InDepth InterView: Richard LaGravenese On Writing/Directing THE LAST FIVE YEARS Film, Plus BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, Two New TV Series & More
Today we are talking to a multi-talented creative force who has had a hand in crafting a wide range of memorable and vivid characters over the course of his career as both a screenwriter and a director - the earnest and energetic Richard LaGravenese. Detailing the finer points of his forthcoming stage-to-screen iteration of Jason Robert Brown's beloved cult musical THE LAST FIVE YEARS starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, LaGravenese traces the development of the project from his earliest inspiration through to the final finished film, now awaiting distribution. Additionally, LaGravenese opens up about the casting process and reformatting of the piece for the cinematic medium, as well as previews some of the standout moments we can anticipate when the film is finally released - musical, dramatic, stylistic and otherwise. Besides all about THE LAST FIVE YEARS, LaGravenese also discusses his screenplay for the recent rapturously-received HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra and reacts to its international success, as well as shares thoughts on the cast and the script as it was realized on film by director Steven Soderbergh. Plus, LaGravenese offers us the exclusive 411 on his upcoming currently untitled ABC TV series, directed by Taylor Hackford, and sheds some light on his contributions to Angelina Jole's new film UNBROKEN, as well as previews his forthcoming WE TV project coming up later this year, THE DIVIDE. All of that, a look back at P.S. I LOVE YOU and more in this expansive conversation with a noted modern entertainment master.
More information on THE LAST FIVE YEARS is available at the official site here.
If I Didn't Believe In You
PC: How ironic that you direct Jason Robert Brown's THE LAST FIVE YEARS film just as his musical adaptation of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY opens on Broadway, given you adapted that book to the screen way back when!
RL: I know! I know.
PC: Have you two discussed that?
RL: It was so funny. I was actually just sitting with him the night before the opening night - his opening night; they wanted to have a special pre-opening night opening night that wasn't about the reviews and everything and it would be just his friends and stuff. It was really, really lovely. Anyway, it's just a coincidence that that happened, obviously! The two things merged together at those two times and that's why we became involved with it when we did. And, now, here we are.
PC: How are you approaching releasing a movie musical in perhaps the most musical-heavy year in decades, if not ever? INTO THE WOODS, ANNIE and JERSEY BOYS all open in 2014, to name a few.
RL: I didn't know that! Well, I guess I sort of did - I knew about INTO THE WOODS and ANNIE and JERSEY BOYS, but I didn't know there are even more! We're not like those, though - we're this tiny little jewel; a really small budget, 21-day shoot. It's very different.
PC: Needless to say, Anna Kendrick is in INTO THE WOODS, as well.
RL: Of course. Anna Kendrick is in our movie and in INTO THE WOODS, and, obviously, the experience was very different doing both. But, that kind of stuff makes me so nervous, so I can't even think about it! All I can say is that this was something that I fell in love with several years ago.
PC: Did you see the original Off-Broadway production?
RL: No, I did not. I never saw the show - I only knew the score.
PC: How did you first experience THE LAST FIVE YEARS, then?
RL: Todd Graff is one of my best friends and we always go to musicals together and one day he told me, "You have to listen to this." So, I sat in my office and I played that CD - and then I played it over and over and over! You see, I never saw the stage version, as I said, so I just kept coming up with images in my head of how songs were being done - not really realizing that it was a song cycle and that the characters were singing out to the audience and not to each other.
PC: An important delineating factor, for sure.
RL: Right. So, because of that, I kept imagining it differently. Then, when I was shooting P.S. I LOVE YOU, Sherie Rene [Scott] came in to audition and the first thing I said was, "Oh, my God! LAST FIVE YEARS!" [Laughs.]
PC: Was she surprised?
RL: She was! I remember I got really giggly and told her how I was just the biggest fan of it and she was really nice about it. I said to her, "You know, I've always had this idea of doing this little, tiny, very, very, very low budget jewel of a movie," and I told her how I really wanted to keep the form; I didn't want to betray the form of the show at all. I wanted to do it exactly as it was done - I didn't want to write a screenplay and then place the songs in a dialogue-driven story or anything and change a lot of things. Do you know what I mean?
