Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for THE FISHER KING) Richard LaGravenese has also dipped into the directing well on five different occasions, beginning with his 1998 dramedy LIVING OUT LOUD and his witchy 2013 Young Adult adaptation of BEAUTIFUL CREATURES. But he become a much-in-demand screenwriter with such triumphs as THE REF, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES, THE HORSE WHISPERER, BELOVED, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, and 2013’s Steven Soderbergh-directed HBO movie BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, the screenplay for which was nominated for an Emmy.
His latest work required a different kind of adaption, this time taking on the two-person musical “The Last 5 Years,” from Tony-award-winning composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown. It is essentially a chronicle of a five-year relationship that includes a brief marriage between Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick, in her best singing role to date). In the play, the two characters are almost never on stage together, but LaGravenese has thankfully made their story more cinematic by showing the various stages of their relationship, including courtship, proposal, marriage and the ultimate end of their time together. It’s a lovely, heart-wrenching experience that will likely have you in tears from the first song (if you know the production, you know the song I’m talking about.
I got a chance to sit down with LaGravenese in October just before a Chicago International Film Festival screening of THE LAST FIVE YEARS (slightly retitled). In fact, the work had its humble beginnings not far from downtown Chicago, at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois, in 2001, before its off-Broadway debut the following year. The idea of making a filmed story that is told almost entirely in song is a risky venture, but Kendrick and Jordan do some remarkable work here, and LaGravenese’s adjustments are perfectly suited for the big screen. With that, please enjoy my talk with Richard LaGravenese…
Capone: This is one of those musicals that I had forgotten existed until I heard about this.
Richard LaGravenese: Did you know about it originally?
Capone: Yes, I follow theater a little bit, and I remember this one because it started here.
RL: In Skokie.
Capone: Skokie, right, at the Northlight Theatre.
RL: I think that’s right. I’ll say it tonight in my introduction.
Capone: I also remember that it didn’t do very well financially in its original off-Broadway run.
RL: It did critically, but you have to understand it opened in March 2002, so that was post 9/11, and it was in a downtown theater. So not a lot was happening downtown. It was not a time for any theater piece to open in New York. It was just bad luck. But critically, it won many awards, and it’s been done all over the world—all over Europe, even in Korea. Among musical-theater geeks, like myself, it’s a classic, classic score. But, you’re right, it’s not known to the general public.
Capone: That’s how I remember it, hearing the music. I’ve never seen it performed, so it’s only been through the music.
RL: And the performances are done as monologues. The two characters never sing to each other. They only sing to each other when he proposes in the middle.
Capone: Then what you’ve done is make it more traditional two-person story.
RL: Yes, but I kept all the songs, the order, all of Jason’s material is in there. He actually had to write more music. I added a few transitional lines here and there, a couple of jokes, and I had the actors improvise material. Like Anna’s phone call to her agent is both a combination of Jason’s and her improv. Their fight before “If I Didn’t Believe In You” is all improvisation.
Capone: What I remember about listening to the cast recording is it just devastates you from the first song. It doesn’t get any sadder than that. You’re crying in the first five minutes. I’d forgotten it, actually, until I sat down and watched it, because I hadn’t heard that song in a while, and I just sat there like, “Oh, this is that one.”
RL: “We’re starting here? Oh, okay.” I know, that and when I used to listen to it over and over, “Nobody Needs to Know” killed me.
Capone: But then like when I’m watching “If I Didn’t Believe In You”...
RL: Which then became my other favorite.
Capone: The way you shot it, though—let’s get into the visuals here—it’s unbelievable. I fortunately had a copy of it, so I actually went back and watched it a second time, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s one take.” The camera is moving between them, and you don’t exactly know where they’re going to go. Talk about coming to the decision to do it that way.
