When Richard LaGravenese set his mind on adapting Jason Robert Brown’s musical “The Last 5 Years,” which tracks the highs and lows of a young couple in love, he gave himself a single rule, “The song[s] belonged to the listener as much as the singer.” Long considered one of the most gifted screenwriters in Hollywood, particularly when it comes to preserving the intent of author’s work, whether in “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Beloved” or more recently in “Beautiful Creatures,” LaGravenese had an even longer history of loving musicals, having originally been a theater major at NYU who came up doing summer stock.
So when fellow theater geek and filmmaker Todd Graff introduced LaGravenese to “The Last 5 Years,” the kind of off-Broadway production that’s all-too-short initial run and clever, inventive score guaranteed it to become the stuff of legend after its debut at the end of 2001, the writer/director found the ideal vehicle to make something both bold yet intimate, requiring just two central actors and a limited amount of settings to covey the grand emotional journey of a romantic relationship that’s run its course. (Further proof it was meant to be came when Sherie Rene Scott, the actress who originated the role of Cathy, one-half of the two lovers, auditioned for LaGravenese’s “P.S. I Love You” not long after and would put him in touch with Brown, and that role in the film would be played by Anna Kendrick, whose first onscreen role was in Graff’s “Camp.”)
Describing it now as a “Cassavetes musical” in the way it was filmed, down and dirty in just 21 days, LaGravenese managed to make the most vibrant movie musical of recent years, marrying the movement of the camera to mellifluous flow of Brown’s gorgeous score, performed by two of the finest singer/actors we currently have in Kendrick and Broadway star Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies”). The end result even impressed Brown, who couldn’t believe the director even made room for “The Schmuel Song,” a seven-minute Jewish folktale Jordan’s character Jamie uses to charm Cathy, a struggling actress, around the holidays. After a succession of film festival stops that could’ve been easily been mistaken for live theater with their spontaneous bursts of applause and extended curtain calls, LaGravenese spoke on the eve of the film’s release on finding the right language to convey the musical to the screen in a way that only a true theater lover could, seeing a new side of his hometown of New York and the forgiving nature of theater fans, as he learned at the film’s recent New York premiere.
Having been a longtime fan of musicals, was there anything that surprised you about actually making one?
I probably was apprehensive because when I’m a fan of movies I’m very naïve. I actually believe everything that’s happening. And I don’t know how they do it. So when I see musicals, I was a little worried about how is it going to work? How do you sing live and have the music work at the same time? Actually, that became a step-by-step learning process and something that was very, very doable — where we lay down tracks and temporary vocals, then the kids had their ear wigs and we painted out the ear wigs, and I was able to hear them on set as they were singing. That was great, then it was just enjoying it. That was my earliest apprehension.
You even outfitted the dolly grips with headphones so they could hear the music as they moved the cameras around.
Yes, because it was in my head for so long I had certain pieces of music, like certain cello pieces and orchestrations, where I knew I had to have the camera moving and they had to have it in their blood and their head at the same time. And they did. I explained to them, “See on this lyric when that cello does this? That’s when the move stops, and it’s got to stop here.” And they got so into it.
This is actually your cinematographer Steven Meizler’s first film in that role, though he’s been a longtime camera assistant to some of the greats and even developed a groundbreaking module for the RED camera. Was that part of the reason you hired him?
I didn’t know that, but I knew Steven’s a god among cameramen. I was doing [“The Last 5 Years”] after “Behind the Candelabra,” and Steven Soderbergh’s my go-to guy, and I asked him, “I want someone whose talented and creative, who wants to create. Not just a cameraman but someone who wants to partner and is hungry for that.” And he went, “Steven’s ready to go from being a assistant cameraman, focus puller, to cinematographer.” When we met, I hired [Steven Meizler] right away —he was the only person I met — and it was the first relationship I’ve had with a cinematographer that I felt like there was a marriage. And it started from the very beginning. At rehearsals, he brought his RED [camera] and filmed everything and we designed the movie from there. It was an absolutely great experience.
When the words were largely set in stone with Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics, was this a different experience for you as a writer/director?
It was a relief. It was great. I had more confidence in Jason’s musical than I usually have for my own scripts. I don’t have a lot of confidence when I direct my own scripts. In my writing, I’m constantly second guessing and rethinking it, but I had such blind confidence in his material that it freed me up to just direct, an experience which I’d never had before.
Is it also different to judge a performance in a musical?
