Interview: The Last Five Years Director Richard LaGravenese

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the last five years
When it comes to romance and relationships, few have more experience exploring the topic than filmmaker Richard LaGravenese, who wrote Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (for which he received an Oscar nomination), The Bridges of Madison County and The Mirror Has Two Faces. Although his first movie as a director was 1998’s Living Out Loud, LaGravenese has been working behind the camera more in recent years with the likes of P.S. I Love You and the 2013 adaptation of Beautiful Creatures.

Having such a diverse filmography made him the ideal director to take on an adaptation of The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway musical about an author (Jeremy Jordan) and a musical theater actress (Anna Kendrick) who meet, fall in love and go through a five-year relationship and marriage that eventually falls apart, all revealed to us through a series of songs about different aspects of their relationship.

What makes the movie musical unique, besides being far more grounded in the real world than these things usually are, is that it takes a distinctive approach to storytelling by telling each of their story in a different order, which would make it a much bigger challenge than a normal musical.

ComingSoon.net spoke about these things with LaGravenese last week and he also told us that there is progress being made on Barbra Streisand’s musical Gypsy, which he recently did rewrites on.

ComingSoon.net: Last time we spoke was a couple years for “Beautiful Creatures” at New York Comic Con of all places.

Richard LaGravenese: Oh, that was in October of 2012.

CS: This seems like kind of departure…

LaGravenese: This is more me.

CS: It doesn’t seem too far out of your wheelhouse.

LaGravenese: No, this is actually more my wheelhouse. THAT was out of my wheelhouse.

richardlagraveneselast5yearsCS: Did you have a chance to see the Off-Broadway musical?

LaGravenese: No, I just felt in love with the score. A friend of mine, Todd Graff, who directed a movie called Camp—we really love musical theater—and I said that I had never heard that score, but I hear people talking about, because it became sort of this cult musical after the show closed. It was just one of those album I just fell in love with. I just listened to it over and over and over and I got obsessed with it, and it became an obsession.

CS: Is it pretty well known?

LaGravenese: Among people who love musical theater, yes. It’s a classic. It’s one of the best scores. Outside of the musical theater tribe, it’s not as well known, but for those of us who love musical theater, yes. Any musical theater kid in school who is studying knows this score.

CS: Has it gotten to the point where they actually perform it at schools?

LaGravenese: Oh, yeah. It’s been done all over the world. It’s been done in Korea, it’s been done in London. It’s had hundreds and hundreds of productions.

CS: I am not that versed into musical theater to the point of when I did the junket for “Into the Woods,” I wasn’t even aware of how big that is…

LaGravenese: Oh, that’s huge! (laughs)

CS: I went to a school in Connecticut which was big on musical theater, but I graduated before that had its first production on Broadway.

LaGravenese: It came out a little later and then the revival was the ‘90s so it’s been out a few times.

CS: Just from hearing the score, did you just envision how it could be a movie?

LaGravenese: I couldn’t help it. I was just listening to the music and I wasn’t thinking of making a film out of it. I just kept imagining it. I kept imagining scenes. I didn’t realize that in the show, the singers don’t sing to each other. They sing in monologues, they sing to the audience, until they meet in the middle in their time period and he proposes to her. “The Next 10 Minutes” is the centerpiece and they sing to each other. But I imagined them singing with the other person. It just evolved. It was something I was playing with in the back of my mind and then I was auditioning for P.S. I Love You and Sherie Rene Scott came in, who was the original Kathy, and I just got excited because I just loved the CD so much, and I started telling her that I always had this idea of doing this little indie small movie of this and she introduced me to her then husband, Kurt Deutch, who runs Sh-K-Boom Records, who did the soundtrack. He did “The Book of Mormon”—he does Broadway soundtracks. He became my first partner. He introduced me to Jason (Robert Brown) and I started working on it in between paying jobs, and it took about seven years.

CS: I feel like on stage it could be a fairly simple…

LaGravenese: Very simple. It’s just two people talking to the audience and it’s also a smaller sound. It’s more of a quartet chamber piece whereas in the film, Jason expanded it by adding percussion and brass.

CS: Even in the movie you expand it by moving to different locations like Ohio, you shoot in Central Park, so how do you figure out exactly how to expand it?

LaGravenese: It all came from the score. I would just listen to the score and I would write. I transposed lyrics and I would write. My imagination just took the story out of the songs itself. Everything came to me from the lyrics. Any ideas I had came to me, because that’s what made sense within the songs, and then I created backstories to go with them.

CS: I think Anna is kind of a ringer by now, because she could go on Broadway and be one of its biggest stars.

LaGravenese: Well, she started on Broadway. She was actually nominated for a Tony when she was 12. You can also go on YouTube and see her in a Carnegie Hall concert. It’s all women and some of the biggest female stars and she must have been about 13 at the time, doing this show-stopping number. You can see it on YouTube when she was all of about 13.

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CS: I first became familiar with her when she starred in “Rocket Science,” this little indie movie she was in so it’s amazing to see her doing all these musicals.

LaGravenese: Well, Camp was the first thing I saw her in and she sings in Camp because that’s about a musical theater camp and then I saw her in Up in the Air and thought, “Oh, wow, she’s an actress.”

CS: What about pairing her with Jeremy and finding the right Jessie to star with her?

