In conjunction with the film’s Blu-ray and DVD release, Moviehole caught up with “Les Miserables” director to reflect on how the brilliant screen adaptation came together.
Q: Obviously when you have live singing in a film there are certain risks and rewards that go along with it. What were you thinking about when you first made that decision?
A I felt that the biggest challenge as director was to create this alternate reality that people communicate through song and make it convincing for people so that when you see the film you relax within minutes and go with the flow, and you are never thrown out by the fact that there is singing. In fact, it becomes something of a draw for you. To me, making it convincing singing live was central. I would go so far as to say that I would not have done the film if I could not do it live. It was that important because I find there is something inherently false or fake about lip syncing to play back. However way you do it, there is a trace of artificiality which in a comedic or lighthearted musical you easily forgive, but this is a very real story about very real emotions, and I did not want there to be any artifice to it. On top of that, when you sing live it allows actors to be in the moment because, like with a dialogue scene, they are in control of the pace of their performance. If they need to stop for a moment to have a thought or a feeling before they express it, they can do that. If they start to cry, they need to take that through the rest of the song. They can do that because it’s live. It really empowers the actors to do what they do best, which is create a performance in the moment rather than copying an old performance.
Q: I have noticed with certain other films you have done like The Damned United (2009) and The King’s Speech (2010), that you like this concept of antagonism. Is that something that drew you to Les Misérables?
Yeah, I think there’s just a lot of believably powerful drama in Les Misérables, particularly the antagonism between these two men. To me, it is kind of an inverted love story, this story of obsession this policeman has with Jean Valjean. I am often drawn to these relationships between men like in The King’s Speech between Lionel and Bertie or in The Damned United with Michael Sheen’s character. I found that obsession that Russell Crowe’s (Javert) character had to be very interesting.
Q: What was the hardest scene for you to film?
A: Probably the opening scene in the docks because you had hundreds of extras up to their waists in seawater, and we were throwing tons more water at them from the tip tanks and wind machines. It was a pretty tough environment in which to work.
Q: There’s a lot of digital set design and CGI in this too.
A: There is quite a lot of that. I like to get as much real and then use CGI to extend the worlds to make them bigger than they could possibly be, particularly with crowds where it is very difficult to get more than a few hundred crowd in those costumes. So to use this technology to give the film the scale that I wanted was great.
Q: Did you worry about there being too much digital stuff?
A: I was obsessed with doing the digital stuff photo real, and I was constantly working with the people who did the visual effects and Richard [Bain; Visual Effects] to make sure that nobody would guess it was computers.
Q: You have comic relief with the Thénardier family. Obviously you have to be careful how you play that within a tragedy. Did you ask them to tone it down at all?
A: In the end, I was worried about the tonal shift with the Thénardiers. But Shakespeare, in the middle of a tragedy, will have an overtly comic scene and is unashamed about it. He understands that the audience needs the relief, so I decided to not be apologetic and not ashamed and really go for the humor. Sacha Baron Cohen (Mr. Thénardier) was brilliant at the rigor and the hard work of plotting the humor out. He kept saying to me, “I don’t want to do a swing and a miss.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I don’t want to look like I’m trying to be funny and failing. That’s the worst thing.” I think if you are genuinely funny, people will go with you.
Q: Lastly, were you happy with Hugh (Jean Valjean) and Russell’s (Javert) performances?
A: Yes, they were amazing, and Russell brought so many directorial ideas to me. He really understood the importance of tracking Javert’s journey.
“Les Miserables” is now on DVD and Blu-ray