A Dream Come True, Musicals Are Back

The movie musical was considered a dead medium in Hollywood before “Chicago” came along in 2002 and both scored at the box office and gobbled up six Academy Awards, including the Oscar for best picture. Now, “Dreamgirls” is poised to possibly repeat the feat, what with very respectable sales figures and a Golden Globe for best non-dramatic film.

What those two pictures have in common is Bill Condon, the writer-director of the critically acclaimed dramas “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey.” Condon wrote the screenplay for “Chicago,” and he both scripted and helmed the ambitious “Dreamgirls.”

“Working on Chicago was an amazing experience,” Condon recalled over the telephone from Los Angeles last week. “It was like my university education in movie musicals. Afterwards, I really, really wanted to take one on myself.”

“Dreamgirls” was the obvious choice for Condon. Not only was it “the great un-made” musical, as he called it, but the writer-director had been a huge fan of the show ever since he saw it on opening night on Broadway, 25 years ago.

“I thought it was absolutely brilliant back then – a really terrific score, and a story that is very specific about time and place but also relates to anybody anywhere,” he says. “But I never thought I’d be the one to turn it into a movie.”

After original stage director Michael Bennett died in 1986, music and movie mogul David Geffen retained the show’s rights and kept a close watch over the property. Condon managed to convince Geffen to give him a whirl at adapting it.

While some might think a story based on the career of Diana Ross and the Supremes and the rise of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records would appear dated in 2006, Condon figured the distance could provide a helpful perspective.

“All it really lost was its gossip value, that question of how much was true about Motown and Diana Ross, what things were close to what really happened,” Condon says. “Actually, the world we’re living in now has black culture at the heart of the mainstream in music and even in movies to a degree, so to see where that started gives it a new kind of resonance.”

Of course, a great deal of credit for the film’s success lies with its superb cast, from Jamie Foxx as the Gordy-esque Curtis Taylor, and Beyoncé Knowles as the Ross-like Deena Jones to newcomer Jennifer Hudson (who will be on hand for the tribute) as big-voiced Effie and, especially, Eddie Murphy in an unlikely role as a character named James “Thunder” Early who is based on a pastiche of James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, among others.

“There are so many things that were right about him,” Condon says of Murphy. “He’s been a big star for a long time, and maybe has been coasting for a while now – as was his character – so perhaps he needed the challenge of something new.”

Condon also earned well-deserved kudos for his handling of Effie’s massive production number, “And I Am Telling You.”

“That’s what stopped the show on stage every night, so you simply have to live up to that legend,” he says. “Part of the power is hearing that majestic sound on the stage, which is hard to do on film. I needed to make it as live and exciting as it could possibly be. It took even longer than I expected it to because (Hudson) sang every take full out and after four hours every day, she was spent. She doesn’t have the kind of training, thank God, that would allow her to lip-synch it.”

Now, having had his hand in the last two big musical movies, Condon thinks he might take a break from the genre. But with four huge production on the way (“Hairspray,” “Mamma Mia,” “Sweeney Todd” and the Beatles-related “Across the Universe”), the writer-director is satisfied the musical is in good stead again.

“You can’t have these experiences of people responding this way and not want to make more of them,” he says. “Musicals are back!”

(Bill Condon receives SBIFF’s Montecito Award at 7:30 pm Monday at the Arlington Theatre.)

SBIFF Panel-monium

Many a festival turn an envying eye towards SBIFF’s slate of panels, which year after year have offered a veritable black book of the best in the filmmaking business, and often serve as a precursor to the big awards season. Nary an Academy Awards night has gone by in recent years without at least a couple of SBIFF panelists clutching an Oscar by evening’s end.

We caught up with Peter Morgan, the screenwriter behind both “The Queen” and “Last King of Scotland” just a few days after he pocketed the Golden Globe for penning “The Queen,” which also won Helen Mirren a best actress award in the title role. But that was only part of his big evening. Before 2006, no screenwriter had ever authored scripts for movies that won both the best actor and actress statuettes in the same year for different movies. But when Forest Whitaker also garnered a Globe for his role as Idi Amin in “Last King,” Morgan became the hottest new writer in Hollywood, despite the fact that he’s a Brit with 15 years of experience (although none of his previous films ever even opened in America).

Q. “The Queen” is being hailed for nailing the tone and tenor of British royalty, but obviously you can’t have known what anybody actually said in the week that followed Princess Diana’s death. How much research did you do, and how did you come up with the dialogue?

A. All the conversations are completely made up. People ask me how I know what they said, and of course I have no idea and no one ever will. I’m sure the Queen was actually much more polite. But the words can be totally inaccurate and yet somehow truthful as long as you’re treating the characters with impartiality, dignity and respect and give them a fair hearing. And I wanted the audience to do the editorializing. I didn’t want to tell them what to think.

Are you surprised at how well the movie has played in America?

I’m astounded. It’s been pretty much an identical response in every country around the world. I thought we had an incredibly detailed story with inside jokes no one else could understand, but people have really embraced it…. I think it proves that being specific works. When you strive for broader strokes for international success, that’s when you lose it. I never wanted to appeal to anyone other than ten people inside Buckingham Palace and six at 10 Downing Street. I want them to think, “Blimey, how’d he know that?!”

