Friday 1 February 2013

Writing Inspiration from the Making of Les Miserables the Movie

By Candy Gourlay

So aside from watching lots of Making Of documentaries while waiting for comments on my manuscript, I've also been binging on podcasts.

Listening to a podcast about the making of Les Miserables the movie, I kept discovering things that resonated with writing.

The cinematic version of The Glums, as people fondly call it here in England, is not everybody's cup of tea - on the review TV show Film 2013, host Claudia Winkleman confessed to tears and a standing ovation while her co-host Danny Leigh described the experience as akin to being run over by a steamroller.

I myself loved the spectacle and the acting ... but the music ... I dare not go on for fear of being fan-flamed to oblivion.

In my current state of obsession, thinking and dreaming about the next novel I'd like to write - I suppose it's no surprise that I got a lot of inspiration from listening to Glums director Tom Hooper talking about his directorial choices.

(You can listen to the podcast here but only after you've read this)

Hooper explained that the big challenge in turning Cameron Mackintosh's hit musical into a film was putting across the 'forensic' realism of Victor Hugo's epic vision, keeping the audience BELIEVING, despite the distraction of the singing.

"I wondered why so many big directors who have looked at (Les Mis) over the years had not done it," Hooper said.

"They were probably scared of the combination of gritty realism and singing... if you measure everything by the yardstick of 'Is it Real?' you will fall down pretty fast because people singing to each other isn't real."

Screenshot of Hooper on
The Film Programme

Readers of this blog are no stranger to the "Is it Real?" question.

We struggle with it on a daily basis, don't we?

How do we get the reader to embrace our made up worlds? How do we make them leave their ordinary lives behind and believe that our stories could really happen? How do we get the reader to lose themselves, accept the existence of heroic characters, dystopian settings, incredible villains?

Hooper was a BBC TV director before he took to the movies (and made it big with The King's Speech). I suppose TV as a medium is more ephemeral than cinema which is so sit-down-and-watch-without-breaking-for-a-cuppa. So he knew something about grabbing an audience and hanging on for dear life.

Still, on TV with its "naturalist tradition", Hooper said, the anchor for the truth is literally what is real. How do you do real with song?

(Transposed to us children's writers the question would be something like, very loosely and generally: how do you do real with a wizard's boarding school? How do you do real with fairies and centaurs and boy criminals? How do you do real with superheroes?)

"You have to loosen the bonds of your measure of truth and find a different way of measuring the truth," Hooper said.

To get at that truth, Hooper filmed his songs in eye-searing close up, live, forcing the actors to inhabit the role rather than think of singing technique. The technique allowed the actors to 'act in the moment', he explained.
"It allowed the actors to allow a thought or a feeling to form in their eyes before they express it."
I loved the thought of allowing an emotion to form in the eyes before words are even spoken (or sung).

Isn't this what we try to do? Isn't this the showing not telling that Maureen so brilliantly explained in her recent blog post?

Before our characters express say, their sadness, in words, it's our job as the story maker to conjure the mood, to set the emotion before even describing it. Let the skies darken, the heavens weep and the shadows creep a little closer.

Jenny McCartney, reviewing the movie Glums for the Telegraph, wrote: "It is, of course, essential that such a production is carried off with conviction: once the woodworm of doubt creeps in, the enterprise is in danger of collapsing into self-parody like a rotten tenement building into the muddy Seine."

Which is why the film Hooper created is described by even the most recalcitrant critics as 'monumental', 'thumping', 'epic', 'a spectacle' - conviction is about being in the moment, not just creating the world on the page but being it, living it, breathing it.

Note to self: Are you reporting your story like a journalist? Or are your characters actually living it?

Hooper used multi-camera TV techniques to film the sung sequences.

"Each take may have a different tempo and you can't cut from one shot to another in the way in a normal movie you can cut between any number of takes ... each take may be a unique event and you need all the shots from that one take because you may never get a take that matches. I was always working with three cameras ... sometimes up to six."

Anne Hathaway's performance of I Dreamed a Dream was a bold, single take.

