‘Les Miserables’ Unveiled to Ovations, Controversy and High Oscar Hopes

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"I didn't want to be conservative," says director Tom Hooper of his extravagant musical "Les Miserables," showcased at guild screenings over the holiday weekend

The "Les Miserables" blitz is on, with Tom Hooper's film of the long-running musical hitting New York and Los Angeles over the holiday weekend for a dozen screenings, numerous standing ovations, a few disgruntled rivals and an Oscar race that now has to contend with a major new face.

And at the end of a Saturday that found him criss-crossing Los Angeles to introduce three screenings and do Q&As at the conclusion of three others, Hooper told TheWrap that he was weary but gratified.

Anne Hathaway"This has been an oil tanker of a film, so complicated to pull it all together," he said in an interview at the Mann's Chinese Theater, moments after finishing his last Q&A of the day. "For the last four weeks I've cut my sleep down to about three hours a night – so in my exhausted state, this is an amazing sendoff."

The guild audience at the Chinese greeted Hooper's bold, extravagant "Les Miz" with a long ovation, typical of the reaction to a movie that has clearly become one of the frontrunners in numerous Oscar categories. It also broke into applause at the end of several of the film's songs, most notably Anne Hathaway's rendition of the show's signature ballad, "I Dreamed a Dream."

As for the rigors of finishing the film at 2 a.m. on Thursday, doing a pair of screenings at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center on Friday and then flying to Los Angeles for his day of six screenings in Hollywood, North Hollywood and Santa Monica, Hooper shrugged it off.

Getty Images"Compared to how busy I was finishing the film, today has felt very relaxed," he said with a laugh. "I actually had gaps between doing things today. I've had no gaps in my schedule for the last year and a half."

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"Les Miz" also got lots of attention, and stirred up some controversy, for a far smaller Friday afternoon screening that Hooper didn't attend. That screening took place at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater for a small audience of about 100, one-tenth of the capacity of the huge theater.

An account of the screening from Pete Hammond at Deadline was posted on the website on Friday evening, with Hammond noting that Motion Picture Academy President Hawk Koch had introduced the film and quoting one of the Oscar producers as saying it would receive a number of nominations.

On Saturday, after an outcry from rival studios over the perceived favoritism in the Academy president introducing one contender, mention of Koch's introduction disappeared from Deadline's story, as did the producer's quote.

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"You can't have the president of the Academy opening the movie unless he does that for everybody," an executive from a rival studio who declined to be identified told TheWrap. "It’s an implied endorsement of the movie, and total bullshit."

According to a spokeswoman for the Academy and a spokesman for the film, the screening was one of several that have been held this year to show potential contenders to Oscar show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. ("Argo" was also screened for them this way.)

Zadan and Meron invited members of the show's production crew to the screen; Koch invited a number of family members, guests and other AMPAS staffers; and Universal took advantage of the screening to show the film to a handful of moderators of upcoming Q&A screenings, and to reps for the film's talent.

Les MiserablesWhile some in the audience were voting members of the Academy, Universal did not invite any voters to the screening – and Koch's introduction, according to one person in attendance, amounted to little more than, "It's time to start, everybody please take your seats."

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While some rivals steamed over what they saw as an implied endorsement, others dismissed it as much ado about nothing. 

Hooper, meanwhile, headed to Japan on Sunday to promote the film there with stars Hugh Jackman and Hathaway – though he'll be back in the U.S. by midweek, and back in L.A. on Saturday for the Academy's Governors Awards, which he first attended two years ago as "The King's Speech" was beginning its path to a Best Picture win.

"I had a feeling after 'The King's Speech' that when the industry gives you that kind of acknowledgement, you should use it to take a risk or to stretch yourself," he said after the screening. "I didn't want to be conservative and do another film like that.

"Hugh Jackman said the other day that he thinks the movie musical is the Mount Everest of filmmaking, and I became intrigued about whether that combination of singing and music and storytelling could create an alternate reality in which emotion could be even more heightened."

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While many of the most successful movie musicals of last 20 years have used various stratagems to deal with the musical problem — How do you get a modern audience to buy into people suddenly breaking into song? – Hooper went with a little-used solution: He created a "through-sung" musical in which the entire film is sung. There aren't any jarring moments in which characters shift from dialogue to song because it's all song.

"I really went back to school and studied all the great musicals," he said. "And I was struck by the difficulty of the gear change. I remember in 'The Sound of Music,' there's a 28-minute stretch without a song, and then there'a romantic song. And you kind of go, 'Oh, we're back in a song,'

"The original draft of the screenplay was 50 percent dialogue and 50 percent music, and I worried that there wasn't a clear rationale about why you were singing at one point and speaking at another. And the more I looked over it, the more I thought, there's not an obvious justification to be in one mode or the other mode. And then I thought, maybe the way to avoid those difficult gear changes is just to commit to singing."

The result, he said, is the creation of an alternative world. "We're just saying, 'This is a world like ours, but just as we generate grammatical and sentence construction, these people generate melody and rhyme construction. Other than that, it's exactly the same.'"

Les MiserablesThe key to selling that, he added, was finding actors who were comfortable doing it. Everyone in "Les Miz," including Jackman, Hathaway and Russell Crowe, went through an extensive audition process, to reassure the director that they could sing live – he didn't prerecord any of the music – and that they could act in song.

"It became about finding actors that would make it natural," he said. "What you realize is that you are looking for actors who almost feel more comfortable expressing themselves through song than not. When Hugh Jackman sang for me, I just felt like this guy blossomed. He's so comfortable singing that it is effortless. And because of its effortlessness, you relax as the viewer."

Still, Hooper knew that he was taking a risk – and the exuberance with which the weekend's screening audiences have greeted the film won't necessarily translate to big box office for an expensive, elaborate film.

"It's been hugely challenging, but that was part of the thrill of it," he said. "The really fun thing is the sense among our full team that we've been doing something new with a major film form. The feeling that we weren't being formulaic, that we were doing something that was new, created a huge buzz throughout the whole process."