Telling a Story through Song: A Conversation with Richard LaGravenese
A touching story of heartbreak and passion, THE LAST FIVE YEARS, based on the hit off-Broadway musical, stars Academy Award® nominee Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan in this honest and funny portrayal of the highs and lows of a five year relationship.
Told almost entirely through song from a score by Jason Robert Brown, THE LAST FIVE YEARS, which received its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, is directed and adapted for the screen by Academy Award® nominee Richard LaGravenese and will be released across the UK in Spring 2015 through Icon Film Distribution.
Filled with the lively energy of New York City’s cultural milieu, the film tells the story of the five-year relationship between rising novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Jeremy Jordan) and struggling actress Cathy Hyatt (Anna Kendrick). As Jamie’s new novel vaults him to the top of the literary scene, Cathy is still doing summer stock in Ohio, and their diverging levels of success pose pressing and dire challenges to their love. The film tells Cathy’s side of the story in reverse order, starting from the end of their marriage, while Jamie’s version of events begins when the couple first meets.
The Fan Carpet’s Melanie Crossey in association with ActingHour had the please of talking to Richard LaGravenese ahead of the release of The Last Five Years, he tells Mel about working on a Musical, working with the phenomenally talented Anna Kendrick and being a fan of Musical Theatre…
You’ve written and directed some absolutely amazing films, “The Fisher King”, “Freedom Writers” and “Behind The Candelabra” to name a few but, to my knowledge, you’ve never worked on a full musical before. What was it that made you want to work on a musical now and this one in particular?
Well, I think I’ve always had the urge. Even in my first film, “Living Out Loud” I had a musical number inside of it, so I’ve always loved that. I love musical theatre. I was a theatre major at school, I did Summer Stock as a teenager, so I love musical theatre. This score in particular, among musical theatre lovers, is very well known and is a classic. It’s one of the top ten scores for us but it’s not as well known to the general public. So this became sort of a passion project for me to do, independently.
Musicals are notoriously difficult to capture on screen. Audiences either love them or hate them. How did you approach adapting this to film whilst keeping the magic of the stage show?
Well, that was the goal. My respect for, and intention to keep “The Last Five Years” in its original form as much as possible. Meaning, don’t cut any songs, keep the structure exactly the same, the two time periods and cast actors to sing the score brilliantly. The only difference I made was that in the stage version, the songs are sung as monologues. They are sung to the audience, sort of fourth wall, not to each other, except for one song where the time periods overlap. In the film, the difference I made is that I had them sing to each other when appropriate so the songs, instead of becoming monologues, they became playable scenes. That was really the only difference I made. Other than that, I kept it very close to the original.
You mentioned the cast. I’m personally a massive fan of Anna Kendrick. She’s done some fantastic work both on screen and on stage. Had you seen much of her work before? Was there something in particular that made her stand out and made you want to work with her?
Yes! A friend of mine (Todd Graff) wrote and directed an independent film called “Camp”, which was about a musical theatre camp here in upstate New York. It’s a very funny, very wonderful little movie. Anna was a supporting player in it and she kind of stole the movie! Ever since then, I just thought she was a great talent and then of course her performance in “Up In The Air”. Those things combined, by the time I was ready and looking for cast, she was my first choice and we were lucky enough to have her interested and agreeing to do the film several months before “Pitch Perfect” came out. When “Pitch Perfect” came out, she became even more popular and that really helped us.
And Jeremy Jordan of course, a little bit less well known to film audiences but he does also do a fantastic job…
He’s a talent.
What was it that made him stand out to you? Did you look at a lot of other actors for the role or did you go straight to him?
Yes, for him we did. We got a lot of other actors who sent their auditions in on tape and it showed me how beloved and well known the score was among people who I was very surprised to hear do the score. My deal with Jason Robert Brown was that I would pick the actor because these two parts need to be acted as well as sung, they’re so gut wrenching. So I would pick the actor and then the actors would have to go to Jason and sing the score. So Jason needed to tell me whether or not they could sing it because it’s a very difficult score.
So you focused on the acting and he focused on the singing.
Yes because I wanted to make sure that the actors were so confident in their singing that they could act it. We can’t have actors giving great performances if they’re worried about how they sound. So, because they were going to be singing live for the majority of the score, that was very important. Jeremy was the opposite. Jeremy has one of the most extraordinary voices and it’s effortless. He’s a tremendous talent. So, when I worked with him in auditions it was really just about how he was connecting with the character and he impressed me very very much. I think he did a wonderful job.
Absolutely. You’ve mentioned there, obviously you need actors who are very good, emotionally, because the film does put a huge amount of pressure on those two. There’s not really a focus on any other characters, just passing glances at people who come in and out of their lives. Was that something that you had to give the actors a lot of support for? Were they worried about that at all and how did you support them in that?
Everyone did, because we were such a small knit group, because we were independent and we had no interference from studios or executives, we were just this small team working together on a 21 day shoot. So even the dolly grips, even the camera men would have the headphones so they could be listening to the score and feel where the camera was moving once we designed their shot and Anna told me that, for instance, during her song “Still Hurting” she could feel the support from the camera men who understood the emotion of the song because of how the camera was moving. So she felt supported by everyone. It was really a wonderful experience.
Sounds like the perfect set! I’ve become so engrossed in you now, I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to ask you next!
[Much laughing from Richard]
Ah yes, you have mentioned before that you’re a musical theatre fan, this score itself is amazing. Is there a favourite song that you have within the score and has it changed from listening to the original, to working on it with Anna and Jeremy?
Oh yeah, it changes. From the very beginning I loved “Shiksa Goddess” and “Nobody Needs To Know” and then “If I didn’t Believe In You” became one of my absolute favourites. There isn’t one in the bunch that I don’t love, and now with the movie, I kind of love them all equally.
They’re your babies now!
Yeah they are. They’re my babies.
So have you caught the bug a bit now? Now that you’ve done one musical is it something that you want to look more at in the future?
I’ve always had the bug, yeah, but now I finally have the taste of the drug [chuckles], so now yes, I would like to do more.
Excellent! I will keep my eye out for more musicals from you! Now, you are a massive hero to many people, I know a lot of scriptwriters at least, that really look up to you. Do you have any heroes yourself, anyone you look up to?
Oh constantly, I mean there are people working today, people from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, you know, great screenwriters all the way from Jo Mankiewicz to Billy Wilder to Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. There are people all the time who impress me and right now on television, there’s Julian Fellowes, I just watched two seasons of “Downton Abbey”, Matt Weiner of “Mad Men” and Vince Gilligan of “Breaking Bad”. There are people who are always inspiring me and continue to. So, I’m among the fans.
One last question; if you could direct any story or movie that you wanted, do you have an ideal of something you’d particularly want to work on?
Oooh. The only thing that comes to mind, because I’ve been on these interviews all day and they’ve been asking me about musicals, so there’s a musical called “Spring Awakening” [excited squeal from Melanie]. Other than that, there’s not really one. That’s kind of what I was searching for now, trying to figure out what I’d like to do and I believe it is an original. I’d like to do an original rather than an adaptation.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS IS OUT FRIDAY APRIL 17