Singing Through Tears

Culture & Science
22 February 2013, 08:10

At the beginning, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables looked nothing like a typical box office hit. Based on a novel by Victor Hugo – and classics are not something big studios and massive audiences find appealing these days – it was made as a musical which is not among the top favourite genres. Paradoxically, it has so far earned USD 340mn and ended up with dozens of awards from different festivals and eight Oscar nominations.

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The interest in the periods of revolution is in my blood. When I directed John Adams for HBO, which is about the American Revolution, I got very interested in the French Revolution as seen from that angle. I hadn’t realised before that the two had such an explosive connection. In some ways, the American Revolution was the father of the French Revolution.

What really attracted me to Hugo’s novel was the power of the piece. I think one of the reasons that Les Misérables has survived for 25 years is because it sends emotion into your body. Because of this people go back to see it over and over again. It offers the opportunity to re-experience this emotion with extraordinary consistency and predictability. It is able to give you the emotion you enjoyed the first time again.

I wanted to do a piece of work that was much about the heart, from the heart and very emotional. Also, I loved the idea of doing something utterly different as a genre after The King’s Speech, and taking the opportunity that platform has given along with the risk, ambition and experiments in a new genre.  

I’ve grown up in the mode of gritty cinematic realism. I thought what was interesting about this new project was a combination of my realistic approach to it with the opportunity to be a little bit more expressionistic with my choices because it’s a musical; it is sung. I thought it was good for me as a filmmaker to cut away some of the bonds of a certain type of realist logic that has driven a lot of my work and enjoy that freedom.

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I find with musicals on film that sometimes you don’t quite believe in the reality of what you are watching. Is that because there is something artificial about singing on film inherently? Or is it, I wondered, something about miming to a playback that makes it feel unreal? My theory was that if it was live, there would be a huge shift in what the genre offers. This approach has made the film much more dramatic because actors were free to make choices in the moment and good acting generally comes from being free in the moment rather than having to follow a song pre-recorded several months before. When they sing live, actors can change the tempo and the rhythm; make subtle variations, so that they really live into the role making it very spontaneous and exciting.

Surprisingly, I could say that I owe my career of a film director to the musical. When I was 11 or 12, we would put o a musical at school once a year. I was in it for two years – once in the chorus, and doing a minor part the second time. This brought two great revelations to me: I discovered that I shouldn’t be an actor, and that I loved directing.


Tom Hooper started as a British television director filming episodes for the BBC EastEnders soap opera, ITV’s Cold Feet comedy-drama and a number of mini-series. His debut feature film Red Dust came out in 2004. Later he directed the sports drama The Damned United, and the critically acclaimed historical drama The King’s Speech

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