A Musical Man: A Few Minutes with Bill Condon; director of ‘Dreamgirls’

Posted in Blu-Ray/DVD, Interviews, Movies by - October 12, 2017
A Musical Man: A Few Minutes with Bill Condon; director of ‘Dreamgirls’

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It’s always interesting to talk to one of the driving forces behind a piece of art that you just have a great deal of admiration for.

In honor of the release of the Dreamgirls: Director’s Extended Edition I got the unique please to sit down and talk with director Bill Condon about the challenges of adapting a Broadway musical to the screen, the casting process that ultimately led to an Academy Award for Jennifer Hudson and the challenges of staying true to your vision while creating a major motion picture.


 Dave Voigt: Hi Bill, thanks for the time today.  I’m not only just a big fan of Dreamgirls but also of your entire body of work ever since Candyman: Farewell To The Flesh and Dreamgirls was a pretty big step up for you in terms of scale of filmmaking and I am curious to hear what ultimately interested you in the project?

Bill Condon: Well I am just a huge fan of the genre and I got to work in it when I wrote Chicago so it was something I really had been circling my entire life as I have always been fascinated with how these big Broadway musicals got adapted for the big screen and especially when they are done well.  Chicago really opened that door for me because after the success of the film all the major studios wanted to make musicals and it really was a very lucky moment for me in my career.  Also it was a pretty big leap of faith on David Geffen’s part who had held on to the rights and was a little anxious because it was a show that had such a great reputation along with Michael Bennett who had directed the original show coming off his stellar work in A Chorus Line which he helped turn into a film and there was so much careful navigating and work involved that David really took a shot in getting this made.

DV: Obviously when you see a musical on stage, the music does tend to drive the narrative but historically and in recent memory whenever a musical has been adapted to the screen, we see exposition and more character driven material get added whereas with Dreamgirls the music and the character driven elements truly go side by side, do you think that is one of the reasons why the film was successful and very well received?

BC: That’s a really good question because you are exactly right, Dreamgirls has a lot more music then movie musicals tend to have.  Beauty and the Beast had about 40 or so minutes based on a two hour run time and with this show which is only a little over that and we have almost 100 minutes of music and that factor is really engrained in what the show is all about.  Plus you’ll have people who are really fanatical about the show who bemoan changes like the 20 minutes of sung dialogue that I replaced with spoken dialogue really miss it but I think it’s hard to do a movie that is entirely sung and without the beats of dialogue in between songs it can occasionally get a little bit oppressive but it was a risk and we had constant discussion about it.  However to me that is really what sets Dreamgirls apart from other material because let’s face it there isn’t one person in the show singing the material who doesn’t have the right to be there and isn’t a great performer because it’s a story about creating music told by people who do exactly that.

DV: And I think that transitions pretty well into my next question because you mentioned risk and from a casting perspective there are obviously some key parts with some big stars in those roles but we also have to bring up Jennifer Hudson as the other side of the equation in that story and the special features in the new release really do show that.  Can you talk a little about how much effort you had to put into casting to make sure that you had all the right people for the right roles?

BC: Yeah, it took a long time.  Especially for the role of Effie White because while I didn’t meet with all of them obviously there were over 800 women who read for the role and we did open auditions around the country for it.  We then boiled it down to about 10 people, then brought out about 5-6 of them to LA to do a proper screen test with them and you can see it on the new Blu-Ray because we kind of new that even if we got everything else wrong on the movie but this right then we knew everything would be OK.  We knew how big of a decision this was going to be and we kind of had to prove it to ourselves and that’s what that final audition was and it took until then until we could really see entirely how special Jennifer really could be in the role.  Obviously I knew her and I loved her, but it was never a question of her just walking in the room and we were convinced, it was something that had to be earned by all of us.

DV: How cathartic a moment was it then when she won the Academy Award?

BC: Oh my god! (Laughs) And it was after Eddie (Murphy) had lost as well but it was so great.  She was so sweet and had actually invited me to be her date that night and it was easily one of the proudest moments of my life to be able to be there in person for it.

DV: Historically throughout your career you’ve never really been a director/storyteller who gets pinned down by the trappings of anyone particular genre going from things like Dreamgirls & Beauty and the Beast to now getting to work on something like Bride of Frankenstein; has it been important for you to never getting pigeonholed into any one kind of story that you want to tell?

BC: No and to be honest there is a downside to really not getting pigeonholed in this business because I mean wow we live in this era where we even want to tag movie directors with a certain ‘brand’! (Laughs) and people do get seduced by it but whenever I am working on something, be it someone else’s material or something I developed myself, I always look for that through line in it all and find those things that appeal to me personally and I find that thing to follow.  Plus when I really am in the middle of something, it all comes around and ends up feeling very familiar to me in one way or another no matter what kind of material I am tackling at the time.

DV: And I would agree with you on through line because with something like Mr. Holmes which I absolutely adore there still is a certain sense of scale and scope to it all that doesn’t necessarily fit into any definable style.  When you are shooting something, are you conscience of assembling something with the scale that you want or does it all boil down the material.

BC: You know anytime you are working on a picture you always want to be a perfect story but the thing is and this will probably sound like a terrible thing to say but there are sometimes where you just have to embrace visualizing an idea that you have.  I mean in The Fifth Estate we shot this sequence where we made this kind of surreal visualization of submitting to Assange’s platform with these graphics and funky visuals which a lot of people and millennials thought we were trying to make a visual example of how the internet works which really isn’t what we intended at all, but coming up with those kinds of ideas is really what excites me as a filmmaker.

DV: Now, I’m dying to ask if the Bill Condon who directed Candyman: Farewell To The Flesh could talk to the Bride of Frankenstein Bill Condon what would he say?

BC: (Laughs!) Make sure it’s scary!!! (Laughs) And I truly believe that because when you see something like Get Out which really makes you jump in a totally new way, that’s going to be so essential when you are making a monster movie.

Dreamgirls: Director’s Extended Edition is now available on Blu-Ray/DVD Combo pack everywhere.

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This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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