In Richard LeGravenese’s world, everybody is singing, non-stop, all the time. With The Last Five Years, the director has made his world into reality; Flickreel had a chat with him about his love for musical theatre, how he took his new movie from the stage to the screen, and how Behind the Candelabra is secretly a musical.
I feel that The Last Five Years is a little bit different to most musicals, where the characters not only sing the songs, but they sing their dialogue as well. So instead of just song, bit of talking, another song, another bit of talking, etc., they’re singing every bit of dialogue. Did that prove a challenge in making sure the audience knew what was going on?
Yes. The songs are monologues, actually, which was different from, let’s say, Les Mis, where they’re singing dialogue as well – but they’re not really singing dialogue in this, they’re singing monologues for the individual songs that anyone can sing, and it’s all told with two different time periods – where the girl’s story is going from the end of the relationship to the beginning, and the boy’s is going from the beginning of the relationship to the end. And on stage, it’s performed as monologue – but they do that singing to each other in the film. There’s a small sort of chamber music orchestra, with very few instruments, two [singers] on stage, not much of a set, and they sing out to the audience – except for one song, where their time periods are [meeting) together. The only difference that I made to the original is that I saw the songs not as monologues, but as playable scenes – so I had the characters singing to each other, because it added this other layer to the songs. Jason Robert Brown’s score is such an incredible piece of work. It’s so beautiful and heartbreaking and funny, and lyrical and honest in how it depicts this relationship. So in making a playable scene to me, it had to be more of a dramatic… not dramatic, that’s the wrong word. … I turned it into drama. Because there’s an interaction between two characters as opposed to just a monologue.
In my research for this interview, it seems to me like you never got to see the musical during its original run, you just listened to the score – is that true?
I fell in love with the score through friends – because I’m a musical theatre fanatic – and one of my friends turned me on to it. But I didn’t see it. It opened in 2002, I believe, the winter or spring, soon after 9/11, and it was downtown. So there were a lot of things happening during that period, there wasn’t a lot of activity going on, and it got caught at a bad time period – but it was critically praised, was award-winning, and it’s been done all over the world. It’s even been done in Korea. So it’s very, very well-known among musical theatre lovers; not as well known to the general public, but among our tribe, it’s very well-known.
Obviously, you’ve just said you’re a huge fan of musical theatre, but in making this film, did stage musicals influence you more over movies?
Erm… hmm… [pause] No, not really. I mean, I’ve seen almost every film musical there is, and through osmosis, it’s in my system. But there wasn’t anything I was particularly studying. This was such a unique, experimental idea, because of the way it’s structured – and I wanted to keep it in its original form as much as possible. That was the one goal. Because having seen so many film musicals, where they change things and they cut songs, and they cast people that can’t sing, that frustrates me very much and anyone who loves musical theatre. And so I wanted to keep it as close as possible to the original idea, that Jason [Robert Brown] created as possible.
When I was watching the film, the one other film that kept coming to my mind was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Yes, that was an inspiration for this. I thought if this was going to work, there was one model for it that came before for me, and that was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
And what was it about that movie, exactly, that you wanted to translate into The Last Five Years?
Well, it was all sung, it was about young love, young people in love. And the ups and downs, the trials and tests and beauty of that first tremendous love. And I thought for this generation – because the two characters are in their twenties – this should be this generation’s version of that. And it’s such an accessible story, and the way that it’s written is so honest. Everyone who’s seen it recognises their own experience in it.
One of the biggest aspects of musicals, in my eyes, is that they usually operate outside of reality. But The Last Five Years feels rooted in everyday life. Was there ever an urge while making it, or writing it, to just go completely crazy and make it as absurd as possible?
[Laughs] No, I really felt strongly from the beginning of the original inception that because I’m asking an audience to sit and believe that in this world, where people sing rather than speak, I wanted everything in the world to be organic and grounded in reality. And the best compliment I got was during one of the screenings: someone who did know musical theatre said at one point, ‘I forgot that they were singing’. Because it was so… in a real world. Only one of the songs required it, like ‘Summer in Ohio’, did I sort of expand it a bit out, and have a great deal of fun and make it very theatrical. But other than that, I wanted to make it a real story – except for the fact that they’re singing.
Is there anything that you would take from your experience making The Last Five Years, and apply it to the next film you write or direct?
A number of things. I really enjoyed working in independent film; that was very liberating and just so satisfying creatively. It was so much fun, and I’d love to go and work [in it] again.
My last question is a bit removed from The Last Five Years, but I’ve got to ask because I’m such a fan of it; when you wrote Behind the Candelabra, did you think of that as a kind of musical, but without music?
[Laughs] Yes, in a way. I think so. That was the brain-child of [Steven] Soderbergh, and he wanted to do a Liberace film, and he sent me the book [Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace] and when I read it, I just understood the world so well. And it could be a musical the way it’s structured, clearly – but do I see it as a musical? I really just wrote it as a story of a marriage. [Laughs]
The Last Five Years will be released exclusively at The Empire Leicester Square on 17 April; VOD on 1 May and DVD on 4 May 2015. Cinema tickets are now available for pre-booking here: www.L5Ytickets.co.uk