Les Misérables is remade as a lavish BBC mini-series.
It’s always difficult to take on a new incarnation of a familiar story, but for Jacqueline Fowler, make-up/hair designer on the BBC’s new six-part adaptation of Les Misérables, the challenges were even more daunting. Not only was the 2012 feature film a box office success, it also earned a coveted Academy Award for make-up.
“That work was absolutely stunning,” Fowler agrees, “and since it got an Oscar for make-up, there was quite a lot of pressure. I have total respect for it, but from my perspective, I could only do what was in our script written by Andrew Davies, which of course was based on the renowned book by Victor Hugo. We had a great group of actors, and a good marriage between my department, production designer Richard Bullock and Marianne Agertoft, the costume designer. I’d also worked with Andrew and producer Bethan Jones, the producer on War and Peace, so they obviously liked what I had done before.”
The BBC series stars Dominic West as former prisoner Jean Valjean and David Oyelowo as his implacable nemesis, Inspector Javert. Also featured are Lily Collins (Fantine) and Ellie Bamber (the adult Cosette) as well as Olivia Colman and Adeel Akhtar (as the scheming Thénardiers). Shot multi-episodically over a seven-month period in Belgium and France, the project proved to be hugely challenging from a logistical point of view.
“The story is set over a big span of several years,” Fowler explains, “and because we were jumping in and out of different episodes all the time, I had to keep things relatively simple. I played around with things like Dominic’s sideburns for example, to reflect his status, where they’re a bit more wiry and wooly at one point, but when he later up-markets himself, he cuts the sideburns down. I had to keep his hair pretty much the same, except for his dying days, which was shot near the end, so I was able to shave his hair almost off, so it was quite a transformation. At one point, I was literally cutting Dominic’s hair at 11 on a Friday night, under the stars in a rooftop garden in Belgium to get him ready for Monday morning’s filming.”
Les Misérables opens dramatically on a corpse-strewn battlefield following the Battle of Waterloo.
“That was shot in one day,” recalls Fowler, “but it was absolutely pouring with rain, and we actually had to stop filming at one point until it left off a little bit. I had done a big gash on Pontmercy’s forehead, and the area was turning into a giant ball of mud, which made it almost impossible to get in and do our make-up checks. We couldn’t run up the hill, and it kept getting worse and worse, so that was quite a hard scene to do. I think we had 60 actors there, maybe even 70.”
Episode one segues into scenes with Jean Valjean and his fellow prisoners, which actually had to be shot at the very end. “There was no way around it,” says Fowler. “Because as I said earlier, I had to lose Dominic’s hair, and the only way we could do that was by literally hacking bits out of it. The beard is false, and I did have two different beards made because I originally wanted him to have a shorter beard on release from prison, but the longer beard made him look more menacing, along with the beaten-up make-up, so we just kept the original beard. I think it had more impact that way.”
With a story that spanned several years, Fowler had to work out just how much West and his fellow cast members had to age. “There were quite a few of them, mainly Dominic, David Oyelowo, Olivia Colman and Adeel as Thénardier. David starts out with less facial hair in episode one, and because it was sunny, we used a lot of shine and kept his skin quite dewy. When we aged his skin towards the end, we ashed him down a little bit, and added some gray hairs here and there, as well as doing some clever make-up trickery around his eye, which actually made him look older.
“And Madame Thénardier dies in prison of cholera, so we had to do a cholera make-up on Olivia as well. One of her daughters, Éponine, ends up in the barricades and gets poorly and dies, but the other daughter survives, and then Thénardier ends up living in a sewer, so his look completely changes.”
The character that arguably undergoes the biggest transformation is Fantine. “It was a massive design process to create that look,” notes Fowler, “starting in episode one where she’s pretty but not quite getting the fashion right. The style is playful and fun, but it’s not the high fashion of Paris, so I really wanted to get that distinction across.
“When Félix leaves her and she has a baby, she realizes she needs money to survive, but at that point, she’s already quite sick. She has an incredible walk to get where she needs to go, and by the time she dumps the child with the Thénardiers, we already started breaking her down. She’s cold and sick and because anything she earns goes straight to her daughter, she’s not feeding herself very well, so she’s already on the decline. She doesn’t think clearly and sells her hair and teeth and then goes on the game and gets pneumonia in her lungs and starts coughing up blood, so she ends up in a convent where she passes away. It’s quite a moving bit in the story and Lily was very brave, and it was nice to do all the different looks for her—from this beautiful girl in episode one who doesn’t have a care in the world, to her final decline.”
The sequence in which Fantine quite literally sells her hair and teeth is chilling. “Again, we were shooting out of sequence,” says Fowler, “and the studio scene was shot a couple of months after the town square exterior, so when she goes in, she’s got a completely new wig that could be cut. We had Lily’s own hair under two stocking caps and a bald cap, so when they cut her hair, you could see a bare-scalp effect underneath. I also had a short ‘aftermath’ wig made for the scenes in which she’s dying later on.
“Obviously, we cast Lily’s teeth as well. We could have done it the old-fashioned way by blacking out her teeth, but I ended up having some green-screen teeth made instead, which we used on special occasions when we would see the teeth and green screen. And Lily wasn’t vain at all and embraced all the different looks we had created for her.”
With the current version of Les Misérables getting rave reviews in its initial BBC outing, Fowler is happy with the overall experience, starting with the fact that she had a respectable budget to work with. “I usually don’t have a lot of luxury with my budgets in general,” she offers, “where I can have a big spend-up, but you’ve only got to have an actor in a couple of wigs and you’re parting with 10 grand. One decent beard can hit the 600 mark, so you’ve only got to do the math and I think I had 99 actors to deal with.
“From my point of view, it was an absolutely wonderful job to work on, and I couldn’t have done it without my wonderful team. It was a pleasure to work with [director] Tom Shankland again, and you couldn’t ask for a more amicable producer than Chris Carey. It was a really happy shoot, and I feel honored to have been chosen to work on it, because it was a wonderful piece to do. In a way, I think each episode could have been 90 minutes long, because there was so much great material to put in there!”
Les Misérables premiered Sunday, April 14 on Masterpiece on PBS and airs for five more weeks.