Tom Hooper on 'Les Misérables' as 'the great cry from the heart of those who suffer'
He continues: "A lot of filmmakers avoid the edges. And I understand why. But I like having actors have a strong relationship with the edge of the frame. As filmmakers we have to work with the box, you know? We have to work with this picture inside a black box, which is the edges of the cinema screen, and I often like invoking the finality of it rather than pretending it's not there."
Further to the film's visual storytelling, Hooper says he was keen to constantly tread a line between gritty and heightened realism. He wanted it to be a visceral experience, which in part informed his decision to have the actors sing live during the production. "The singing really grounded it in something bodily and physical, but at the same time, the license allowed me to create a more expressionistic universe," he says.
He also wanted to constantly conjure the power of the state, which is exemplified by the massive, damaged warship a group of slaves -- through quite Biblical imagery -- are hauling out of the sea at the beginning of the film. "It's like a wounded animal being brought in and it shows the state is vulnerable, that it can be attacked, that it can be destroyed," he says.
Similarly, there is also the film's very first image, starting underwater, in the dark, before hitting on a tattered, drowned French flag and ascending from the depths. It's an image of revolution, Hooper says. And that idea of ascension was also at play in his visual ideas throughout.
"There's a theme of height in the film," he says. "I mean, not only do we go from under the water to up in the sky, but you've got Valjean, released from prison underneath the great shadow of this huge boat and then he goes up the steps to freedom, leaving Javert in the depths. And then later, he goes up the mountain to a little mountain village where he finds God. So he ascends to find the light. Later, when he releases his parole document, the camera ascends further up into the air, up to the clouds, up to where we feel God exists, you know, behind a break, behind a tear in the cloud. And then these little bits of parole ticket fail to ascend all the way and get dragged back down in the rain, back down into the mud, back down to Russell Crowe, back down to his nemesis, back down to what's stopping him. Fantine later descends down steps to become a whore and ends up inside the bowels of the boat, surrounded by water, when she's forced to be a prostitute. And then when she's saved by Valjean, she's lifted up the steps to freedom. That was an intentional motif."
While "Les Misérables" is a unique entry in the canon of musical cinema, Hooper nevertheless had his touchstones along the way. The first that comes to mind for him is Norman Jewison's "Fiddler on the Roof," which he found particularly inspiring. "Sacha [Baron Cohen] suggested we watch it for the Thénardiers section," he says. "I feel like some of 'Master of the House' is an homage to what Jewison did."
Jacques Demy's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" was another. "It's one of the very few sung-through musicals ever made," he says. "As far as I can tell, there's 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,' there's 'Tommy' and 'Evita' are the only ones that have been done. And I loved in 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg' the combination of singing with very mundane worlds. I mean, it begins with car mechanics, with a guy who's changing for the end of the day's shift to go out, and it's sort of very ordinary. The combination of a very ordinary world with singing was really interesting. It really works and it's delightful. I found that very inspiring."
And speaking of "Evita," Hooper has plenty of praise and appreciation for Alan Parker's work. "'Bugsy Malone,' when I was kid, had a huge influence on me," he says. "Whether it's 'The Commitments' or 'Fame,' which is extraordinary looking back at it again, he was influential."
"Les Misérables" is coming along at a particular time in the world. Things like the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street and 99% movements and just the overall socio-economical status quo are significant identifiers of the era. The depiction of the June Rebellion in "Les Misérables," to say nothing of its overall study of social states, makes it a particularly rich piece of material for tapping into the zeitgeist in some way.
None of this was lost on Hooper when he set out to develop it for the screen. He was overwhelmed by how timely it was, in fact. "Not only do we have sort of widespread anger about rising economic inequality to an unacceptable degree," he says, "but we've also got the real beginnings of very active student protests at St. Paul's in London and obviously the Occupy Wall Street movement. And every day we have images of revolution on our front pages because of what's happening in Syria and the shifts the Middle East."
The thing that struck him the most, though, was how Victor Hugo's original novel -- which he went back and read before prepping the film -- is so passionately motivated by real anger at the level of poverty Hugo saw around himself.
"And 150 years later, we're still in a world with unacceptable levels of poverty," Hooper says. "It's sad to me that, unfortunately, his lament remains as true as ever. 'Les Misérables' is the great anthem of the dispossessed. It's the great cry from the heart of those who suffer, and giving voice to that anger from the people is key."
"Les Misérables" is now playing in a theater near you.