“Les Miserables” has made a lot of money for a lot of people since Victor Hugo wrote it in the French suburb of Montfermeil in 1862: book publishers, filmmakers and Broadway producers for starters. But when first-time feature director Ladj Ly decided to borrow Hugo’s title and setting for a modern-day look at the struggles between the underclass and law enforcement in today’s Montfermeil, he found that the Hugo connection didn’t help him at all.
“One of the main challenges was to finance the movie,” Ly told TheWrap’s Beatrice Verhoeven through a translator at the Wrap Screening Series presentation of “Les Miserables” on Wednesday night at the Landmark in West Los Angeles.
“When you start to do a movie about this kind of community and misery, people are not really ready to give you money. The budget was supposed to be 3 million Euro ($333,1350), but we could only raise 1 million Euro ($1,110,255) to do it.”
The lack of funds, he said, forced him to cut back on many aspects of the film. “There were a lot of things I couldn’t do,” he said. “I would like to have had more extras, I would like to have had more time to shoot more scenes. But because I shot in the neighborhood where I grew up, everybody came together to help make this movie.
“I wanted those people to be invested and to be part of it,” he added. “It’s their story as well.”
Even with limited resources, Ly created an explosive drama that examines the tensions between the police and the largely black inhabitants of Montfermeil. For much of its running time, the film is a quiet character study as a new officer joins a pair of undercover cops whose casual brutality he finds troubling. But after a confrontation between the police and a group of black teenagers erupts into sudden violence, the powder keg created in a community that has been downtrodden since Victor Hugo’s time erupts.
The film landed in the main competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, rare for a first feature. It won the Jury Prize, landed U.S. distribution from Amazon and became France’s submission in the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film race.
It’s heady territory for a first-time feature director – but Ly, who is in his early 40s, told TheWrap audience that he has been training for this for decades. “I bought my first camera when I was 17 years old, and I never stopped shooting,” he said. “But I never went to film school or anything, so it took time to develop.”
The film was inspired partly by his own experience filming an incident of police brutality and partly by the Paris riots of 2005 – but its main purpose, he said, was to pay tribute to the people and places where he grew up.
“I grew up in Montfermeil and I live in Montfermeil,” said Ly, who was born in Mali in West Africa but raised in France. “Victor Hugo wrote his story in Montfermeil, and a century later people are still miserable there. This is why I wanted to tell the story.”