In every movie, every actor is different. You have to learn their instrument and how to best support them. First of all, it’s about getting out of their way because you have to cast right and then it’s about guiding them to where you want them to go. How you do that depends on who the actor is and what their instrument is and how their talent works. It was a real collaboration and the three of us had a real tight, tight collaboration. We all understood and had in our minds the same goal.
It’s mostly small and intimate with just these two actors, but you do allow yourself a big dance number in the middle of New York City. Were there things like that you had to fight for?
It was always dictated by the music. Jason’s score, his songs, told me that at that moment, I needed something big. It became just a question of finding the right location and doing it for our budget. And I had a brilliant location manager who knew New York very well and got that piece of land, which actually belongs to the city, so we didn’t have to lease it to the building. It just worked out perfectly.
How important in general was New York to the movie?
Very important. It’s my home. It sounds so pretentious, but it was another character in the show, two young people trying to make it in New York. And I wanted to show parts of New York that I hadn’t seen on film before. [The] “Moving Too Fast” [song sequence] is an example of that. I’ve lived there all my life. But because Bloomberg built that square, I had actually never seen that angle of the city shooting north. Those were buildings that I had never seen and I never saw that skyline before.
This was a personal story for Jason Robert Brown, but did you feel like you got to put your personal stamp on it?
Absolutely. I actually think this is my most personal movie. There’s a lot of me and my personal life in there. In both characters. Jeremy’s actually doing an imitation of me right before “Moving Too Fast” when he gets the phone call from the agent. That’s his imitation of me. And I’ve been both characters. As I usually am when I’m working on anything, I tend to side with all the characters. I get inside them. I went through many of the things both of them went through.
You’ve said the hardest thing to do for the film was hair and makeup because the film actually flips back and forth in time, which I knew when I first saw it, but only realized how much it does upon seeing it the second time. Was it something to overcome when you realized the emotional logic was likely more important to the experience of it than the chronology?
That was the point. After every screening while I was editing it, I would have people come in every two weeks and I was always having the audience filled with people who knew the show and people who didn’t. I didn’t want to put titles of years, and they would have made it easier, but after every screening, I would go to the front of the house and I would say, “Putting aside whether you liked the movie or not, do you want me to put [the time of] where you are [in the story], what year?” And 90 percent of every audience went, “No, please, don’t. Don’t spoon feed us that.” And I said, “Were you confused?” And they went, “Yes, but it didn’t matter because emotionally I always knew where I was.” And I thought, well this is interesting. It’s a movie you have to actually interact with. I’m not going to help you because the more you see it the clues are all there. The clues are in the lyrics, the costumes, the color palette, the hairstyles, and the locations. But you have to work a little bit for it.
As you were moving into directing, did you actually make it a goal to spend time on sets as a screenwriter to see how the job was done?
My best jobs as a screenwriter [where] I was on set [were] because of my great directors like Terry Gilliam. I had never planned to be a director. But the business and the evolution of my career took me that way because in film, screenwriters are the bottom of the food chain, so you’ll get your heart broken when you write something that you care about, then it gets taken over and you have absolutely no rights. Studios and directors can do whatever they want, unless you have really good ones, which I was lucky I did. Then you have control over what happens, but my DNA is primarily as a writer.
Is film still the first thing you think about when breaking a story? You recently worked on your first TV series “The Divide” as well.
Mediums have really changed. I love the independent film world. I love television. I really want to write for theater. So, I’m branching out into other things. The television experience was an extraordinary experience where it’s the exact opposite — the writer is actually the one in charge. The pressure’s enormous, but creatively, it’s the biggest high.
Has it been fun to go out on the road with “The Last 5 Years”? With audiences applause after numbers, this must be the closest you can get to actually seeing a live performance in a movie theater.
Yeah, that’s really satisfying. Two nights ago, we had the premiere at Manila Lane in New York, and it was both film and theater people where the show had originated. So it wasn’t a movie theater. And we had a technical screw up in the middle of it. What was so great about that is theater people who are pros know that in live performances anything could happen — the curtain doesn’t open, the mics don’t work — all these screw ups. And a friend of mine was going [before the show], “Gee, I wonder if anything is going to happen.” Then she realized, “Oh no, it’s a movie, nothing is going to happen.” Then this screw up happened. [Everyone] completely understood. We lost about 15 minutes. Then they picked up the movie right away again. So it was great.
“The Last Five Years” opens on February 13th in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset and Pasadena Playhouse 7 and New York at the Village East Cinema. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here. It will also be available on iTunes.