Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie, Part One: Rumors

It was in 2007 that I first realized that a Les Miserables movie was possible.  Before then, I was convinced that it was just one of those musicals that could never be translated to the screen, for all sorts of unfair reasons.  While it is true that another staple of the British Mega Musicals, Phantom of the Opera, premiered in 2004, its failure at the box office just made me less inclined to believe that Les Miz would ever reach the big screen.

Napoleon's Bastille elephant will become
a familiar image in the movie.
Then, by chance, I happened to look at the Les Miserables (the musical) Wikipedia page, which stated that in 2005, there was "renewed interest" in turning the musical into a movie.  I checked around the Internet to see what had come of this interest.  Over the next few years, I would check periodically, but never found anything.  It was as if I had dreamed the article.  The in 2010, I was vaguely aware that Cameron Mackintosh was holding a 25th Anniversary concert at the O2 in London that would be aired in certain cinemas.  Stubbornly loyal to the 10th Anniversary concert, I did not think the 25th would be anything that exciting.  I did not pay attention until I learned that at the end of the British DVD set (available a few months before the U.S. version), there was a message stating that a movie version would be coming soon that would be produced by Working Title Films.  It had my attention now!       

Still, I'm a skeptic.  I worked in a studio art department for a short while, and knew that too many movies never get off the ground.  They were dreams deferred, dried up like raisins in the sun.  Just stating that a movie will happen doesn't make it so.  Witness a previous "promise" by Cameron Mackintosh and company.  They would need to earn my trust.

And so they did.  It began with the hiring of Tom Hooper as director, who was just coming off of a glowing OSCAR night for his 2011 movie, The King's Speech.  The King's Speech was not my favorite movie ever, but it catapulted Hooper to the top of the A-list of film directors.  Just about any project was his if he chose.  That Mackintosh and company were able to woo and hire him showed how serious they were about making Les Miz into a successful feature.  Compare this to Andrew Lloyd Webber's decision to tap Joel Schumacher as director of Phantom.  Schumacher's track record should have foretold what a mistake this would be.  Schumacher made the Phantom's lair as bright as a hair salon, for heaven's sake.    

Mackintosh and company (now including Hooper) continued to earn my trust as the months of 2011 ticked by and the grueling work of planning and casting the movie began.  William Nicholson, who wrote the screenplay for Gladiator, was hired to write the screenplay for Les Miz.  In an early interview, Nicholson stated that all of the songs would remain, but he was also trying to incorporate more material from the novel.  Excellent! 

Rumors began to circulate as to who would be cast in the lead roles.  Cameron Mackintosh pushed for Alfie Boe to be Jean Valjean, but Hooper wisely steered clear of that choice.  (Don't get me wrong, Boe has a lovely singing voice, but his acting in the 25th Anniversary concert left much to be desired.)  Instead, fairly early on, it was confirmed that Hugh Jackman would play Valjean.  The Internet was divided, with some delighted and others aghast.  Many of the "aghast" were big Alfie Boe fans who saw Boe in the Valjean role and Hugh Jackman as Javert.  However, Hooper (and likely Universal Pictures, the major financier) realized that a bigger name, with greater star power and acting ability, was needed.  That left fans wondering who would fill the Javert role.  For a short time, two names were batted around: Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe.  

Paul Bettany I could see.  But Russell Crowe?  He'd always played protagonist roles.  Could he even sing?  Mackintosh and company must have thought so, because he won the part.  Several Internet fans immediately criticized this choice, claiming that Crowe seemed better suited for Valjean than Javert.

With the two major roles taken care of, that just left the other roles to be filled.  Many believed that this would be the opportunity to showcase talented unknowns.  Instead, Anne Hathaway won the role of Fantine, dividing fans once again.  Eddie Redmayne was less well known, so his winning the role of Marius was a nice surprise, to me anyway.  Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush were rumored to be in negotiations to play the Thenardiers, but nothing was confirmed and negotiations seemed to drag on into eternity.  (In fact, I believe Bonham Carter was the very last of the major cast to be confirmed.)  Finally, an actual unknown, Aaron Tveit, was cast in the role of Enjolras.  His casting prompted a "Who?" from me, but Broadway fans went wild.  The role of adult Cosette was opened up to thousands of unknowns before Mackintosh and company decided to give it to Amanda Seyfried.  Finally, Geoffrey Rush was out (if he was ever in) and Sasha Baron Cohen won the role of Thenardier.    

That left the all important role of adult Eponine.  Pre-production rehearsals were a month away, and still no confirmation as to who would be playing her.  The rumors were fast and furious.  One media site claimed that it was down to a "final four" of Evan Rachel Wood, Lea Michele, Scarlett Johansson, and Taylor Swift.  Apart from Wood, none of those women appealed to me, Swift least of all.  And yet that was who initially appeared to win the role.

"Mayday!  Mayday!  Movie going down!" the fans cried.  Something had gone horribly wrong.  Swift couldn't sing and she certainly couldn't act.  How could she have won over Mackintosh and Hooper?  Some fans tried to reassure the others, stating that Hooper seemed to be going for gritty, which Swift could certainly do.  Moreover, her latest single, "Safe and Sound," showed that she was capable of sounding vulnerable.  Fans tried to reconcile themselves to this, but still, there was too much other evidence out there that this decision was All Wrong.  The criticism was relentless, and included more than a few clever parodies.  "I WAS looking forward to this movie" was a frequent lament.

I didn't know what to think.  The media sites acted like it was a done deal, but they had been wrong -- really wrong -- before.  Still, it was hard not to think that it was time to give in and accept the inevitable when pictures of Taylor Swift outside of Cameron Mackintosh's office surfaced.  "She could be all right," I said to myself, not very convincingly.

Then suddenly the clouds parted and the sun came out.  Cameron Mackintosh himself confirmed that Samantha Barks would be playing the role of Eponine.  As if his statement weren't enough, he even posted a YouTube video of the moment when he broke the news to Barks -- onstage, after she and the cast had performed Oliver!.  After so many months of uncertainty, this evidence was met with cheers from across the Les Miz fanbase.  Now everyone was really excited to see the movie!

To this day, it's not really clear what happened with Taylor Swift.  Was she really offered the role, but had to turn it down for some reason?  Was she never really offered the role to begin with?  If so, why was she visiting Cameron Mackintosh?  Was she coming for a "final audition" to prove that she had developed the chops for Eponine, as one fan speculated?  Was Samantha Barks just a last-minute replacement because the production was running out of time and needed an Eponine?  The thing is, Samantha Barks has already played the role of Eponine -- most notably in the 25th Anniversary concert.  I am quite partial to her "Little Fall of Rain" duet with Gareth Gates.  Barks is cute, charming, and can actually sing.  But was she just a last-minute replacement?  The world may never know.    

With the main cast in place, film production could finally begin!

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