We spoke to "Dreamgirls" director Bill Condon about what it was like to work with Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson a decade ago
Think back to the mid-2000s: Remember the great musical-drama Dreamgirls? Honestly, how could you forget? You’ve probably belted “Listen” and “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in the shower on many occasions (I know I can’t be alone in that).
As a refresher, Dreamgirls centered on Deena (Beyoncé), Effie (Jennifer Hudson), and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) — a trio of black female soul singers who make their way onto the pop charts in the ’60s, but face difficulties in their professional and romantic relationships as they become more and more successful. Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy also starred, and Hudson won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her breakout role.
About 10 years after its theatrical debut, the film from writer-director Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast) is getting a special release. Specifically, a Blu-ray combo gift set with a digital HD copy and on digital HD featuring a Director’s Extended Edition and never-before-seen bonus features (J. Hud’s audition, anyone?).
In celebration, Condon spoke with HelloGiggles about Beyoncé and Hudson’s stellar performances, the power of female friendship, and what exactly is in the extended edition of Dreamgirls.
HelloGiggles: When you think back to the very beginning, what interested you in this story, and what made you want to adapt this famous stage musical for the big screen?
Bill Condon: The night I saw it — opening night with friends, just at a college — [I remember] sitting literally in the back row and just being blown away by it. We all went to a friend’s house that night and just deconstructed the whole thing. It was so fun and it was a show that I got to know really well across the years. And then getting to write Chicago, suddenly, it was like there was this open door to make musicals.
The reason that it hadn’t been made is that for the ’80s and ’90s, the form was completely out of fashion, right? Otherwise, it would have been taken already. So it was the show I always fantasized about making. I think it started with the score. It’s a great score. And just the scope of it, the scale of it, the richness of the story always felt like it would just be natural as a movie.
HG: Dreamgirls put Jennifer on the map as an actress. What quality did you see in her early on that made you think that she could take on the part of Effie and just blow people away?
BC: If you’ve ever talked to her, she’s unbelievably sweet and generous. But the fact is, I think she is in touch with her rage for whatever reason. She can access it in a way that is completely comfortable for her. I think a lot of people — I think I’m one of them — don’t feel comfortable with that, but she can get there. That so informs who Effie is. It’s not the whole picture but, man, she does it with such power. That was the first feeling about her, but she did act so beautifully. Then, obviously, all the things you can imagine — [like] the great voice — and it turned out this really wonderful acting ability.
HG: When you were filming, did you have any sense about Oscar potential for Jennifer?
BC: No, I think I learned a long time ago to stop thinking about that kind of stuff. I knew that this movie, we could do everything right — including having Eddie, Beyoncé, and Jamie. But if [Jennifer] didn’t absolutely slay you when she did “And I Am Telling You,” then we would not succeed. In other words, Effie is the mountain you have to climb in that movie. So, given how huge the part is, you hope that someone succeeds at that, that they would also get some attention for it.
HG: Another big number I want to ask about is Beyoncé’s “Listen.” What moves you about that performance? And was it amusing to you on set to have her bring down the house with that performance after so much of the film had been spent talking about how she’s not as strong of a singer as Effie is?
BC: “Listen” was written for the film. And then at the end, [Beyoncé] collaborated on it. It was mostly written by Henry [Krieger] and another team. But the way I always thought about it was that [Curtis was] the person who sort of keeps her down and says that she was, in a way, lesser. So, it felt as though once she finally breaks free of him, that that would be the time when she finds her voice and finds her power. Dramatically, it felt right to me to have her kind of be able to explode in. But even then, the way it starts, I wouldn’t call it “Do You Know,” but we were definitely [staging] it in the style of a big ballad from the ’70s to give it that texture still.
HG: The film highlights the importance and value of female friendship. And though it’s a period piece, that’s as relevant as ever today. How do you think the film empowers women, and women of color in particular?
BC: Just as a little side, this show has been revived and it’s a big hit in London right now. The one thing that they’ve taken from the movie is “Listen.” They’ve turned it into a duet between Deena and Effie. In fact, it is truly now a song of female empowerment. It’s truly them deciding that they’re both free of these men who have both helped them and oppressed them.
But I think in general, the huge thing to me — and that’s where it was so fun to be able to put this in a real world — it really was Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin. It’s fun to be able to bring Effie into the ’70s. Instead of having failed at being the kind of woman who would appeal to cross audiences, she just becomes more authentic like Aretha. The audience comes to her, instead of the other way around.
To me, that is not the huge part of the story. Finding your own voice and staying true to your voice is really the only way. You can define success without it, but it’s going to be tough to have a success that’s really fulfilling without keeping your own voice. I always love that in the structure of the show that Effie fails but, secretly, her failure has the seeds of success in it, and it’s the opposite for Deena.
HG: The Director’s Extended Edition includes an extra 10 minutes. What did you want to accomplish with that extra time?
BC: I always think of it as more Dreamgirls for those who are into it — for fans like myself. There’s an extra verse of “Love You I Do,” [in which] you see the relationship between Effie and her brother. When he betrays her 20 minutes later, it hurts just a little more. Or, you see the moment when [Curtis] first sees Deena on the street before anything had happened. There’s an additional scene right ahead that then resonates when he sings “When I First Saw You.” Same with Eddie Murphy’s “Fake Your Way to the Top.” You get to spend a little more time with that.
It’s such a big sprawling show with so much happening and when you think of it, it’s five, six main characters whose lives are [sprawling] 15 years. Anything you can do to just give more detail to any of that I think makes it richer.