How They Made ‘Les Misérables’ Even Bigger for the Big Screen

Producer Debra Hayward on plundering the novel and how "American Idol" and "The Voice" impacted Tom Hooper's vision

Last Updated: December 20, 2012 @ 3:29 PM

Debra Hayward has been a top movie executive at Working Title for more than 20 years, but producing the Tom Hooper-directed "Les Misérables" made her a novice all over again.

After two decades of false starts and on-and-off development, the hugely ambitious movie version of the musical ran through months of rehearsal, then months of gruelling shooting with a star-studded cast, from Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway to Sacha Baron Cohen, to hundreds of extras.

Hayward (pictured above with "Les Miz's" original musical producer Cameron Mackintosh) spoke to Wrap editor Sharon Waxman from her home in England. 

What were the unique challenges of making "Les Misérables"?
The first challenge was the popularity of "Les Miz" itself. How do you tackle a piece of very mature material that is known and loved the world over, how do you make the fans happy, and yet how do you make a cinematic version of it? And secondly, there are a lot of story challenges in "Les Miz." It’s one of the longest novels ever written. There’s been lots of dramatic license taken in the musical.

Did you go back to the Victor Hugo novel?
When you look at how much story is in the lyrics, you realize what a fantastic adaptation the musical is, but we felt we needed more than that.

(Pictured, director Tom Hooper on the set.)

We went back and plundered the novel with the writer Bill Nicholson, who I’d worked with on several films before, and imported quite a lot of story.

What specific story elements did you bring in?
The sequence in the convent, for instance. A great deal of time in the novel is devoted to Jean Valjean and Cosette’s escape into a convent in Paris, and it’s in this convent that they meet this man called Fauchelevent, the only male allowed inside the convent. He’s the man Valjean had rescued [earlier in the story]. We were able to bring in that element.

Also read: Why 'Les Misérables' Looks Like a Holiday Box-Office Smash

We hear a lot about filming the singing live on the set…
The singing live was the bedrock of Tom Hooper’s whole vision of the film. I had been working closely with Cameron [Mackintosh, one of the original producers of the musical]. We were trying to make big decisions about whether we lose songs, keep songs, add songs. Then Tom came on board and said, "I have to do this live; it’s the only way. "

Did you think, How am I going to figure this out, or was it inspiring?
The immediate response from a lot of people — not Cameron, and not Working Title — was general resistance. It hadn’t really been done before. But the world has changed in last five years, with all these singing shows. The public at large is so on to singers who don’t sing live, and people do not like it. They like to see real people singing for real. It had to be immediate, had to be visceral, had to be almost like a live theatrical experience.

When Amanda Seyfried [who plays Cosette) was doing her EPK interview on set, I remember her saying that when she did "Mamma Mia," they recorded all the songs in two days, and for the next two months they mimed to their own playback. I was quite stunned by that. For us, it was like a live show every night.

Also read: 'Les Miserables': Singing Hugh Jackman, Teary-Eyed Anne Hathaway

Were you there the day they shot Anne Hathaway's “I Dreamed a Dream”? It’s so raw.
The atmosphere was as raw as you see on screen. It was a closed set. It was nerve-wracking. The fact that you have to do take after take after take, that wreaked havoc on a lot of the actors. She was very wrung out by the end of it. Really quiet between takes. And she remained in that space. It was as dramatic a day as it was a scene. 

Is this the first movie you’ve produced?
On my own, yes.

What did you learn?
God. I went into it naively, in a way. It was so challenging. Dealing with all those massive personalities could have been a nightmare. It was chock full of movie stars, possibly chock full of egos.

Cameron Macintosh is not to be sniffed at. And the composers. Managing my way through all that was a bit of an iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove sort of thing. You have to be very steely.


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