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Magical Realism: Sets and Locations

Lensing in France

Following several weeks of rehearsals, costume fittings, and makeup and camera tests, the LES MISERABLES production began a 12-week shoot with a reduced unit in Gourdon in the south of France. In this locale, Hooper and his regular production designer, Eve Stewart, had found an unrivaled mountainous landscape against which to shoot Valjean's walk to freedom. Says Stewart: "It was important spiritually that we shoot in France, and Gourdon offered us something so special and unmatched."

The filmmakers knew one of their biggest challenges in translating material from the theater to the big screen would be in opening it up to make it cinematic. Extrapolates Hayward: "There's the entire story in the book, the passages of time, the great landscapes, Paris in the 19th century -- all incredibly visual and hard to render in the theater. We took huge advantage of the visual elements of the musical and book and expanded upon them. We were determined to make an epic visual experience, as well as a great musical one."

Drawing her inspiration from both rich sources, the designer immersed herself in reams of research to inform the shared vision she and Hooper had for the look of the film. "It was important to pay homage to the musical, which we chose to do with the theatricality of the sets, and the colors and textures," says Stewart, "but we felt it was equally important to make the reality believable. Otherwise, the drama and misery of the situations our char acters were living in would not be as poignant and emotional."

LES MISERABLES marks Hooper's fourth collaboration with Stewart, and the director acknowledges the shorthand that has developed between them. Hooper says: "Eve has done a remarkable job. There's something great about the creative collaboration that deepens each time you do it. Eve knows the way I shoot, and she creates opportunities for me to shoot that she knows will excite me. I have been very guided by extreme historical accuracy in much of my work, and it was great that Eve set me slightly free from some of those structures while still creating a very real world."

Life on the Docks

Once the production returned to England from France, principal photography moved into full swing. The ensuing locations provided the cast and crew with a tour of landmark historical sites in the U.K., as well as the opportunity to film a timeless story against some truly inspiring backdrops.

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in the south of England, a world-class tourist destination and working naval base that welcomes approximately 500,000 visitors a year -- and where the legendary HMS Victory is moored -- gave Hooper the almost biblical backdrop he needed for the film's opening sequence. We first meet Valjean, alongside the other convicts, as they haul a massive ship in for repair. Soon after, Javert hands Valjean his precious ticket of leave.

Using one of the base's dry docks, normally used to repair vessels -- and which the crew ironically filled with water so it would appear as if the convicts were pulling the battered ship out of the water-presented one of the biggest logistical challenges on the film. The camera crane, the wave- and wind-machines and the rig with the ship's ropes had to be craned into the dock during a very short window of preparation, given that the production had chosen to use one of the massive functioning docks. On shooting days, navigating cast and crew down the very steep and wet steps to the docks was seriously hair-raising, and it was a small miracle that the unit left that location without injury.

Now that it had its sea legs, the unit relocated to Chatham, another working historic dockyard and museum in Kent in the southeast of England. This rather wonderful location provided the production with several huge sets, which were prepped for more than a month prior to shooting. The site included Fantine's factory set, created in the Tarring Yarn House, which was built between 1786 and 1791 and historically used for dipping molten yarn for rot proofing. Discovered by Stewart, the beautiful building offered the perfect space in size, color palette and texture; Stewart and her team only had to add the set dressing. Says the production designer: "It was a rope barn where they made rope for Nelson's boat to fight Napoleon, a rather magical, if ironic, connection with our story."

Next up, the cast and crew shot the hospital for Fantine's death scene and the confrontation between Valjean and Javert. Filmed in the cockloft of the ropery, the scenes were staged some four floors up in a space that is approximately a third of a mile long. It was the first time permission had been given to lens in the gorgeous historical building, the only one of its kind left in the world. The crew had to tread very lightly. The old timbers -- some of which date back to the 15th century -- have absorbed the fumes that resulted from the making of rope. This made the setting a virtual tinderbox. Use of naked flames and SFX smoke was strictly forbidden by the grounds, so the crew had to develop artificial methods to create flickering flames and smoke for dressing the set.

Chatham also provided the location for the streets of Montreuil-sur-Mer and its red-light district, which Stewart and her team integrated credibly with the spectacular Lovely Ladies set built at Pinewood Studios (where the unit relocated after Chatham). Inspired by a mix of the work of French artist Gustave Dore, existing docks and warehouses in Toulon, and the historic docks in Chatham, Stewart's spectacular set took eight weeks to create. To build the space, a visual and physical metaphor for Fantine's descent, it required the combined skills of plasterers, carpenters, sculptors, greensmen, marine rigging specialists and scenic artists. The brickwork was made from plaster sheets on a timber base, and the main boat was sculptured from polystyrene on a metal frame, then hard-coated with plaster.

Giant figureheads carved from polystyrene helped to give the set its theatricality; these fantastical yet realistic elements were masterful works of Stewart's paint team. Upon the walls, the crew painted slime and mold effects and placed nine tons of seaweed that was shipped from the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. Additionally, 10 tons of green sand and mud were brought onto the set, as well as sack loads of mackerel and hake that were hauled in from London's Billingsgate Market at 2:00 every morning (and disposed of every night). Rather uncomfortable for cast and crew alike, it smelled as much like a real harbor as it looked like one.

Standing upright proved a challenge, especially as the team operated equipment and conducted hair, makeup and costume checks. Sums set decorator Anne Lynch Robinson: "The set had to be as hellish as possible. We needed to show how Fantine had reached the bare bones of her existence." Setting the "I Dreamed a Dream" number in the rotting hulk of an old ship mired in the mud of Montreuil-sur-Mer intensified the harrowing nature of the descent. Gathered in that cold, dark and damp space, the crew watched in wonder at Hathaway's extraordinary live performance on the remarkably convincing set.