PC: You wanted to replicate the score and show as it stands.
RL: Exactly. So, I knew then that the only way I could do that is if I did the movie with a very, very, very small budget. Then, she put me together with her husband, Kurt [Deutsch], who runs Sh-K-Boom Records, and he became my partner. So, through him, I got to meet Jason. So, I pitched it to Jason and Jason said yes!
PC: What specifically did he say when you suggested the idea to him?
RL: Well, he probably thought it was never going to happen! He said, you know, "OK. Sure!" So, then, we had meetings and I wrote the script and we worked together on it a little bit, but I know he probably thought it was never going to happen - and, quite frankly, I didn't either!
PC: Why not?
RL: Well, I just never thought we would be able to raise the money. But, then, finally, my friend and producer, Janet Brenner, introduced me to Lauren Versel, who actually is an independent film producer and knows how to get one together. You see, I've only ever worked in the studio system, but she knows how this works and how to build it from the inside. So, then, she got the budget and outside investors and then Janet got more outside investors and suddenly we had enough money to make it. I was like, "Oh, my God! We're actually making it!"
PC: A dream made real.
RL: It was! It was. So, before that was all solidified, I had already met with Anna, who was just perfect - perfect.
PC: You knew right away she was Cathy?
RL: Yes. And, I adore her. We hit it off right away, too, because we both really love '30s and '40s movies, so we were quoting THE WOMEN and stuff like that the entire time. Of course, she loves Jason Robert Brown's PARADE, and, then, got to hear the score for this and was just blown away. After that, we were then in production and we started looking for our Jamie. Jeremy just knocked me out - that kid knocked me out! I mean, just his voice - he killed me! Also, he has a lot inside him that he wants to express and can express beyond even singing.
PC: Did you audition anyone else for that part?
RL: I did. OK, since you asked I'll tell you; this was the deal: I said that I need actors because this is all going to be sung and they have to sing almost everything they say. And, let me tell you, the biggest compliment that we have gotten so far, I think, was from Richard Maltby - he said to me, "I've never seen a musical done where the songs are actual playable scenes - you actually forget that they are singing. It feels real, like a dramatic scene." And, I knew from the start that I needed actors who could handle that. So, of course I knew Anna could. You see, how Jason and I worked it out was that I would audition them for acting and then I would send them to him to see whether or not they could sing the score. Honestly, I love the music and I can tell what I feel about it, but I don't know if actors have the right range and all of that stuff.
PC: It's a very special skill to qualify musical requirements necessitated being met and all of that, for sure.
RL: It is. So, I would audition them and then I would send them to Jason. So, Anna and I hit it off and then I sent her to Jason and Georgia [Stitt], his wife, and they loved her and Anna fell in love with Georgia. So, then, I knew, "OK. We've got Anna." Then, the guys - the guys were harder.
PC: How so?
RL: Finding the right guy proved to be difficult. We auditioned several guys and there were some that came out of the woodwork that you would never, ever guess. Rob Kazinsky, from PACIFIC RIM and who is on True Blood now, is Jewish himself and when he was a young boy he fell in love with THE LAST FIVE YEARS. He actually put himself on tape at some hotel he was staying in and sent it to me.
PC: How was his audition?
RL: Oh, he was wonderful! But, then, I sent him to Jason and Jason said he was terrific but he didn't quite have the range to handle all of the songs. So, after that, we looked at other people, but we had to pass on a few because of those same reasons.
PC: At what point did Jeremy come in?
RL: Jeremy came in several times, actually...
PC: What did he sing?
RL: I kept having him sing "If I Didn't Believe In You", because, for me, that was the key thing - to do that song. If you can go from being supportive to revealing the rage underneath in one song like he does there, then you have Jamie - you have the two sides. Then, there is the humor and everything else that he has, too. So, when he says those lines, "No one can give you courage / No one can thicken your skin / I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy / I will not lose because you can't win," when I knew he could do that, then I knew he could do the part. I think that what I am proud of most is that I feel like this is the first movie I really directed.
PC: Why, specifically?
