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Interview: Richard LaGravenese on "The Last Five Years"

by Peter Sobczynski

The acclaimed writer-director talks about his latest film, the adaptation of the off-Broadway musical favorite "The Last Five Years."

Jason Robert Brown's off-Broadway musical hit "The Last Five Years" was an entirely sung-through two-person show that chronicled the relationship of budding writer Jamie and aspiring actress Cathy utilizing two separate chronologies--Jamie's story starting at the beginning of their romance and Cathy's from the ending--with a song commemorating their wedding being the only point in which the timelines intersected and the characters directly interacted with each other. Under normal circumstances, bringing this show to the big screen would require any number of alterations in order to make it seem more cinematic--the sung-through aspect would be replaced with conventional dialogue sequences separating the major songs, elaborate production numbers for said songs and the elimination of the dual chronology gimmick for a more straightforward and easy-to-understand narrative progression.

However, in bringing "The Last Five Years" to the screen, writer-director Richard LaGravenese (whose screenplay credits include "The Fisher King," "The Ref," "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Unbroken" and whose directorial efforts include "Living Out Loud" and "Beautiful Creatures") has made the wise decision to leave well enough alone--although Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick) now interact throughout, both the unique chronology and the sung-through aspect (save for a couple of lines of conventional dialogue here and there) have been retained. The result is a low-key effort closer in spirit to something like Jean-Luc Godard's "A Woman is a Woman" than a behemoth like the ghastly "Into the Woods" and while the results may be a little uneven at times (largely due to the ineffectual performance by Jordan), there are enough good things about it (especially the legitimately knockout performance by Anna Kendrick, possibly the best thing that she has ever done in a film to date) to ensure that both the show's loyal fanbase and newcomers to the material should come away from it entertained.

In town last fall to present "The Last Five Years" (which is now playing in a limited theatrical release and as a video-on-demand title) as one of the centerpiece films of the Chicago International Film Festival, LaGravenese sat down with me to discuss "The Last FIve Years" and the challenges of bringing such unique material to the screen.

"The Last Five Years" marks your seventh film as a director since making your debut behind the camera with "Living Out Loud" in 1998. During that time, you have continued to work on screenplays for others, most recently on such projects as "Water for Elephants," "Behind the Candelabra" and "Unbroken." At this point in your career, do you see yourself more as a director who writes, a writer who directs or a full combination of the two?

It's a good question and it is something that I think about very clearly. My DNA is of a writer and I am still learning about directing. To me, directors are the people who are directors in their DNA--the Soderberghs, the Finchers, the Coens and people like that. A lot of those people, I know as friends and so when I am with them and we talk about film and stuff, I just can tell that their imagination sees the world differently. I see it more through character and words because I am still learning the language of film. I am a writer who sometimes directs but I want to spend some time just writing for a while. I sometimes question whether I am even working in the right medium. I just tried writing for television [creating "The Divide"] and that was interesting.

Your screenwriting to date has been pretty evenly divided between original works and adaptations, including "The Last Five Years." From a screenwriting perspective, do you have a preference between the two approaches?

It depends on what point in my life I am in. Right now, at this point in my life, I am very interested in doing original work because I have been doing so many adaptations.

Do you have a consistent process when it comes to writing adaptations or does it inevitably change based on the specific needs of the project, especially in the case of something like "The Last Five Years" where you are not only adapting a stage musical but a stage musical that is entirely sung-through with virtually no formal dialogue to speak of?

I wrote a couple of lines here and there but what you are seeing up there is Jason Robert Brown. The credits are being changed too--I had wanted "Adapted for the screen by" but at the time, the Writer's Guild didn't approve it. We have since gone back to them and we are going to have the credit changed because it shouldn't say "Written for the screen by." What I wrote was a screenplay of how to shoot it--what the subtext was and where the locations were and what was going on. In the original show, the characters never sing to each other, only to the audience--they only sing to each other once when he proposes to her. It is a monologue play but for my adaptation, I put the other character there in the songs, which for me added another layer of meaning because my song becomes your song and your reaction to it adds another layer of meaning to the lyrics. that was my original inspiration for the adaptation of this.

My approach to this material was to serve it completely. I am a musical theater geek and, like Comic-con geeks, we are very possessive and very critical and we don't like people fucking around with what we love. I love this musical and I did not want it to be Hollywoodized with a screenplay imposed upon it that wasn't in the original. What you are seeing is the original structure with every song in the exact order as on stage--the only change is that now it is filmed and populated and the other person is there.

Had you been a fan of the show before signing on to make the film?

