Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway portray Jean Valjean and Fantine, respectively,… (Laurie Sparham / Universal…)
For director Tom Hooper, his Oscar-winning "The King's Speech" was all about the power of the spoken word. For his new film, an adaptation of the long-running musical "Les Misérables," it's all about tying song to the power of emotion.
Unlike traditional musicals, in which the vocal performances are recorded in a studio and then played back for the actors to lip sync to while filming — sometimes months later — Hooper wanted to film the actors singing live on set while they were in the moment of each scene.
"I've often found musicals on film a little hard to accept because there's a sort of slightly strange falseness that comes with people singing to playback," he said on the phone from London. "However well they do the lip-sync, you know there's something unreal about it.
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"When you record songs in a studio beforehand, people sound the same wherever they are [in the film] — whether they're outside, inside, in a big hall, in a small room."
In order to record all the singing from stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway live, Hooper had an on-set pianist accompany them over wireless earpieces, which allowed the actors to tune into the music while still generating clean vocal tracks. After the vocals were recorded by a combination of skillful boom operators and cleverly hidden microphones, a full orchestra was enlisted to re-create the score, which replaced the piano track in the final mix.
The process was technically complex and an unusual approach, but it greatly expanded the dramatic opportunities for Hooper and his cast, allowing the actors the emotional intimacy created on set rather than the vocal proficiency achieved in a sterile studio setting. The actors could speed or slow the tempo of their singing, speak or whisper, take a pause, and play off one another in real time.
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"Acting is all about the pure language of the present tense," Hooper said. "When Annie [Hathaway, who plays Fantine] is singing 'I Dreamed a Dream,' if she needs to take a tenth of a second to have a thought before she sings it, or to have an emotion before she sings a line, she can take it."
Like the theatrical production by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (itself based on the Victor Hugo novel), "Les Misérables" is fully sung, with no traditional dialogue.
Musical director Stephen Brooker, who also supervises the London stage show, said the cast went through extensive preparation for the film, including months of work with voice coaches and nine weeks of rehearsal. The actors brought their own vocal qualities to the roles.
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As the noble ex-convict and protagonist Jean Valjean, Jackman's sound is "very muscular," Brooker said, and reflective of his extensive musical theater experience. "It's pingy at the top end, it's got energy."
Crowe, who plays Valjean's nemesis, the dogged Inspector Javert, has a background in rock music and an edgier sound, "a dark baritone," Brooker said. Hathaway, a trained singer whose mother once played Fantine in a national tour, conveys "a real sense of fragility."
A major concern regarding the live approach was ensuring that the actors stayed in singing shape. Brooker said he did his best to monitor the cast's vocal health and work load, though he recalled some "brilliant, crazy nights," such as when "Hugh Jackman was up to his ears in mud in an estuary in Kent, still singing at 2 o'clock in the morning."
Jackman survived the ordeal, voice intact. In the end, Hooper said, none of the obstacles proved insurmountable, and the results were worth the challenge.
"Singing unlocks something in actors that's different," he said. "I think I can safely say that you'll see something different from all of them that you've never seen on film before."
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