This story has been updated. See below.
Few things are more carefully choreographed than a movie musical, but director Tom Hooper wanted to steep his big-screen adaptation of "Les Misérables" in some gritty reality. So he took a page from Ridley Scott's war film "Black Hawk Down."
At Pinewood Studios outside London, he set up a scene in which 30 student revolutionaries and scores of background players construct a blockade to stave off the French army in 19th century Paris. He hid five cameras on the set with their operators dressed in costume, directed his performers to build a barricade, and shouted "Action!"
"Pianos were falling from above. Things were being thrown at you. It was the most anarchic, terrifying and wildly exciting thing," said Eddie Redmayne, the British actor who plays Marius, a revolutionary. "The adrenaline is real adrenaline, plus it created amazing camaraderie. We never knew exactly where the cameras were, and we built the thing in 10 minutes."
Some precious antique furniture was destroyed in the process, but Hooper regards that as a small price to pay in his effort to set "Les Misérables" apart from the string of movie-musical misfires in the last decade. Since "Chicago" took home the best picture Oscar in 2002, a number of beloved stage musicals such as "Phantom of the Opera" and "Rent" have crashed and burned when adapted for the screen.
Despite the popularity of musically driven TV shows such as "Glee" and "American Idol" in recent years, moviegoers have proved increasingly finicky when it comes to sing-songy productions. Lighter films, like "Mamma Mia!" and "Hairspray" have done better than serious stories, but "Les Misérables," based on Victor Hugo's novel and centered on the unsuccessful 1815-1832 June rebellion in France, is stuffed with raw performances, offering little levity.
Still, Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of "The King's Speech," has a few things working in his favor: His film is studded with stars including Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, and its budget, $61 million, is relatively modest, lowering the financial risk for Universal Pictures. Hordes of fans of the stage version — which has played continuously since its 1985 debut despite initially terrible reviews — are eagerly anticipating the movie.
The film, which opens Christmas Day, has already received four Golden Globe nominations and four Screen Actors Guild nods including best ensemble, and some reviewers have applauded Hooper and his actors' commitment to the emotional material. But other critics have found fault with aspects, including its length (2 hours, 38 minutes) and earnestness.
Before signing on to the job, Hooper screened a slew of musicals: from "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Sound of Music" to "Evita" and "Sweeney Todd." What he learned, he says, is that each one required audiences to repeatedly suspend their disbelief every time the actors opened their mouths to sing.
"Even in the best musicals you were constantly needing to re-forgive them for singing. And when the music is great you could do it — particularly when it's comedic and light — there is a joyous lightheartedness that allows for the forgiveness to operate quite freely," says Hooper over coffee at the Chateau Marmont hotel. "I don't want that to be the relationship I have with my audience where I'm constantly asking them to not notice that it's not real."
Hooper starts singing to prove his point: "If I were to suddenly sing to you about this lovely day we are having, you would wonder, 'Why on earth are you singing?'"
Switching to a spoken voice, he adds: "And you would feel a bit embarrassed and I would feel embarrassed and the audience feels embarrassed."
Hooper's musical reeducation prompted him to change some of the rules, specifically how the songs are sung. Instead of allowing lip-syncing, he had all of the players sing their songs on camera as they listened to a live piano accompaniment via an earpiece. The singers controlled the tempo of each piece. He also stripped the movie of most of its spoken dialogue, with most of the story told through the songs, similar to the stage version.
"Maybe it's more honest to say, no, if in this world we are creating, singing is the primary means of communication, then it should be sung through," he says. "Own it, be confident about it, and don't have any shame about it. Don't be embarrassed by it."
"Les Misérables" follows only two other sung-through, stage-to-screen adaptations: 1975's "Tommy" and 1996's "Evita."
"Les Misérables" centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread for his starving niece. The sprawling storyline follows his transformation from new parolee to upstanding citizen, all the while facing off against Inspector Javert (Crowe), who wants to re-imprison him for violating parole. Along the way, he meets unwed mother Fantine (Hathaway), adopts her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and raises her as his own until she falls in love with Marius (Redmayne).
In 1998, there was a dramatic version of "Les Miz," starring Liam Neeson as Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Javert. A dramatic French version in 2000 starred Gerard Depardieu, and Anthony Perkins portrayed Javert in a 1978 dramatic version. Stage producer Cameron Mackintosh has been trying to get his musical version to the screen since soon after it debuted on the West End.