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NEW YORK -- "Happy Thanksgiving," director Tom Hooper said by way of introduction to an Alice Tully Hall packed with guild and Academy members this afternoon. He was on hand to present his latest film, an adaptation of the musical "Les Misérables," his first effort since the Oscar-winning "The King's Speech" two years ago and one of the awards season's most anticipated titles.
The film had screened for Screen Actors Guild Nominating Committee members earlier in the morning, but Hooper nevertheless made the crowd feel special with a little white lie. "In case you feel you're slow to the party, you are the first audience to see the film," he said. "We finished it at 2am yesterday."
Being that it's Thanksgiving week, Hooper -- a Brit who noted that he went to his first Thanksgiving dinner last night and "learned the ritual of saying what we're thankful and grateful for" -- said he was mostly grateful to have finished in time for today. The pressure is on in the shortened phase one window for studios to get their contenders out there ASAP, and indeed, Hooper will be on his way to Los Angeles soon enough to do the very same song and dance tomorrow. But he said he was pleased to be able to treat the New York scene first.
"It's great to show the film at the Lincoln Center, which is really the home of the human voice at its best and most wonderful," he said. "We're sitting underneath Julliard. Next door we have great temples to the human voice, and it's great to be presenting this live-sung musical in this wonderful venue."
That point about live singing would be a big one during the post-screening Q&A, which featured Hooper and stars Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne. Universal Pictures has already produced and proliferated a featurette playing up the virtues of the practice, which is indeed unique to the genre. But while it presented clear challenges, Hooper said he felt it was the only way to go.
"I wanted to see what I could learn from the masters doing the musicals, and I always thought there was some tiny amount of distance I was experiencing between me and the form," he said. "I felt in the end that there was a falsity…I think of it as emotional. There can't be any distance between you and the person expressing emotions through song…Most importantly, for me, acting is all about pure language in the present tense. To act is to create the illusion that these songs, these speeches are produced by the character in the heat of the moment. This gave the actors the freedom to control tempo, maybe to take a tiny fraction of a second to alter an emotion or express it."
Hooper first came to the project because he had been working some time back with screenwriter William Nicholson on something else entirely. This was before the big ride that was "The King's Speech." Nicholson got the call to adapt "Les Misérables" for the screen, and Hooper's first thought was shock that the musical -- which first hit the stage on London's West End in 1985 -- hadn't been translated to film yet. His second thought was equal shock that he had never seen the theater show himself.
So he went to see the show in August of 2010, a month before "The King's Speech" bowed at the Telluride Film Festival. And the emotions of the piece really spoke to him.
"There's a moment at the very end of the film where Valjean is walking out towards the bishop and you hear the ghostly chorus of the people's song coming in," he said. "When that moment hit, I felt stunned. I had the most extraordinary physical sensation and I wondered if I could create that same physical power on film."
He then started the long journey of exploring the material, which led to a reading of the original Victor Hugo novel, which he had never read. "In England I suppose we read Dickens more than we read Hugo," he quipped. "But it's a masterpiece. And I began to see things in the novel that excited me for the film. There's a brilliant moment when Valjean meets Cosette and Victor Hugo writes, 'This was the second white apparition Valjean had encountered. The Bishop taught him virtue. Cosette taught him the meaning of love.' I began to think there was this story of twin epiphanies, of the discovery of spirituality and compassion and the transformative power of love."
That's also, interestingly enough, what led him to collaborate with the show's original songwriting team of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boubil and Herbert Kretzmer on the one trackign completely unique to the film: "Suddenly."
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