Les Misérables Director Tom Hooper on Choosing His Stars and Creating New Songs

The Oscar winner talks revolution, Jean Valjean’s new number and picking a winner in Wolverine vs. Gladiator

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James Fisher/Universal Studios

Tom Hooper on the set of 'Les Misérables'

Tom Hooper came to fame by adapting the past: first via a pair of HBO films (with Helen Mirren as Elizabeth I and Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney in the spellbinding John Adams), then with a royal drama about speech therapy (The King’s Speech, for which he won the Oscar). Now, with the likes of Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe in front of his camera, he has tackled Les Misérables, the beloved musical that ran on Broadway for 26 years. In person, Hooper is quiet, measured and totally in the moment, whether he’s talking about French republicanism or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. TIME caught up with him shortly after the rapturously received first screenings of Les Misérables in New York City.

TIME: What on earth possessed you to try to do this live?

Hooper: It came out of feeling that, even in my favorite musicals, you have to forgive a slight artificiality in the lip-syncing. In a lighter comedic context, one does that act of forgiveness repeatedly and even easily. But I knew that with Les Misérables it had to feel real visceral and grounded. Great acting is all about inhabiting the present, and part of that is creating the illusion that you are inventing the dialogue—and part of that is those little hesitations where you allow an idea to form before you express it. So if you’re lip-synching, you have to copy to the millisecond whatever you did three months ago. You are trapped in time. When you are doing it live to a live accompaniment, the actor is given back the power to act.

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Les Misérables)

I was speaking to sound mixer Simon Hayes earlier—

As far as I know, Simon walks on water. Without him, this whole project would have come crashing to the ground. The fact that 99% of the vocals are live is down to him. When you embrace live playing and live tempo, you have to accept that you may not be able to cut from one take to another. I had to treat each take as a unique event, where I got all the shots and coverage I needed during that one take. So we worked with at least three cameras a day, and sometimes as many as six. What I discovered is that there was no better place to be than on the human face. Particularly with “I Dreamed a Dream”—as Fantine, Anne [Hathaway] is singing about her past love who betrayed her, about her vanished hopes, about the feeling that this man might come back to her. These things are not present with her, and therefore the language of the wide shot wouldn’t help you. And also I was really lucky enough to have these actors!

How did you decide on Russell Crowe for Javert? He perhaps doesn’t have the same musical theatre pedigree as the others.

Once I cast Hugh, I thought, for this story to work, you need a guy who could get the better of him. It had to be a very formidable actor, and Russell immediately sprung to mind. I mean, in Wolverine versus Gladiator, I’d probably put my bet on Gladiator! I knew vaguely that he had a band, but then I discovered he started in musical theatre, in Sydney, in things like Rocky Horror. So I met him and he couldn’t have been more excited about being in it. And he worked harder than anyone to get vocally fit for this.

(MOREThey Dreamed a Dream: Les Misérables Is a Whole New Kind of Movie Musical)

How did Jean Valjean’s new song, “Suddenly,” come about?

There’s a very inspiring line in the book where Jean Valjean meets little Cosette, that goes something like, “This was the second white apparition Jean Valjean had encountered. The bishop had taught him virtue. Cosette taught him the meaning of love.” The book made it very clear that these two epiphanies were the central transformative moments. The musical nails the first one but the second one is kind of underwritten—you don’t really understand how utterly and completely love has transfigured Valjean. So I took this wonderful paragraph and asked Claude Michel [Schönberg, who wrote the music for Les Misérables] and Alain Boublil [the lyricist], “Can you write me a song about what it is like to fall in love with a child, to experience parental love out of nowhere?” Out of that came “Suddenly,” which was their attempt to get inside how that feels. When he sings, “She was never mine to keep”—it’s that terribly difficult journey of being a parent, without a wife, the chances are you’re going to over-love that kid and not want to let them go and face the loneliness of not having them in your life. Again he is tested and has to rise to the test.

I was struck by how political this iteration of the story felt. How do you feel that Les Misérables lands in our time with things like the Tea Party, the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Occupy Sandy, and so on?

In some ways, my interest in this story came out of John Adams, because when I made that I became fascinated by the American Revolution, and fascinated by the causal relationships between the American and French revolutions. This story, even though it’s set in France, is deeply embedded in the American DNA because it’s a load of revolutionaries wanting to get rid of an unjust king—which is your creation story. So it’s playing out your creation story in a different setting. I took a long time making the decision of whether to do this, and being tough on myself, asking, you know, is it relevant? The thing that struck me is that we’re living at a time where a lot of people are hurting around the world because of economic and social inequity, and there’s tremendous anger about the system. Les Miz is the great anthem of the dispossessed. It offers this solace that we as a collective can rise up against the system and change it for the better.

(MOREAnne Hathaway on Les Miz, Singing Live and the Power of Hugh Jackman)

It’s also a story deeply entwined with religion.

The story is full of coincidences, and in a world full of God, those kind of coincidences have meaning. In order for the story to function, God has to kind of be a character. I tried to hint at the existence of the sublime through, you know, an extraordinary sky, or the light behind a cloud, or when a paper flies up and goes to a sort of tear in the clouds. I was referencing traditional late-medieval religious painting, or even Turner. I wanted to tell it in a way that, whatever the nature of your faith, you felt included.