The Last Five Years, by director Richard LaGravenese, opens this Valentine’s Day weekend in theaters and VOD, to compete with a certain other romance with a little more sexual voltage.

This smaller movie, though, manages to pack a huge emotional wallop in its 94-minute running time. The film, which co-stars Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick, is the screen version of the 2001 Jason Robert Brown romantic musical that ran off-Broadway and amassed a loyal cult following.

Kendrick and Jordan play Cathy and Jamie, respectively, a struggling actress and wunderkind novelist in a roller-coaster relationship that heads south. Problems arise when Jamie reaches his dream and Cathy doesn’t (this is not a spoiler, as the film begins with the end of their marriage). Jordan, 31, is a already a musical Broadway veteran (Newsies) and Kendrick, 29, has showcased her soprano in Pitch Perfect and, more recently, in Into the Woods.

Richard LaGravenese, who is known primarily as a screenwriter—Oscar-nominated for The Fisher King, he was the co-writer of Behind the Candelabra and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken—both adapted and directed The Last Five Years, which was, as he told journalists at an intimate press event last week, a labor of love to counterpoint the big bucks he earns on his day job.

The two-character musical is performed almost entirely in song. Each character alternates singing a tune that deconstructs their relationship from their point of view. It’s a little gimmicky, but works. The chronology is also a little tricky: Cathy’s songs begin with the end of the relationship and go to the beginning, and Jamie’s numbers go forward, until at the end you see him leave their Manhattan brownstone with his suitcase. They have a duet only midway when they marry. The stand-out numbers include “Shiksa Goddess,” “The Schmuel Song,” “A Summer in Ohio,” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You.”

Richard LaGravenese and Jeremy Jordan spoke to MovieMaker in Manhattan.

TL5Y_Poster_FINALPaula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): It’s ironic this is opening on Valentine’s Day, the same day as Fifty Shades of Grey. Did you see this as an overlap?

Richard LaGravenese (RL): No, it was not our decision. They’re different kinds of masochism. There’s sadomasochism and then Jewish masochism [laughs]. We said that to [the distributors, Radius-TWC]: “Are you sure you want to do this? Because they do break up and there is a lot of heartache.” And they’re like, “No, no, it’ll be counter-programming!”

Jeremy Jordan (JJ): You just gotta get ’em in. Just get ’em in. Then all the couples who were snuggling when they walked in will be fighting with each other when they come out.

MM: The production notes say you actually recorded live. Talk about the challenge of that, particularly the long tracking shot of the song “If I Didn’t Believe in You.”

JJ: It’s a seven-minute shot.

RL: He did it 14 times. He sang it 14 times through.

JJ: 12.

RL: 12. It started in the rehearsals. We shot from June to July in 21 days. April, early April, we met for five days. The first time, we all got together and were in a bare room with a piano player and some blocks and just went through every song, with my cinematographer, Steven Meizler, with his RED. The script is basically just how songs are staged, because I didn’t write a lot of stuff. I wanted to keep it pure as to what it was. So this one, I said to them, “Just have your argument and start the song and just go wherever you want and we’ll follow you.” And when the actors did it, we looked at each other and went, “Wow, we can do this all in one shot, it’ll be awesome.” I hate to tell you how it felt doing it.

JJ: No, no, it wasn’t that difficult. I never ran out of steam on that one.

RL: The song guided you.

JJ: Yeah, I think the song has some really big moments, but there’s a lot of quiet moments as well, so you could conserve your energy and vocals. And every time we finished it, we would be in a state where we wanted to just go do it again. It wasn’t even a very long day because once we kind of set it for the first few takes, it was just like, go, go, go. It was a need to get it perfect. You discovered new things in each little take, so you wanted to try to embellish on them. In the theater world, you have all this rehearsal time and previews and audiences and you have a long time to get to work out all those little moments. In film, you have one day and you have a bunch of takes and you have to take advantage of every single one in order to get somewhere.

RL: Oh, absolutely. I’m a musical theater geek. I was a theater major, not a film major, and so musical theater is a big deal for me. I fell in love with the score around 2004. I didn’t get to see the show, so I didn’t know it was a monologue show. You know when you get an album and you just listen to it over and over and over? I did it with this album. So I was obsessed with it and I used to sit there and think in my head about what it was like. It and it was just a fantasy of making this little jewel of a movie without any sort of Hollywood involvement.

