The Last Five Years is a musical chronicling a love affair and marriage taking place over a five-year period. Jamie Wallerstein (Jeremy Jordan) is a young up-and-coming novelist who falls in love with Cathy Hiatt (Anna Kendrick), a struggling actress. Their story is told almost entirely through song with an intriguing twist: all of Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backwards in time to the beginning of their love affair, while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning of their affair and move forward to the end of their marriage. They meet in the center when Jamie proposes. Based on the popular off-Broadway musical by Jason Robert Brown, the film was adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese who has written screenplays such as The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County, The Mirror Has Two Faces, and HBO’s Emmy-winning Beyond the Candelabra. LaGravenese has directed films such as P.S. I Love You, Paris Je T’aime, and Freedom Writers. I sat down with him in Los Angeles to discuss the challenges of bringing this unusual stage production to the screen.
Danny Miller: I enjoyed this film so much that I’ve already seen in twice. Part of the reason for that is because I’m an idiot and didn’t realize the construct at first that Cathy was going backwards from the end of the marriage and Jamie was going forward from the time they first met. Did you ever consider making that part of the movie more explicit?
Richard LaGravenese: Yes, I did! As I was editing the film, we’d have screenings every few weeks and I’d always bring in people like you, who didn’t know anything about the original show, along with people who were familiar with it. After every screening I’d say to the audience, “Put aside whether you liked it or not for now, I just want to ask a technical question. Do you want me to put in the years?” And 90 percent of every audience said absolutely not. My next question was, “But were you ever confused while watching the film?” And many people said, “Yes, but it didn’t matter because we knew where we were emotionally.”
That’s exactly how I felt. I was confused but still enjoyed every second.
I think the confusion forces you to pay attention and interact emotionally with the film. All the clues are there: the changing color palettes, the costumes, the locations, the hairstyles, even down to the make-up — Anna’s make-up tells you where you are in the story.
Now I want to see it a third time for all of those little details. Like that half-sewn dress that’s on a mannequin in her apartment — don’t we see her wearing it in an earlier scene?
Yes, exactly. It’s all there, and in the lyrics, but we didn’t want to spoon-feed the audience. I actually made a mistake early on, I started to put dates in the production design of the film. But when we started watching those scenes it confused people even more because then they were doing the math when we wanted them to focusing on the emotions of the scene. In the end I used CGI to black out wherever I had done that, except for the scenes in the Ohio summer stock scenes where you see the changing years.
That’s so interesting. Now that I think about it, even her jewelry was an interesting clue to follow.
Absolutely. The bracelet she takes off in the first scene is the bracelet Jamie gives her at Christmas. There are a lot of things like that.
Yes! I knew I didn’t want to add a lot of dialogue, although we did add some. I wanted to keep it as pure to its original form as possible. Look, I’m asking people in the audience to accept the fact that these people don’t talk, they sing their emotions. So everything around that had to be rooted in reality. And the few times when I go off into something bigger, it’s because it’s a fantasy sequence or something in their imaginations.
Were there some scenes that were harder to translate to film?
I think the “The Schmuel Song” was the most difficult number to figure out how to interpret. We thought of animating it for a while. Finally, we decided to add a scene before that to establish why he was singing that song to her. I felt that was very important.
I was questioning Jeremy Jordan as a Jewish character but he so nailed the Yiddish accent in that scene that I fully welcomed him as a Member of the Tribe.
(Laughs.) Great! And just so you know, Jeremy is half-Jewish in real life!
And he’s in the theater which sort of makes you an honorary Jew, anyway.
Even though I hadn’t seen this show, I came to the film as a musical theater lover. Some people are obviously going to have a much harder time with characters bursting into song. Are you prepared for that?
Oh, aboslutely, I fully expect it. That’s partly why I wanted to do this independently. We made it for a very responsible low budget so even if only the theater fans that know the show come to see the film, we should be okay.
Oh, I hope it gets a much bigger audience than that. And some of those theater nuts may freak out that it’s different from the show.
I know! Like many musical theater fanatics, I am very wary myself of film adaptations of musicals. I don’t like it when they change things or cut songs or put people in who can’t sing, it really pisses me off! So I came from that place making this film — I really wanted to see the show that I loved with the full score sung by people who could really sing.
I was moved to tears by Anna Kendrick’s performance here, it reminded me how important great acting is to singing a song. I’d almost say that acting ability is more important than having a perfect voice although she’s certainly a wonderful singer.
I agree with what you’re saying, but for me, this is such a magnificent score, the songs had to be sung correctly. So I wanted to find actors who were so confident about their voices that they could focus on acting the parts. My deal with Jason Robert Brown was that I would find the people I wanted to cast and then they’d have to go to Jason and sing the score and he would have to approve them and make sure they could hit all the notes properly.
Did you record the songs live on the set?
About 11 to 12 songs are sung live in the film. Only the ones where I imagined them on boats and bicycles and running around outside in fields were pre-records. But even with those, the actors were still singing live, we just didn’t use those vocals.
When you watch the movie with an audience, is it like a Rorschach test in terms of who people side with: Cathy or Jamie?
Yes! And then sometimes when they see it again, they change sides. My goal was to make it balanced. Being the age I am, and having been in relationships for a long time, I know that everybody has their reasons for their behavior. Relationships are difficult. Love is something that may comes to us very very strongly, and sometimes the right thing to do is to experience it and let it go while other times the right thing may be to stay and work it out. I believe that Cathy and Jamie both loved each other and that they needed to have this relationship in order to continue with their lives, and that’s what I wanted to convey. Both of them made mistakes and both had their issues. That’s what real relationships are.
Eh…I’m still on Cathy’s side!
(Laughs.) It was funny, sometimes a single take would make all the difference. There was this one song called “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” and I had a different take of it for a long time and one of my producers was on Jamie’s side. And then I changed the take and she was suddenly on Cathy’s side!
I think it’s such a great depiction of a relationship but it’s still a little odd that it’s being released on Valentine’s Day weekend, no?
That wasn’t our choice at all! That was purely a studio decision. I mean, who wants “real” on Valentine’s Day, right? (Laughs.) But to me this is an honest love story. So if you think Valentine’s Day is about love and not fantasy, then it’s the perfect film to see. These are people who really love each other even though things get in the way. It will definitely cause some interesting discussion.
And it’s certainly a more appropriate Valentine’s Day film than 50 Shades of Grey, in my opinion! Do you think we’re in the middle of a real resurgence of movie musicals?
Hollywood is a funny thing — it goes in cycles and it all depends on the audiences. If people come out to see musicals and they make money, there will be more of them. To be honest, I like the idea of doing these on a more independent level where you don’t have a lot of interference.
It’s pretty amazing that Anna Kendrick has three musicals coming out within a very short period of time. It almost harkens back to the golden age of movies.
She was auditioning for Into the Woods when we were in rehearsals so that and Pitch Perfect came later.
Did you grow up as a real musical theater fan?
Oh, definitely. The first musical I saw in Broadway was Follies when I was about 11 or 12. I went with my parents and had to completely explain the second act to my mother, she didn’t get it at all.
My first Broadway musical was No No, Nanette that I saw with my grandmother during my very first trip to New York.
Oh my God, with Ruby Keeler, Jack Gilford, and Patsy Kelly — you’re so lucky!
Are you hoping to bring more musicals to the screen?
Well, I just did Gypsy for Barbra Streisand, I rewrote that script for her.
Yay, I’m so glad that’s still happening! I talked to Julian Fellowes about it last year but I haven’t heard anything about that movie in a while.
Yeah, it’s happening. Movie musicals are definitely here to stay.