From director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, Behind the Candelabra (debuting on HBO on May 26th) follows the life of virtuoso pianist and flamboyant entertainer Liberace (in a fantastically impressive performance by Academy Award winner Michael Douglas), while telling the tale of his tumultuous and secretive five-year love affair with the much younger Scott Thorson (in an equally great performance by Matt Damon). The film also stars Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Tom Papa, Paul Reiser and Debbie Reynolds.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Richard LaGravenese talked about how his involvement with the film came about, how much input Michael Douglas and Matt Damon had with the script, learning about Scott Thorson’s time in the Witness Protection Program, who he sees as the real Liberace, what he thinks Liberace would have thought of the film and Michael Douglas’ performance, and what Steven Soderbergh is like to collaborate with, as a director. He also talked about how his next directorial project, The Last 5 Years (with Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan), is shaping up, the status of the TV project he’s doing with Tony Goldwyn, and expressed his disappointment for how Beautiful Creatures was received. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
RICHARD LaGRAVENESE: I’ve known Steven [Soderbergh] for years. I’ve known Steven, as a friend, since Out of Sight, and we worked together on Erin Brockovich. It was in the summer of 2008 that I got an email from him saying, “I have this Liberace biography. Would you be interested? I’m not kidding.” And that was it. It was just three lines. He writes really funny emails. So, I said yes right away, and that was it.
Did you write a draft without knowing who would sign on, or had you always known who would be in the lead roles?
LaGRAVENESE: I knew about Michael [Douglas], at that point. And as I was writing it, Steven said he wanted Matt [Damon]. But, it wasn’t really writing it for actors. I was adapting the book, and I was really writing Lee and Scott. That’s how great the actors are. They completely embodied those characters. I had to have Liberace in mind. I remember seeing him on television, and I had his voice and that world, which I lived through, in my head. I understood the world, right away.
Did Michael Douglas and Matt Damon collaborate with you on the script, at all?
LaGRAVENESE: No. The amazing thing about them is that, when they signed on, they stayed committed to this movie, publicly, for four years. When it wasn’t set up anywhere, financially, they would publicly say they were a part of it. That’s a tribute, so much, to them. It was an amazing thing that they did. So, when we finally got HBO involved and we were in production, that was the first time that I sat down with them. I went with my computer, like I usually do, and waited to get notes on the script, and there weren’t any. There was one line that we cut for Michael, and one line that we changed for Matt. Other than that, it was exactly as written. Pretty much, it was just Michael and Matt asking questions about the characters and about the story. It was wonderful, actually. For a screenwriter, it was a dream come true. They were so respectful and wonderful about the script.
Obviously, Scott Thorson’s book is still only one side of the story. Were there other things you read or looked at, in figuring out how to represent both of these men, their relationship, and the people in their lives?
LaGRAVENESE: In his defense, Scott was pretty honest about many thing about himself, in the book. He talked about how, when he became a drug addict, he was a spoiled brat. He painted a picture. He always confirmed the reports that Lee was a very big-hearted, generous, loving man, who loved pretty much everyone in his life. The exposé of the marriage and how it all fell apart, I thought was pretty honest and made sense. He told a lot about Lee’s sexuality and Lee’s star temperament and the world that he was attracted to, and he was honest about his own feelings. He said he initially wasn’t attracted to the man, but that he was attracted more to the lifestyle. He had been a foster child who had never been in a family. And I’m sure Lee was attracted to this young, hot guy. But, I believed from the book and I knew it had to be the core of the story that they did come to love each other. If that wasn’t true, then the whole thing would have just been a parody. There had to be a real love between them, and I believed that. And in interviewing other people, they believed it as well.
One of the things I found out, on the outside, was when I did some research on Scott and found out that he went into the Witness Protection Program because he had been a witness to the Wonderland killings. When he was a drug addict, he used to get his drugs from the man who ordered the killings on the Wonderland gang that stole his money and his drugs, and Scott happened to be in the house when this man’s men were beating the shit out of John Holmes, who then confessed where these guys lived, so he became a witness. Originally, Steven wanted a framing device for different sequences, and the framing device in the first draft was Scott writing this book, years later in hiding, and then finding out he had to go into the Witness Protection Program. And then, we removed that. Later on, but right before we started shooting, Steven was given the original transcripts of testimony from the palimony hearings, so we read through these gigantic documents and added those scenes verbatim from the actual transcripts. That was not in the book. And of course, there was all the dialogue. Creating the relationship was pretty much invented. It was all just described by Scott.
Did you ever get a chance to talk directly to Scott Thorson?
LaGRAVENESE: No, I didn’t. But, I felt that I had a clear voice from reading the book.
In the research and work that you did for this film, who would you say the real Liberace was?
LaGRAVENESE: The real Liberace – and I’ll preface this by saying that I didn’t know the real one – was a man who didn’t come from much. His father left him and his family for another woman. His father was a musician, which I thought was pretty interesting. And then, when Scott said, “Oh, that must be where you got your talent from,” he was very defensive and said, “Absolutely not! I got nothing from him! My talent comes from God.” So, there were definitely some deep wounds there. And then, the mother favored him a great deal and put a lot into him that he resented. I’m sure he loved her, but there was this facade of him taking care of her and their relationship. Deep down, there was a tremendous resentment for her and the way that she forced certain things in his life. He only tried to be a concert pianist for her. He was a saloon player. He truly loved people. That’s why he was such a great entertainer. He loved his audience. That was his longest love affair. He cared about them. He cared about what they felt and what they thought. He cared about giving them the best time. It was being in saloons and having this extraordinary concert pianist technique of combining those two worlds that created Liberace’s act. He was a very interactive entertainer. I think that’s when he blossomed.