RL: Well, because I knew the material so well and I love it so much. And, I designed very specific camera moves with my cinematographer, so there was a lot of work put into that - some shots have a lot of moving around, while some are more static.
PC: Can you give us any examples?
RL: "If I Didn't Believe In You", for example, is all done in one take. So, you know, you're seeing Anna's reaction to what he's saying - in that moment when he says that line we were just talking about, he is behind her and she is facing camera and it just kills her; and, you get to see her emotions. So, things like that add a whole other layer to the show, emotionally. It's not just his song, it's how it affects her - and that happens in many moments.
PC: What was the toughest song to film or provide with a filmatic equivalent?
PC: Not surprising! Did you consider actually filming the story being told within the song?
RL: We considered everything and it was really tough to figure out, but it became everybody's favorite song, though! I remember talking to Jason, saying, you know, "What is this about?!" And, then, finally, I figured out that it is not about the story he is telling so much as it is about the effort he is making to inspire Cathy to get out of her doldrums - it's about his effort; he's showing her how much he loves her. And, it's one of the most important songs in the show, too, because otherwise Jamie can just come across as a sh*t - a self-involved sh*t.
PC: How did you manage that?
RL: Do you know the movie A STAR IS BORN? In A STAR IS BORN, James Mason is staying at home one night and Judy Garland knows he is feeling down, so she sings this song running all around the apartment and playing all the different parts and performing for him, trying to make him laugh and cheer him up. That's how I wanted to do "Schmuel". So, I just wrote a couple of lines to lead into it about how she is feeling down, coming home from her bar job in this pissed off mood, and he's been preparing this special presentation for her. She doesn't even want to go audition because she doesn't think she is going to get it, and, so, Jamie wants to inspire her - and then he gets up and does "Schmuel". He runs all over the apartment and he has lights and all of this stuff wrapped around him and he puts so much effort into trying to make her understand how much he loves her - it becomes so moving and so wonderful and that just became one of the best moments in the whole thing. But, this is why I love Anna and Jeremy: Jeremy sang that song live for about 12 hours in 95-degree heat in this Harlem brownstone.
PC: Difficult conditions, no doubt!
RL: And, then, the same for Anna when she sang "Still Hurting" - all day, singing live, in that tiny apartment.
PC: True dedication!
RL: It really was - and that's part of what I really love about these two. I am so proud of them. They are incredible. And, at a recent screening, Sherie slipped out when she saw that they were both there and she said, "Oh, my God! What you have done with this is something really kind of extraordinary! Let the kids see it alone, though - they are so vulnerable; they are singing, not just acting. They are going to want to see it alone first." And, she was right!
PC: Sherie is in the film herself, correct?
RL: Yes. She has a cameo - that's correct. But, anyway, at the screening they were at, Anna and Jeremy got to see how the audience reacted, too - we've had many screenings while I was editing it, but now that it's done, it was very important to me to have half the audience be musical theatre people and half the audience be people who knew nothing about the show and were not theatre people. At the last screening, we got a standing OVATION at the end and you could tell how emotionally connected they all were with the material - and that meant a lot to me to have Anna and Jeremy experience that.
PC: Do you anticipate that some audiences will find THE LAST FIVE YEARS somewhat tricky to follow at all given the non-linear structure of it?
RL: After every screening, while I was editing, I would ask about that. There's always the thing about the timeline - you know, she's going backwards and he's going forward. Jason and I decided very early on that we didn't want to have titles onscreen - no years or song titles or anything. So, my producers and other people said, "Oh, well, it's sort of confusing and people aren't going to understand it," and, I said, "Well, I don't want to pander to the audience. I don't want to spoon-feed people." So, what I would do is, after every screening, I would say to people, "Before you even say if you like the movie or not, let me just ask you this: do you think there needs to be titles?" And, 95% of audiences, whether they were people who knew the show or had never heard of it before the screening, said, "Please don't put titles up there!" And, I said, "Were you confused at all about where you were in the timeline at any point?" and, they said, "Yes, but it didn't matter because I always knew where I was emotionally." So, after I heard that from them, I thought, "Yes! That's what this is - it's basically SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, with music."
