DREAMGIRLS: An Interview with Director Bill Condon
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An Interview with Director Bill Condon
December 11, 2006
Having won an Oscar for writing “Gods and Monsters” and then being later nominated for writing the hit film, “Chicago”, which would the Oscar for Best Picture, no one can argue that Bill Condon is well suited to write and direct the most eagerly waited film of the year, “Dreamgirls”. This is the film based on the hit play that featured a young Loretta Devine, Sherry Lee Ralph, and Jennifer Holiday, whose name goes with the song, “And I am Telling You”. The song captured the hearts of many as well as the play. Over the years, there had been talks to bring it to the big screen, but nothing would materialize, until now. With Grammy winner Beyonce playing Deena and Tony winner Anika Noni Rose playing Lorrell, the final piece of the trio would go to American Idol reject, Jennifer Hudson. Hudson’s Effie is the heart and soul of the film, and with Condon aboard as director, it’s his task to make sure she can bring home a winner. If she can knock the song out of the park, it’s game over, and he’s got a winner. With so much buzz surrounding the film since it’s 20 minute preview at Cannes this past summer, and early reviews showing nothing but raves, Condon’s hopefully on his way to another hit and another nomination. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Condon talks about the challenge of putting the film together, working with Jennifer and Beyonce, and working hard on the song that captures the film.
What kind of invention is required in making this stage spectacle into a cinema?
Bill Condon: Quite a bit, more than, for example, was needed in Chicago because Dreamgirls the show was almost entirely sung through an awful lot of dialogue’. That doesn’t fit so naturally on screen, we do it sparingly, we do it a few times per moment, so that I think, in film, which is a more realistic medium, performance songs are much more easily accepted, you understand that these are performers and they would be on a stage or in a recording booth. So for example, on stage, Effie first expresses her love for Curtis by interrupting a telephone call that he’s making; he’s singing that telephone call, and she interrupts him and sings, ‘Curtis, when I like a man’s eyes it’s very serious’ and he turns to her and sings, ‘We’ll talk about my eyes tonight’, which is very traditional, sort of operetta kind of convention which doesn’t work so well in a film, so when I was writing the script, I left a whole and described a new song that Effie would have, which turned into the song, ‘Love You, I Do’, the song Henry Krieger wrote, where she says all the same things about what a great man he is and how much she loves him, but it’s also a performance song, where her brother has written a song that she hopes to do as a solo in her act, and also it let’s you do things. You can do things in movies that you can’t do on stage, for example one of the lyrics is ‘I’m putting all my trust in you, cause you, you’ll always be true’ and we cut while she’s singing that to Curtis oogling Deena in the mirror, and you realize that just as she’s opening her heart to him he has already got the thoughts of betraying her, so that you see the seeds of her destruction being planted there. So that is an example of the kind of adaptation that had to happen with this, because so much of it was like opera.
I heard you put Jennifer Hudson through ‘diva training’
BC: Right, that Entertainment Weekly thing, it was brief, it didn’t take to much.
Did you really have to work with her to get her up to the performance that she gave in the movie?
BC: Well, yeah I think that was a lot of different things, but that was the final touch, which was; Jennifer is extremely sweet, she’s very professional and there is a sense that Effie quality of walking into a room and owning it and making sure the spotlight is on you, and (Jennifer) she doesn’t need that, that’s not who she is, but to be Effie, you needed to have a little of that quality. So it was simply a matter of a few days and acting out in that way and getting comfortable with it. She did, and it did help.
So how did that work? Did you say, we’re going out today, and this is how you’re gonna act?
BC: Well I told her, like everything, the hotel which was close to the studio, I told her, get there a minute late with your car and make a stink about it. I even tested her right after I did that, because I came in five minutes late, and she just smiled and I said, ‘Why are you still here I’m late, I thought you would have left by now’, and then the next time, she didn’t leave, but it was more, like she was late. Things like that, little things.
Dreamgirls has been talked about for years, performing it, there are always challenges. What was the biggest challenge doing this film?
BC: To me, personally, the biggest challenge was, and this is why I put it off to the end, was shooting ‘And I’m Telling You’ and making sure it killed the same way it did on stage, because it’s the Mount Everest of the show. You really could get everything else right, but if you don’t feel kind of devastated by what she’s going through at that point, then I feel that you haven’t lived up to the legend of ‘Dreamgirls’ It was interesting, you know I wanted to wait as long as possible so Jennifer was completely immersed in the character and also for all of us behind the scenes to feel like we were a well oiled machine and had it together. It was interesting to have gone through the whole movie and feel like it was going well, and still the weekend before wake up, and are thinking, oh god are we going to get this?
Had you seen the original? When you wrote this what were you looking to make a little bit different?
BC: Well I had seen the original, I was there at opening night in the back row, and then I saw it a number of times after that, I was just blown away by it. And there are a lot of things that were discarded, like I mentioned before, you take something that is operatic and make it into something more real. The original staging was almost abstract, there were no realistic sets, it was a series of rotating lighting towers that kept moving and creating new performance spaces, so you want to take advantage of what film does which is to be a realistic medium, which meant instead of living in an abstract parallel universe, where on stage the ‘Dreams’ say, ‘we’ll have this new sound and one day we’ll be as big as the Supremes’, as though The Supremes existed, I think here, it was really more of setting it in Detroit and reminding everyone of the backdrop of first peaceful civil rights marches, and then the riots and then the destruction of the inner cities that happened in the late 60's and early 70's. Racist comedians that preceded them as they have their first performance in Miami, really making a point for people that don’t know, really reminding them of the fact that this breakthrough happened against very difficult circumstances, and what pioneers these people were. I think the show happened so soon after the events it depicted, it all felt like part of the same thing. We have 25 years distance on it, and that seemed to be an advantage.
