'The Last Five Years': How the Songs Shaped the Movie

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
'The Last Five Years'

Star Jeremy Jordan and writer-director Richard LaGravenese talk to THR about the challenges of filming and weigh in on who's to blame for the demise of the film's central relationship.

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Last Five Years.]

Now that The Last Five Years is in theaters and on demand, fans of the off-Broadway musical can watch Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan belt out the songs from the show's popular soundtrack and see what the musical about the demise of a relationship would look like as a movie.

Although there are some changes in the film version, the biggest of which is that both characters appear together throughout the film, instead of trading solos like they do onstage, writer-director Richard LaGravenese says that his decisions were driven by the songs and how they made him feel.

"For me, all of the camera work, camera design came from the songs," LaGravenese tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I listened to the songs over and over as I wrote the staging and how we were going to use the camera. And when we did rehearsals, we had our camera with us, my cinematographer and I, and that's just what felt organic and appropriate for those moments to me emotionally. I was attracted to…this piece because of the emotional effects it had on me. And I suppose my camera reflected that."

For instance, several scenes feature close-up shots of Kendrick and Jordan singing, creating an intimate feel, which LaGravenese felt certain moments needed.

Jordan, however, says he tried not to worry about or look at the tight shots.

"I'm kind of weird about watching myself so unless they really needed to show me something on the monitor, I just let them do their camera thing and I did my actor thing and I just kind of separated the two worlds," he tells THR. "I very rarely ever looked at where the shot was."

The soundtrack also helped LaGravenese and Jordan overcome the challenges of turning the stage show about a couple's five-year romance, told from both sides, into a film.

For instance, LaGravenese initially wasn't quite sure how to stage the film's six-minute "Schmuel Song," even considering making that scene a cartoon, which he admits was him "trying to avoid the issue."

But he went so far as meeting with animators until he realized he couldn't stop the movie for six minutes for an animated number. And when he focused on the lyrics and how the song fit into Jamie (Jordan) and Cathy's (Kendrick) story, he figured it out.

"I went back and excavated the song and realized it wasn't what he was singing, it was why he was singing it. And once I unlocked that secret or that intention, I understood how to do it," LaGravenese says. "It's a very important song because it's the one time you see…how much he loves her and how much he will go through and the efforts he will make to boost her morale and to make her feel good about herself and how much he believes in her. The problem in their marriage — where she's more neurotic and more in her own way and he's so supportive, so later on when he sings 'Nobody Needs to Know' and he sings, ['We build a treehouse / I keep it from shaking'] while he's sleeping with other women — the 'Schmuel' thing is the kind of thing he's been doing throughout the marriage. That just doesn't work, and he can't do it anymore. That song became really important once I understood why it was there."

Most of the film's story is told through song, with little dialogue, but Newsies alum Jordan, who has a strong background in musical theater, was comfortable with that.

"Most of my professional work has been music-driven, so that's kind of where I live, and I think it's a great way of telling stories, honestly," he says. "It's a whole sort of world of being able to open up and express yourself in almost a deeper way than merely speaking. There's an old adage that we sing because what we have to say can't merely be expressed in words that we have to use music."

What was challenging were the scenes in which Kendrick was singing but he had to react without saying anything.

"The fact that you want to say something but can't because it's not in the script. And that level of being present versus the character not really being present, that was probably the most challenging stuff for me," he says. "When I'm singing, its easier for me to understand what you want and when there's no dialogue in a scene, you have to create all of your emotional reactions on your own."

He adds that Kendrick felt the opposite: "Anna always says that's the easiest part for her because she just has to sit back and let me sing."

Some people who see the musical, and now the film, find themselves siding with one side of the couple while others feel that both are to blame. Jordan says they tried to show why Jamie and Cathy each did what they did.

"Hopefully you understand why Jamie did what he did and the fact that he's not happy about it. He's battling the demons as he's stepping out on his wife, and you also see Cathy pushing Jamie away and you see her not being emotionally available to him," Jordan says. "They both kind of share the blame. At least we try to portray it that way. Everyone's going to take sides, especially based on their own personal experiences. Someone who just had her boyfriend break up with her who's watching the movie is going to side with Cathy. Our goal was to kind of have both sides be relatable."

And LaGravenese says he thinks no one is to blame.

"The truth to me, having lived a life already, is that everybody has their reasons and it's ambiguous. I know sometimes people who've seen it more than once side with one more than the other, but I've found that its a litmus test of where you are in your own life," he says, echoing Jordan's observation that a girl who saw it and recently broke up with her boyfriend hated Jeremy's character. "The goal for me was for you to see that a relationship isn't about fault or blame as much as they're just really difficult to have sometimes and love isn't enough. I do believe they loved each other…I don't think either one of them are wrong. I think they both have their reasons."

Fans across the country have few reasons to claim they can't see the movie, since it's available on demand and on iTunes in addition to playing in select theaters.

Both LaGravenese and Jordan say they think the distribution strategy is perfect for those who don't live near one of the few theaters showing the film.

"It makes the movie accessible to anyone in the country no matter where you are," Jordan says.