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Evolving Hearts: Richard LaGravenese on “The Last 5 Years”

The Fisher King,” “A Little Princess,” “The Bridges of Madison County” and “The Horse Whisperer.” These are a mere sampling of the terrific films written by Richard LaGravenese. His screenplay for “Fisher King” earned him an Oscar nomination, and with his fifth directorial narrative feature, “The Last 5 Years,” LaGravenese makes a considerable artistic leap forward, proving himself as much more than a gifted writer. Adapted from the stage musical by Jason Robert Brown, this bittersweet romance explores—in an inventively nonlinear fashion—the love that blooms and fades between Cathy (Anna Kendrick), a struggling actress, and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), a successful writer, over the course of their five-year-long relationship.

Prior to the picture’s screening at the Chicago International Film Festival last October, LaGravenese spoke with about how this movie strengthened his approach to telling a story visually, his collaboration with masterful cinematographer Steven Meizler and his memories of making the modern holiday classic, “The Ref.”

From “The Bridges of Madison County to “Behind the Candelabra,” your films have often revolved around a love that is not everlasting but has left an indelible impact on those who have experienced it. What attracts you to this material?

I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but now that you mention it… [laughs] I don’t know if I believe that love is a long-term experience. It’s something that comes to us if we’re lucky. It flares up, and, to me, it’s more about the individual evolving. We have people in our lives who help us evolve along the way. If you’re lucky, you find someone who evolves along with you, and that’s what you call a long-term relationship. Love is this amazing experience that we’re given to find out about ourselves, in a way, and sometimes it can stay, and sometimes it can’t, depending on the journey of each individual. I’m not really a believer in romantic, happily ever after love stories. 

It’s certainly more relatable than a typical Hollywood fantasy.

I think so too. The play, “The Last 5 Years,” was inspired, in a certain way, by the experiences of its composer/lyricist, Jason Robert Brown. His lyrics are just so insightful. I listened to them over and over when I first heard the score. I couldn’t stop listening to them because they were so honest. 

How does your adaptation differ from the stage version?

In the musical onstage, the characters never sing to each other. It’s a monologue play, so each character sings to the audience, and they only ever sing to each other during the scene in the middle of the play, when he proposes. I had never seen the play, I had just heard the score, and I couldn’t stop imagining it with two people as a playable scene. To me, the characters’ reaction to each others’ words added a whole other layer to the story. Consider the song, “If I Didn’t Believe In You,” which is a song that is performed all in one take and shows the couple, now married, having an argument before a party. He starts off very supportive and he winds up losing his temper and saying something very cruel. Without her there, you would experience the song from only his point of view. With her there, you’re seeing the impact of what he’s saying on her face. That adds a layer of richness to the score.

What initially brought you to the play?

It started with Todd Graff, who is a very good friend of mine. He wrote and directed “Camp,” which Anna Kendrick was in. He introduced me to the score about 8 years ago. The play had come and gone, it opened in 2002 soon after 9/11. It was down in the Village, and it never made it uptown. But everyone—musical theatre fans, geeks like me—know the score, and for us, it’s a classic score. It’s one of our favorites. It’s done all over the country and all over the world—there have been productions in Europe and Korea. Over the years, whenever I would fantasize about doing something for myself instead of just doing work for other people, I’d put on this score and fantasize about making a little jewel of a movie—very inexpensively, very simply and with no Hollywood involvement. 

When was I was casting for “P.S. I Love You,” Sherie Rene Scott came in to audition. She was the original Cathy in New York, and she is the actress on the CD. Her husband, Kurt Deutsch, is the head of a business they both run that produces soundtracks. She introduced me to Kurt, and he introduced me to Jason. Over the years, I would write drafts, and by writing, I mean I would write how it would be shot and how it would be staged. I added a backstory to Cathy to make her a little more dimensional. When I got onset, I would have the actors improvise based on what I had written. In the argument that happens right before the song, I just had them fight for fourteen takes, and they really got into it. There is dialogue that I wrote here and there as transitional lines, such as when she’s coming out of the theatre or after the audition. 

