Richard LaGravanese is the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of, among many other hit movies, The Fisher King (which was nominated for “Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen” at the 1992 American Academy Awards), The Bridges of Madison County, PS I Love You and, most recently, The Last Five Years, a film that he also directed and co-produced. This big-screen adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s 2001 musical tells the story of a relationship, between twentysomethings Cathy and Jamie, and as per the original stage version, employs two crisscrossing chronologies.
On the eve of the movie’s UK release (17 April), the Brooklyn-born writer talks exclusively to Craig Glenday for Musical Theatre Review about his passion for the show and his determination to get it filmed.
Congratulations on the movie. Was the project your idea from the start?
Yes, this is something that I did on my own, for me, in my spare time. I’ve been working on it for several years, so it’s definitely a passion project. I’d been listening to the score over and over and fantasising about doing a movie about it. Then, when I was auditioning for PS I Love You, Sherie Rene Scott came in – she was the original Cathy. I just became a complete musical-theatre geek around her and told her that I’d had the idea for the movie. Later, her husband, Kurt Deutsch of Sh-K-Boom Records [producers of the original soundtrack], introduced me to Jason Robert Brown, and he was all for it.
How serious were you about actually making the film?
Well, neither one of us thought it would ever get done because it was such an off-the-wall idea but over the next few years, as I adapted the screenplay, I would meet with Jason and we’d have fun. We’d jam creatively on what to do and he’d give me notes and encouragement. By some miracle, we raised the money, got a cast together and made it!
Do you have a musical theatre background?
I was a theatre major in school and a summer stock boy in musical theater, and I just love musical theatre.
The movie is a very faithful adaptation, with very few alterations...
That was the goal. For those of us who love musical theatre, we’re very wary of film adaptations. First of all, they often cast people who can’t sing, which drives me nuts. Then they cut songs or change the DNA of the musical that we love. This is why I did it on an independent level, not through the studio system or with Hollywood producers. It had to be pure and respectful of Jason’s original creation. My only change is that instead of the songs being monologues, I turned them into playable scenes in which the characters sing to each other when appropriate.
Did you take any inspiration from other movie musicals?
When I was selling the idea to raise money and gather support for it, I would often refer to [the 1964 French movie musical by Michel Legrand] The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a model of a film that was unique – an all-sung love story. I pitched to backers that The Last Five Years could be The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for this generation. That was the only film that I could come up with as a model because it’s such an experiment; doing this was an insane idea.
Was it easy to raise the cash?
According to my producers, it was easy! I’d never done an independent film before so I wasn’t sure. Anna Kendrick was my first choice because of a film she did called Camp  – I just love her work. I met with her, and she attached herself to The Last Five Years before [her 2012 movie musical] Pitch Perfect came out, so that helped, I’m sure. We had three different backers, none of whom had anything to do with the Hollywood film system.
What about the role of Jamie? How did you choose Jeremy Jordan?
We had auditions. I was surprised to see actors I’d never associated with musical theatre – actors who who knew the score well and loved the musical – filming themselves and sending me their tapes. Amongst us musical theatre lovers it’s a classic and has a beloved score in our top ten. But amongst the general public it’s not as well known, so it was amazing for me to learn how well known the score is.
Did JRB have a say in who was hired?
The agreement I had with Jason is that I would choose the actor I wanted – someone I knew who could act the role – and then he would have to tell me whether or not they could sing the score. It’s a very difficult score. I wanted people who could sing, whose voices were so strong that they wouldn’t be worried about how they sounded, so that they could just act the part. They had to sing live for 11 of the songs, and the songs have to be acted, they can’t just be sung. So after seeing several people, Jeremy – who we knew had just the most extraordinary voice – came in and I thought he did a wonderful job of acting the role. I also felt that he and Anna would have chemistry together.
Do you think the movie musical is having something of a renaissance?
