Director Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls takes the drama of his two features, Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, into the musical world. As the person who adapted the musical Chicago for the big screen, Condon was a natural to direct Dreamgirls, which has a limited opening on December 15, and wide release on Christmas Day through Paramount/DreamWorks.The film is based on the acclaimed Tony Award-winning Broadway show from the early 80s about the crossover success of the Detroit Motown sound of the 60s. It stars Beyonce Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson as the film’s musical trio, and Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy.Here, Condon discusses what it was like to make the musical in collaboration with production designer John Myhre (an Oscar winner for Memoirs of a Geisha and Chicago), cinematographer Tobias Schliessler (Friday Night Lights), costume designer Sharen Davis (Ray) and editor Virginia Katz (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters).Below the Line: You’ve said that a musical needs to be cinematic to work as a movie. How does Dreamgirls qualify?Bill Condon: It is in the tradition of great backstage film musicals. But I think the challenge always is to keep the story going through song. First of all, here you’re dealing with a property that was already built in to a degree, but also visually. And so much a part of adapting it is just imagining what you’re seeing as you hear these songs. Visually, everyone winds up in a different place at the end of the number from where they began. I think that’s the biggest part of the job in figuring out how to adapt a stage show for film.BTL: What was your take in approaching this?Condon: There’s no question that I took my cue from the original Michael Bennett production. It took off like a bullet train that never stopped—it is one of the most dynamic and cinematic staging I’d ever seen. So certainly the idea of movement, progress, are built into the story. And that became something from the “show and tell” early on; the idea of progress informed everything we did and cut across all the different departments. This is a story of progress. If you take the way the set is designed or the light is used or the camera works, you couldn’t find a better illustration of this than in the first scene during the talent contest. It’s a lot rougher: the set is just one backdrop with broken bits of mirror on it, there are no sweeping shots, the lights are blunter and the costumes are homemade. So that’s the starting point. And each step of the way, as this group progresses, we became more and more refined and sophisticated, until at the end, oddly, when it makes its way back to the same location as where we started, but with this massive set now built on the stage and every bit of stage machinery and the most beautiful costumes and sweeping camera moves.BTL: What were some of the biggest challenges on the film?Condon: I was really inspired by some of the great Technicolor musicals of the 50s—The Band Wagon, A Star is Born, Funny Face and Singin’ in the Rain. And so in working with John Myhre, Tobias Schliessler and Sharen Davis, we really did work it out in a very intricate visual way. Color became so much a part of the story. Look at the number “Steppin’ To The Bad Side,” which is done all in black and red, with red representing the step into violence. We’ve done the whole movie that way. The challenge was making sure we didn’t get caught at it, because first and foremost, it had to be a movie that was accessible to audiences today. That’s where Tobias, I think, was especially helpful, having come from Friday Night Lights, and the grittiness of that film, he was able to take things and make it work today. I think that was the fine line that we were walking and it was in every department. Take costumes: you want to get the essence of a 60s and 70s design. You don’t want to be literal about it, particularly when it comes to men’s fashion, which is quite disturbing to look at. We want it to look timeless.BTL: John Myhre is very much an old hand it this, with Chicago. What was his take?Condon: John put in these great pictures of marquees from car dealerships back then. The point is that there is already a theatrical aspect to locations with regard to Curtis Taylor Jr. [Foxx]. The neat thing is that John was finding theater in reality. And we have this challenge in having audiences accept that people are going to sing in real spaces. But John had already theatricalized them in a very subtle way so that you feel more comfortable with that device. And then finding the reality in theater and making sure you felt the dirt and grit of theaters and the age of them and the connection with the audience. That was a huge thing that John tracked through his design too. He built these boxes in the first scene for the talent contest just to bring the audience almost onto the stage to land that idea that there’s a grass-roots connection between the people on the stage and in the audience. As the acts get more successful, they get more remote. The dreams are way above everybody.BTL: The first half of the film is definitely breathless and then the second half is darker. What was the challenge in maintaining the sense of momentum?Condon: Well, that’s important because the classic situation in a backstage musical is that the first half is always more dynamic with the rise and the second act is inevitably about the consequences with the fall. What I think is neat about Dreamgirls is that the original show really spoke to this issue because in the second act, one of the stories is a first act story, with Effie [Hudson] rising out of the ashes again and finding her voice and that becomes the heart and soul of the piece.BTL: What was the editing process like?Condon: Working with Ginny is an epic process, I’d say. We shot almost a million feet of film and, again, using that idea of movement and progress and applying it to the cut was an interesting thing to explore. Music and drama and spoken scenes started to come into focus as we got into it. When we put it all together the first time, the music probably overwhelmed the drama a little bit so we pulled back. It still is sort of an opera, because there’s so much that’s told through music. But I hope we’ve disguised that better. I always love working with Ginny, because she is a master of performance and really discovering those truthful moments in dailies and in the film, and cutting to performance first and foremost.BTL: So is she really the secret to your success, going back to Gods and Monsters and Kinsey.Condon: I think she is. Our process is that while I’m working, the treat at the end of the week is that she’s cut things together. And on this film, with a lot of hard work, done on a pretty tight schedule—63 days—I was going into people’s trailers—Beyonce and Eddie and Jamie—and I’d show them when they were put together in this rough form. And it re-energized people at moments when you thought they were going to drop.
Written by Bill Desowitz