It's always interesting to to see what a directer who's just won the Academy Award chooses for his next project. It's a little different for actors -- often, an already-in-the-can piece of garbage will miraculously see the light of day after its producers realize that their film now stars an Oscar winner. Also, actors tend to jump from project to project, whereas directors can and do contemplate their post-Oscar moves more meticulously. After winning the Academy Award for Best Director for 2010's "The King's Speech," Tom Hooper wanted to do something risky. And, yes, bringing the musical stage production of "Les Misérables" to movie theaters is risky.
I met Hooper at an Upper West Side hotel to discuss his new Oscar hopeful. "Les Mis" tells the story of a man named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who raises a young girl (Amanda Seyfried) as his own daughter, all while on the run from an uncommonly determined police officer (Russel Crowe) who wants to bring him to justice for skipping parole. This is the third time I have spoken to Hooper -- twice before for "The King's Speech" and "The Damned United" -- so I knew that after a long day of press (and it had been a long day of press), Hooper could get a little slap happy. And, yes, my offhand mention of Right Said Fred did just that.
The last time we spoke, your "Right Said Fred" Sega commercial was discussed , so thanks for putting up with that.
Well, thank you.
You've come a long way since "Right Said Fred."
[Laughing] Yeah. Or not. How could you top that?
You should have just called it a career. Like, "I've worked with the best."
Oh ... [Laughing and covering his face.]
I know, it's been a long day.
It has. OK!
I saw this film in the best possible conditions, at Lincoln Center with applause between each performance. Do you wish that everyone could see it in that environment?
Yeah. I mean, the good news is that the applause has kept going. I mean, not necessarily, what, 14 times?
Not that you were counting.
I was counting! There's something about being with a a thousand people watching a movie on a huge screen. I wanted it to be an inherently cinematic experience. I wanted it to be a celebration of cinema. Even I found, sitting in audiences, that there's something about experiencing emotion on a mass scale with other people in a mass way. That has a particular power that's different from sitting home alone with your DVD player. So, you know, I hope a lot of people get to see it in big venues.
I feel like a movie like this is high-risk but high-reward. Is that accurate?
I think that's very accurate. Hugh Jackman likes to call the movie-musical the Mount Everest of filmmaking, and I know what he means. There are some examples over history of some terrible ones. There are some magnificent ones. I think it's quite polarizing. You can go either way. And I'm sure one of the reasons it hasn't been adapted as a film for 26 years is it's quite difficult to adapt.
Why is it so difficult?
You're having to create a kind of alternative reality where people communicate through song, and you have to make that real and believable and emotional. But you're also right that there are 16 million people out there who've seen it who hold it close to their hearts. And if you can connect with what it is they like about it and perhaps give them an even more intense version of what it is they like, then you have this wonderful feeling that you're making something that the world could want. Like when I made "The King's Speech," who knew if the world wanted "The King's Speech"? I certainly had no idea when I was making it. When it's "Les Misérables," though, you know that, if you do get it right and it does connect with what the devotees want to feel, there is a vast number of people who are willing it into the world in an enthusiastic way. And that's great.
"The King's Speech" made a lot of money.
That's the thing: people don't know that.
It made superhero-movie money.
Yeah, yeah. It made almost, what was it, $414 million?
Yes. People don't think of it as a blockbuster.
No, that was probably the great surprise of it. But what was incredibly gratifying was how it just seemed to travel across cultural barriers. It was No. 1 in France, No. 1 in Germany. It did well in Japan. And it seemed to work for the 10 year old, for the 90 year old -- whatever walk of life you came from. And I do aspire to democratic filmmaking that speaks to everyone. As I was preparing "Les Mis," I realized that there are some people who just say, "Well, musicals aren't for me." And I thought, I want to get those people.
I think it's becoming well-known now that everyone's actually singing on camera, but did anyone try to warn you? In a "Here's why this isn't going to work" way?
There were a lot of people who were happy to line up to warn me of the idea. And they all had valid points, but I became kind of evangelical about the live-singing thing. I was like, "Either I do it live or I don't make the film."
And you can tell when you're watching it.