RL: It’s our Cassavetes moment [laughs]. When we had five days of rehearsal in April. We shot in June, but I had Anna briefly for five days. We shot this in 21 days, June to July of 2013. So April of 2013, I had five days of rehearsals. We had an empty room, a piano, and just blocks. I had written the screenplay, so there were certain staging things, certain ideas that I wanted and I knew. But this one, I said to them—because I had my cameraman with me and we filmed all of the rehearsals—“Just argue. Go wherever you want. Don’t worry about the camera; we’ll follow you.” And after doing it three or four times, the cameraman and I looked at each other and said, “That’s how we’re doing it. We’re not doing this in shots or with coverage.” And we shot that scene, I think Jeremy sang that song live for 14 takes, and I think we picked the 12th or the 11th.
Capone: What’s interesting about the way that you shot that is that we can’t take my eyes off of her during that sequence, because she’s the one whose reaction we’re desperate to capture.
RL: Which in the stage play you don’t get, because he’s just singing to the audience, and you’re just understanding his point of view and his feelings, which are all valid. But then when I put her in it, it adds a whole other layer to it.
Capone: Throughout your writing and writing-directing career, you’ve done plenty of relationship dramas of various age groups, but this is most definitely a young person’s love story. There’s an ambition and energy to it, but there’s also in not that underlying thought that “This is my last chance at love.”
RL: Not at all. It’s a love story about two people who needed to be in a relationship with each other at that point in their lives in order to become who they will eventually become. It’s not a love that should be regretted that they ever had. I don’t think anyone should regret any kind of love they ever had, but I also don’t think love is everlasting. It changes us, and if you’re lucky enough to be with someone that changes in the same way as you, you can stay together. But more times than not, it’s something that happens. You come together, and then to become individuals, we have to separate. So to me, it’s an important love story in that way. I think Cathy, the character that Anna plays, will go on to become who she is because she was in this relationship. I don’t feel that she’s lost or broken because of this.
Capone: There’s no cynicism yet. That will come later. This is just unbridled emotion.
RL: Well, you’re both trying to figure out who you are. And then all of a sudden, one of you takes off more than the other, and that has an affect.
Capone: We’ve had smaller doses of Anna Kendrick singing in other films, but honestly—not to take anything away from Jeremy—this doesn’t work without what she's doing here. She’s not just singing to perfection, she is pulling off the acting.
RL: It had to be the acting. I needed good actors. And that was the deal with Jason. I would pick them based on whether they could act it, and then I would send them to him, and he would have to tell me if they could sing the score, and that was our deal. And it had to be sung live, because 11 out of the 14 songs are sung live, because that kind of emotion, every time they sang it, it came out a little bit different, and I wanted to capture that lightening in a bottle. And it had to be real, the emotions had to be real, so I needed two singers who could act, and that was very important to me. I have a thing about musicals that just cast actors who can’t sing. I hate it. It’s like, come on. The score is the reason I’m coming to see this. I know they have to be good actors, but you’ve got to be able to find both, and I lucked out with them.
Capone: I know Anna, when she was much younger, was on the stage. But when I first saw Jeremy, whom I didn’t recognize, I could tell he came out of musical theater.
RL: It’s a different style.
Capone: It’s an interesting mix, because she’s a little more closed off.
RL: She really understands camera. The first time they both saw it, they had to see it alone, and I understood that. And Jeremy’s comment was, “Wow. She really understands stillness. I don’t know that yet. I have to learn that.” It’s okay. What he does is perfect for his character. I think he captures a stillness that he’s never captured before. And she was uncomfortable with her stillness. She thought “I’m on camera in ‘Still Hurting’ and I’m not doing anything.” “Anna, you’re doing a lot.” She’s like, “Yeah, but you’re camera is on me a long time.” And it wasn’t until she saw it with an audience that I think she understood how powerful it was, and that she was doing quite a bit.
Capone: But it also seems character appropriate, because he has a lot more to be excited about.
RL: Exactly. That’s his character, but it’s also his personality. When he does get still, like in “Nobody Needs To Know,” he does such a beautiful job on that song, my god he knocks me out.
Capone: You mentioned most of the songs were recorded with live vocals. Why did you choose not to do all of them that way?
