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Music brings the vivid imagery of the Victor Hugo classic Les Miserables to life: be it the grim, slave-like conditions of a chain-gang of French convicts, the cobble-stoned bustle of 19th century Paris, prostitutes doing their business under the pier, a dingy boarding house minded by an innkeeper who robs his guests blind. Diehard fans of the theatrical production can recite all the words to every song, recognize each reprise of stanza, every twist of melody. To translate the inspired and beloved musical to the big screen? An “intimidating” undertaking, to put it mildly.
It’s one reason composers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (the former focuses on music, the latter on lyrics) let a previous collaboration with Alan Parker fall by the wayside (he would go on to direct 1996’s Evita starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas). Despite investing some eight months into an adaptation and completing a script, the duo opted to wait another decade-plus until Tom Hooper came along, followed in quick succession by actors Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Russell Crowe, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.
As for the great unknown — or éléphant dans la chambre, as it were — does the movie version, especially the music, hold up to the play? In no uncertain terms: yes; but not just because the likes of Jackman, Hathaway and Cohen deliver stellar performances, rather (and equally important), because the songs are just that good.
To that end, all credit is due to Schönberg and Boublil, who have been living, breathing and rethinking this timeless musical for the better part of 30 years and were intimately involved with the film version, out Dec. 25.
The two French composers spoke to The Hollywood Reporter shortly after a screening and Q&A held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Linwood Dunn Theater and shed light on the process of recording the actors singing live, the movie’s inherent challenges and their unexpected cheerleader, Britain’s Got Talent star Susan Boyle.
The Hollywood Reporter: You mentioned during the Q&A the profound impact that Jesus Chris Superstar had on your desire to write a musical…
Alain Boublil: Oh yes. It was a long time ago when the show was on Broadway and I was given a last-minute ticket. What I saw on stage was not exactly what I wanted to do but it was the first time that I could see a classic American musical written through sound, which I didn’t know existed … I could feel that there was a pop inspiration behind what they were doing, which made me feel like these people were maybe coming from the same world I was in, which was pop music. When I described to Claude-Michel what I had seen and that I may have the idea for what would become the French Revolution musical, we all agreed that it was worth trying. Now the French Revolution may have its American premiere soon in 2014 or beginning of 2015 in Chicago.
THR: Tri-Star tried to do the movie verision of Les Miserables back in the 90s and it fell apart: what happened?
Boublil: I think Alan Parker always had hesitation between doing Les Miserables and Evita, which is what he ended up doing. He was trying to find out how to make this musical work because it’s sung, but I think it was too early for all of us to know how we would translate that on the silver screen. We maybe didn’t have as clear a concept as Tom Hooper’s, but we had a finished screenplay by Oliver Stone and all the sets were constructed in England. … Still, we were not on the same page. We also talked to Barry Levinson one evening in L.A. and that didn’t go far either. Many people just told us, “We don’t know how to do it.”
Claude-Michel Schönberg: We understand that it’s quite scary for a director with such a successful and iconic show. It’s intimidating. We have all been intimidated by it, even when we started work with Tom and he said he wanted to go back to the original score. Still, it was an extraordinary challenge to completely forget about the stage show, because we have enough distance to be able to do that, and to conceive it as a movie. And we got to see our dream of having the funeral of General Lamarque on the big screen as one of the major scenes from the movie and it’s given “Do You Hear the People Sing” the big, dramatic moment it needs.
THR: The singing in the movie is really impressive, especially Anne’s and Hugh’s. Since most of the vocals were recorded live and in the moment, how much overdubbing and sweetening was done later?
Schönberg: Maybe one percent — 99 percent is live, the rest was ADR, and that was mainly for dialogue. We pride ourselves on the fact that we managed to do the whole movie the way we promised: live recording except for the choirs at the beginning with the chain gang and the end because there was too much noise on the set between the wind machine, the rain machine and the wave machine. So we got to do it to a backing track just to keep going and for everybody to know exactly where they are.
THR: How many takes would, say, Anne have to do to nail that performance of “I Dreamed a Dream?”
Schönberg: Generally, there were between 7 and 12 takes, sometimes 15 and even more. Anne probably did it 12 times one after the other. And I personally attended 37 takes of the opening scene [“Look Down”]; It was freezing cold that day. On the other hand, Amanda Seyfried collapsed one day because it was so hot. So the shooting was quite grueling.
THR: Previous stage productions of Les Mis would sometimes add instruments that didn’t exist at the time, like an electric guitar; did you keep the instrumentation historically accurate and old world?
Schönberg: Every scene with the students has a guitar. We even added more piano than the stage show, but we’ve not been using guitar for the finale of Les Mis the way we used to … instead it’s a harp and that was kind of drastic decision.
THR: How big was the orchestra?
Schönberg: For a big number like the finale, there were 66 musicians. But some of what we did with “Master of the House” was only with seven musicians. But to be very close to the atmosphere and the mood of the scene, we recorded the voice live.
THR: What song in Les Miserables is the most pop-influenced?
Schonberg: “On My Own” basically is a pop song.
THR: You used a lot of stage actors in smaller roles, how did that affect the movie stars on set like Russell Crowe?
Schönberg: When he first arrived on the set, Russell said, “OK, I don’t have the voice you use on the guys stage in the West End or Broadway.” So I gave him the French recording from back in 1980 when there was no traditional musical in France and we were using only pop singers. The guy who was singing was a rock ‘n’ roll singer, like Russell, with a big, heavy voice.
THR: Have you guys considered that in the future, people may discover Les Mis through movie and possibly never see the play. How do you think that will affect its impact and legacy?
Schönberg: There was a great review recently in London by someone who had never seen the show and who had never read the novel and he loved the movie. So speaking only to the people who have not seen the show, he was saying you must see this movie especially if you’ve never seen the show because you’re going to discover a piece of work that might be of high interest for movie lovers. I think we have to be grateful to Tom Hooper for the extraordinary work he has done — and the little bit of work we did to help him.
THR: Is the movie ultimately as good a way to get into Les Miserables as the play?
Boublil: I hope it will be, and I think that, like the stage show, it’s going to make a lot more people buy the novel and read it. But you know, this is the 53rd movie version of Les Miserables. When we started to write the show back in 1980, there was 32 versions as a movie … so we hope that people enjoying the movie will try to see the stage show.
THR: Which is great for you guys, sort of like Susan Boyle “I Dream a Dream,” which totally renewed interest in the music?
Boublil: We have been working 30 years to get to where we are, but with Susan Boyle, that is the first time in our life when we got something incredible for doing nothing.
THR: How did you first hear about it?
Schönberg: Doing our sleep, we got 40 e-mails saying go on YouTube. It was fantastic for us, because when you are Susan Boyle and you’re singing “I Dreamed a Dream” about wanting to have another life, you can’t be more true than that.
THR: And she got another life, right? She’s a huge star.
Boublil / Schönberg: Exactly.
THR: Have you guys had any contact with her?
Schönberg: We wrote a letter to tell her how proud we were by what she did. Apparently, her agent told her us it’s in a frame on her kitchen wall.
THR: What’s next on your plate? During the Q&A, there was mention of a possible Miss Saigon movie. Is that in any sort of development?
Schönberg: No. Maybe it will come to a serious discussion after we know whether Les Miserables is going to be successful enough to warrant the trust of more producers in musical movies of this kind.
THR: You have the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon coming up in 2015…
Boublil: Thank you, we’ll keep that in mind. [Laughter]
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