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December 2006
DREAMGIRLS: An Interview with Producer Laurence Mark

DREAMGIRLS: An Interview with Producer Laurence Mark
By Wilson Morales

December 11, 2006

For producer Laurence Mark, to be the one who gets to produce the most eagerly awaited film of the year, it must have been a challenge. It’s one thing when he’s putting together hits like “Jerry Maguire”, “I, Robot”, “As Good As It Gets” and most recently, “Last Holiday”, which starred Queen Latifah, but when you’re about to do Dreamgirls, you better come correct. This is the film that over decades had many actors lined up in the running. The show is such a Broadway classic and especially the songs that if you are going to bring it to the big screen, you better have the right cast and they better have the right pipes. In the last few years, many studios have tried to emulate the success of the Oscar winning film, Chicago, but have failed. “Rent” and “The Producers” are the most examples of stage to film vehicles that failed to capture an audience. With Chicago screenwriter Bill Condon on board as Director, and a cast that includes Grammy winner Beyonce, Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and Danny Glover, the path to success lies ahead. Not to mention that Mark helped cast the breakthrough star of the year in Jennifer Hudson, whose pipes alone may carry the film to multiple awards and new fans of the story across the world. In speaking to blackfilm.com, Mark talks about putting the film together, casting the female leads, and the comparisons to the Supremes.

So many years had gone by with talk about a Dreamgirls film and who’s gonna be in it. How do you become the one putting it together?

Laurence Mark: Well, first of all I had the great idea of having Bill Condon doing it and also directing it by the way because I’ve known Bill for a long, long time, and knew that he has, even though his resume might not suggest it, aside from the writing of Chicago, his other movies that you might not know that he is a lover of musicals and also knows the musical form better than anyone I knew, and I was lucky that I knew that. I’m also lucky that David Geffen was an old buddy, and I guess was more prone to trusting me, and then me and Bill, because for 25 years he had been very wary. Because so many musicals movies screw up, they just do, and then what happens, the legend that is the stage musical is tarnished and its legacy that’s Michael Bennett would have been tarnished. And David was like, well the way to have that happen is to not do it. And he was perfectly happy not to do it, until we bashed his door down. I also think though that in the last 25 years I’d like someone to come up with a dreamier cast. I’m just not sure you could. Lauren Hill would have been great, but I don’t know who would have been in it with her.

What happened to Usher? Wasn’t he supposed to play the part of C.C.?

LM: What happened with Usher? In the end it’s a scheduling matter and it’s a very supporting role and yet it’s in a lot of the movie, so it’s one of these roles that require being there a lot. And you weren’t able to, we couldn’t say, you can do this in three weeks, we couldn’t. You really had to give up three months. If we could have done it in three weeks I really think he would have done it, but his schedule as such, and our schedule as such, it never worked out.

This is weird to say, but how did you ‘discover’ Jennifer?

LM: Well, she was one of 80 some odd girls that came in, and then there were 20 some odd that we did screen tests with, actually it was, Jennifer did her video test in New York and Bill called me and said ‘wow this is very exciting, there’s something here’. Whoa, yeah, yeah. But for whatever reason, and it sometimes happens, that when we saw the test, when Bill saw the test, what was in the room, wasn’t on the screen. Somehow. And yet we moved on and did our thing and somehow found another way, and then in the eleventh hour, because these roles almost always cast in the eleventh hour. Movies that I’ve been, Renee Zellweger, a thousand years ago, in Jerry Maguire was the eleventh hour. Greg Kinnear in “As Good as It Gets” was the eleventh hour, I think that’s just the way it is. And in this case we were in the eleventh hour, and I said to Bill, the only time you ever called me during this process to express enthusiasm was when Jennifer Hudson, when you were working with Jennifer in New York, let’s get Jennifer back to LA, how about it, let’s do that. And he’s like, let’s do that, and we did that. And she literally they worked together for a while, and she killed, I have to ask her I don’t know if she actually got a chance to go back home, I think she literally started rehearsal in 48 hours, it was literally one of those, its ‘you’ve got the role, can you go home and get your bag?

Did you realize initially that she would have the ability to steal scenes from everyone?

