A popular fixture in fiction, Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables has been adapted many times over the years, first as a string of film and television projects and more recently, as a lavish stage production that became a worldwide success.
That production has now been turned into a big-screen version, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. The cast also includes Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Amanda Seyfried and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Set in 19th-century France, Les Misérables follows convict Jean Valjean (Jackman), who, after being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, breaks parole and is doggedly pursued by police officer Javert (Crowe). When Valjean agrees to look after Cosette (Seyfried), the daughter of factory worker Fantine (Hathaway), his life changes forever.
Make-up/hair designer Lisa Westcott was happy to take on the task of recreating Hugo’s sprawling epic. A two-time Oscar nominee, Westcott not only had a reputation for tackling just about every period imaginable, she had also won a BAFTA and Royal Television Society Award for exploring similar historical territory with Wives and Daughters in 1999.
“When I first went to see Tom Hooper, he really wanted somebody like me who was BBC-trained, because he was used to working with BBC-trained people,” she said. “He also wanted everything to look credible and authentic, so I said, ‘I’m your girl!’
“Before I started the film, I have a ritual worked out over the years, where I read the script with tremendous attention, taking notes the whole time. I then break down each individual character and their journey throughout the story, so with Jean Valjean, for example, Hugh has four different looks: the convict look, the look when he comes out of the convent, the mayor look and the dying look.
“I knew that Hugh started growing his own beard before I was on the film, so by the time we met, he already had a good beard that we were able to extend, making it more scraggly, adding extra hair and color. We then shaved it off, adding all sorts of scarring, as well as shackle-mark prosthetics around his wrists, collarbone and ankles. I broke down the story for every character that way.”
For her core team, Westcott drew on veteran make-up/hair artists with whom she had collaborated on several previous films.
“The people I use are designers in their own right,” she said, “but they seem to like working for me, and I try to be really fair. I know everybody’s strengths and weaknesses and who should work with whom, which is really an art. Hugh Jackman, for example, was done by Julie Dartnell, who is my superstar. I use her whenever she is available, and always give her my main lead.
“Anne Hathaway wanted Paul Gooch, because she had worked with him before. Paul is ex-BBC as well, so he’s very much on the same page as us. Anne Hathaway was actually the simplest of the lot. She didn’t have a wig, so it was pretty straightforward. And although we didn’t have any personals on this film, Russell Crowe wanted approval, so I sent him CVs for some of the girls on my team and he chose one of them.
“I also had Kristyan Mallett as my prosthetics guy, Chris Lyons making my teeth, and my wigmaker, Jeanette Brown, from Ray Marston Wig Studio. My crowd supervisor was Julia Vernon, who brings in her own team as well, and keeps a very happy ship.”
Unlike the American method of dividing hair and make-up into different departments, Westcott handles both. “I would never, ever do a film with only hair or make-up, because the whole trick is to create the character, and you can only do that if you’ve got all the tools in the box, which is hair and make-up,” she said. “There are hundreds of wigs on this film: on the principal characters, the extras; they’re everywhere.
“The problem is that when the wigs work really well, you don’t know they’re there. Hugh had three different wigs, as well as his own short convict hair, and at one point, Universal gave some swanky party where nobody recognized him when he walked in, because he walked in with his convict hair. They were used to seeing him in his 1830s mayor wig!”
Because Jackman was growing his own beard for the start of filming, the production began with the convict sequences before moving on to the beard-free scenes.
“He literally shaved it off one night,” Westcott said, “and the following day, he was the mayor, so that was a bit scary. It scared the shit out of Tom Hooper, because he wanted to see what Hugh would look like as the mayor and I had to say, ‘We can show you the wig, but we can’t show you how he’s going to look as the mayor until that morning!'”
The convict sequences also feature a big chunk of the film’s make-up effects, from scarring to period tattoos. “We did a lot of research and found reference pictures and drawings of very old tattoos, which we were able to copy,” Westcott said. “Kristyan Mallett, who did loads of scars and other work for us, put those tattoos onto transfers and they were brilliant.”
“I worked very closely with Lisa on some of the make-up design,” added Mallett. “During pre-production, we would sit down together and I would artwork loads of designs for all of the characters, testing different facial hair, hairstyles, aging and full character looks, all in Photoshop. That gave Lisa a good foundation in terms of where she wanted to go with the look of the film, and having them to show the actors when they first stepped into the production was incredibly valuable.
“We did an excess of a thousand tattoos for convicts and extras throughout the film. We also did between a thousand and fifteen hundred prosthetic pieces for the extras: scars and wounds, shackle marks, as well as ‘hero’ pieces for Hugh and Sacha.”
In addition to overseeing the film’s principal cast members, Westcott also got to create a wide range of secondary characters, notably the Thénardiers, played by Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter.
“The Thénardiers are con artists, and every time you see them, they’ve changed their look, so they each had three or four different looks,” Westcott said. “I even turned Sacha ginger, which was kind of interesting and actually worked really well. The first time you see him, he’s ginger and then he puts on these disguises, but you can still see the ginger coming through, so he’s not very good at it.
“When we see Sacha at the end, I put him in a black 18th-century wig. The whiskers on the side were meant to be black, but we left the roots ginger, so you can still see it coming through. There’s also a sequence in Paris, where I sewed some hair to the inside of a hat, so he had this long, crinkly salt-and-pepper hair, but with his own ginger hair coming through underneath.
“The Thénardiers had a gang of three with them, so one of them was bald with huge scars down the side of his face; another has a huge scar across his eye and down the side of his face; and the third is quite a dandy, so there were a lot of different looks.”
Westcott’s attention to detail included specially-made teeth for many of her actors. “When I first joined the film, there was a huge neurosis about teeth,” she said. “The production was really worried about teeth, because if you’ve got an artist holding a note and singing live, they’re on a great big cinema screen with a camera pointing down their throat, so they were very worried about that.
“The teeth for a lot of characters had to look horrible and rotting, so I had very thin veneers that were properly colored made for the top and bottom that just clipped on. Almost everybody had a set, which were like a thin gum shield that covered their own teeth. With Hugh, for example, when he was in his convict look, his teeth were really bad, and when he became mayor, we cleaned them up a bit. We even gave Sacha Baron Cohen a gold tooth, which worked very well and kept glinting away.”
Looking back at her work on Les Misérables, Westcott is pleased about what she and her team were able to put together, although a final verdict may have to wait for the finished piece. “I haven’t seen it yet, so it’s still a bit tricky,” she said. “I don’t think it’s boring; that would be the most heinous crime: to be boring and not brave. I think it’s very brave and very real and a visual feast—well, hopefully it is. And hopefully, it’s real!”
Les Misérables opened Dec. 25. To see the trailer, click here: www.lesmiserablesfilm.com/. For more on this year’s Oscar race, see Issue 100.