"The simplicity to how I shot the songs is a testament to how brilliant the actors were. The challenge I laid down to them ... was how to tell these songs as stories with the language of the close up in a way that (I) didn't need to cut away or distract."

Ah yes, my writing-obsessed brain thought. Try not to interrupt yourself. Sounds so easy to do but we writers are a famously procrastinating and distractible lot. Easily tempted into clauses and wanderings and asides in our narrative.

One of the best talks I attended on novel writing was delivered by author Kathleen Duey at one of the SCBWI Bologna conferences. If the moment is key, she said, "shine a spotlight on it".

Everything else is clutter and the story will out.


  1. Brilliant, Candy. Insightful post ( in less than a 1000 words) that grabbed me by the throat and didn't let me go till I'd finished and tweeted!

    1. Thanks Jan ... I was concerned that it was incoherent. My musings seemed to make so much sense before I committed them to the page. And thanks for tweeting!

    2. Not at all incoherent, Candy. Lots of hard-hitting food for thought, especially reporting the story vs living it. Sobbing at the sad bits, laughing out loud. Like Maureen, I'm off to Les Mis, too. Had been procrastinating about that!

    3. Couldn't resist throwing in Kathleen Duey's spotlight advice ... mixes the metaphors a bit!

  2. This is THE GAP in action - Claudia Winkleman confessed to tears and a standing ovation while her co-host Danny Leigh described the experience as akin to being run over by a steamroller.
    THE GAP explains why we have a subjective reaction to film and literature. (That doesn't exist, so don't google)
    Thanks Candy, will see this and make my own mind up.

  3. I just saw Les Mis last night and for 2 hours and a bit minutes my friend and I sobbed our hearts out non-stop. I think whatever Hooper did worked and worked brilliantly. Musicals tend to be bright colourful breezy fantasies - even West Side Story couldn't pull of the grittiness of gang warfare and murder despite the fab songs and choreography but in Les Mis the film, Hooper certainly grabbed you by the throat and never let go. I think the calibre of the acting took over the singing. The singing and musical aspect of this show felt peripheral. People were SUFFERING big time on the screen for their art and I've never warmed to Javert on stage but Russell Crow despite his singing voice gave this one dimensional villain on stage such depth. Definitely a lesson there about not so much "keeping things real" but tranposing an emotional/intellectual/whatever connection to a mass audience whatever medium of art you use. It's made me want to read the Victor Hugo classic now as (hangs head in shame) I've not read it! LOL! Take care

    1. I have to say, the movie is probably better than the musical - I can't imagine engaging emotionally with that storyline from a distance. But then, as Maureen says, my gap might not be in the same emotional space as a true fan of the stage musical.

      I have to say though that though Russell Crow acquitted himself well, I kind of wished for a villain with a more powerful voice - surely there are other strong villainish types with good singing voices ... Jonathan Pryce maybe ... Wolverine was amazing though, wasn't he?

  4. Like it or loath it? Every person will have a different take. Seth Godin just blogged about such differences of opinion:

    Unanimity is impossible unless you are willing to be invisible. We can be unanimous in our lack of feedback for the invisible one.

    For everyone else, though, the ability to say, "It's not for you," is the foundation for creating something brave and important. You can't do your best work if you're always trying to touch the untouchable, or entertain those that refuse to be entertained.

    "It's not for you."

    This is easy to say and incredibly difficult to do. You don't have much choice, though, not if you want your work to matter.

  5. Thought I'd post some links from friends who saw the movie. I totally agree with this review that the music isn't much but the movie's worth seeing by Philip Reeve (he of Here Lies Arthur and Mortal Engines). Meanwhile my illustrator pal Sarah McIntyre is buoyed by her hubby's enthusiasm and goes to watch it twice. And then here's a scathing review from the New Yorker ... and no, I disagree with the unkind thing about braying thing - Wolverine CAN sing.

  6. If, you are pursuing post graduation in language or literature, you should be extremely careful while writing paper, and avoid doing grammatical mistakes.


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