The legendary theatre producer talks about the process of adapting Les Mis for the screen.
By
Alice Tynan

21 Dec 2012 - 1:12 PM  UPDATED 21 Dec 2012 - 1:12 PM

Sir Cameron Mackintosh (below) is the phenomenally successful theatre producer behind such stage classics as The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Cats. In Sydney to promote the latest incarnation of his 27-year smash hit Les Misérables – a cinematic version directed by Tom Hooper and starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway – the affable 'Master of the House' muses on the enduring appeal of Les Misérables.

Les Mis has never stayed in aspic; we’ve altered it and changed it and edited it over the years.

It strikes me that life has imitated art to a certain extent as this has been a decades long journey for you. What is this hold Les Mis has over you?

30 years ago when I first heard the French concept album, and my schoolboy French didn't really give me a translation, but [when] Claude-Michel Schönberg's amazing music conjured up pictures of the movies I'd seen, I knew it was something special. But I had no idea that it could be a huge popular success the way it [became]. I thought it would be something like Evita. You know, a serious musical, hopefully very well done, which some people would like.

So we put the show on, and it got a pretty ropey start from the British critics, but for some miraculous reason the public flocked immediately as they have continued to do for the last 27 years. And to be honest we would not be making this movie if it had not been embraced by the country.

And the world...

Absolutely.

Now, I'm curious about the process of adaptation for you: what were those key elements that you wanted to ensure made it onto the big screen?

Les Mis has never stayed in aspic; we've altered it and changed it and edited it over the years. It's been an evolving, living thing. And when about two years ago, [I was introduced to] Bill Nicholson, and he wrote the screenplay. We'd edited, and about 30 percent of it was dialogue, so that's what we thought we were going to do.

Then 18 months ago [director] Tom [Hooper] came on board…and I was really taken by his vision of it. We were working for about an hour on Bill's screenplay and [Tom] went, “No, no, I don't want to do it like this. What I want to do is go and get the score, go and get the original script and we're going to pull the show apart.” Because he said, “We must have one tone.” [So] all of Bill's new stuff was actually turned into lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer.

So it was completely seamless collaboration: we took out what we didn't need and added all the stuff you do need in a movie to make it more realistic. And therefore we sat around the piano for six months just working out a new script, so that we were making a proper movie that happened to be sung, rather than an adaptation of a stage piece. And that was a fantastic experience for all of us, and I think one of the key decisions to the successful outcome.

Then we had a new piano demo of the show that Tom then went in to shoot.

Well yes, this is the next big thing: Tom then went in and recorded the actor's singing live. Now as a man of the theatre that's nothing new to you, but I wonder were the other film producers getting palpitations?

The thing is that was actually one of the clinchers when [Tom] came in to see me. Because at the time I didn't know who Tom was. But my instinct always was that it had to be live; I couldn't imagine how any actor could record two and a half hours of dramatic emotional material, three months before they met the director or any of their fellow actors.

So when Tom said to me that he felt as strongly as I did about it, I knew that with the director there we stood a chance at persuading Universal to take this enormous leap. Because it's one thing to record live in the theatre, but of course the technical difficulties of doing a multi-camera shoot and lots of different versions, and editing it on a film set, is something nobody had ever tried on the scale that we were going to do. But it was the only way you could do Les Misérables.

I think whatever happens to Les Misérables, it is going to be a way that – in the future – dramatic musicals, that are storytelling musicals [are filmed, because] it gives them a sense of reality, which is never existed before.

You took a chance on Les Misérables in the 1980s, but how has the economic climate changed over the years for these kinds of productions?

Well I think several things have happened for the right timing. I met [Working Title producer] Eric Fellner through a mutual friend, who said he was interested in doing [Les Misérables]. And there has been a background - starting with Moulin Rouge! and Baz Luhrmann, then going through Evita, Mamma Mia, Sweeney Todd and Chicago - of more and more musicals being done. So it was a genre that was becoming alive again.

Then of course we had an extraordinary set of circumstances: Susan Boyle's miraculous performance of 'I Dreamed a Dream', turning a standard song into the show's first hit around the world. People were saying, “It's 'I Dreamed a Dream', from Les Misérables.” And that started a whole new generation of people coming to see the show. Then it was the 25th anniversary, for which I did a brand new production, which was actually basis of what the film is with the new orchestration. And then on top of that I did the O2 concert, which was a huge success around the world. So all three things made this moment the right moment to do [the film].

So the stars aligned in many ways.

They did. And I always say the Fates are the greatest producers of all.

Les Misérables opens in cinemas on Boxing Day.