RL: I had to, because of the energy of certain songs like “Moving Too Fast” and “Summer In Ohio” and “We Can Do Better,” there’s such an upbeat thing that I visually needed to have them outside and on bikes and in cars, and you can’t sing live in those situations. So I needed to have those pre-recorded so I could stage them anyway I wanted to and break them out, because if the whole thing were just camera in a room, that would get tedious. So those had to be pre-recorded, even though they were singing while they were doing it. But we couldn’t record it with the sound and the highway and all that stuff.
Capone: I’m sure the stage version did the same thing, but I notice no one picks sides here. I think everybody in the audience is going to pick sides based on what emotional and personal baggage they bring in with them.
RL: Every screening I’ve had, people argue afterwards, and some women would go, like during “If I Didn’t Believe In You,” some would go I think she should “I think she should have put on the dress and went.” And then I re-cut it, I did another take of it instead of that take, and they’d say, “Oh, no. He’s totally wrong.” A very straight guy I know who doesn’t like musical theater that much, actually came out going, “I’m so fucked up right now. I don’t know if I should be in a relationship.” He’s lonely and looking for a girl, and he’s like, “I don’t know, should I now?”
Capone: When you’re actually shooting, is that you have to be careful of—keeping that neutrality?
RL: Not careful, but one of the reasons I wanted to put the other person in [each scene] is because I wanted it to be a balanced fight, a balanced argument. I didn’t want you coming out thinking, “He’s wrong, and she’s right” or ”It’s more him than her, or him than her.” It’s nobody. Real relationships aren’t like that. In real relationships, it’s 50/50. I don’t believe in victims. Everybody contributes in some way to what’s going on.
Capone: You kept the order of the songs, so there’s a jumping around of chronology, which on stage is a little easier to get away with. But here you don’t have any designations of where we are in time.
RL: Well, that’s just the thing. I did many, many screenings during the editing process. I always had the audience filled with MT people and non-MT, musical theater. And after the film was over, I would run up to the front of the stage, and I would say, “Forgetting whether you like it or not for a second, do you want me to put subtitles of what year or where you are at?” Ninety or ninety-five percent of every audience, said, “No, please. Don’t spoon feed me.” They would use that term. “Don’t spoon feed me.” Then I would say to them, “Were you confused about what year or what time you’re in?” And they would say, “Yes, but it didn’t matter, because emotionally, I always knew where I was.” I thought to myself, “Well this is interesting, this is a movie you can only follow emotionally. That’s not a bad thing.” And believe me, I went through trauma thinking, “Should I make it easier to follow?” And then I thought, “No.” There are a lot of clues in the lyrics. Makeup and hair are designed very specifically. Set design is very specific. She goes from cold to warm, he goes from warm to cold in all the scenes.
Capone: I think you have years on the signs of the summer stock theater she does in Ohio.
RL: Yes, that was a mistake, though. I shouldn’t have. That was a bad idea, and in post I blurred them as much as I could, because that just confused people even more. Because I did all the math, but I shouldn’t have done that. Then I thought, “Even if they don’t understand that, it becomes a mosaic of a relationship. They get that it’s not exactly straight, but it’s a mosaic of a relationship, and I think that’s valid.
Capone: What it reminded me of was (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, where they do actually tell you where we are in time, but there’s a reason they do that in that film, and I don’t really think that the numbers matter here. For me, the signifier was where we were in his career.
RL: The book. Follow the book.
Capone: I noticed in your thank you’s in the end credits, you thanked your CANDELABRA director Steven Soderbergh. Did he advise you somehow?
RL: He gave me Steven Meizler, the cinematographer. This was his first job as a cinematographer. Among camera men and camera crews, Meizler is a god. He was an AD under Janusz [Kamiński] for many, many years, even before SCHINDLER’S LIST, but all the way through SCHINDLER’S LIST to WAR OF THE WORLDS. Then he was with Fincher, then he was with Soderbergh. He’s worked with the best. I went to Steven and said, “I want someone who’s hungry and creative and ready to do this, and not someone for whom this is just going to be a job.” And he went, “Steven.” Soderbergh is like Steven’s agent, he believes in him so much. And I had the best relationship with a cinematographer that I have ever had, meaning a symbiotic, creative relationship. He was just fantastic. And then I had a thing about the ending that I went back and forth on, and Soderbergh came into the edit room and helped me decide.
