Bill Condon Tells the Story Behind 'Dreamgirls'

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Dreamgirls writer and director Bill Condon talks about making the movie. Condon also tells Farai Chideya about his choice to fill the role Jennifer Holiday played on Broadway.

TONY COX, host:

It's the movie everyone is talking about.

(Soundbite of song, “Dreamgirls”)

DREAMGIRLS: (Singing) We‘re the Dreamgirls. Boys, we'll make you happy. Yeah.

COX: “Dreamgirls” took Broadway by storm in 1981 and now the story of a black girl group based loosely on Diana Ross and The Supremes is going into wide release at multiplexes for Christmas.

(Soundbite of movie, “Dreamgirls”)

Ms. BEYONCE KNOWLES (Singer; Actor): (As Deena Jones) Did you hear what he said? We're singing behind Jim Early tonight?

Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON (Actor): (As Effie Melody White) I don't do backup.

Ms. ANIKA NONI ROSE: (As Lorrell Robinson) Now you look, Effie. This could be our big break.

COX: The cast including Beyonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson is also getting some pre-Oscar buzz. Bill Condon wrote and directed Dreamgirls and NPR's Farai Chideya recently sat down with him at the studios of NPR West.

FARAI CHIDEYA: This movie has the potential to be a total box-office smash and especially the nominations that are going through players including Eddie Murphy, Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson. What do you want to come out of this movie not just necessary money but what do you want to come out of it?

Mr. BILL CONDON (Director, “Dreamgirls”): Well, you know I love musicals and I love musical movies. And, you know, it's almost become a private interest because there have been so few of them over the recent years. But when you see this movie with an audience and to see them respond the way they have been applauding in, you know, the middle of the movie, applauding in numbers, that to me is very exciting, you know.

And I can't wait, you know - we've done everything but open nationwide and that happens on Christmas day and that's going to be the real test. But I hope that it's an experience that people - a lot of people aren't used to, that they'll embrace because it is different.

CHIDEYA: I have to say and I know this is not necessarily your department but I was clothes shopping the entire movie. I want those outfits. I was like, wow, that would be really good. Can I get someone to make that for me?

Mr. CONDON: No.

CHIDEYA: Because the whole thing is so glamorous.

Mr. CONDON: That is the brilliant Sharen Davis, you know, because, you know, it's tough sometimes especially with ‘70s fashion. If you do it literally, it's a little frightening, you know, here we get to the essence of something but make it beautiful.

CHIDEYA: How did you put it together and what I mean is I've got to find the right cast or I've got to find the money first, what was the process?

Mr. CONDON: Well, you know what? It's - there are two words there, David Geffen, you know. It's one of those experiences. He truly is the last tycoon. He controlled the rights to the show. He'd been one of the producers of the show. I wrote the script.

I remember so well, it was January 3rd, 2005, that I called him and someone came and picked it up. And two hours later, he'd read half of it. Four hours later, he read the whole thing. By the end of the week, you know, he was announcing it and we were in his offices the following week. That will never happen to me again, you know, because it really is just one person believing in something and making it happen.

CHIDEYA: You have with the exception of a few cameo roles including John Lithgow a virtually all-black cast.

Mr. CONDON: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Did it scare you to go in and work with a whole cast made up of people who are a different race than you?

Mr. CONDON: I'm always a little intimidated by anything I'm stepping into, you know. In this case, let's not forget the fact that it was, you know, legends like Danny Glover and Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx. So that was intimidating in itself.

But, yeah, I think, it's a legitimate question. I think the thing that made that go away very quickly was that you're always on the right track if you connect so deeply in your soul to the material that you're working on.

CHIDEYA: How did you work with the cast of actors that you had? You had some who were way more experienced like Danny Glover -

Mr. CONDON: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Then others who were newer like Jennifer Hudson, breakout star.

Mr. CONDON: Yes.

CHIDEYA: How did you interact with them and shape them so that they can interact with each other?

Mr. CONDON: Yeah. It's the same on any movie. It was maybe more extreme here because of those differences. But you really - I always think that a director has got to adapt to whatever the needs of the actor are. You know, so if you take someone like Eddie Murphy, who is not a big fan of rehearsal. You know he comes out of stand-up. He comes - it's all about capturing the moment - in the moment, you know.

CHIDEYA: Eddie Murphy was phenomenal.

