Singin' in the Pain
The tragi-epic of Broadway's "Les Miserables" is the world's most popular musical. Now Universal brings it to the big screen, boldly betting that the masses will come see Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway croon their hearts out (and maybe score Oscar gold in the process)
The road to hollywood hell is paved with fallen musicals. Since Chicago won the Oscar for best picture in 2003, they've landed with Richter-level thuds -- from 2004's The Phantom of the Opera, which earned $51 million, less than its production cost; to 2007's Sweeney Todd, one of the few failed collaborations between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton; to the Daniel Day-Lewis starrer Nine (2009), which positively flatlined.
So it was with some trepidation that Working Title Films, the London-based production company headed by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, took on the near-legendary stage musical Les Miserables.
Making an entirely-sung $61 million period piece (it would have cost a lot more without Britain's hefty tax credits) was daunting enough that Fellner did extensive computerized research -- something he has been doing on each Working Title production since 1997 -- before he and Universal went ahead. "We have an in-house person in charge of that," he notes.
The staffer put the adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel through proprietary computer simulations to estimate box office, examining data from 5,000 other films, including period pieces, movies with the same potential lead actors and other musicals. In other words, he tried to Nate Silver the movie's chances of success.
While Fellner won't reveal what the computer predicted, he argues: "What's the point of spending $1 million of development money on something that will never get made? We use our experience and knowledge, and everything else gets generated on an algorithm model. But this is probability; none of it is fact."
And as every film executive knows, at some point you have to trust your gut. "Sure, there was discussion," says Universal Pictures co-chairman Donna Langley, who backed one of the rare recent musical successes, 2008's Mamma Mia!, which earned $610 million worldwide. "But the title comes with great pre-awareness, and combined with an incredible cast, the package ended up being really exciting."
Langley's conviction will be put to the test Christmas Day, when Les Mis opens on more than 2,800 screens domestically, following a marketing blitz that has lasted for months.
A late entry into the Oscar race, the movie was screened at full capacity, first in New York at the 1,110-seat Alice Tully Hall, then in Los Angeles for six guild presentations. Since then, there have been premieres in Seoul, South Korea and Tokyo, with another scheduled to take place Dec. 5 in London.
Those screenings drew rapturous responses, with THR's Scott Feinberg noting "the raucous standing ovation that the film and its key talent received" in New York. Several pundits even speculated that the film might beat Titanic and All About Eve's record 14 Oscar nominations.
Still, a two-hour, 38-minute drama about a hardened French convict who is pursued by a ferocious police inspector and who then finds redemption while caring for the child of a prostitute is nothing if not a challenge.
"It was a big risk," says director Tom Hooper, describing his first movie since 2010's Oscar-winning The King's Speech. "Hopefully, it seems like less of a risk now."
Universal did everything to ensure that. Even during the audition process, executives examined audio from the cast, which includes Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. One, newcomer Samantha Barks, had to endure as many as 15 meetings.
Early in the summer, the studio struck a deal with Regal Cinemas to run a 4-1/2-minute trailer explaining how this musical would be different from others, with all the songs shot live rather than prerecorded. Universal also has worked with Cameron Mackintosh (who produced the stage version and is one of the producers of the film) to target devotees and has created a Facebook page that now has 1 million fans.
To reach beyond the millions who have seen the stage version, the studio has bought commercials on such female-skewing TV shows as Dancing With the Stars and Grey's Anatomy, along with male-oriented programming including NFL and NBA games.
That's in addition to a publicity campaign highlighting tales of Hathaway existing on scant servings of oatmeal to lose 25 pounds while playing the fallen Fantine and how her castmates sang their throats ragged by performing every song live on set.
Now it's showtime.
The current rendition of Les Miserables appears 150 years after Victor Hugo wrote his 1,900-page novel and nearly 30 years since Mackintosh first became involved.
In 1983, theater director Peter Farago approached him with a recording of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil's work, three years after they had staged a semi-concert version in Paris.
Realizing he would need a proper English-language text, Mackintosh (Cats, Phantom of the Opera) contacted poet James Fenton to rework the lyrics -- just before Fenton set off on a trip into the jungles of Borneo.
"He took the novel with him, and because it was so heavy, he tore out the chapters one by one as he read them and fed them to the crocodiles," recalls Mackintosh, perhaps with a touch of theatrical license.
When his English-language show debuted in October 1985, it met with decidedly mixed results. One critic disparaged it as "a witless and synthetic entertainment." And yet audiences flocked to the theater -- where the production has been performed in 43 countries, sung in 21 languages and seen by more than 60 million theatergoers -- making it prime fodder for Hollywood.
During the late 1980s, TriStar Pictures tried to get the movie made, with directors including Alan Parker (Midnight Express), Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies) and Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) all expressing interest. But TriStar's attempts failed, and when its option lapsed, the rights reverted to Mackintosh.
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.
"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.
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."
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."
Before shooting, the actors gathered for an almost-unheard-of seven-week 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."
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."
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."
LES MISERABLES BY THE NUMBERS
- 21: Languages the stage musical has been performed in throughout the world
- 43: Countries where it has been performed
- 47,000+: Professional performances to date
- 60 million: Number of people who have seen Les Mis since 1985
- 66: Adaptations of Hugo's novel. The first was made by the Lumiere brothers; the most recent starred Liam Neeson in 1998
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 By Marc Bernardin
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.