Dreamgirls - Bill Condon interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
BILL Condon talks about the many challenges of adapting Broadway hit Dreamgirls for the big screen and working with Beyonce Knowles…
*Q. As a student and lover of the musical did you approach this award-winning musical, which was an astonishing hit 25 years ago on Broadway, with any trepidation at all? Or was it full on knowing that it was a gorgeous piece of work you were getting your hands on? *
Bill Condon: I knew that, that it was gorgeous. But I was nervous. As opposed to Chicago, where all the numbers take place on the stage, the most famous numbers in this musical are book numbers, they arise out of the drama. That’s a convention that a couple of generations have grown up without. So the big challenge for me was, how do you get Jennifer [Hudson] singing “And I’m Telling You” and how do you get Lorrell singing “Lorrell loves Jimmy”? Those things where you break reality and break out into song.
Q. Has Eddie [Murphy] been in touch to thank you for giving him the opportunity to remind us of what a fine actor he can be?
Bill Condon: Right from the beginning he’d seen Dreamgirls four times so this was something that he was interested in and I think he felt it was something he wanted to live up to. The first people he was interested in as musicians were James Brown and Otis Redding, so he felt like this was his music. So he was very excited to be in this movie.
Q. You’ve always got a problem with a successful play. Most people know the songs and sequences. Was your job to open it up or did you have a theme that you wanted to concentrate on?
Bill Condon: You know it was more thematic. I think often the mistake that gets made in movies is that because you can you do. Take as an example The Chorus Line movie – that’s a show that takes place in two hours in real-time in a theatre. So in a movie you can have a helicopter and have someone arriving across the bridge but should you is the question.
Here, this show was almost entirely done on a stage or close to a stage and I tried as much as possible to stay true to that in the movie.
For me, someone like the Eddie Murphy character doesn’t live anywhere; he lives on a stage and when he’s not on the stage he’s on a bus getting to the next stage. You don’t really want to see him at home, or all those things you can do in the movie.
But there are other things… I thought because it was 25 years later there was the opportunity to put this in a larger historical context and really try to describe all of the things that were happening in society that mirrored what was happening with this group. So certainly the peaceful civil rights movement, some marches of the early 60s followed by the riots later in the 60s, followed by the destruction of the inner cities and Detroit becoming a character – that’s something you can only do in movies.
Q. And did you have a Motown soundtrack played to you when you were writing?
Bill Condon: Not too much. It really was more the music that Henry [Krieger] had written which I think is great theatre, dramatic music.
Q. Miss Ross – happy, unhappy, not fussed? What’s her position regarding Dreamgirls?
Bill Condon: Um, you know I worked with Rob Marshall on Chicago and last year just before we started shooting I went to the premiere of Memoirs Of A Geisha and I was sitting there and Diana Ross sits down in front of me. I watched the entire movie through her hair and was so tempted to reach forward. But you know the fact is it’s not her story. I think she went on Letterman the other night and said that she hadn’t seen the movie yet, she’s going to go with her lawyers but it was a laugh line. I think basically she understands.
Dreamgirls was always a highly fictionalised version of real events. This isn’t her life – that is her own right to tell that story. But my God, I love her so much, Beyonce loves her so much, there’s no question… we all took stuff out of our closets, old albums and old pictures and things like that. It’s a tribute to her as an icon and frankly as a pioneer. She changed the world, so I hope she takes it in that spirit when she finally does see it or watches it again.
Q. Is the final cast pretty much how you envisaged it to be? And how much did you have to persuade Beyonce or did she come bothering you to get the role?
Bill Condon: The cast is truly a dream cast. I do feel that all these people were born to play these parts. I feel very lucky that we got everybody together. Beyonce did come after us, it wasn’t the other way around. We met, I loved her but I still had this question – two things. One of them was this was a level of acting she’d never attempted before.
But more than that, she’s someone who’s got such a well developed stage persona – we all can name names of people who do one thing brilliantly – could she adapt to something that was so really different? Just take the way she is sexually on a stage. She’s so powerful and so contemporary. This was all about something very different, it was about withholding and it was about a certain kind of 50s sexuality. So she volunteered to audition and we worked together on the hardest scene in the movie…
Q. She auditioned?
Bill Condon: She auditioned, yeah she did a screen test. I didn’t even have to put it together. I called up David Geffen [co-producer] on the way to the airport and said “she’s it”. It was very clear and then we didn’t really see anyone else. She really wanted the part.
Q. Did she find that little bit of adult language a little difficult to deal with?
Bill Condon: No, I think she liked it.
Q. Didn’t she go out and get a specific outfit to wear for the audition?
Bill Condon: She did. She went out the night before and found this incredible forward fitting kind of Marilyn Monroe dress. That was the thing that was clever. She did the title number with piano and you’d think she’d do Diana Ross. She had a little bit of that but she had a lot of Marilyn, she understood that Deena [her character] at that point was going to try to imitate the white sex goddess of the period. It was really very inventive her audition.
Q. David Geffen famously guarded the rights to this for 25 years and you managed to prise them away from him. Was there a moment after he’d agreed that you though: “Oh God, I’ve got to do this now!”?
Bill Condon: Well it was interesting, at the end of that lunch I said I had another movie to go off and make, which was Kinsey, and he said: “Well, it’s not going anywhere.” So actually having made the decision to do it, then it got interrupted by 18 months of making another film. So I was so eager during Kinsey, I kept thinking about it, that when I got back and actually could write it all kind of poured out because I was so excited about it.
Certainly, in the process there were things that were daunting. But the thing about a musical is that it all gets made in prep…. not all obviously but a lot of it gets planned out there. So whenever it felt overwhelming you just take a breath and go home and wake up the next morning and it would all be OK.