By Mekado Murphy
Anatomy of a Scene: ‘Les Misérables’: Tom Hooper, the director of “Les Misérables,” narrates a scene from the film.
THE mood was slightly tense in early June at Pinewood Studios here. “Les Misérables,” a film of the producer Cameron Mackintosh’s world-conquering musical, was being made, and there was a lot to worry about. Inside the Richard Attenborough Studio, which housed a cavernous, dung-smelling re-creation of a Paris street in the early 1800s, assistants called for silence as the director, Tom Hooper, peered intently at a bank of monitors. Hugh Jackman, in the role of the good-at-heart ex-convict Jean Valjean, was inside a carriage, his arm around 10-year-old Isabelle Allen, playing the young Cosette, whom he had rescued from her cruel guardians. Mr. Jackman was singing, over and over, the first lines of a new song, written for the film and being heard for the first time by most of the observers.
Outside, where long cables snaked over the ground, Mr. Mackintosh was shouting, “I won’t have it!” at a stone-faced group seated around a small table.
It never became clear what Mr. Mackintosh wouldn’t have, but you might forgive him a little temper. When the film of “Les Misérables” opens Tuesday in the United States, with its Oscar-winning director, its all-star cast (Mr. Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen) and considerable buzz about its Oscar-winning potential, he will have waited some 25 years to see the musical migrate to the screen.
In 1987, soon after the show’s triumphant Broadway opening, it seemed like a sure thing. “The head of TriStar was mad keen to do it,” Mr. Mackintosh said last month in his opulent London office. “I wanted Alan Parker to direct it, and he agreed. We did a lot of work.”
But Mr. Mackintosh didn’t want a film to detract from the momentum of the Broadway show, and he stipulated a five-year wait. “I think Alan went off the boil,” he said, “which was really my doing.” He tried a few other directors and a set was designed, but the project foundered.
“I would get the odd call over the years,” he said. “But by then there wasn’t a great appetite to make movie musicals.”
If movie musicals haven’t exactly been a mainstream genre over the last decades, “Les Miz,” as it is known, was an unlikely prospect from the outset. The musical, which opened at the Barbican Center in London in 1985, was an adaptation of a production that had a brief run in Paris in 1980. That original production, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, was itself an improbable venture: a musical rendition of Victor Hugo’s 1862 five-volume, 365-chapter novel that uses its complex plot and huge cast of characters to meditate upon history, politics, moral philosophy, justice and religion.
“French people are so familiar with the story, they can tell you the names of the characters in their sleep,” said Mr. Schönberg, who was on the set here, monitoring all things musical. “When we reshaped it for an English stage and an international audience, we had to really work hard for the story to be clear.”
For those not among the estimated 60 million people who have seen the show, the story — deep breath — centers on Valjean, a peasant, who has served 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for starving relatives. After breaking his parole he is pursued by the fanatical police inspector Javert (Mr. Crowe) but finds refuge with the small Cosette, the daughter of Fantine (Ms. Hathaway), a factory worker who becomes a prostitute after losing her job and who dies of poverty and despair. Valjean raises Cosette, who falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a student fighting the monarchy in the June Rebellion of 1832.
The show, not particularly well received by critics, went on to be a global phenomenon, even as the idea of a film seemed to lose steam. But Mr. Mackintosh said that he never lost hope. “I felt it could be the ‘Gone With the Wind’ of movie musicals,” he said. “The problem was to find a director who wasn’t afraid of bringing cinematic realism to it.”
Mr. Hooper, 40, was not exactly an obvious choice. He hadn’t yet won his Oscar for “The King’s Speech,” which was only his third feature. But he came to Mr. Mackintosh’s attention through Eric Fellner, the co-director, with Tim Bevan, of Working Title Films, a highly regarded British production company.
Mr. Fellner had been talking to Mr. Mackintosh around the time that a 25th anniversary concert of “Les Misérables” in London at the O2 Arena was televised and seen by huge audiences. Then came the not-inconsiderable impact from the performance of the reality television star Susan Boyle, whose rendition of Fantine’s tragic lament, “I Dreamed a Dream,” was watched by some 90 million people on YouTube.
“I think up until the camera ran on Day 1 we were nervous about making a movie musical,” Mr. Fellner said, declining to confirm the film’s budget, widely reported as $ 61 million. “But I felt there was fantastic potential because of the way the music just sucks you in, and that the story — the high drama of Valjean and Javert, Fantine’s harrowing fate, the romances, the fervor of the revolutionaries — would play very powerfully on film.”
Working Title brought in the screenwriter William Nicholson and approached Mr. Hooper. “I remember I talked to Baz Luhrmann and Steven Spielberg about the challenge,” Mr. Hooper said, in an interview last month near his north London home, just a few hours after he delivered the final edit. “I was only interested in doing it if I could do it live.”