By Junsui Films | January 2013
The BAFTA nominated* Cinematographer chats exclusively to Junsui Films about adapting Victor Hugo’s revered novel to the screen, the challenges of shooting the actors singing live, and tells all about his latest film, LES MISÉRABLES…
Junsui Films: When did you first become aware of [director] Tom Hooper’s desire to adapt Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables for the screen and did you have any reservations about taking on such a revered classic?
Danny Cohen: Tom talked to me about the film just before summer 2011. I took a copy of Hugo’s novel on holiday, slightly dreading the read, but found it an amazing book and a real page turner. It’s a fantastic read, the story, the descriptions, the sheer detail is phenomenal. It made sense to begin with the book as the stage musical distils the novel. And what the film does is draw on the detail of the novel and put the musical within that context.
Once we started prep, just getting my head round the scale of the production was a bit daunting; I went to see the London production with Tom which was quite something. The audience’s reaction gave me the sense that Les Misérables was much more than just your average musical. The process of prep, looking at images/paintings and finding locations, slowly came together and with the book and the musical you get a feel for how things could translate to the screen.
JF: Operating in a genre that essentially translates its emotion through song, how challenging was it establishing a unique and distinct visual aesthetic for the film?
Some of the films we looked at and I felt had a connection were All That Jazz, One From the Heart, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Les Misérables (1935 shot by Gregg Toland), Orson Well’s The Trial, The Leopard and Johnathan Glazer’s Birth shot by Harris Servides. Finding connections, ideas and visual feelings however obscure gets you thinking and lets a visual sense slowly come together. It’s that combination of random ideas and the reality of the locations and sets that hopefully help create something exciting and different in our take of Les Misérables.
JF: What were your thoughts on Tom’s bold decision to shoot the actors singing live and did this have any effect on your usual lighting approach?
Tom really had to convince the studio that singing live would work and bring something to the film that would make watching it unique as well as being practical and achievable with the schedule we had.
We shot a test early on in prep with Hugh Jackman singing “Bring him home”, even before we had finished the difference between shooting to playback and live singing was as far apart as things could be. When Hugh sung the song live it made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
We then had to the make filmmaking process a lot quieter than normal. Not use noisy lights, costumes made out of materials that didn’t rustle, sets with floorboards that didn’t creak, practical considerations that normally wouldn’t matter suddenly became massively important.
JF: Having previously collaborated together on The King’s Speech, how did you and Tom find the transition into such a mammoth production and one which carried a tremendous amount of hype and expectation?
For me it’s a case of head down and get on with it. If you start to think of the ramifications of every decision and the scrutiny that a hardcore fanbase might put it under then you probably wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.
JF: From the sweeping opening to the epic battle sequence just how physically and emotionally gruelling was the shoot itself, and how did you feel about shooting on film as opposed to digital?
The shoot was a lot of fun, long hours, lots of running around, but I’d never done anything on this scale before so it was really exciting. The film versus digital question was interesting and we tested a lot of formats; 3-D, 65mm, Anamorphic 35mm, Super 35mm and Arri Alexa. But once we watched them back basically the quality of the images just looked better on film for the story we were telling. There was a patina, a texture, grain that just didn’t feel the same on the digital formats.
JF: The film has enjoyed some extraordinary reactions from audiences with reports of people cheering and applauding throughout. Have you had a chance to see the film with a crowd yet?
I’ve seen the film with an audience quite a few times and it’s amazing that it gets such an emotional and physical reaction. It’s something that you really don’t expect when you’re waist deep in a dock in Portsmouth freezing your nuts off!
Les Misérables is out now.
* Danny Cohen 2013 BAFTA nomination for best cinematography in a film, Les Misérables.