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 becomes clear in Hooper's new film, Les Misérables, which opens Christmas Day. 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, 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 on to 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 Misérables, a sung-through musical without dialogue, was centered on filming all of the singing live, as opposed to lip-synching 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-synching," says Hooper. "I didn't want people to watch Les Misérables knowing in advance that I would be seeking for them to forgive me."
The live singing meant that 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, Jackman 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.
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 as a lovesick British officer in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience - vivid childhood memories, he says.