PC: What a brilliant way to put it! And all-too apt, as well, for those who've seen the Bergman film.
RL: You always know where you emotionally are - you might not know what year you are in, but it doesn't matter. So, I kept the structure of the show exactly the way that it is. And, for me, it's a very emotional movie experience and it's been a very emotional screening experience for me every time - more than with anything else that I've ever had.
PC: Juxtaposing the more intimate moments, Jeremy told me when he did this column that "Moving Too Fast" is more of a production number.
RL: That's right. Exactly. Of course, some numbers deserve that kind of treatment - "Moving Too Fast", "A Summer In Ohio", "Climbing Uphill". With "Moving Too Fast" and "A Summer In Ohio" I take you all over the city - those songs have that kind of energy. "Summer In Ohio" is hilarious - so hilarious. We got an OVATION in The Middle of "Summer In Ohio" at a recent screening because they thought it was just so hilarious - they loved it. So, it's a mixture - sometimes it's small and intimate and sometimes it goes really big, but it was always dictated by the music. It was always all about the score for me - that was the Bible. Always.
PC: Have you gotten to see a production of the show onstage yet? Perhaps the recent Off-Broadway revival?
RL: Yes, I saw the Off-Broadway revival. But, for me, as opposed to singing out to the audience, when they sing to each other like they do in the movie, it adds another layer about relationships. You know, everybody comes out of the movie saying, "I don't know whose side I am on."
PC: Whose side are you on?
RL: You know, sometimes I watch it and I agree with him and sometimes I watch it and I agree with her, but, at the end of the day, what I think it's really about is love. There is no right or wrong. This is a story about two people who loved each other, but it just didn't work out. Sometimes that's all you can say about something - that's all it is. There are no real reasons - that's just the way that it is. That ambiguity is the truth.
PC: Did you find it tricky to balance the more unlikable aspects of the characters with the more appreciable ones?
RL: Well, at times, of course - yes. But, then again, we all are! You know, when Jeremy sings "Nobody Needs To Know" - which, let me tell you, he f*cking knocks out of the park - yes, she is broken-hearted, but the way that it plays and that we shot it, you also feel his emotional conflict. There's a pain that he has in that song - he is really torn. So, everyone's reactions so far in seeing the movie have all kind of been based on their own personal experiences - if they have just broken up with someone, they say one thing; if they are madly in love with someone right then, they say something else. So, I think that you can certainly understand where both of them are coming from because of their positions and how the story is told - neither one is all right and neither one is all wrong. It's just the way that it is.
PC: Did you and Jason discuss adding any new material or perhaps a whole new song at any stage in development?
RL: Yes. We did - we did. But, you know, Jason really didn't want to put any new songs in. I have to say though, at one point, I was having a really tough time with "Schmuel" and I asked him if we could replace it and he said, "No. It is what it is and this is what the score is." And, I said, "No, you're right. I'll figure it out." And, then, the producers were like, "Let's have a song at the end and we'll have some pop star sing it," and I said, "No. We've just spent this entire emotional experience with these two people and I do not want to hear some other song with some third voice that has nothing to do with the other material in there just to beg for an Oscar nomination. That's not what this is. That insults the integrity of the piece." So, we didn't do that.
PC: Is it set in the present day or back around 1999?
RL: It's set now. So, if you do the math, it covers about 2009 to 2014.
PC: Did you want to keep it as contemporary as possible?
RL: Yes. There are clues throughout - when Cathy goes to Ohio, you see signs for the 2010 season, the 2012 season and stuff like that. There are clues in the songs, too - like, in "See, I'm Smiling," Cathy says, "We can make this love as good as it was five years ago," and, in "If I Didn't Believe In You", Jamie says, "I believed in you four years ago." There are clues about the timeline if you pay attention. To me, it is very clear. It's about emotions. It's an emotional journey and I think it's pretty easy to follow, but I understand if people don't get it - it's a unique piece. It's very special and it's very unique and I just love it so much.
PC: Since it was just recently released in movie theaters, I'm curious if you saw Sondheim's backwards musical MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG?