Then, a few years later, I was auditioning for P.S. I Love You [which LaGravenese wrote and directed in 2007] and the actress Sherie Rene Scott came in and the first thing I said was, “Last Five Years!” like a total geek. I told her I had this idea and she hooked me up with her then-husband Kurt [Deutsch]. Kurt became our first partner, Kurt introduced me to Jason [Robert Brown] and then I just started working on it. And it took about seven years on and off because I was doing paying jobs, and doing this kind of for myself. Jason and I never thought it was going to happen and then it happened. So yeah, it was a real passion project.

Jordan (center) in The Last Five Years

Jordan (center) in The Last Five Years

MM: Jeremy, can you talk about the challenge of playing a young man some people might think is a prick? 

JJ: We see Jamie first as the youthful, excited, really happy, fun-loving, go-getter. Then you see that development throughout the movie and so you know that the prick is not really what he’s like underneath. He does have an affair, but there’s things that almost everybody can relate to that has been in a relationship. You think, “Well, I can’t have that,” but what if you could? Sometimes all it takes is a little step over a line and then you’re there. I saw Jamie as someone who was battling that.

MM: Richard, you’re known as a writer, and this is a movie where you really didn’t write anything.

RL: No, I didn’t. A couple lines here and there… I wrote little bridges of stuff.

JJ: But being a writer doesn’t mean writing dialogue. You created the role. None of that stuff was pre-conceived, it all came out of your brain.

RL: This was a challenge because my DNA is “writer.” It was a great challenge for me because as a filmmaker, I’m not a strong visualist, and I thought, “Wow, this screenplay has me designing camera angles and locations and backstory and costumes and hair.” All that visual stuff that has to tell a story. The good news is, I’ve never been as confident about material as I was with this, because I didn’t write it. I’m always less confident about the stuff that I write myself. But I loved this and knew it worked so well that I approached it differently, which was a liberating thing.

MM: How closely did you work with the composer?

RL: Jason was great. I would always show him the drafts, he would have ideas, we’d exchange stuff. Any music or lyrics that were changed were his decisions that he did in his last revival. He wanted to expand the score in terms of brass and percussion that were not in the original. And then once it started shooting, he didn’t want to interfere in any way. He’s in it: he’s the piano player in the audition. But his wife, Georgia Stitt, who’s a very talented composer-lyricist herself, was my right arm. She represented him, so she was on set every day warming them up, and after every take I’d look to her, because I can’t tell if somebody’s out of pitch.

I’m a real geek. [To Jordan] Tell them. I would cry on set. I would shriek behind the camera. I was so excited.

JJ: There was a great scene, and it finished, and we heard this: [screeching] “Cut! Cut! Oh my god!”

Kendrick (center) and back-up dancers in The Last Five Years

Kendrick (center) and back-up dancers in The Last Five Years

MM: The film has a real emotional wallop which is a credit to the actors. Can you talk about working with Anna Kendrick? 

RL: Anna’s opening song was important because of where the story goes. I said, “We need to remember how hurt you were, so if you’re holding back too much, it’s going to appear cold.” She was little concerned about starting off that emotionally, but I really thought we needed it to ground it and ground her. And she just did a gorgeous job. She did that one section about 17 times. It wasn’t because of her voice, it was because the camera; we had this tricky long camera movement. It would stop on the track and hit the table, you know, things like that.

MM: Jeremy, how did you and Anna arrive at your chemistry?

JJ: It’s funny because you have to meet someone and then immediately start making out with them, yelling at them, and falling in love and breaking up. And it was really easy to do that on set with Anna. She was always incredibly available. There was a little bit of a mystery to her as well, which is always intriguing to me. I learned a lot from her, actually, as an actor in film. I’ve done a lot of theater, I felt very comfortable doing the musical stuff, but [in film] there’s a camera in your face. She taught me about stillness and underplaying things. I came out of it much better off for future projects. MM

The Last Five Years opens in theaters and on VOD on February 13, 2015, courtesy of Radius-TWC.