Whose idea was it to have Loretta Devine do that cameo, and did you ask any of the other original cast members?
BC: No, it was only Loretta, I was always afraid of it being like, ‘spot the Dreamgirl’ But you know I had written this jazz singer into the script, cause one of the things that’s new to the script is that the James Thunder Early character dies, and having this eulogy for him, and have this jazz singer sing this song, I just thought it would have extra resonance if it was the woman who was in love with him 25 years ago and never got him, singing, ‘Now I Miss You Old Friend’, and it would also be about the sadness of the passage of time, and seeing her older, but remembering her from the show. At first I called her, and she wasn’t sure that it was a real thing, and not just a sort of walk past thing, but Henry called her, and I called her again and she agreed to do it and I was thrilled. Henry always described her, not her character, but Loretta as being the heart of that production.
You touched on hearing the song, and staging it, that has got to be one of the most difficult things for a performer to do, to sustain that, in close up for that amount of time, how did you as a director facilitate that, and then as a director in editing how did you then manage to present it?
BC: That’s a good question. First of all you know I had this notion of doing it at the end, and we were at the end of our schedule, the end of our budget, and it was going to be the last day, day and a half, and it quickly became clear in the middle of the first day that Jennifer, even though she had prerecorded the song, was to get into the right emotional place, with singing full out, and her voice had gone after 3 or 4 hours. And Jennifer, being a complete natural talent, once she couldn’t sing anymore, she couldn’t do anything, the face wasn’t there, the eyes, she had to feel it through her voice. So it became clear, we had to go and actually get extra money and time, and it was going to have to get spread over 4 days to really get through this song. Early on, she did a take, and she started to cry, and it was beautiful and very moving, but I made the point to her, it’s the audience that’s gotta be moved, not her, and there’s no self pity in Effie. There’s a lot of other things going on, but not that. And just that one note, if you look at that movie, and as I said it was done over 4 days and there were dozens and dozens of different camera setups and takes, her eyes are always moist and filled with tears, but nothing comes out. That’s the thing. She’s not trained, but somehow she has that control to know exactly where to get to and not push it further. Jennifer can tell you stories, she was always on her Ipod summoning up memories of I think her grandmother that was reserved for what she was doing there, and it was really just in the telling of the story, that song really has a long journey, until when finally Curtis leaves and she’s saying, ‘and you, and you, and you, you’re gonna love me’ she’s not talking about him anymore. She’s talking about everyone in her life that’s never appreciated her, and having spent a life not being able to do what she wants to do, and that desperate feeling, and every audience she feels she’s never gonna get to play to now.
Someone said that maybe (Beyonce) she was a bit of a tough sell for you. How did she win you over?
BC: What it was for me was that she seemed like a very good idea for the part, and I loved her enthusiasm and the fact that she came after us, that’s always endearing, but I had two questions, could she adapt that strong, contemporary stage persona.. with somebody who is that accomplished we often think of a ‘diva’ or that they can only do that one thing. Could she do something from a different period, that’s radically different? She’s a result of something that started then, but then, for example, sexuality which, her on stage is a very aggressive sexual kind of posture that she takes, here it was all a 60's white version of that, being very kittenish and withdrawn and withholding, and the voice too, it was sort of like not using all the power, but just a little bit of it, softening it.
That was the first part, and the second part was, as an actress, she’d done credible movies before, but she’d never been asked to do anything like what this part demanded and to be one of the emotional centers of the movie. That’s something I needed to see. She auditioned for me in New York, she got a wig, put an outfit on and sang one verse of ‘Dreamgirls’, and being the incredibly hard worker that she is, she’d also come up with steps, and she just completely transformed herself. And what was interesting, there were bits of Diana Ross in there, but she also injected a lot of Marilyn Monroe and that was clever, because she understood that what Dina was trying to do was be like the dominant sexual goddesses of the time, and she did the big acting scene, the dining room scene with Jamie,
Jamie wasn’t there but we did it with another actor and we worked together and she got to a very interesting place there, very good, very strong, really alive. That’s another thing, some people can do it in a room, but what the camera was picking up in her eyes was very powerful, so I was completely won over.
Talk a little about the nuances in ‘I’m Telling You’ because I saw it on the second night and you saw it on the first, and I felt the difference was Jennifer was old enough to feel that song a little bit more, Jennifer Holiday, that is.
BC: She wasn’t though, you know she’s 21.
But there’s an earthiness there that makes you believe she’d been through this. But if you could talk a little about the nuances and how she approached the song?
BC: Sure, I think what it is first of all, Hudson, approached it, it all came from inside of her, there was no sense of referencing Holiday, she was born like a month before that show opened, she never saw it, and I think the thing also is that Jennifer Hudson’s is a film preformance, which means its all in the eyes, and its telling a story starting from a place thats very soft and then building to that place that’s sort of volcanic. So I think it takes a big journey there.
At what point did you realize she was stealing this movie?
BC: I don’t think of it as stealing, I just think she was living up to what Effie- but I have to say, the first time I put it together, it was like, whoa...she really, it was really thrilling to see that all those scenes that you feel like are working when you’re doing them were as a whole adding up to something pretty special.
The most obvious way in which sound is most useful to you in a musical is through song, but what other ways was sound production used to enhance the images in this particular?
BC: All throughout, you know it’s very exciting because it’s all heightened, if you just think of that shot where they go into the spotlight and step in, there’s music, but there’s a whoosh as they look into the light, we tried to keep it alive with as much original sound work as we could.
Having written ‘Chicago’ did you feel pressure to write this one?
BC: Yeah definitely. But I love them both so much.
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