“The Last Five Years,” directed by Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King”) is an adaptation of the Off-Broadway show written by Jason Robert Brown. It stars Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan as Cathy and Jamie—a couple whose five year relationship ends in a split in the face of Jamie’s rise to novelist fame and Cathy floundering in her journey to becoming an actress. The musical simultaneously tells the story of their relationship in chronological and reverse chronological order, with Jamie’s version going from beginning to end, and Cathy’s in reverse.
Back, in October, Indiewire sat down with LaGravenese over breakfast at the Middleburg Film Festival (where “The Last Five Years” screened on opening night) talk about the film.
So, “The Last Five Years” is a musical about the rise and fall of a couple’s relationship. “Gone Girl” explores a similar angle of two sides of a relationship. Did “Gone Girl” cross your mind at all over the course of “The Last Five Years”?
No, I did not have that in mind. I liked it. I think Fincher is a great filmmaker…I hadn’t read the book so I had no idea what the story was. I really like Rosamund Pike very much. I heard people tell me about the book, that it was a bit more complex and I understand why they might have fallen a bit short—but not knowing anything about it, I thought it was good.
“The Last Five Years” was a musical in 2002 and it’s a deconstruction of a marriage. I was thinking of it as this generation’s “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” which is a French film by Jacques Demy from the late ’60s, it was part of the New Wave and it was all sung—although that was more of an operatic dialogue singing whereas “The Last Five Years” has individual songs—but it too is sort of a love affair, an examination of it. Because I have the characters sing to each other as opposed to the audience in monologue style, the backward and forward chronology changed a bit. It’s probably a bit more clear that all the girl’s songs go from the end to the beginning [of their relationship] and all the guy’s songs go from the beginning to the end when it’s on stage. But for me the movie was more of a mosaic as opposed to linear backward and forward. It really is “scenes from a marriage” with music.
You mentioned that you considered animating a certain scene in the film. What made you consider an animation to begin with?
Because in the song, “Schmuel,” [Jamie is] telling a story he wrote. The story is about a tailor who is old and thinks that all his dreams of doing what he loves are past. And this magical clock comes to life and tells melody as time. And I understood that part of it, but I had a hard time understanding how it related to their relationship, how it related to the story until I realized in the end he was basically trying to inspire the woman he loves, to take her time. And I don’t mean take things slow—but to take your time, the time that is yours for opportunity, the time to take your place in the world. Once I understood that it wasn’t the lyrics of the story as much as it was his intention behind it—his running around the apartment, his presetting all these lights, his hiding his gift, his presentation to show her how much he loves her and how much he believes in her, then it became very clear that it had to be acted out. The animation idea was just an avoidance on my part because I didn’t understand the song. But the reality—when I met with animators—and I realized how long the song was, I realized that it would have stopped the movie dead in terms of energy and our investment in the relationship.
Speaking of relationships, what challenges did you face in visualizing the love these characters share? How did you work on keeping them feeling realistic?
Well first thing I did was look at the lyrics and made sure that any kind of affection or shows of affection were prompted and organic within the song. They had to be part of the song. We tried to undercut the same mentality as much as possible, but Jason Brown is not a sentimental writer. His lyrics are very honest and very ruthless in a way about how they reveal what a person is really feeling. During the songs where they’re in love, I tried to keep the camera moving, not cut too much and keep the performance in real time as much as possible and have the staging not too corny or sentimental.
Which song was shot in one take, no cuts or anything?
The song is called “If I Didn’t Believe in You” and it’s an argument. It’s at a darker part of their marriage. I wanted that in real time. I wanted to have the audience eavesdrop on an argument of a married couple, which—anyone who’s ever been in a relationship or married as long as I am—knows those arguments happen. It was very real and I gave them the groundwork for the argument and in the play it only begins with the last few lines of this argument which goes right into the song. But I extended it and I told them what the basic ideas were and that was all improvised by the two actors and we did that 14 times with Jeremy singing it live all the way through without a cut. And Anna giving us a really beautiful performance.
You’ve expressed some interest in TV—that combined with your love for musical theater—would you ever want to take on a project similar to “Glee”?
No. It’s been done.
How about a different medium?
Well, theater. I’m very much interested in doing actual theater.
So you would want to write your own play?
Are there any plans to do that in the near future?
Any plans you can talk about?
No. But they’re definitely part of the goal here.
So, you tease this line between writer and director. You also said before that you feel like you might be working in the wrong medium. I’m starting to think that you like the tension of being caught in two worlds.
I’m actually coming out of the tension of it. My true nature, I believe, is writing. And when I say I feel like I’m in the wrong medium—in that the way that I write—I still, after 26 years, am still learning the idea of cinema as language as opposed to words. This movie forced me to interpret the story visually because it wasn’t my material and because it was all sung. That was the great challenge of it. But I do think my strengths lie more in writing. When I work with great directors and am friends with great directors…not just working with them, but even having drinks with them, we talk and I can see we approach story differently. I’m very much about emotion and character…very emotional truths. That’s what fascinates me—our feelings and emotions. Directors find great stories and immediately see the world, see the story in visual terms.
Which directors have you had dinner, lunch or even a drink with lately?
[Steven] Soderbergh, Tony Gilroy…but I’ve known Paul Thomas Anderson for years and Quentin [Tarantino]. They are real filmmaking artists…Bennett Miller. I just saw Bennett when I saw “Foxcatcher.” What knocked me out about “Foxcatcher” was that it was a character story told with very little dialogue. It’s all told through image and subtext and behavior which is a really hard thing to pull off. I think he did a brilliant job of it.
What other movies do you want to see?
I really want to see “Birdman,” dying to see “Birdman.” I love [Alejandro González Iñárritu’s] work. “Inherent Vice,”…and “Whiplash,” I really want to see “Whiplash.” Damien Chazelle sent me a script and a short in 2013 through Sundance and we have sort of an email relationship. I’m very excited, I heard nothing but wonderful things about the movie.