I hope so. I’ve been working on this for several years, in my spare time, and it’s curious to me that the year it finally came out was a year of Into The Woods and Annie and various others [including Sunshine on Leith, Jersey Boys, Walking on Sunshine and Get On Up], so suddenly there were a lot of musicals out there. But I wanted to do something that we hadn’t seen before… something outside of the Hollywood system. Something that was very organic. We did it on very little money, on a 21-day schedule. It was an opportunity to experiment with the form.
Perhaps Hollywood might learn from this, that you can film faithful adaptations–
[Laughs] I don’t think so! I can pretty sure confirm that they won’t learn a thing!
It’s a challenging piece because of the unusual chronology. How did the cinematic process help to tell the story?
As you know, Cathy’s timeline goes backwards, from the end of the relationship to the beginning, and Jamie’s goes from the beginning to the end. In preparing the film, when I hired my costume designer, my production designer, my hair and make-up people, I said to them, “You all have to help me to tell the story in the correct time periods, because I’m not going to give the audience subtitles or anything like that.” So you’ll see that the dress she’s making in one scene is the dress she’s wearing in the next, which shows you the different time. Or her hair and make-up will tell you where we are. Or his clothes, his look. And my cinematographer’s colour palette changes: Cathy’s palette starts cold and gets warmer as they get more in love, and Jamie’s starts very warm when they’re very much in love and then gets colder.
Were you worried that audiences wouldn’t get it?
We did ask questions as we were making it. As I was editing, I’d have screenings every other week and always fill 50% of the audience with people who knew the show and 50% who didn’t. After the screening, I’d ask them, “Putting aside whether you liked the film or not, did it work? Do you want me to put subtitles as to the year they’re in?” And 90% of every audience said, “No, please don’t do that. Don’t spoon feed us.” I’d ask, “Were you confused?” and they’d say, “Well, at times we were but it didn’t matter because emotionally, I always knew where I was.” So I learned that it’s a movie that you have to follow emotionally, and if you’re fighting that – if you’re more interested in being literal – then you’re not going to connect with it that much. It’s a mosaic – themes from a marriage with music – so it was an interesting reason not to spoonfeed people with the time periods.
You’ve added some dialogue that’s not in the stage version...
Yes, but very little, and some of it I had the actors improvise, like the argument before “If I Didn’t Believe in You”. Jason, of his own accord in a production that he directed off-Broadway right before we shot it, changed some of the lyrics that he felt had to be updated from the 2002 production.
How was it directing Jason in his cameo?
He’s just one of the funniest, smartest people I’ve ever met, and he was so supportive. He couldn’t have been more wonderful for letting me do this. I hear that he has a wonderful fan base in England and I hope that they enjoy the movie.
How did you decide on which songs were recorded live?
If you have your actors running in a field or on a water taxi or riding a bicycle, of course you can’t do it live so you have to pre-record those. I picked songs to pre-record that were up-tempo and more lighthearted... more about theatricality. The songs that are more emotional and intimate are sung live – so, everything in the apartment, “I’m a Part of That”, and even when he proposes [“Next Ten Minutes”], despite being outside in Central Park, that was sung live. Ihas to be sung live because the songs are so gut-wrenching at times, you can’t lip-synch it. We had rehearsals for five days and pre-records in April, then shot in June, so the actors couldnot pre-record characters that they weren’t inside of yet. That wouldn’t have made sense. They had to be able to do it in the moment and do it take after take.
Some of the songs are shot in one take...
Yes, Jeremy sang “If I Didn’t Believe in You” live for 14 takes, without a cut. And Anna sang “Still Hurting” for a good eight hours as we moved the camera back and forth. They’re both extraordinary talents.
So, what’s next for you?
I was working on The Last Five Years while I had day jobs, so this I did for free, pretty much. Now that that’s all done, I’m looking to find something to do that I feel just as strongly about. This was a turning-point experience for me, doing something that I love this much, and I want to repeat the experience. I’ll probably have to do other work to pay the bills but I still want to do something for myself. I really would like to do something in the theatre, to write a play.
Would you like to do another movie musical?
Very much. There are a couple of things I’d like to do. I’d love to do Spring Awakening – it’s a show I love very much.