Richard LaGravenese returns to the director's chair this week with musical The Last Five Years, which is based on the show by Jason Robert Brown - it marks he first time that the filmmaker has tackled a musical project during his career.
We caught up with him to chat about the film, what inspired him to turn this hit and well loved musical into a movie, and bringing together a terrific cast who show off their great singing ability as well as their acting talent.
- The Last Five Years is set to hit the big screen here in the UK next week, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
The Last Five Years is based in and off-Broadway musical by Jason Robert Brown that appeared in about 2002. Amongst musical theatre go-ers and lovers, it is a classic musical score; the public, but those inside the musical theatre circle it is a very well known and much beloved score do not as well know it. It tells the story of a young man and a young woman who fall in love, get married, and split up in the space of five years.
It is all done through song - in the musical it is done through song monologues and not operetta or anything like Les Miserables. There are two time lines; all of the girl songs start at the end of the relationship and go backwards in time to the beginning, while all of the men's songs start at the beginning of the relationship and go to the end. In the cutting back and forth, you get a rather fascinating exploration into male/female relationships.
- You are in the director's chair and have penned the screenplay, so where did this project start for you? What was it about the musical that you thought would make a great movie?
I am a musical theatre lover and I just love the score. I had never seen the show; I had actually fell in love with the score first. As I was listening to it over and over, I would imagine it being played out. It is a very honest story and a very honest score - the lyrics are so insightful and so bare the human feelings of love, infidelity, love gone wrong, and when love is right. Jason Robert Brown writes with such precision, honesty, and insight that really got me emotionally as a piece. In terms of writing the screenplay, it really is all Jason; all I did was adapt if for film.
I had a vision about how to portray these songs as playable scenes - on stage they are done as singular monologues and the two characters never sing to each other expect on the one occasion when the two timelines converge. Other than that, they sing out to the audience. What I imagined, is that they are scenes between the characters, which added another dimension to the story. Not only do you then understand the person that is singing, but you also understand how it is affecting the person who is being sung to. It added more depth to the story for me.
- As you said Jason Robert Brown's lyrics are the focal point of the screenplay - I imagine that you have never written a script in this way before?
No, I haven't and it was a great challenge. I am a writer and my DNA is that of a writer; even though I have directed before, I feel as though I have directed a film as a writer and not as a director. Number one, because it wasn't my material and number two, I had such confidence in this material I had this freedom to just visualise it.
The second reason of wanting to do this project - after loving the material - was the challenge of pushing myself to just visualise how the camera is telling the story, how the staging is telling the story, how the costume design and the production design is telling the story; for me it felt like this is the first film that I have directed.
- What elements of this story were you really keen to explore with this movie? And where there any elements of the play that you thought could be expanded on further in the film?
I wanted to explore an even-handed love story where everyone has their reasons and you see the beauty and passion of a love affair and how it deteriorates - not because there no love there but because relationships are very hard and marriages are very hard (laughs). Any of us who have been there know that.
I wanted to tell a story where you do see both sides of the story and hopefully, you can understand both; no one is absolutely right and no one is absolutely wrong, it is just the way that love affairs often go because we are different people. Love, to me, isn't always this romantic notion of forever; sometimes we fall in love with people simply to learn more about ourselves and we have to suffer the pain of loss to grow.
- This is the first time that you have tackled a musical as a filmmaker, so what different challenges does this genre of film pose?
I learnt a great deal because I wanted them to sing live as often as possible because these songs have to be acted. As a result, I had to cast people with strong voices and to make sure that they weren't concerned about their voices. They were able to act and do take after take and be able to give new interpretations. You couldn't lip-sync these songs and you can't pre-record these songs without being in the character.
Figuring that out was one challenge. It actually turned out rather well as we had a wonderful sound crew and the actors were listening to tiny ear-wigs to pre-recorded music and were able to sing live on set for eleven of the fourteen songs. That was something that I really was worried about at the beginning but it did turn out to be wonderful. In rehearsal with the actors, I thought that I would get one or two live takes and then we will do records, but their voices were so great that Jeremy and Anna were able to sing the same song for fourteen takes for twelve hours at a time; their voices were very strong.
