Director's Chair: Tom Hooper — 'Les Miserables'
Issue: April 1, 2013

Director's Chair: Tom Hooper — 'Les Miserables'

HOLLYWOOD — British director Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech, his film about the true-life story of the stuttering King George VI and his Aussie speech therapist, swept the Oscars in 2011, with the film winning him Best Director, along with Best Picture and an Oscar for Colin Firth as Best Actor. 

This year, his latest film Les Miserables, adapted from the beloved Tony-winning Broadway play and based on Victor Hugo’s novel, was also a contender for Best Picture, along with Hugh Jackman for Best Actor and Anne Hathaway, who won for Best Supporting Actress. Inexplicably though, Hooper (along with Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow) failed to make the cut for Best Director, despite all three having received DGA nominations.
The Oxford-educated Hooper got his start shooting commercials and such hit TV shows as Prime Suspect, East Enders, Elizabeth I and John Adams, and who made his feature film debut with the 2004 drama Red Dust.

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, he talks about making the film, his love of post and editing, and why the horses had to wear rubber hooves.

POST: How would you describe this film and what sort of film did you set out to make?
HOOPER: “I wanted to make an intimate epic and tell this extraordinary story that’s been around for 150 years and is one of the most adapted stories ever, but tell it through the musical form in a way that caught the essence of the story as best as I could. For me, it’s about a man who undergoes two unexpected transformations: first, from being a convict who has hit rock bottom in his life, who’s brutalized and criminalized for 19 years, and through an extraordinary act of forgiveness by the bishop has an epiphany, and discovers faith and virtue. So it’s about a man given a second chance, who completely transforms and reinvents himself. 

“The second epiphany has to do with love, and I suppose I wanted to make a film that captured all of that, in a very emotional way, and in a way that felt both period but also contemporary in dealing with all those ideas and themes.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges of making such an ambitious film?
HOOPER: “From the very start I wanted to do it live, with all the singing done live on-set, which posed huge challenges. It was an amazing collaborative effort between all the departments to make it possible. It involved very innovative sound recording from production sound mixer Simon Hayes and his team, and building some exterior sets inside soundstages to protect the quality of the sound. 

“We built sets with special floorboards that didn’t creak, and used rubber paving stones and rubber hooves for the horses to muffle sound, and even carpeting on rooftops to muffle the sound of rain. Then the costume department couldn’t use any fabrics like silk that would create too much noise for all the radio mics. And of course it also involved a wonderful group of singing teachers and musical directors to help guide the cast through the show. Then on the camera side, it involved shooting multi-camera. It was pretty complex.”

POST: You certainly didn’t make it easy on yourself. So why did you want to do it all live?
HOOPER: “I felt that actually getting actors to lipsync singing — and very accurately — is just so hard. I remember hearing stories about Alan Parker editing Evita and all the problems with trying to keep it in sync. You can spend your life worrying if it’s perfect, so this way I avoided all that completely.”

POST: Once again you worked with DP Danny Cohen, who shot The King’s Speech for you. What did he bring to the mix?
HOOPER: “He’s a maverick, a bit of a rebel, and he doesn’t mind breaking the rules and he doesn’t get attached to a certain formula and way of doing things. That approach was essential for this, because when you’re shooting multi-camera, which we had to do as we were shooting live scenes with live accompaniment, and the tempo might change a bit from take to take, you need to get all the shots you needed with each take, so you could use one take of singing and get all the shots from that one take. There were big constraints on the way we lit for multi-camera, which he absolutely embraced with enthusiasm, as he always saw the bigger picture of what we were trying to do. So I loved that positivity he brought on set.” 

POST: Did you shoot film or digital, and what guided your choice?
HOOPER: “We shot 35mm, and this is very interesting: We discussed going digital, and the really surprising thing about it is that my line producer ran the numbers — twice — and there was no price difference! This big myth’s been built up that digital is far cheaper, but it’s just not true. I love shooting on film, and I know the time will soon come when it’s no longer possible, so I was very happy to shoot this on film. For me, it’s still the best image capture process out there.” 

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
HOOPER: “It was all in London. We did the editing at Goldcrest and had cutting rooms at Pinewood during the shoot. We did all the sound mixing at Halo, recorded the orchestra at AIR Studios, and Company 3 did the DI. It was all incredibly fast — just five months. We only managed because we worked seven-day weeks for a lot of it, with very little sleep!”

POST: Do you like the post process? 
HOOPER: “I love it, and the most interesting aspect of it for me is that, however clear the vision you had of the film before you began, once you sit down in the editing room and start working on, it becomes something different. You have to really let go of your preconceived vision and just look at what’s in front of you, and then it’s all about servicing what the film’s become, and how can you get the best out of what you shot. I love starting to show the film to get a feeling about all that. I always start off showing it to my family first, and then to close friends, and you see how it plays, and you learn about it and gradually shape it.” 

POST: This being a musical, it must have been an even bigger job?
HOOPER: “Exactly, especially as we shot the entire film to a solo electric piano track — that’s all. So I began with a movie set to piano, and we cut it to that piano, and then all the programmers would start to program orchestral music using sample sounds, and my orchestraters then began to rethink all the orchestrations, to make it more suitable for a film. So we’d start to build up in little chunks these programmed versions of the orchestra, and gradually worked our way through the whole thing. 

“What was intriguing was that the more you built up the orchestra, the more you were basically inviting in this new character to the film, at a very late stage. So we had to make room for that new character, learn about it, and sometimes change the way we edited — particularly at the very high energy moments, as a single piano doesn’t really convey that energy. When you start hearing what the orchestra’s going to do, you need to reflect that new energy better in the editing and pace, to make the shots more dynamic, so that energy and the orchestra feel as one.

“It was far and away the most complex post I’ve ever done, because in a normal movie you can sit there, and if it’s running a little long, you take five minutes out and then watch it. But you can’t do that here. You can cut five minutes, but then you can’t just watch it, because the programmed music doesn’t fit anymore. So it all has to be re-programmed, and synced up by the music editors, and only then can you press ‘play’ and watch it again. Sometimes just to watch it ourselves would take days of intense preparation — and that was so new to me.”

POST: Tell us about working with editors Chris Dickens, who won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, and Melanie Oliver who cut The Damned United and several of your TV series. How did that relationship work?
HOOPER: “Melanie came on later after she cut Anna Karenina, so Chris was there during the shoot. [Producer] Eric Fellner very smartly suggested early on using two editors, because of the amount of film we were shooting — one-and-a-half million feet — and the complexity and intensity of it all, and it worked fantastically well. You’d think they would take different sections and cut, but they worked on each other’s material and it was so collaborative, and that allowed me to come to grips with it much quicker. We worked out that just to watch all our rushes once would take three weeks! It was quite daunting.”

POST: Who did the visual effects work and how many visual effects shots are there?
HOOPER: “Most of them were done by Double Negative, with some by The Mill, and we had about 450 in all.”

POST: Who was the VFX supervisor, and how did you collaborate?
HOOPER: “Richard Bain at Double Negative, who did a fantastic job, and we worked pretty closely. I like visual effects as they allow you to create these images you simply could not have done otherwise, especially on a tight budget, which we were on. For instance, the big barricade scene at the end has thousands of people, and you could never do that any other way — no matter how much money you had, as it means all these extras in period costume. The most challenging part of VFX is that last stage, where it’s basically there and great, but it’s just not quite photoreal and you’re trying to figure out what’s not working.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you originally envisioned it?
HOOPER: “Pretty much. I made the film I wanted to make.”

POST: What’s next?
HOOPER: “No idea. I’m still trying to recover from this.”