Other than that, it’s all Jason. He’s one of the smartest, funniest people I know. Neither one of us thought this would ever happen. I was doing this just because I loved it. We got Kurt involved as well as a producer/friend of mine, Janet Brenner, and another producer, Lauren Versel, who had produced “City Island,” “Arbitrage” and a number of other indie films. She brought all of her indie producing experience to the table, and each one of the producers raised outside financing. They had nothing to do with any studio or Hollywood producer, and shockingly enough, all of a sudden they said we’re ready to make this movie. It was amazing.

This is the first feature with cinematography by Steven Meizler, and his work here is remarkable. What was your collaboration like?

Steven is a god among camera people. He was the AD for Janusz Kaminski from the late ’80s all the way through. He was with him from “Schindler’s List” through “Saving Private Ryan” and “War of the Worlds.” Then he was with Fincher and Soderbergh and many others. I got him through Soderbergh. I told [the director] that I was looking for someone who he thought was creatively hungry. I didn’t want to hire someone for whom this would just be a job or a gig, and he said, “Steven’s ready,” and he was. It was the best relationship I’ve had with a cinematographer in my entire career. We started shooting in June. In May, we did five days of rehearsals in a bare room with a piano and blocks. Steven brought his camera. 

I had ideas about staging but I also wanted things to be discovered. In this case, I told the actors that there would be a bed and I knew that we were going to shoot in a brownstone apartment. But I told them, “I just want to see you guys argue. Go wherever you want and we will follow you.” Take after take, rehearsal after rehearsal, we came up with that staging. During the editing process, I would have many screenings for both musical theatre people and nonmusical theatre people, and everyone in the audience had a different point of view. Sometimes they were on her side, sometimes they were on his side. Some of the women said she should’ve put on the dress, and others said she was right to walk out of the room. I really wanted to make it as balanced as possible. 

One the funniest numbers in the film is “A Summer in Ohio,” where Cathy recounts her quirky off-off-Broadway experiences to Jamie via Skype.

I always wanted it to be onstage. Since this is a musical, I wanted there to be one number where you actually see a stage and dancers, but it has to be second-rate and amateurish. Nowadays, Skype is a generational way of putting both people oncamera at the same time. In the play, she’s just writing a letter. I brought in a choreographer, Michele Lynch, who did a wonderful job. We had a beautiful theatre that we found in Staten Island. It’s the second-oldest concert hall in America after Carnegie Hall. Once we got in there, we just had this idea of showing the span of time by cutting between her doing this number onstage and all the different bits that the song refers to. Originally, I had her in a sort of dorm room and the staging was more confined. Then once I saw the location, I had many more ideas. 

I found myself applauding Cathy’s tour de force inner monologue that she spills out during an awkward audition. She comforts herself by saying, “These are the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical.” Where did that line come from?

Anna. The original lyric was, “These are the people who cast Linda Blair in a musical”—remember this was originally written 13 years ago. Jason updated the script recently, but he and Anna came up with that reference because of recent events. [laughs]

Was it a goal of yours to keep the film grounded in reality throughout?

Because I’m asking an audience to suspend their belief in a world where the characters sing 95 percent of their dialogue, I wanted to make it as organic as possible so that everything felt real. The best compliment I’ve heard so far from audiences is that they eventually forgot the actors were singing, because they were such playable scenes. I didn’t want lip-synching. There are 14 songs and 11 of them were all live. Two of them are lip-synched because I was jumping between locations and one of them is a combination of lip syncing and live performance. That was very, very important because it’s such an emotional score. This was before “Les Mis.” I always thought that if you don’t feel the breath in the actors’ bodies, you lose all the intimacy and truth. 

You worked with Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant in your short film, “Pigalle,” featured in “Paris, je t’aime.” What was it like working within the structure of that piece?

