Step inside the looming Richard Attenborough stage at Pinewood studios and you immediately find yourself immersed in 19th century Paris. Glance around and you are greeted by production designer Eve Stewart’s towering three-storey French neighbourhood – a series of ramshackle buildings connected by a shabby cobbled avenue and adorned by the occasional blood-stained soldier clad in battle-weary uniform, chattering away on his mobile phone.
Traverse the alley way and you soon reach a barricade, a carefully constructed collection of chairs, wardrobes – and even coffins – built and filmed in real time as Les Misérables' idealistic students of Paris instigated their spirited rebellion against the monarchy. Everything appears to be breathtakingly authentic, but step closer to the gritty brickwork and you will uncover a carefully concealed wall of plaster – rap your knuckles on it and a hollow echo answers in reply.
We may be well into the 21st century, but a sense of realism pervades both the set and director Tom Hooper’s interpretation of Victor Hugo’s much-loved musical. As Les Misérables creator Cameron Mackintosh points out, “you’ve never seen a musical film that looks like this – it just smells real.”
After a lucrative 30-year career in theatre, Les Misérables marks Mackintosh’s first venture into cinema after a long journey to bring his famous musical to the big screen, culminating in a dream line-up that includes Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. “Anne and I have been discussing doing Les Misérables for at least the last five years,” he explained. “Conversations have gone from her being able to do Cosette, then Eponine, and now she’s just old enough to play Fantine. It’s very interesting seeing the serendipity of it all. We might have made [the film] 25 years ago but would there have been this kind of cast? I don’t think so.”
Later that day I was treated to a glimpse of the two leading men, wandering around set in their distressed costumes as they geared up to film an emotionally-charged scene beside the barricade. One glance at a rugged Russell Crowe and it became clear what producer Debra Hayward meant when she alluded to putting the "sexiness" back into musical theatre...
The scene that followed felt like it belonged on Hampstead Heath in Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill. After being handed a set of headphones I was shown a seat to watch Russell and Hugh Jackman exercise their vocal chords. Behind me conversing in hushed whispers were two men – Mackintosh and composer Claude-Michel Schonberg – who joined forces with lyricist Alain Boublil to create the original musical based on Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel. As a long-time (mega) fan of the stage production, I had to pinch myself as I realised I was witnessing a soon-to-be Oscar nominated big screen adaptation come to life alongside two men who have been there from the very beginning.
Schonberg and Boublil teamed up to write a new song, Suddenly, for Jackman to sing - an addition that has received a raft of Original Song nominations at the Golden Globes, Baftas and Oscars. "It's when Jean Valjean is coming to pick up Cosette from the Thénardiers and he leaves with her to Paris," explained Schonberg. "He's in the cart with the little girl and she falls asleep on his knees. Suddenly there's this big man who's been a convict and he starts to feel something for this little girl that he's never felt before.
"It's all about his hand trying to touch her head or the change of the look in his eyes. On stage it's something we haven't been able to do because we don't have close-ups."
As I mingled with the old hands and fresh faces of Les Misérables it was interesting to hear about the fusion of stage and cinema behind the scenes of the £40 million blockbuster. "Everyone's on some sort of learning curve," explained Hayward. "Cameron's never done a film, we've never done a musical film and a lot of the cast are actors who've never sung, or singers who've never acted in a film. It's been a great leveller as we've all had this shared goal of trying to make something very original that's never been done before."
One such innovation is the decision to sing through the entire score live on set - a move that has required actors to belt out their tunes take after take, often under rain machines, on mountainsides or in freezing pools of water. But, as Mackintosh was keen to state, the nature of Les Misérables meant he'd never have allowed it to be done any other way. "I do not believe - as this is wall-to-wall drama through music - that you can get the actors to go to the studio with an orchestra before they've even started rehearsing and get the same performance."
And watching the emotion Hugh and Russell plough into their lines as they film their scene, it soon became clear that the gamble was already paying off. "Our ambition has always been that people forget that you are singing," explained Schonberg, and indeed, I did that day on set. For 30 seconds of film I was transported into the bloody streets of Paris by the moralistic tussle between Valjean and Javert. Take after take after take, the intensity their live vocals brought to the parts elevated the entire scene. Whereas Chicago, Moulin Rouge and Mamma Mia felt theatrical and occasionally formulaic, the producers of Les Misérables are clearly trying to shape a movie brimming with depth of character in the hope of appealing to an audience beyond the 65 million who have been to see the stage show.
"It genuinely is the people's musical," enthused Mackintosh before he disappeared back to his work on set. "In every country of the world they embrace Les Misérables as their own, so it seems exactly right that the best people in the world to do this movie have come from all corners of the globe."
Indeed, in addition to the LA starlets who've jetted across the pond to film their roles, take pity on the two Australians, braving the bitter May conditions and probably dreaming of their sun-soaked homes Down Under. Just before I decamped back to London I was delighted to spend some time with Jackman and Crowe, who in turn greeted me with firm handshakes and megawatt Hollywood smiles. Both made light of the rigorous audition process they were put through to win their roles - but it is clear to all who watch them that Les Misérables is a labour of love: Hugh sang Javert's solo Stars in his very first audition and it wasn't long before Russell was relaying ideas he'd had for various scenes they had been filming.
All too soon my day at drizzly Pinewood came to a close, but as I drove away and left behind the hive of activity surrounding the cast and crew, my presiding feeling was one of excitement - and having seen the finished product, I wasn't wrong. The group of people working day-in, day-out to recreate Victor Hugo's famed narrative really was something special - and the critical acclaim and awards season glory they're currently enjoying is full credit to their weeks of painstaking hard work. Next month it won't just be the star-studded cast walking the red carpet at the Oscars but the costume designers, set production team and sound mixers who have rightfully been nominated for a string of awards. Fingers crossed they don't come away empty handed.
Read our review of Les Misérables