One of the world's most beloved musicals is now a movie. Les Miserables was spun from the epic 19th century novel by Victor Hugo. It's a story about the desperately poor underclass in Paris.
The protagonist, the ex-prisoner Jean Valjean, is hunted by the merciless Inspector Javert. It's about morality, revolution and, of course, love.
Tom Hooper, director of such films as The King's Speech, for which he took home the Oscar for best director, has brought Les Miserables to life on screen. He tells NPR's Melissa Block that he owes his big-screen career to the musical theater.
On how musical theater affected his life
"When I was about 10 years old, I was cast in the school musical. And through that, I fell in love with acting, with theater. And ... two things happened as a result. One is I realized I wasn't a good enough actor, and I let go of the acting dream, thankfully, very young. Secondly, I got drawn to directing and I became hooked on that. And I started making films at 13. So I owe everything to the musical, and I've come, in a way, full circle, which is ironic.
On the choice to have little spoken dialogue
"I did at times feel like I was being drawn to the movie musical like a moth to a flame because I was drawn to the challenge of it. But at the same time I was aware that the possibility of getting burned was high — because, you know, it's an incredibly difficult form. And so, what is the challenge? I think the challenge, the central challenge, is you're creating an alternate reality where people communicate through song. But you have to make this reality utterly convincing or all is lost.
"I began to think, actually, maybe it's more honest to say, no, this is a different reality. This is a world where the primary communication form is singing, and let's own it and be confident about it."
On having the actors sing the songs live
"With this story that's so much about the grind of living, you know, real people suffering, I wanted to, in a way, give the power back to the actors and allow the actors to do what they do best.
"If you're singing to playback, you've surrendered one of the most powerful mediums of acting communication, which is the control of time and pace. ... It's not conducive to really getting to a raw, emotional place.
"The challenge I laid out to all my actors when I cast them — to Russell [Crowe], to Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, to Hugh [Jackman] — was, 'You are all performing these globally iconic songs, and yet you need to make it appear that your characters have invented these songs in these times of crisis — have ripped them from their soul. You are not doing a rendition of a song, you are offering a song as a character does a soliloquy.' And I want to give them all the weapons at their disposal to do this."
On how Les Miserables has affected his directing style
"The thing I've really been trying to grapple with in the last few days is why the film has the emotional effect it has. I mean, there are people who say that they start crying at 'I Dreamed a Dream' and basically don't stop crying — or people cry four, five times, and they make jokes like, 'You made a grown man cry,' or you know, 'It was ugly tears, Tom. It was ugly tears.'
"And I was very affected the other day when a friend of mine told me, you know, a friend of mine lost his father in October and saw the film, and I said, ... 'I'm sorry that you had to, you know, go through watching the movie given the themes of the movie. It must have been very hard.' And he said, 'No, an extraordinary thing happened.' He felt better about the loss of his father, and he felt closer to his father. And that was when I thought, god, there's something fascinating ... going on here.
"And it — I think it also happens in the musical — which is, as you watch these songs, you, in your mind you make connections to suffering in your own life story, or suffering of those nearest and dearest to you, or even suffering that you know may happen, may be coming down the line. You know, we all face the challenge of our mortality ultimately, and the musical has ... this extraordinary ability to process part of that suffering and to make you feel better about it. And it offers a catharsis. I think that's what I'll take forward, is a new understanding of what catharsis means."
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