Because I go back to this thing of: How do you make the film work for everyone? And I feel like one of the barriers that's stopped people from liking musicals is the inherent falsity of lip-syncing to playback. I mean, when you watch a normal movie, you wouldn't dream of the actors lip-syncing dialogue to playback. Obviously, they act live.
How early in the process did you want Sacha Baron Cohen as Thénardier? That's interesting casting.
Pretty early on. He was kind of my first choice because I wanted to learn the important lessons from the show. And one of the important lessons of the show seemed to be that it understood the need for comic relief at that point in the story. And "Master of the House" really does the job, because you can't take more emotion at that point. You need some kind of release. And Sacha, you know, he's got to be one of the best comedians on the planet. He's also proven that he's got tremendous acting ability. There are moments in "Bruno" that have incredible humanity. He was my first choice. And working with him, I was incredibly impressed at the rigor of his comedy. There's a lot of hard work that goes behind being funny that people don't think of, because they just think these funny guys just sort of turn up. Sacha is naturally funny, but there's a lot of discipline and forethought that goes into something like the "Master of the House" sequence that obviously was really cool to see.
What changes after you win the Oscar for best director? Is there an urge to do something different?
I think I felt that. I felt like when the industry gives you that kind of recognition, I almost feel there is a duty to use that recognition and allow it to encourage me to do something different -- to stretch myself; to take a risk. Because if you can't take a risk then, when are you going to be able to take a risk? And the movie-musical is probably the riskiest move you could make. It was scary, but it was also exhilarating to go on that journey.
Other than maybe a silent film. But they just did that.
They just did that. But I suppose what's exhilarating about it, if I put it into words, is you don't feel you're going to work every day living in relationship to the formula. Say you're doing a scene in a car: how many ways can you shoot people talking in the front of a car? There are just not that many ways, because, you know, there are only certain places you can put the camera. There's a kind of formula to car shooting, and if you watch enough car scenes, you'll see the formula. Whereas doing this, and doing it live and doing it through song, there isn't even a single movie that was an example of what we were doing. And so you weren't living in relation to the formulaic or cliché or what people had done before you.
Was this your first choice? Or were there other things you were considering?
Well, there were a couple of other things and I always try to choose ... commit slowly. Because you don't want to be in a hurry to commit and then realize you've made the wrong decision. So I kind of auditioned it in my head for a long time, and always what I try to do is crack the movie in my head before I say yes. So the whole time during "The King's Speech," I was going on this secret journey of exploring "Les Misérables."
Do you feel less awards pressure because you just won one? Or is there more because studios are now expecting that?
I don't know. To be honest, I only finished it [on November 23]. So I haven't really been able to think or take that much in about that process. I'm very concentrated on releasing the film well. We've got this Christmas Day release -- just making sure that we bring it into the world in a way that befits the movie. That's definitely got to be my focus.
And you have a lot to live up with box office-wise now, too, after "The King's Speech."
Yeah, you could say there's a little bit of pressure.
Speaking of risks, what can you do next? How do you go riskier than this?
Well [laughs], I'm not really sure if that's the wisest thing: "How can I go more risky than this?"
A musical in space.
[Laughs] That can't be the only rationale: "This is really risky! I've got to do it next!" I certainly feel encouraged to again stretch myself or try something a little different, but I literally haven't read any of the scripts people have been kind enough to send me because I've been literally working every hour that I could stay awake finishing this film.
Would it definitely be a film? Because the "John Adams" miniseries was quite successful.
I would do an HBO miniseries again like a shot. I mean, doing "John Adams," it was such a fantastic opportunity to tell the story of the American Revolution. Over nine hours with that kind of budget was phenomenal. And you know, in many ways, "John Adams" is the thing that attracted me to "Les Misérables." I became very fascinated by the French Revolution because of the American Revolution. I didn't really understand that the French Revolution was kind of inspired by the American Revolution. The French looked at the Americans and thought, We can do the same. So I think, although it's set in France, there are aspects of this story that are deeply resonant to American historical culture, because it's all about that discontent with an elitist system with a king at the top and the desire to change that forever.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.