Elephant of the Bastille

The unit next moved to the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, Christopher Wren's twin-domed riverside masterpiece and an iconic landmark in South East London. There, Stewart most notably positioned the Elephant of the Bastille, the Paris monument originally conceived by Napoleon and immortalized by Victor Hugo as Gavroche's shelter in the Place de la Bastille. The piece provided a striking centerpiece for Lamarque's funeral procession, the beginning of the student uprising and the film's finale sequence. Carved from polystyrene, the 40-foot-tall elephant took about a month to craft at Pinewood. Once made, it was transported to the location in large disassembled parts and reassembled. The elephant also formed part of the background of the huge barricade in the film's finale, another giant build for the designer's crew. Mackintosh so loved the elephant that he saved it from the skip at the end of the shoot and moved it to the grounds of his house in the west of England.

As the finale covers the successful French revolution of 1848, by which time the rebels had mastered the art of building barricades, Stewart and Hooper knew they had to make the set as big as possible. Sourcing hundreds of pieces of reclaimed furniture-doors, pews, paneling, chairs and tables-from Wales, Belgium and various house clearances, Stewart and Robinson's team had only two weeks to build a barricade onto the flatbeds of an Arctic truck, so it could be transported to Greenwich just ahead of shooting. Given the exceptionally large and unusual load, special permission had to be obtained to drive the barricade, as well as the elephant, to Greenwich. By the time the elephant was loaded into the barricade, the structure spread more than 100 feet wide by 40 feet high.

Streets of 1832 Paris

After another stint at Chatham and a brief visit to Winchester to shoot Valjean's death scene in the beautiful, understated chapel of Winchester College-in addition to using Winchester's cobbled streets for Javert's pursuit of Valjean and Cosette through the streets of Paris-the unit returned to Pinewood to begin the extended shoot on the newly built Richard Attenborough Stage. Here, the production designer made full use of the tallest stage at Pinewood, which comes in at 50 feet tall. She needed the space to render 1832 Paris, which she heavily referenced from the work of Charles Marville, a photographer who captured the city before it was largely torn down during the Haussmann Plan of the mid-1800s.

In just under 10 weeks -- with a workforce of some 200 carpenters, sculptors and painters -- the streets of 1832 Paris rose approximately 40 to 45 feet. Most of the Paris that we recognize today did not exist at the time the story is set, and there are very few remaining medieval buildings that resemble those photographed by Marville. Stewart and her team relied on a great deal of reference from period books, etchings and paintings of Paris, French museums and historical websites. "The buildings really were that tall," explains Stewart, "and we took the decision to make them that tall because we didn't want to overburden the film with computer graphics. We wanted to keep the theatricality but also the texture and the reality of the world we were trying to create. It was amazingly good fun, finding shops and buildings to come together in a mishmash of color of higgledy-piggledy reality."

The director admits that he stood in awe as he watched his crew create. Hooper says: "Building these colossal sets was great fun. I was trying to achieve a combination of extreme realisms so that the film would feel rooted in a visceral reality and magical realism. There's an operatic aspect to it and therefore an opportunity to create a style that's a bit heightened from reality."

Stewart describes that one of the biggest challenges was getting her carpenters to build in crooked lines. She laughs: "I literally had to drag rulers out of their hands because they couldn't get their heads around building a window that slanted wildly to the right." It was particularly important to Hooper and Stewart that the Cafe Musain, where the revolutionary students gather and where Marius performs "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables," have an incredibly precarious lean to it, rendering it isolated and fragile and emphasizing the nature of their dwarfed revolution.

Hooper extrapolates on the logic: "This is where the students plan their revolution, where they build the barricade and where they mostly end up dying. I liked the idea of creating through their home a symbol of their fragility. The building has insubstantiality to it, and physically showing the vulnerability of their great dream was very important to me."

One of the wildest and most unexpected moments during the course of the shoot came when the students, led by Marius and Enjolras, were building the barricade. Describes Hooper: "The plan was to build part of the barricade on screen, and then Eve and her team would complete the work she had prepared on a neighboring stage. But on the day of filming, and in a moment of wild abandon, I let the cameras run, and the students and citizens ripped every piece of furniture, every door, every shop front they could get their hands on and built the entire barricade in real time. It was exactly the energy and revolutionary spirit I'd wanted to capture."

Redmayne agrees that singing live in and on the barricade wasn't the only realistic thing going on at the time: "There were 40 students and 50 extras, and Tom had 10 minutes worth of film put in the cameras. He said, 'Build a barricade. Action!,' and it was literally 10 minutes of complete carnage. We threw furniture, pianos and cases. Things were literally coming down from above, and we were terrified. Everyone's reaction was genuine."

The unit had one more location to visit before returning to Pinewood: Boughton House, the Northamptonshire residence of the Duke of Buccleuch that has been dubbed the "English Versailles." Most of the present building is the work of Ralph Montagu, 1st duke of Montagu, who inherited the house in 1683. A former English ambassador to France, Montagu was a passionate builder and patron of artists, craftsmen and decorators of every sort, and his transformation of the house he inherited was the manifestation of his dream to bring French beauty and style to an English landscape. It served perfectly as the location for Marius Pontmercy's family home, where Valjean brings the wounded Marius back to his grandfather and where Cosette and Marius' wedding takes place.

For the last few weeks of the shoot, the unit returned to Pinewood, where part of the Richard Attenborough Stage had been revamped to create Montfermeil, the inn where Valjean rescues Cosette from her miserable life with the Thenardiers and where the filming of the popular "Master of the House" number, featuring Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen, took place. One shot was added for Javert's final suicidal jump into the Seine, which was shot at the spectacular weir on the River Avon in the center of the Georgian City of Bath.

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