LaGravenese: We cast her before Pitch Perfect came out, so that was very lucky. She loves Jason Robert Brown’s work, and she could sing the score. Because that was the deal with Jason. I would pick the actor and then he would have to tell me if they could sing the score, and she was perfect. Jamie, we did a little bit more of a search for, and Jeremy, I’d see his work on Broadway and on television, and he just has this incredible instrument, so we brought him in and we had him do this one song, “If I Didn’t Believe In You,” and when I knew that he could act that. When he could start from being supportive to being cruel, I knew that he could act the rest of it, because these songs have to be acted, not just sung. But I didn’t want to hire actors that were worried about their voices, because they had to be liberated from that, so they could just sing it, so I needed people who were confident in their voices.

CS: One of the things that must have been challenging is the chronology of the movie in that are two different timelines, but there’s also a number of specific recurring locations.

LaGravenese: Every department helped with that. Every time I interviewed for hiring, I said to costume, set design, hair and makeup, I said, “You all have to help me with time periods,” because her make-up and her clothes and the palette changes. And also with my cinematographer Steven Meisler, so her palette starts cold and it goes warm. His palette starts warm and goes cold, so for example, when their apartment changes, their early days in the apartment it’s sort of messy and golden and reds and warm colors, and then when he’s successful, you’ll notice things become blue and colder and streamlined and more severe. There’s a lot of information there visually to tell you where you are. As I was editing, I would question every audience I brought in, which was half musical theater and half newbies, and after the screening was over, I would say, “Putting it aside whether you liked it or not, do you want me to put titles on the bottom to tell you what year it’s in.” 90% of every audience said, “Please don’t. Please don’t spoonfeed us that.” I said, “Okay, were you confused by what time period you were on?” They said, “Yes, but it didn’t matter because emotionally I always knew where I was.” And I thought, “Well, this is interesting. It’s a story that you have to follow emotionally.” So instead of it being two chronological straight lines, it more became a mosaic of a relationship, sort of like “Scenes from a Marriage” with music.

CS: That said, what’s the logistics of doing that? For instance, you have the stoop in front of their building, but that’s at the beginning and end of the movie.

LaGravenese: Yes, but I needed to give my production designer time to redesign the apartment, because we only shot that in four weeks, so we had to shoot some of that stuff early then while we were shooting other stuff, he was changing the apartment around, and then all of those scenes of the colder apartment were the last four days of the shoot.

CS: Even just knowing where to start…

LaGravenese: Well, that’s continuity. That’s something you do in every movie.

CS: Normally, if you’re shooting in a location, you’d at least try to shoot in the location chronologically from beginning to end, but here, you don’t really have that option.

LaGravenese: That’s right, that’s right, and that’s really the skill of the actors who knew emotionally what they were doing those days to fit into their chronologically.

CS: As far as having them sing on set as much as possible…

LaGravenese: Yes, 11 of the 14 songs are sung live and then three are pre-records. One is a mix of pre-record and live and that’s only because of the way I imagined shooting them was on bicycles, running through the streets, running through a field, where you can’t record sound. But we had an amazing sound crew from the series “Smash” so even the last song where she comes out of the apartment—“Goodbye Until Tomorrow”—that’s all sung live even though it’s outside on the street and it sounds amazing, because the sound crew did such a great job.

Behind the scenes during the filming of "The Last 5 Years"CS: The sound quality is amazing and you don’t feel like it was done in a studio where other musicals have that sense.

LaGravenese: You can’t with thi,s because the parts had to be acted. They’re so emotional, so the pre-records were done in April and they were just to lay down the music tracks, but then in June, when they’re actually playing the parts and finding out who the characters are, you can’t match a pre-record where there was no performance and no character, it was just lyrics. Now the characters are coming alive and they need the freedom to express it any way they want it.

CS: Did a lot change from the original soundtrack to the movie? Was there anything that didn’t fit in the movie?

LaGravenese: No, I wanted to keep it in its pure form. It’s got every song, same order, all of that stuff. The only thing that’s different is that instead of singing as monologues, they’re sung as scenes when it’s appropriate for them to sing it as scenes with two people. Any changes to lyrics or music were all Jason’s choices, lyrics that are out of date, like for instance, there used to be a reference to Borders, but there isn’t a Borders anymore, so we made it Target. Or there used to be a reference to Tom Cruise and he felt that wasn’t appropriate anymore so he changed that to “Tattooed Guy” and all of that was Jason.

CS: One of the things I thought when I saw the movie was that this would be great for a sing-along version. I can see that being of interest to fans of the musical.

LaGravenese: (laughs) People will eventually (do that) I guess, that would be nice.

CS: I guess it’s not common with smaller movies, but other musicals like “Hairspray” and “Mamma Mia” have done it quite successfully.

LaGravenese: I can believe it, because the people who love this score are obsessive about it, they really are.

CS: I got the impression of that from the time I saw it which was my first experience with the musical. Where do you go from here? Since you enjoy doing musicals, do you think you’ll do more down the road?

LaGravenese: I am. I mean, I just rewrote “Gypsy” for Streisand and they’re now pulling that production together, they’re looking for a director. I’m trying to work on a stage musical, but I’m also doing other stuff. I’m working on a series for HBO and I’ve got some other original projects in the works.

CS: They’ve been talking about doing a movie based on “Gypsy” for a long time, so have you been involved this whole time?

LaGravenese: No, just this past year, and Barbra and I rewrote it and it was great working with her, and I think she’s going to be an amazing Rose, so I hope it comes together.

CS: Has the movie changed at all since it premiered at Toronto?

LaGravenese: No, we did a remix right before Toronto so it’s been the same ever since.

The Last Five Years opens in select cities on Friday, February 13.