LM: You know, you never know what you have really, until you put it all together, really, I know, you feel good about certain things and certain performances but in the end you never really feel confident about what you have until you have it. One of the nice things about a movie musical is that the rehearsal period is much longer, so in a regular movie, a newcomer like that may not find their sea legs until you are two or three weeks in, because you only have two or three weeks of rehearsal, here you have three to four months of rehearsals doing the dramatic stuff, and the dancing and the singing, so by the time we started we felt she had a firm grounding, but you never know, and I’m telling you we shot the last 3 days on the shoot, we scheduled the last 3 days of the shoot purposely to give her every possible break so she, let’s face it, that’s not a song that’s a scene

It’s impossible to do and she does it beautifully

LM: It’s a scene, it’s a monologue, it’s a song, it’s everything!

Did you see the original?

LM: The original? I did, sure.

How do you think this scene lives up to original?

LM: I think the only answer to that is that Jennifer Holiday does an amazing job, and it’s totally different than what Jennifer Hudson does. Do I love Jennifer Holiday? Yes. Was I knocked through the roof? Of course. Hard not to be. But I have the same experience with Jennifer Hudson, but for all different reasons.

Now as the producer, did you know Hinton Battle was part of the original Broadway production?

LM: He was not from the original, I think he took over the role of James Early from Cleavant Derricks

Were you looking to add someone from the original cast to the film, like adding Loretta Devine?

LM: We love the idea of doffing the hat to the original by including someone from the original company. The reason in the end we went for Loretta was because, she was Lorrell, of course in the original, the song and here she could sing about the death of Jimmy in a song called ‘She Will Fend’, which was in the original, not at a wake or anything, so it was also sung up-tempo. It’s really wonderful to have the original Lorrell now sort of singing about the death of a man she had an affair with 25 years ago.

Everybody talks about Beyonce, and Jennifer, and their stories, people forget about Anika Noni Rose, the third girl, how was her casting?

LM: Once again we did a lot of searching around., her stage presence is unparalleled, and also brought a tremendous amount of experience; in acting jobs, to the party. Theater acting talents, which made, cause that role can easily fade into the background, and it’s ok if it did, but with Anika it doesn’t because she won’t let it because she’s doing such amazing things with it, so it made us very happy that she was doing it because she found so many things in the text that we didn’t even know where there.

Many will see this is as the story of the Supreme’s? How did Diana Ross feel about the movie?

LM: I have no idea. You can’t do a movie about a girl group without there being an influence from Diana Ross. Is it the story of the Supremes? Yes. The Supremes, the Shirelles, Shangra-La's, all a little bit. Although I think, not that we did this purposefully for her to think, but I think that this character is more noble in the movie than in the stage production. We preferred it, just because it’s a more interesting character to us than in the stage production, which, let’s face it, we all celebrate and respect, but we did feel that there was a tendency for that character to be a bit, one note as the aggressive diva, and here what Bill did was, I think add some layers to her, so that she gets to give Curtis his comuppance, she is the instrument of by which he manages to fall and she seems to me to be a nobler character, and hence, more interesting character because she’s not just, the aggressive diva.

What was the idea behind making Beyonce look like Diana?

LM: You know, I think it was this one wig- first of all I don’t think you can think of the 60's and 70's without thinking of the Supremes, and there is this one wig that’s like a disco wig...

But she had the hair pulled back like Diana.

LM: You know, yeah. I’m not sure you can do the period, and not do Diana, I mean in many ways she is emblematic of the period. And actually, hats off to her for being so! But I think it’s hard to do that and not reference her.

Why do you think every Broadway that turns into a movie has one original song? Why not just leave it be?

LM: Oh! I don’t! You will not find an original song, I don’t believe in Sweeny Todd for instance, which no, this is a fun one. First of all we had the original composer. I don’t believe we would have done that had he not been writing and not writing happily. It worked for Grease, obviously, but I think it’s hard when you have original material written by other folks to have it then feel as organic. I don’t believe we would have added anything had the composer not been around and happy to write.

What is the eleventh hour? Why does it take an eleventh hour to find these women?

LM: Oh wow.

These characters emerge through the eleventh hour, emerge into the public awareness and consciousness, what is it that creates that, because I think it’s maybe almost a syndrome in producing?

LM: Yeah, no, it’s a good question, I’m trying to think of a good answer, part of it is that we’re so afraid to make a mistake in those roles that if you make a mistake, you’re dead. And if you make a mistake with Effie, you’re sort of dead . So I think it’s a little out of fear, that you’re like, ‘we have to get this right, we have to’, let’s take another hour to just make sure we think we have it right, it’s a little bit of that I think.


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