Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.
The set for an empty street—easy, right? Not when you’re working on the movie version of the hit stage musical Les Misérables for director Tom Hooper (2010’s Academy Award winner for The King’s Speech). Production designer Eve Stewart says Hooper was such a stickler for authenticity in re-creating 1832 Paris that, for the first few days, “there was an awful lot of horse poo about—real horse poo.” To avoid a rebellion on the part of cast and crew, real horse droppings were quickly replaced with fakes. By phone from London, Stewart talked about this and other challenges in creating just the right look for Rue de la Chanvrerie as described in Victor Hugo’s classic novel.
1) Buildings in 1832 Paris, the year of the June Rebellion depicted in the film, “were still very medieval, not like the Paris you see now,” says Stewart, who was able to find historic newspaper pictures to use as guides. Tall buildings lined streets so narrow that people could throw furniture out upper windows and quickly create a barricade. These buildings, constructed at London’s Pinewood Studios, are 40 to 50 feet high. “It was actually cheaper to build them that height than to do it by computer,” Stewart says. More modern Parisian streets were made wider, says Stewart, so revolutionaries could no longer block passage “with a couple of armchairs.”
2) The buildings are not only tall, they lean and sag in all directions. “What was really difficult for me was to persuade the usual perfectionist carpenters and plasterers to make everything crooked,” Stewart explains. “It was really important to have all the buildings look like exhausted, tired, stricken members of the community.” Stewart used mostly salvage wood and old doors to help create the downtrodden look.
3) The cobblestone street is wet after a summer storm, the backdrop for the dying Éponine’s big song, “A Little Fall of Rain.” Because songs were performed live, the roofs of buildings were carpeted to mute the “raindrops” falling from water machines hanging from grids on the studio ceiling. In fact, Stewart says, many design details, including horses’ hooves, carriage wheels, and beads, had to be “made rubbery” or coated to avoid clops, clacks, and clinks during live musical performances.
4) This sign for an ophthalmologist’s shop has a literal meaning as well as a symbolic one. Circa 1832, “making spectacles was quite a big business in Paris, especially in the backstreets. It was described in Hugo’s novel, so I was keen to get it in,” Stewart says. The eye also plays into an attempt to introduce a subtle religious motif throughout the film: “Quite often you’ll see a little cross, the eye of the Lord, individual bits and pieces to show the greater spirit of the Lord.”
5) Other signs of the times: As described in Hugo’s novel, Parisian streets were teeming with businesses that promoted their wares by hanging posters and graphics and even painting directly on plaster walls. As in the case of the sagging buildings, Stewart wanted a naturalistic imperfection, so she hired an 80-year-old English sign writer, Graham Prentice, to do the lettering, rather than a scenic artist. “I was very keen to get slightly wonky sign-writing,” Stewart says. “He’d walk around in his old Parisian overalls. It was part of the joy of that set. It was a little community. Carpenters and painters would take pride in their own buildings: ‘Ours was better.’ ”