×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

BBC’s ‘Les Miserables’ Recreates the Dark World of Victor Hugo’s Novel

Director Tom Shankland didn’t want his “Les Miserables” to be anything like the stage-musical version of Victor Hugo’s sweeping historical novel, nor like the 2012 Tom Hooper feature-film musical. 

For the BBC limited series — a drama starring Olivia Colman, Lily Collins, David Oyelowo and Dominic West, which aired the first of its six episodes in the U.S. on PBS Masterpiece on April 14 — Shankland’s goal was to get back to the roots of the story, using large portions of what Hugo gave readers in his 1862 book. He worked closely with his crew to impart his vision.

Production designer Richard Bullock, whose credits include “Peaky Blinders” and “McMafia,” found a great deal of specificity in the source work. “I read the novel, and Tom and I referenced it hugely,” he says. “There is so much great description, which helped throughout the entire production. Even if the details didn’t make it directly into the script, we still put them into the world.”

In one such sequence, protagonist Jean Valjean (West) drags the character Marius (Josh O’Connor) through a network of sewers. The original intention was to shoot in tunnels underneath a citadel in Namur, Belgium, but for safety and logistical reasons, the crew ended up building replicas in the Brussels studio where production was based.

“It was quite a big build, with effects and a lot of water,” says Bullock. “Victor Hugo came to the rescue with loads of amazing detail of what the Paris sewers were like at the time — what section was made out of what stone, how some of it was dated differently, and which part Valjean was stuck in.”

Bullock’s go-to reference was Charles Marville, who took photographs in the latter half of the 19th century, documenting Paris before the construction of the city’s signature boulevards during the reign of Napoleon III. “They wiped out whole sections of medieval Paris, and thankfully, Marville documented that,” says the production designer. 

Hair and makeup designer Jacqueline Fowler, whose vast credits include “War & Peace” and “Jamestown,” also hewed closely to the traditional while adding a bit of modern flair. She and costume designer Marianne Agertoft had to deal with a cast of about 100, including just under a dozen main roles. She and her team created lots of little buns for many of the characters and Apollo knots for the elite. Lily Collins’ Fantine donned a custom-made wig when her luxurious locks got cut off. 

Agertoft, who had worked with Shankland on the BBC drama “The City and the City,” says that the director wanted the reality and the struggles of the times to come through, and to make them relevant for a modern audience. “We had six hours of storytelling time, which was much more than the film had,” she adds. “You can go into the depth of the characters a bit more. A musical can slightly remove [you] from reality — which is also the beauty and the wonder of a musical — but with a drama, you can relate slightly differently. So [my costumes] had to feel more real.” 

More Artisans

  • A Hidden Life Movie Austria

    Landscapes, History and Incentives Lure Producers to Austria

    Going back to the sweeping mountain vistas of 1965’s The Sound of Music and the pulse-racing action sequences of 1991’s Point Break, Austria has long been a favored destination for international production. The small, landlocked country boasts medieval villages, fairy tale castles, and the historic city of Vienna, which ruled over various permutations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and [...]

  • John Wick Chapter 3

    'John Wick: Chapter 3' Tones Down the Blood and Gore to Keep Look 'Totally Real'

    When Jeff Campbell, a visual effects supervisor with VFX studio Spin, initially set to work on the first “John Wick,” the 2014 action thriller from director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, he started with an industry-standard test: Establish a single, simple kill effect meant to get a sense of the look of the violence [...]

  • Spider-Man Homecoming

    Film and TV Productions Are Using Drones for Scouting Locations, Lighting and More

    Since a ruling by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2014 that cleared the use of drones in film and TV production, the acquisition of footage by these unmanned flying machines has become de rigueur for aerial shooting in cases when cranes or aircraft are impractical or unsafe.  As such, drones have been greeted enthusiastically not [...]

  • MTV The Challenge

    How 'The Challenge' Relied on Global Crew to Pull Off Plane Game

    Thirty-three seasons into MTV’s “The Challenge,” the reality competition series has spawned a band of traveling producers and engineers who fly around the world to create one-of-a-kind games. This includes placing cameras, smoke elements and a puzzle inside a plane that was suspended more than 30 feet above water. Executive producer Justin Booth joined “The [...]

  • Chaz Ebert DePaul CHA Documentary Filmmaking

    Chicago Program Gives High School Girls Lessons in Documentary Filmmaking

    At the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, three of the projects screening in the Short Film Corner — “Birthday,” “Phenomenally Me” and “Without Dying” — will be products of the DePaul/CHA Documentary Filmmaking Program, a six-week course co-sponsored by the Chicago Housing Authority in which high school girls learn filmmaking from graduate students and faculty of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content