Doing it in twenty-one days, on a tiny budget, and finding the right locations within out budget was tough. The hardest thing to do was to find the right building for their apartment, as I had to have a bay window because of how I felt the camera had to move. I managed to find an apartment in Harlem that worked really well. We had a lot of luck casting as Anna Kendrick signed on before Pitch Perfect came out. Once that movie came out, that helped us raise a lot of money. Jeremy Jordan comes from the stage primarily - he has done a little bit of film - but he is an extraordinary talent and has an extraordinary voice. We were very lucky in finding the cast.
- I was going to ask you about the cast. Anna Kendrick is no stranger to this genre of film while Jeremy Jordan is a Tony Award nominated actor. Can you talk about getting them on board and what you saw in them that was perfect to play Cathy and Jamie?
I have seen everything that Anna has done. The first time that she came to my notice was when a friend of mine directed a musical movie called Camp, which was an independent film and about a musical theatre camp. Anna took on a supporting role in that film but really did steal the movie for me. I wanted to cast her based on that as well as other performances in the likes of Up In The Air. When we met, we just clicked and she is a huge fan of Jason Robert Brown and a musical that he did called Parade - that is her favourite musical. She really does love his work and when she read the script and heard the score, she understood this part.
Cathy is a woman who is conflicted because he loves this man and yet she is not someone who wants to lose her own identity, her own future, and her own creativity. The difficulty she has is 'what do you do when you fall in love with a man whose career is rising faster than yours and you are slowly becoming invisible?' She seems to really understand what that felt like. I didn't audition anyone else - Anna was the one that I wanted and was lucky enough to get her.
When casting Jamie, I had many actors who sent me tapes and that showed me how much this score was loved by various people. So many actors put themselves on tape in apartments and in hotel rooms and my deal with Jason was that I got to pick the actor; I had to find someone who could act the role and he had to tell me if they could sing the role. So after I would approve someone, I would send them to Jason and they would have to sing for him. Jeremy was a bit the other way around as we knew he could sing it and I just had to work with him to see if he would act the role. I was very pleased with him.
- New York looks fantastic in the film, just how big a role do you feel the city plays in the movie?
Thank you. Very big as it is a New York story. New York is my home and I have a great love and pride in the city. It was very important that this was a New York story. I tried to show angles of New York that, as a New Yorker, I had never seen before. During that process, we discovered places that I had never been to before.
We shot on Staten Island and there was a boy's camp on this beautiful lake that I didn't know existed, which was just perfect for our purposes. We tried to show as many parts of New York as possible.
- The movie has a great non-linear structure, so how did you find the editing process?
It was easy because my goal was to keep it exactly as Jason had written it. For those of us who love musical theatre, we are very suspicious when we hear that it is being made into a movie because they change things, they cast people who can't sing, they cut songs, and they change the DNA of the musical. I did not want to do that. This was an experiment of sorts and I didn't know if it would work - I am sure to some critics it doesn't. I wanted to keep it in its original form structurally - the only major change I made was that the character sang to each other instead of as monologues.
The time thing was easy because we did it per song and per location. Quite often, we would do one song in a day and just cover that entire song - unless that song covered more than one location. When I hired by production team I had to tell them - the costume design, the make-up and hair and the production design - 'you are telling the story with me and you are telling the time line with me as well.'
We had to come up with colour pallets and costumes that… if you see the movie more than once you will see that it all connects the dots and you can tell what period you are in if you look at things visually; you may not get that the first time out, but you can if you see the movie more than once.
- How have you been finding the response to the film so far?
Very well. It hits the heart of the core audience that I wanted it to hit and it has expanded beyond that. I didn't expect it to be for everyone as it is a very unique and particular kind of movie. I am at a point where I just wanted to make something that I hadn't see before, that I found beautiful, that I knew a certain audience would find beautiful and not worry about appealing to a mass audience. I am tired of everyone racing to get $100 million at the box office; I just wanted to make something that was special.
- Finally, what's next for you?
Right now, I am just figuring that out. I am trying to figure out what I want to do next. Possibly a theatre piece and I have a television project with HBO that I am working on. However, I am taking things slowly as I want to figure out what it is that I really want to write.
The Last Five Years is released 17th April.