What I find so fascinating is that here was a man whose sexuality was in the closet because of the time he was living in, but in performance, he was completely himself. He was not hiding, at all. When you think about all the other gay actors of his time period, they never played gay characters. They were deep in the closet. But here he was, being himself, more on stage than any other performer. To his audience, he really wasn’t in the closet. His audience was of a different generation and they didn’t see that, for some reason. I remember it firsthand because I had aunts that loved him and would tell me how his heart was broken by Sonja Henie because that was the legend and that’s what they believed. My aunts and uncles would see him, but it was never spoken about. They would enjoy him for what he was. In a way, it was almost more permissive, but not really because the man couldn’t be who he really was, in his personal life.
At the same time, there was this liberation of men being able to express their sexuality, however they wanted to and however often they wanted to, so he was like a kid in a candy store, when it came to that. I thought that was interesting, for a man who had been so closeted for so many years. The other contradiction is that, as much as he had this ravenous sexual appetite, he truly loved being at home with just his one guy, that he would cook and clean for. He wasn’t a big partier in the celebrity arena. He loved having a very traditional home life with the one man he loved and tried to build a life with, and these other circumstances took over. Really, the plastic surgery turned things around. He felt younger, and Scott turned into a drug addict.
With everything that you learned about him and his personality, what do you think he might have thought of the film and of Michael Douglas’ performance?
LaGRAVENESE: I think he’d be honored. I think he’d be thrilled by it. I think he might feel some embarrassment or shame about some of the stuff, only because he was a man who lived, for so many years, dedicated to hiding all of it, but I hope he wouldn’t. It would be wonderful to think that he would see this and think, “This is who I really was, and everyone accepts it and loves it. What a wonderful period we’re in now.” I think he’d be amazed by the progress – even though there’s so much more to go – that has been made. It would be nice for him to feel that he wasn’t really hiding to his audience. He was in a difficult time in history, for a man like him, but he did an extraordinary amount with it. He never hid his sensibility or personality when he was on stage. Between the clothing and his chatter, he was himself.
What’s it like to collaborate with a filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh? Did you work with him throughout the process, or did you finish the script and hand it over to him?
LaGRAVENESE: He’s so smart. He’s a true filmmaking artist. He knows this craft in a way that I’m still miles away from trying to understand, and I may never get there. I wrote the script and he went, “Great!,” and gave a few notes and ideas. I implemented them, and then gave it back. This took a few years to get the money, and he was always doing other projects in between. I’d hear from him, six months down the line, and he’d say, “Hey, we’re about to go to the film market. Could you do a little pass again ‘cause I have a couple more ideas?” I would put those in there, and then that would be that. And then, I’d hear from him again the next time. It’s a very easy relationship that he and I have. I understand what he wants and, thank god, I can give it to him.
How are things coming along for you with The Last 5 Years?
LaGRAVENESE: I just came back from a location scout. I’m very excited about it. It’s a little nerve-wracking because it’s such a tight schedule. We’re shooting in 22 days and I have a four-week prep. We’re just about to start all the prep. I shot rehearsal footage of the two actors doing each of the songs and, if I could capture some of what I got there, then we’re in really good shape. I’m excited about it. It’s something I’ve never seen on screen before, so I’m very excited to see it. It’s a very emotional, beautifully written piece by Jason Robert Brown. Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan are just absolutely fantastic, and it’s a great story. I’m excited to get started. It’s a risk. The show has never been done this way. It’s an all-singing monologue story, when it’s theatrically done. On camera, it’s going to be more interactive, but I’m not writing new scenes or adapting it. I’m keeping it as it is. It will be 99% sung. And it’s not operatic, it’s songs. It’s a really cool show.
Are you still doing a TV show with Tony Goldwyn?
LaGRAVENESE: Yes. The company owns AMC, IFC, Sundance and WE. We did the show for AMC, and now they want to order it to rebrand the WE Network, the way that Mad Men rebranded AMC. It’s a great opportunity. The pilot has already been shot, so now we’re discussing how to move forward.
And that’s something you’ll stay involved with, as it moves forward?
Despite largely positive reviews, Beautiful Creatures didn’t perform at the box office the way people thought it would. Were you surprised that it didn’t connect better with audiences?
LaGRAVENESE: It was a freaking disaster! The funny thing is that, along the way, I would raise my hand and say, “You know, I’m really changing the book. Is this going to matter? I’m really concerned about this.” When I started adapting it, the book hadn’t come out yet and there was no fanbase. And all through the way, the response I got from the powers that be was, “Oh, it’s not Twilight. It’s a much smaller franchise. Do what you need to do. It’s not going to matter.” For my first couple of drafts, I did literal adaptations of the book, but I didn’t want to make that movie. I just wasn’t interested in doing that. I had a real struggle with it.
So, I found my in and what I wanted to do with that story, which is often done when you have to condense a 600-page book into a two-hour movie. But because of the marketing campaign, suddenly it became a bigger seller. It was starting to outsell The Hunger Games, and suddenly it had a big fanbase. I completely misjudged the culture. The fans were so angry that I had changed so much of what they loved in the book that they refused to go see it. I was out of touch with the culture, and got completely kicked in the teeth for it. I thought people wouldn’t mind and would want just a good movie that was, in spirit, very similar and had some things that were exactly like the book. But, this young YA culture doesn’t care. They want what’s in the book, good, bad or indifferent. They don’t care how it’s executed. They want what they want. And I was wrong. The actors were wonderful in it and, for my actors, it was really upsetting because I wanted people to see how wonderful they were.
Behind the Candelabra debuts on HBO on May 26th.