I do think it's the greatest gift that cinema can bestow is when it can actually take something about the pain of being human and make you feel a little bit better about it. —Tom Hooper
NEW YORK — Tom Hooper, the director of intimate character studies like the Oscar-winning "The King's Speech," the HBO miniseries "John Adams" and the TV drama "Longford," would not seem the sort of chap likely to make a sprawling adaptation of a beloved Broadway musical.
"I've always had an epic filmmaker within me clamoring to get out," explains the British director.
That much becomes clear in Hooper's new film, "Les Miserables." From the musical based on Victor Hugo's novel, the film is an enormous, star-studded affair overlaid on a French revolution canvas yet painted with a naturalistic brush.
The film, which has been nominated for four Golden Globes, has returned Hooper to the thick of the Oscar race two years after the Academy Awards' coronation of "The King's Speech." A few months after that film won best picture and best director for Hooper, he was onto "Les Miz," spending the "capital," he says, that he earned with "The King's Speech."
"I just thought: How can I follow this?" Hooper said in a recent interview. "In the end, I thought the best thing to do was just get back to work and to get back on the horse. I felt that the longer I left it, I might get kind of self-conscious or it might become this big thing in my head."
His approach to "Les Miserables," a sung-through musical without dialogue, was centered on filming all of the singing live, as opposed to lip-syncing it. While that's been done piecemeal in films, few movies (most notably Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love") have applied it so completely.
"Even the ones I most love like 'Fiddler,' 'West Side Story,' 'Sound of Music,' I noticed that I was having to re-forgive the film continuously for lip-syncing," says Hooper. "I didn't want people to watch 'Les Miserables' knowing in advance that I would be seeking for them to forgive me."
The live singing meant Hugh Jackman (the escaped criminal Jean Valjean) would be singing while standing in a river of mud; that long single takes would be necessary for some numbers to maintain tempo continuity; and that the actors would be performing with tiny earpieces piping in live piano accompaniment. But the choice also injected "Les Miz" with rawness and realism and gave its cast the ability to act in the moment.
"If the singer is thinking about singing, the audience is going to think about the singing," says Jackman. A Broadway vet, Jackson hopes Hooper has found a new way to "deliver the genre" of movie musicals, which have waned in popularity in recent years even as reality singing competitions have drawn big ratings on TV.
Hooper has already developed a reputation as an actor's director, having steered Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush ("The King's Speech") and Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney ("John Adams") to acting honors. The performances in "Les Miz" — given room for spontaneity and framed in close-up — have been widely hailed, including those of Russell Crowe (the police chief Javert), Eddie Redmayne (the revolutionary Marius) and particularly Anne Hathaway, who as the tragic Fantine sings the show-stopping "I Dreamed a Dream" in one take.
The film, Hathaway says, proves Hooper "isn't a one-off" after "The King's Speech."
Fittingly, it was a musical that started Hooper on the path to directing. As a 10- or 11-year-old boy, the London-born son of a businessman and an academic was introduced to theater by his school drama teacher, former Royal Shakespeare Company actor Roger Mortimer.
Hooper's first taste of performing came as a gang member in "The Beggar's Opera" and then a lovesick British officer in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience" — vivid childhood memories, he says. But seeing that he was unable to land lead roles in a school of a few hundred, he instead turned to directing: "I was weirdly strategic as a kid," he says.
Hooper made his first 16mm film by the age of 13 and before he was 20, he had sold a professionally financed short to British television. After studying at Oxford University, he went into TV work with the BBC.
As a fan of films by Francis Ford Coppola and Ingmar Bergman, Hooper seems surprised that he's turned out to be such a plucker of heart strings. Audiences responded passionately to the personal triumph tale of "The King's Speech," a global $414.2 million hit cheered by those with speech impediments and many others.
"I did want to stay in an emotional place in my filmmaking," he says. "What attracted me about 'Les Miserables' was to possibly work in an even more emotional way."
"I do think it's the greatest gift that cinema can bestow is when it can actually take something about the pain of being human and make you feel a little bit better about it."
Part of the strong effect of "Les Miserables" might be attributed to its timeliness. Hugo's story of populist uprising in 1832 Paris resounds in an era of the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests and general frustration over economic inequality.
"We're at a point where we regularly have images of revolution on our front page, on TV," says Hooper. "'Les Miserables' is the great anthem of dispossessed. The people's song is to 'hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men.' It's the great expression of collective anger against an unjust system."