No but I knew of the score. The show opened in January of 2002, soon after 9/11. It opened in a downtown theater and downtown wasn't doing very well at that point--it was a bad year for all of us in many ways. I never got to see it but I fell in love with the score after it came out. I was doing this in my spare time as a sort of reward for doing all the jobs that I was working on--this one was for me. I got to know Jason through my partner, Kurt Deutsch, who had done the original soundtrack album. I was just doing it, never thinking that it was going to get made. Then Jason and I found financiers--not Hollywood--and we did it. We were very lucky to cast Anna Kendrick before "Pitch Perfect" came out--she was a big fan of Jason Robert Brown, who, among theater geeks, is a rock star in terms of the kind of composer that he is. Like another Sondheim, he is a great composer, especially amongst the younger musical theater crowd. Anna and Jesse Eisenberg's favorite musical is "Parade," which was Jason Robert Brown's musical of the Leo Frank trial of the early 20th century--I think Jesse Eisenberg is doing a concert version of it at Lincoln Center next year. Anyway, Anna was in love with Jason Robert Brown's work and while she wasn't that familiar with this score, she was eager to do it and with Jeremy, who is a stage star, we got the money and shot it in 21 days. I had no outside interference--it was a rag-tag group, as Anna called us--and we were all there because we wanted to be because it certainly wasn't for the money. It was a really hot summer and people were working really hard and it was the greatest experience I ever had.

How hard was it to get the financing considering the fact that few movie musicals get made there days and the ones that do tend to be of the gaudy and overblown variety?

Also, some people just don't like musicals, which is fair. Some people don't like musicals--I'm not a big Western fan unless they are done really well. We all have our tastes. That is why I wanted to make this for a very small budget--it gave me the freedom to not make it to be approved of globally since it could easily make its money back just from its target audience of theater fans who know the score really well even though the general public may not know it that well. That is why I would only make it for a very small budget. How they raised the money, you would have to ask my producers but God bless them, they did because I can't ask anybody for money. I think Anna's name helped a great deal.

For the most part, I am not the hugest fan of the musical genre but the ones that I do like tend to be the ones that were conceived specifically for the screen--things like "Singin in the Rain" and "Pennies from Heaven"--rather than stage adaptations because the adaptations almost always trip up in their attempts to translate the stage energy into cinematic terms and wind up with something ghastly like "Rent."

"Cabaret" was really good.

It was but that was because Bob Fosse was one of the very few people who knew how to stage musicals both in the theater and on film.

Well, "Sweet Charity" wasn't that great but that was his first film and he was learning. He understood conceptually how "Cabaret" had to work as a film--the songs could only be the ones sung in the club and he cut all the ones that weren't because what a lot of people don't like--and what you may not like--is when people are talking and then suddenly begin to sing

One of the things that I really liked about "The Last Five Years" was that it did not feel like a stage adaptation at all. To me, it felt more like what Godard was doing when he made his low-budget musical homage "A Woman is a Woman" than anything else.

Or "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg." When I would pitch it to people, I would say that I wanted it to be our generation's "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."

Considering this is your first musical, how did you go about working on the actual staging. I think there is maybe one number in the entire film that contains anything in the way of traditional choreography while the rest of it goes for that more naturalistic feel.

I wanted it to be very organic and synchronized and simple. He is a writer and he has an imagination and the only times in which reality is broken are through his perspective--when he is high about becoming a writer is one and when he feels guilty about sleeping with other women is the other. In terms of her, I wanted there to be one number where it was like we were on stage and dancing and having a musical theater moment but it had to be second-rate and amateurish because that was where the comedy was and because that was the truth of it. Everything else, I wanted it to be organic and real--I was asking people to suspend their belief and be in a world where people were singing instead of talking and so everything else had to be as simple and grounded as possible.

Anna Kendrick is pretty much perfect in the film because, unlike the vast majority of people that you see in movie musicals these days, she can sing and dance and act all at the same time--frankly, I cannot immediately think of any known person working right now who could have come close to pulling it off as well as she does.

She was the only one and I was lucky that she was into doing it. She is close to being a filmmaker. She is not just an actress--she will come on the set and know exactly what is going on and come up with ideas that are really wonderful. there are a lot of ideas in the film that we worked out together that she suggested in rehearsals. She is just terrific.

How long does it take to put a film like this together once the shooting has finished?

Because the budget was so low, we didn't have a lot of time. I think I started editing in September and finished it in November. Then we had to find distributions and have screenings, so our mix was kind of fast. After that, I said that we needed to do one more mix and this past August, I paid out of my own pocket for another mix because I wasn't that happy since we had run out of money and run out of time. We redid it in three days and it is at a place now where we really like how it sounds.

When you were doing those screenings, were you aiming for viewers who were familiar with the material and therefore looking at it as an adaptation or those unfamiliar with it who would look at it as just a movie?

I had many screenings while I was editing and I always wanted that mix to be half and half--people who knew the musical and people who didn't. I have gotten great reactions from both, though the theater people who are too attached to it sometimes had more issues with it than those who didn't know it and who were seeing it fresh. It will be interesting to see how it plays.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=3752
originally posted: 02/20/15 11:13:13
last updated: 02/23/15 11:06:47
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