The Paris of 'Les Misérables'

How an expert team of costumers and designers captured the wonders — and horrors — of 19th-century France for Tom Hooper's ''Les Misérables,'' starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway

Victor Hugo didn't call his book Les Misérables for nothing. The misery and squalor of Paris in the 1800s is practically its own character in his epic novel, which became a hit Broadway musical in 1987. So when director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) recruited production designer Eve Stewart and costumer Paco Delgado for his big-screen adaptation of the show, the team didn't cut any corners to evoke the grime of the period. Even if that meant, say, shipping in loads of stinking fish and brown Scottish seaweed to England's famous Pinewood Studios to create the docks where Fantine (Anne Hathaway) sells her body to provide for her daughter, Cosette (played as an adult by Amanda Seyfried). ''People were gagging from the smell,'' says Stewart. ''It was so sensory. The actors said they only had to walk on set and they felt completely immersed in that world.''

Stewart and Delgado are hoping audiences feel similarly immersed when Les Misérables hits theaters on Christmas Day, bringing the beloved musical about ex-con Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his policeman nemesis Javert (Russell Crowe) to the screen for the first time. But even though this iteration of Les Miz has its roots on the Great White Way (and includes Gleek-approved songs like ''On My Own'' and ''I Dreamed a Dream''), the designers say Broadway theatrics took a backseat to authenticity in their work. ''The first thing Tom said was that he wanted to be very faithful to the period and Victor Hugo's story,'' says Delgado, who drew inspiration from surviving garments of the era and the work of period artists like Eugène Delacroix. ''The costumes are 90 percent authentic, and then we changed little details to make them more appealing for a musical.'' Stewart used the same tactic for her sets, which include muddy Parisian alleys and revolutionary barricades. ''Tom is used to making things so realistic,'' says the designer, who previously worked with Hooper to create prewar England in The King's Speech and 1960s-70s Leeds in The Damned United. ''We had to start at the bare bones of the truth, and then slowly crank it up to make it work with the music. The buildings lean more than they would in real life. The colors are slightly enhanced.''

Befitting a story with such a grand scale, Les Miz employed tailors in four different countries — England, Italy, France, and Spain — to produce approximately 2,200 costumes, most of them for the movie's hordes of beggars. And then came the fun part. ''We had to make the costumes and then destroy them to make them look old, like they had been worn for 10 years,'' says Delgado. ''We used chemical processes like bleaching them and fading, then mechanical processes like sanding or making holes. Sometimes we even used blowtorches to burn them. We tried to re-create very quickly what would happen to a garment over years.'' For the principal actors' outfits, Delgado worked closely with Hooper to fashion garments that tell a part of each character's story. Valjean, for example, begins the film in the scarlet red of a prisoner's uniform (''so the guards could see anyone who tried to escape,'' explains Delgado) and gradually moves to the refined suits and subdued shades that he wears as the mayor of the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. The character also undergoes a physical transformation. ''Hugh wanted [''Valjean''] to look more bourgeois and relaxed about his appearance when he becomes the mayor, so we added padding to make it look like he had a little bit of a belly,'' Delgado says. ''You can barely notice it, but Hugh asked for it specifically.''

Not all the movie's design details are quite as subtle, though. Take, for instance, a 40-foot plaster elephant statue that Stewart built to replicate an actual unfinished monument commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate his victories in the Middle East. Hugo worked the elephant into his book as a makeshift shelter for street urchins, so Stewart constructed it to scale for the climactic standoff between the rebels — including Valjean and Marius (Eddie Redmayne) — and the French army. That sequence was shot in April in front of the majestic Old Royal Naval College in London's Greenwich area, where — to accommodate the site's regular tourist crowds and the city's Olympics preparations — Stewart was required to assemble a towering barricade in just three days. ''We built a ready-prepared 30-foot barricade on three lorries [British-to-American translation: trucks],'' she says. ''And then we just drove it in like a carnival [and assembled the pieces on site].''

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