Capone: Let me ask you about your first exposure to this musical, the first time hearing this…
RL: I never saw it. I fell in love with it just by listening to the score.
Capone: What was it that you reacted to initially?
RL: The emotional effect it had on me. “Nobody Needs to Know” was the first song that I kept playing over and over and over. It was the lyrics, the honesty of the lyrics, the complexity of them, of someone who’s compelled to have this adulterous affair, but it’s not with any joy. It’s actually with this self hatred and this awareness and this sadness about it all. And then the whole score just opened up from there.
Capone: Did you visualize it at all?
RL: That song, I did. I always had visuals for that song based on the music of where the camera went, when we were close, when we would move the camera, and it was all inspired by the score. It was all based on it. I actually had the camera man and the dolly grip listening to the score along with us, so they knew exactly when to move on this string or this horn. And they did. They got so into the music, they understood it.
Capone: We’ve been inundated with musicals lately.
RL: It’s weird that it happened this year.
Capone: Including INTO THE WOODS with Anna.
RL: I know, and ANNIE. So it’s a weird one. But to me, we’re the little underdog. The one that isn’t a big-budget musical, and I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish.
Capone: It’s a completely different experience than what these others are going for. They seem to be going bigger and you made yours more intimate. Once Anna became a part of it, especially after PITCH PERFECT, did that make things go a little easier in terms of financing?
RL: I certainly think it did, between her and Jason and their reputation. I think it did. It was before PITCH PERFECT came out, and it was before Lauren Versel came on the producer team. She’s the only one of the producers who had producer experience in the indie world. She produced ARBITRAGE, CITY ISLAND, she’s done about 20 years of indie film. See, I knew nothing about indie film being in the studio system, so I needed someone like that who knew how it worked. And when she came on, that’s when we really started to gain some movement.
Capone: When you first talked to Jason about doing this, did you tell him you needed a bit more music?
RL: He wanted to. All the music decisions are his, and he just felt that for film, there needed to be somewhat of a bigger sound. So he added more brass, he added more drums, because in the stage version, it’s pretty much just cello, piano, and guitar. So he added horns. He wanted to make it somewhat bigger. And then he added interstitial music where there was silence, he extended certain phrases. Like after “Still Hurting,” he extended. In between them getting married and going back in time, he created that whole piece of music. So he did some new work.
Capone: Was there ever discussion about adding a song?
RL: Yes. I really had a hard time with “Schmuel.”
Capone: I still have a hard time with that song.
RL: [laughs] When I finally figured out how to stage it, it worked, and the audiences actually love that song. That was the first time they broke out into applause. But he said, “No, I’m not going to change that, because that’s the score. But I will write you a song for the credits.” And I said, “I don’t want that. I just had 88 minutes of people singing. I want silence. I want it to be dead silent.” And we went back and forth. First he said, “I’ll write a song.” I said, “Well who’s going to sing it? Anna or Jeremy?” He said, “I don’t think either one of them, because their story is over. It would be a new person.” I said, “No, I can’t.” I said, “I can’t have them singing, and then some pop star comes in and sings a song.” I said, “It just disrespects the rest of the piece. I want it to be emotional, and just have dead silence after it’s over.” Then he agreed with that, then they edited an instrumental version of “The Next Ten Minutes” as the credit roll. The first card is silence.
Capone: Yeah, “Schmuel” has always been that one sticking point for me. That being said, it’s the most creatively staged sequence in the whole film.
RL: What broke it is, I finally figured out: it isn’t what he’s singing, it’s why he’s singing. Once we figured that out, we shot that on a Monday, he sang that song about 16 times in 95 degree heat in all those different places in the apartment. But the Sunday before, Jeremy and I met for an hour or so at the apartment, and we realized we needed props and we needed things, and we really just made it up. When we left that Monday, I didn’t know if I was going to cut together, but it actually did. I’m proud of it.
Capone: Having just plowed through the Criterion Jacques Demy set, was there any influence there?
RL: No. Someone else asked me that too.
Capone: I’m bringing it up because they just brought out that box set.