RL: Oh, no, I didn't! I need to see that! I didn't even know they did it in movie theaters like that. I swear, I was just playing that over the weekend - [Sings.] "It started out like a song...." I love that score! I really love that song, too.
PC: So, looking ahead, can you give me any hints about your upcoming drama series, directed by Taylor Hackford?
RL: We're casting now and we are going to be shooting in New York. All of the casting people told me that this season has been really difficult - just insane - and every show is having a hard time finding the right actors. You know, the territory has changed and a lot of really good actors want to do cable series, but they don't necessarily want to do network TV and make the commitment of 22 episodes or whatever. They find that the liberties and the creative freedoms that you get in cable is more interesting to them than the censorship of a network show. So, even though we are trying to push the envelope here with this show, we're having a difficult time in casting. So, we'll see in a couple of weeks! [Note: Katie Holmes was cast as the lead on the ABC series since this interview took place.]
PC: You have another TV series you created coming this year, as well, correct - THE DIVIDE?
RL: Yes. THE DIVIDE I am filming up in Toronto right now with pretty much all New York theatre actors - Marin Ireland, Damon Gupton, Jane Alexander; Marin was just in THE BIG KNIFE on Broadway and Damon was in CLYBOURNE PARK. We have Joe Anderson, too, from ACROSS The Universe - he's one of our leads. Nia Long is on it, too - and Paul Schneider. Also, our first season is going to be 8 episodes.
PC: What can you tell us about the show?
RL: Well, AMC networks owns AMC, IFC, Sundance and WE TV. In the same way that AMC re-branded AMC, our show is going to be the first scripted show to re-brand the WE network.
PC: How exciting for you.
RL: Yeah - it's really exciting. As you know, like FX before THE SHIELD, a scripted show came on and then basically ran the network, and, so, that's what we are trying to do with THE DIVIDE and WE. It's all under the umbrella of AMC networks.
PC: You also contributed a draft of the screenplay for Angelina Jolie's new film UNBROKEN, did you not?
RL: Yes. I was the first writer on that. I adapted it first, for Francis Lawrence, who was the director at that time, but then Francis went off to do THE HUNGER GAMES, and I did two or three drafts for him. Then, I was busy doing BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, so I wasn't available, and Angelina came on and brought the Coen Brothers on with her. I am excited to see it, but I haven't been connected to it in a while now.
PC: Lastly, I wanted to compliment you on BEHIND THE CANDELABRA. Bravo!
RL: Oh, thank you! Thank you! Thank you! [Laughs,] We are all so pleased with how it came out and it being received like this.
PC: Did you actually get to meet Marvin Hamlisch working on it at any point?
RL: No, I didn't! I didn't, unfortunately.
PC: Were you surprised by the reaction from the critics and public? It's a huge hit.
RL: Yes, I was! And, I was very proud. It was the first time I ever did a movie where I would have parties and have people come over to see it! [Laughs.]
PC: Is it true there is a much longer cut - an hour more?
RL: No - not really. I mean, Steven finished shooting on a Friday and we saw the first cut the following Thursday. There might have been a half hour of more material in that cut - maybe 40 minutes.
PC: Did most of the script make it in the final cut, then?
RL: Yes. There's a little monologue that got cut for when they go to Germany on tour, but, honestly, when I think about the movie, pretty much everything is in there. I mean, I remember writing the scene where they are f*cking on poppers and thinking, "They are never going to shoot this!" And, that's in there! When I first saw it and I saw that that scene was in it, I said to myself, "OK. I can retire now!" [Big Laugh.]
PC: Talk about two unusual movies about two very unique marriages between THE LAST FIVE YEARS and BEHIND THE CANDELABRA!
RL: Well, you know what, Pat? Every marriage is weird! That's what it is - we just all need to start embracing the fact that there is no normal.
PC: Not a new normal - there is no normal.
RL: "Normal" is just a disguise word.
PC: Thank you so much for this today, Richard! You have such a fascinating career and how exciting to have so many cool projects coming out.
RL: Thank you so much, Pat! This was a lot of fun. I appreciate it so much. Bye.
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From This Author Pat Cerasaro