For director Tom Hooper, the packed house at the 7 p.m. screening of Les Misérables at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on Friday was monumental. “The fact that you are all here must mean one thing,” he told the crowd. “It means I’ve finished the film.”
It was a close call, as he’d just put the finishing touches on the film at 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving. Yes, the night before the screening.
Movie folk are a superstitious lot, and the date is also significant for another reason: “Two years ago on this Friday, The King’s Speech opened in New York, so I’m kind of hoping I’ll be lucky twice in a row,” said the British Academy-Award winning director.
The feverishly anticipated Les Miz is one of the last of the previously unseen Oscar contenders. Even before they saw the film, Oscar strategists singled out Hugh Jackman, who plays paroled prisoner Jean Valjean, and Anne Hathaway, as the ill-fated Fantine, for golden statues. (Only Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is left in the awards-season tango.)
Les Miz didn’t disappoint the audience, who clapped, cheered and wept throughout the film. After the 7 p.m. screening, Hooper, actors Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks took part in a 40-minute Q&A.
There’s a lot of weeping in Les Miz. How hard is it to sing while you’re crying, Seyfried was asked. “It actually takes pressure off of you because if you’re crying then you…” and before she could finish her sentence, Hooper chimed in, “can be out of tune.” Seyfried finished the director’s sentence with, “…and it doesn’t matter as much.”
Hooper said Barks, who plays Éponine, had the added challenge of having to “sing and cry in the rain, again and again and again.”
The Brit actress laughed, adding, “And then it’s really cold and your teeth are like chattering away so there are a few things to contend with.”
It won’t be long before she is well-known to American audiences. Her big solo, “On My Own,” is a show stopper reminiscent of Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in 2006′s Dreamgirls, which went on to bring the actress Oscar gold.
The central songs were filmed in one take, Hooper said, and they were also performed live. “I didn’t want any barriers between emotion and realism and truth, so for me it was very important,” he said. “I wanted to feel like these wonderful actors playing these characters were producing these songs out of the depths of their soul in the moment. I wanted to avail myself of any possible means at my disposal to create that sense of being in the moment.”
Only Barks had ever performed in the musical onstage, and performing in a film was a new kind of experience for her. “When you’re on stage and you perform a number like ‘On My Own,’ it’s kind of like an instant reaction you feel, like you feel the buzz from the audience with the applause, whereas you wait for months and months to see if people are enjoying it [on film]. It’s very different and this being my first film, it was scary.”
It’s hard to hear “I Dreamed a Dream” without thinking of Susan Boyle, but Hathaway’s dark, haunting interpretation is not the same chirpy anthem Boyle sang. The actress said she also stayed away from listening to the renditions by iconic singers like Patti LuPone until she finished shooting the film.
“I’m so glad I didn’t because it would just have been too much,” she said. “The bar for this song has been set so high by so many incredible vocalists that there’s just no way I was going to be able to match it, so the only thing I could do was to do it differently” and “really get inside of it.”
Asked how hard the live singing was on the actors’ voices, the director joked, “Hugh Jackman admitted he did a one-man show on Broadway in order to prepare how to sing” for the film.
As for why the director chose Les Miz as his follow up film, he said, “I think the thing I found most rewarding about The King’s Speech was how it made people feel, particularly traveling with the film and seeing it with audiences around the world … how it connected with people was the thing I was most interested in exploring.”
When the idea of Les Miz came along, he thought, “This is something famous for its emotional connection … famous for its ability to amount to a unique experience and strong emotions time and time again.”
He heard someone chatting about how they’d seen it for the 11th time, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see if there wasn’t — with the combination of singing and music and drama — a way to create an alternate reality in film space where emotions get even more heightened … to do something which is even more of an emotional journey for the audience than The King’s Speech.”
A man in the audience got up and thanked the actors and director for the film, and then confessed, “I haven’t cried this much in a really long time.” The comment inspired the director with a marketing idea: “I’ve just come up with a new line for the poster for tomorrow. ‘Makes Grown Men Cry.’”
Another man said he also cried, “and I hope this won’t leave this room.”
Mr. Hooper replied softly, “Your secret is safe.”
And Hathaway shushed, “Put it away. Put it away.”