RL: I know. I didn’t know that, and I looked like a dummy when he said, “UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG?” He must have thought I was lying about that. But no, I didn't know this Criterion collection had just came out, so I didn’t look at the other work.
Capone: Jason was involved with “The Bridges of Madison County” musical…
RL: Yeah, he won two Tonys for it. He wrote the score. It’s a beautiful, beautiful score. Gorgeous score. Steven Pasquale is amazing in it. We were talking about [the fact that LaGravenese wrote the film adaptation of the book]. It’s like we switched places. Its a beautiful score. I saw it twice.
Capone: Do you have an idea of what you're going to do next, movie or television?
RL: Right now I’m re-writing GYPSY.
Capone: For film?
RL: For Barbra Streisand; there’s no director attached to it. And that’s the only work work I’m doing. The other stuff is pretty much for me. I’m developing other television ideas; I’m thinking about some theater stuff. I haven’t given myself time, I’ve been working non-stop it feels like for a very long time, so this is the first time I’m stopping to take a breath, because I really want to write an original, but I don’t know what medium it’s going to be. I don’t know if it’s going to be film or theater or TV. I just want to write an original. I’m tired of adapting.
Capone: It wasn’t any big surprise to those of us who are Soderbergh fans, how good BEHIND THE CANDELABRA was, but the response was overwhelmingly positive.
RL: It was overwhelming, but it taught me a lot, because that one was out of pure instinct. First of all, I loved working with Steven. He emailed me and said, “I have this Liberace book. Are you interested? I’m not kidding.” That was it. That was the email. Three lines. And I read it and I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding? Of course.” And I wrote it four years before it was made, because nobody would pick it up. The script was already done. And it was an example of doing something because you love it as opposed to doing something for the marketplace, and that really reminded me of what I knew in the beginning when I didn’t know anything. Sometimes you know more when you know nothing. And then you get successful, and you get all fucked up, and you loose all your intuition. That movie, CANDELABRA, and this movie, THE LAST FIVE YEARS, were two things I did because I wanted to, not because I got paid for them. I had no idea CANDELABRA was going to be something that people had parties to come together to see.
Capone: I was at one of those parties.
RL: That made me so happy. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. It really meant a lot to me.
Capone: It was one of those things where you go to a party and you think it’s going laughing and making jokes, and 10 minutes in it got really quiet and that lasted for the rest of the movie.
RL: The performances are so fucking dead on. They’re so good. Those two actors are so fucking good. All of them are.
Capone: One last question about UNBROKEN. On paper, it looks like it’s quite a line up in the writing credits.
RL: It’s embarrassing, quite frankly. I was the first adaptor. I adapted it for Francis Lawrence to direct. Francis and I were doing WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, and he and Erwin Stoff optioned the book. I did the first one. Then what happened was Francis got into HUNGER GAMES, so he left the project, and it was just laying at Universal not happening, so I left to do something else. Then the studio and hired William Nicholson to do a draft, and then that just laid there. And then, I don’t know how it happened, Angelina Jolie got involved, and then she took our drafts, and then she brought in the Coen brothers, and now we all have credit. So, I have no idea what’s left of my draft.
Capone: I’m really dying to see the film.
RL: I am too. I haven’t seen it, but the trailer looks really good, and I know Jack O’Connell. I worked with him. He’s a fantastic actor.
Capone: You really don’t have any idea how much of what you wrote has been preserved?
RL: Well, I have a credit, so it has to be a certain percentage. We didn’t arbitrate. What happened was we were all given credit, and then what happened was, Louis Zamperini’s rights were owned by Universal since the ’50s, so UNBROKEN was automatically theirs. So there were other people who were writing Louis’ story before UNBROKEN ever came out, and they arbitrated us. And that’s why it went into arbitration.
Capone: But amongst the newer writers there was no issue.
RL: No. We all got the same credit that Universal gave us, but we had to go through the process, because these other people started it. But the Guild decided we all deserved credit. But it is a little embarrassing. And I’ve never met William Nicholson, and I don’t know the Coen brothers. It’s just really weird. And I haven’t seen the movie. So it is weird.