when he came to us, and then he got really ill. He could not sing. We had to shut down for a few days until his voice came back.” The whole 68-day shoot “was a harrowing emotional experience,” says Jackman. “But in the end, it was worth it.”

Now he and the cast are waiting to see whether their efforts will pay off and whether the film can come close to the stage production’s estimated 3 billion haul. Les Mis faces daunting competition, including the Christmas Day release of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the Dec. 14 opener The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the Tom Cruise starrer Jack Reacher, which debuts Dec. 21.

Beyond all else, it must overcome the history of previous stabs at Les Miserables. While there have been dozens of versions going back to the silent era, the latest English-language adaptation, a 1998 movie starring Liam Neeson, earned a paltry $14 million.

Whatever the result, “Les Miserables was a magnificent experience,” says Crowe. “The challenge of it, the beauty of it, the camaraderie — it was such a profound experience that I’m sure every time I start a new movie, some part of me will be wishing I was starting Les Mis again.”

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LES MIS' MARIUS
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Tell us about your audition.

I was making Hick with Chloe Moretz and Blake Lively in North Carolina. One night, we went over to Blake’s and they turned on some music, and everyone was singing along. At the time, Les Mis was being played, and they said, “You should audition for that.” Two nights later, I was in the middle of a field in North Carolina in my trailer and thought, “Why not give it a shot?” [He ended up filming a video audition “dressed as a cowboy,” singing “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables.”] I sent it to my agent, [CAA’s] Josh Lieberman, who sent it to Eric Fellner. The last audition was X Factor style, in a room above the Queen’s Theatre in the West End, where Les Mis is playing. And behind a panel were the Working Title producers, Cameron Mackintosh, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Tom Hooper and Nina Gold, the music director. I never felt so terrified in my life.

More than being carried through the sewers by Hugh Jackman?

That’s what my girlfriend said: “Tell me about being carried in Hugh Jackman’s bicep! What was that like?” What Hugh had to go through was insane. He’s an extraordinary leader, and we all committed to his level. But it’s very physical. How do you protect your voice? Tom also gave us great freedom to stop thinking about it: “If crying blocks up your nose, do that. Let the exertion affect your voice.” — Erin Carlson



LES MIS' EPONINE
The actress, 22, from England’s Isle of Man, endured 15 auditions before coming aboard

Have you ever experienced unrequited love?

We all have. Because of that, I think on some level we all relate to Eponine. I’m lucky to have wonderful family and friends, and this girl doesn’t; she’s got such a dark life — but we can relate to her pain because we remember the knife of heartbreak that you see in her.

You were playing Nancy in Oliver! in London when Cameron Mackintosh announced to the crowd that you’d been cast in the film. How did you feel?

This role was the most I’ve ever wanted in my life. It feels like my life led up to this point. To be taking it to this level, every day I’m having a pinch-me moment, where I just can’t believe this is my life.

How was the film different from being onstage?

I’m used to singing eight shows a week for a year, but I’m not used to singing at five in the morning. It’s a short amount of time, but it’s super-intense. When you’re facing conditions where you’re soaking wet, you’ve been singing all day, you’ve been crying, you’re tired — you’ve got to just remain calm, shut off slightly, because you’re in such an emotional state. But at the end of the day, it’s equally important to leave that emotion at the door and say, “OK, I’m going home to have a nice, normal conversation with my friends.”

Or hang out with the cast at Russell Crowe’s house?

The first time I hung out with Russell was at one of his dinner parties. We realized that we really liked singing together. We’re pals. — Erin Carlson

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HEY, ACTORS: WANNA SING? TAKE SOME ADVICE
Oh, it looks like great fun, being in a musical. But here are some do’s and don’ts for thespians

1. Don’t Half-Ass It: Just because you do karaoke in a basement bar whenever you’re on location doesn’t mean you can kill it when it counts. Do the work, get in shape, take the lessons.

2. Do Know Your Range: Meaning, know what you sound good singing. Unless you’re going for laughs — a la Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles — know your strike zone and don’t stray.

3. Don’t Rap: Ever. Don’t even entertain the thought. Unless you’re a rapper who has decided to act, you’re just going to make a fool of yourself. Even if you’re trying to be funny.

4. Do It Because You Love It: Nothing reeks of calculation more than an actor who does a musical because it will be a good career move. (See: Sylvester Stallone in Rhinestone.)

5. Don’t Duet With Real Singers: It will end badly, for you and the audience, as you’ll get blown out of the water by someone who has been doing this for most of his or her adult life. -- Marc Bernardin

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