(Soundbite of movie, “Dreamgirls”)

Mr. EDDIE MURPHY (Actor): (As James “Thunder” Early) (Singing) Oh, I know what's happen.

DREAMGIRLS: (Singing) Oh(ph), oh.

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) I've been around.

DREAMGIRLS: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh.

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) Make it my way -

DREAMGIRLS: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh.

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) - to every town.

DREAMGIRLS: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh.

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) I'll make my living.

DREAMGIRLS: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh.

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) - off to my town.

CHIDEYA: All I wanted to do though was go up and just come on, man, let go of that hairdo. You got to let go of that hairdo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I mean it was perfect for the film but it was just like -

Mr. CONDON: Yeah, exactly.

CHIDEYA: That hairdo was like a character in itself.

Mr. CONDON: Oh, totally and it was so real. But you know, he took this so seriously. He actually shaved his hairline so that we could create this receding kind of, you know, Lou Rawls hair for him in the 1970s.

CHIDEYA: So tell us the truth, were there any “Dreamgirls” moments like little catfights Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Beyonce?

Mr. CONDON: Sorry, there weren't .

(Soundbite of laughter)

It would be weird. You know, maybe if we got on longer it would have happened, you know.

CHIDEYA: Girl, get out of my dress.

Mr. CONDON: Everyone felt like they had a responsibility to live up to this - to the legend of this show. And I think everyone was a little scared, too. And that - you know, people were always stretching themselves, you know. Eddie had never done this kind of performing. Beyonce had never done this kind of acting. So I think that kept everybody really, kind of, just rooting for each other basically.

CHIDEYA: I have to ask you about Jennifer Holiday.

Mr. CONDON: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Different Jennifer.

Mr. CONDON: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Did you make overtures to her to try to bring her in to the production even in the small level or she was so known for singing -

Mr. CONDON: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: The song that Jennifer Hudson now does spectacularly.

Mr. CORDON: Yeah. No, it didn't seem right. It didn't seem to be fair honestly to our new cast to do something like that. As you know, there is a small cameo for Loretta Devine but that was a part that I'd written before I ever thought of that. And she be - I thought she'd be perfect for that part and we give extra resonance because she's singing about a character who she was in love with in the show originally, you know.

But I thought beyond that it would be one of those things that would continually take you out of the movie. You know, just to be suddenly spotting this person or the other person. Jennifer Hudson does something that's completely different. I think that was the key to our approach. It was just like you can't do Jennifer Holiday. She's one of a kind and no ones ever going to do that better. You got to find your Effie.

(Soundbite of movie, “Dreamgirls”)

Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON (Actor): (Singing) And I am telling you. I'm not going away, even though there are times I show there's just no way, there's no way.

CHIDEYA: Male or female, who would you be if you could be one of the characters in “Dreamgirls?”

Mr. CONDON: Oh, wow, that's a good one. You know, probably C.C., you know, probably not, you know, he's the dreamer and he's the one who's sitting there with his notebook and -

CHIDEYA: He's the one who writes the songs.

Mr. CONDON: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: And makes everyone else famous.

Mr. CONDON: Yeah. He's the Smokey Robinson character. And I always thought he was, you know, one of the great heroes of the Motown movement.

CHIDEYA: I'd like to be Effie but without the bad attitude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I guess then she wouldn't be Effie.

Mr. CONDON: That's right.

CHIDEYA: One last question. What's this film about ultimately? If you had to sum it up in a word or a sentence?

Mr. CONDON: It's a cautionary tale, frankly, about staying aware as you pursue your dreams of the cost, you know, and realizing a dream but losing your soul can destroy you.

CHIDEYA: Well, thank you so much.

Mr. CONDON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of movie, “Dreamgirls”)

Ms. HUDSON: (Singing) The only trouble is -

COX: That was Bill Condon, director and writer of “Dreamgirls.” He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya. “Dreamgirls,” the movie, opens in theaters across the county, Christmas day.

(Soundbite of movie, “Dreamgirls”)

Ms. HUDSON: (Singing) Spare the life of me.

COX: That's our show for today. Thank you so much for being with us.

To listen to the show, visit NPR.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of movie, “Dreamgirls”)

Ms. HUDSON: (Singing) The life of me. Come on big baby come on.

COX: I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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