Next Valentine’s Day, Richard LaGravenese’s The Last Five Years looks to be the lovers’ holiday’s hot date movie. Starring Anna Kendrick and Smash star Jeremy Jordan, it is the story of a relationship between a gentile actress and a Jewish novelist weaving backward and forward in time and told almost totally in song. LaGravenese never saw Jason Robert Brown’s award-winning play when it was produced Off-Broadway, but he had the soundtrack.
“I would listen to it over and over and over,” LaGravenese says at the Toronto International Film Festival where The Last Five Years had its world premiere.
The writer/director knew Kendrick from the movie Camp, and knew she was perfect for the female lead. Casting the male was trickier. Within the film is a joke about a brilliant actor who is a terrible singer cast in the musical, a recent trend in big Hollywood musicals. LaGravenese was having none of that.
“A lot of the actors who wanted to do it, couldn’t sing it,” he says. “The deal I had with Jason was I pick the actor I want, because they have to be able to act the score, but he has to tell me whether or not they can sing it, because I don’t know enough about music. I would meet them and then send them to Jason and they would have to sing for Jason. Except Jeremy. We knew Jeremy could sing, so we had to make sure he could act it.
“I’m so sick of musicals, especially ones that I love, where they cast actors, ‘Oh they don’t have to sing well, they just have to act well.’ No! You have to sing the score I love.”
LaGravenese’s first love is the theater, so The Last Five Years is a way to pay homage to that. It was his wife, Anne, who first suggested he try his hand at screenwriting. After apprenticing with a friend, his first solo screenplay was The Fisher King.
“I wrote it just to be a writing sample so that I could get a job,” he says. “I never thought it would get made.”
And while The Last Five Years makes its debut on the world stage, LaGravenese is touched to learn that The Fisher King is screening this weekend in San Francisco as part of the Castro Theatre’s celebration of Robin Williams’ life.
“That was a heartbreaker for me,” LaGravenese says of Williams’ recent death. “I owe that man so much. That movie would not have been what it was had he not said yes. He was the most respectful, kind, lovely man. It’s a heartbreaker to think he was in so much pain.
“He was wonderful,” he adds. “He ad-libbed maybe five lines, but other than that, he treated the script like the Grail. He was just fantastic.”—Pam Grady
The Last Five Years opens Friday, February 13, 2015. The Fisher King plays the Castro Theatre Sunday, September 14. For further information, contact castrotheatre.com.