I wish that I had been more of a rule-breaker. I was too good at school, so when they told me that my short had to be five minutes and that it had to be in on a deadline, I paid attention to all that. I wrote it in about ten minutes and they gave me the arrondissement, I didn’t pick it. I had an extraordinary experience. We shot it in two nights in Pigalle and then I edited it for three weeks, all the while being in Paris. It’s such a beautiful city. I never felt comfortable there, but I really came to love it. My entire crew was French, and Bob and Fanny were marvelous. After it was all over, Fanny Ardant took me to this cafe in the Louvre where you sit outside. She took off her shoes and she had a little puppy that was at our feet. We sat there for three hours talking about movies and Truffaut, and I was like, “Oh god, somebody pinch me. Am I really here?” [laughs] The funny thing was that we were shooting at night and it was during “Da Vinci Code.” They had every cop and every security person, and we had nobody. We were at this beautiful corner and there was a bar across the street. Just to f—k with us, every time the people at this bar heard the word, “Action,” they would blast Barry White on the jukebox and then we couldn’t use the take. [laughs] It was insane. 

A film of yours that I watch every year around Christmas is “The Ref,” starring Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis as a bickering couple taken hostage by a burglar (Denis Leary) who ends up becoming their marriage counselor. You wrote the script with Marie Weiss.

Marie Weiss is my sister-in-law. She was married to my wife’s brother and was a burgeoning screenwriter. I had a deal at Disney and I had one job left where I could bring them something, so I guaranteed the script. She wrote the first and second drafts, then I took it over and I rewrote it. I was onset the entire time because I also produced the film and I kept rewriting it during production. So there are moments and ideas that are all Marie and there’s stuff that’s all me. 

How challenging was it to work on the script during production?

I loved being in the huddle with Kevin and Judy and Denis and just churning out pages. I remember after the reading, the script had gone very far off course after [producer Don] Simpson and [Jerry] Bruckheimer came on. Don Simpson was a character, god bless him. I really liked the guy, but he made me take the film in a direction where it became all about the couple’s son who no one really cared about. Judy Davis’s character changed and I remember her being very angry—and she was right to be angry—at the reading. I said to her, “Don’t worry, I’m very fast. I can rewrite it because I agree with you.” All that funny stuff was getting drained out of it. We started on a Monday and in three or four days, I rewrote the entire script, bringing in 30 pages a day. We’d sit down and it was Denis, me, Kevin, [director] Ted [Demme] and Judy, reading it, and then I’d go home and kept rewriting it. I’ve known Denis for years ever since Emerson College and one of the most satisfying things, as a writer, is to make a great comedian laugh. He was reading it for the first time and there were certain lines that made him stop and laugh.

Which ones?

One was during the scene where he’s going up the stairs with Judy and she’s talking about her marriage and he stops and goes, “What are we, girlfriends?” It just got him for some reason. And the other line was, “Who am I? Oswald?” 

My favorite line is delivered by Spacey when he finally stands up to his manipulative mother: “You know what I'm going to get you next Christmas, Mom? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.”

That’s my Catholic guilt. The line came right from my life. [laughs]

This sort of onset collaboration must have prepared you somewhat for direction. 

That happened on “Fisher King” too. I was onset the entire time and that was my first movie, so I was spoiled. It depends on the director, of course. Working with actors is my favorite part of directing. I’m still learning and I don’t consider myself a master of the skill yet. My DNA is that of a writer. I know that my imagination doesn’t naturally go to the visual elements in a scene, it goes to character. Making “The Last 5 Years” is the first time I feel like I’ve learned more about camera than I did before—what you can do and not do, what you can show or not show. It’s about simplicity, leaving the lights on the truck and letting the camera observe and not get in the way of the characters and the story and the performances. One of my weaknesses that I don’t like about what I do is I can sometimes be too literal, and Steven was very good at calling me out whenever I’d get like that.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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