Turning to “Last King,” it’s a very different movie, yet there are similarities in the psychological studies of the motivations behind the behaviors and the pressures one feels of duty and personal ambition.

Yes, I believe everyone deserves a fair hearing, even those who are clearly inexcusable. Dictators are made, not born. So it’s too simplistic to say Idi Amin was just a psychopath. He was created. The British have their fingerprints on the murder weapon.

Unlike Mirren and “The Queen,” nobody thought of Forest Whitaker for that role.

I’ll go even further. I pretty much said that I would make my involvement in “Last King” be conditional on Forest Whitaker not being cast…. I thought it absolutely had to have an African actor, that a modern American could not play that part. I mean, I had no idea. But it’s a masterful performance. Every time I see Forest now I wince with embarrassment…. Both he and Helen Mirren turned in astonishing performances, and I’m just one lucky dude.

Panel Particulars

“Directors on Directing” takes place January 27 at 11 am at the Lobero with panelists Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel”), Todd Field (“Little Children”), Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and John Lasseter (“Cars”). “It Starts with the Script” follows at 2 pm with Peter Morgan, Todd Field, Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Guillermo Arriaga (“Babel”), Zack Helm (“Stranger Than Fiction”), Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”), William Monahan (“The Departed”) and Jason Reitman (“Thank You For Smoking”). The “Movers & Shakers” Producers Panel is slated for 11 am the next morning with Judd Apatow (“Talladega Nights”), Albert Berger (“Little Children”), Steve Golin (“Babel”), Graham King (“The Departed”), Lawrence Mark (“Dreamgirls”), Jay Roach (“Borat”) and Ron Yerxa (“Little Miss Sunshine”).

The Women’s Panel takes place on February 3, at 11 am, with Adriana Barraza (actress, “Babel”), Sharen Davis (costume designer, “Dreamgirls,” “Pursuit of Happyness”), Virginia Katz (editor, “Dreamgirls”) and Cecilia Peck (director, “Shut Up and Sing”), plus others. “Scoring the Film” Composer’s Panel follows at 2 pm with Gustavo Santaolalla (“Babel”), Mark Isham (“Bobby”) and Mychael Danna (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Nativity Story”) and others.

Montecito at the Movies

As always, Montecito has a significant presence at SBIFF 2007, albeit not with the kind of high profile of past years. In 2006, Montecito-related writer-director Jason Reitman provided the best closing night film in the festival’s history with “Thank You For Smoking” and Montecito director (and Montecito Association president) Robert Collector contributed the world premiere of his girl’s high school basketball film, “Believe in Me.” (Reitman returns as part of Saturday’s “Directors on Directing” panel, while “Believe” got picked up for distribution by IFC Films and is set to open on March 9).

While actor-director Tim Matheson is back for another stint as programmer of the East-West sidebar (formerly Cult Asian), and Montecitans populate both the Board of Directors and the party lists, you may have to look a bit deeper to find Montecito connections among the films themselves. Here’s a partial list:

• “Humanity Ascending,” the first in a series of films from Barbara Marx-Hubbard’s Foundation for Conscious Evolution, already had its world premiere at the Riviera last fall; the 40-minute entry screens at the Vic on January 29 at 3:30 pm and at Center Stage on January 31 at 10:30 am.

• “Chicxulub,” a 15-minute short based on Montecito author T. C. Boyle’s short story of the same name, is part of the shorts program No. 5, which plays at the Lobero at 10 pm January 26.

• Avery Medjuck, who won the 10-10-10 Screenwriting Competition last year, is back again to defend his title. Medjuck’s dad, Joe, is an executive and producer with the Montecito Picture Company.

Perhaps the most intriguing Montecito filmmaker this year is documentarian Sam Tyler. Duplicating his previous efforts in business bibles “In Search of Excellence” and “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” into non-fiction films, Tyler has produced “Good to Great,” based on the Jim Collins bestseller.

While the film has already aired on public TV stations across the country (although not yet in Los Angeles), SBIFF marks its theatrical premiere.

“I’ve never shown my work here in town before, so I’m tickled they accepted it for the festival,” says Tyler, who plans on attending Q&A sessions following screenings at the Marjorie Luke on January 26 at 7 pm and the Vic on January 29 at 10 am.

While some see the books as virtual courses for business success, Tyler has taken a different approach with the movie version. “I don’t like instructional films,” he says. “So I turned it into a series of stories that allow viewers to understand the principles that anyone can understand. You don’t have to have gone to Harvard to get the message.”

While the book was based on Collins’s careful research of the highest level of sustained achievement among all 1,400-plus companies that made the Fortune 500 between 1965-95, Tyler updated the movie for current audiences. “We decided for the film to make a transition to contemporary companies and organizations – such as Southwest Airlines and the Dallas Police Department – who are most following the same models and principles and are likely to succeed,” he says.

While “Good” is his local debut, it surely won’t be his last entry in town: Tyler is currently filming “The News-Press Story,” a documentary about the current upheaval at Santa Barbara’s largest newspaper.