The Women Behind "Me Before You"
This season's movie for the romance set is Me Before You, the cinematic adaptation of Jojo Moyes' best-selling novel of the same name, which brings a much needed emotional roller coaster to movie-goers who have just about given up on finding a good old-fashioned romantic tale filled with enough laughs to help offset the guaranteed tears. Opening in theaters this Friday, Me Before You stars Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke (sans the trademark blonde wig of her character Daenerys Targaryen) and Sam Clafin (from The Hunger Games franchise) as two opposites brought together by tragedy who find their lives changed forever.
Also featuring an impressive supporting cast from across the pond, including Oscar nominee Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs, Tumbleweeds), Charles Dance (The Imitation Game), Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey), Stephen Peacocke (Hercules), Matthew Lewis (the Harry Potter films), Jenna Coleman (Dr. Who), Samantha Spiro (From Hell) and Vanessa Kirby (About Time), Me Before You has garnered a bit of controversy over the past few weeks, which were addressed by the three British ladies who have formed quite the creative triumvirate: Moyes, who also wrote the screenplay adapted from her book; Clarke, who of course stars as the bubbly lead character Louisa Clark; and veteran British theatre director Thea Sharrock, who is making her feature film debut. The three Brits met with members of the American press recently following a media screening and here is a bit of what happened.
The Book vs. The Film
Jojo Moyes: We worked so hard to keep the two things as close in both tone and content as we could. Thea had this constant phrase: “Let’s go back to the book, let’s go back to the book,” when we were working on the screenplay. There are scenes that we had to lose because otherwise the movie would have been six-and-a-half hours long, and as patient as audiences are, I don’t think they would have gone for that. The key thing, when I was initially working on the screenplay, was just trying to work out what was the essence of [the story] and still maintain the balance between humor and sadness, and between the love story that is at the heart of it and the subsidiary stories around it. We could not have worked harder to keep this film true to the book. There are always going to be constraints on that process because of time limitations, but we thought so hard about keeping the essence of the characters true and the casting was spot-on. For me, now these actors are the characters in my head, which is kind of weird because I did have different characters in my head [when I was writing the book].
Thea Sharrock: The thing that I always wanted to capture and to guide all the way through was the spirit of it, and the tone of the book that Jojo had so clearly created. Her characters are so easy to picture, that’s how real they are in the book. And then the most important thing was casting it, so that through the actors we really could feel we were telling the story that she originally created. And making sure that all of the fans of the book see Louisa or Will or the parents or the sister or whomever it may be and feel like, “Yeah, that’s exactly who that is.” And not to have that very difficult feeling we all have had of a character who we’ve completely fallen in love with—as you’ve read it on your own and you have your own personal relationship with them—and that terrible sensation when you get to see them [in a film] and share them with other people, and it’s just not them. It’s not your version of them, and that’s so painful. I’ve been through that experience, so it was really important to me that we didn’t have that and that we kept it alive in the right way for the fans of the book.
Emilia Clarke: Thea knew that [Sam and I] had a good connection [off-screen], so in those early stages of filming, she would be like, "Hold it back, guys. Hold it back, you don't like each other yet."
The Controversial Ending
Thea Sharrock: We have to give a lot of credit to the studios we were working with, because MGM and New Line never ever wanted us to change the ending. It became a bit of a joke where people would say, “Oh, you’re making a Hollywood movie out of it, well, I guess you’ll have to change the ending.” They never ever brought that up, which is all credit to them.
Jojo Moyes: Thea and I spoke all the way through about balance. We were making sure that all viewpoints were taken care of and that the film didn’t come down on one side or the other. What Will wants to do in this film, he’s the only person who thinks it’s a good idea. Nobody else agrees with it. And that was very key; to make sure that this film is not for one minute suggesting that this is the correct path. It is just the story about one person who is rigid in his refusal to accommodate his new life circumstances. And what do you do if you cannot change someone’s mind. That’s the thing that fascinated me. It would have been easy to give this film a very different ending, as well as the book, but, for me, the key is character. And you have to be true to the character you created.
In fact, there was a point when I was writing the book where I lost my nerve with the ending. Three-quarters of the way through, I rang my agent and said, “I’ve been thinking about this and I’m thinking we should do something really radical and do a story with two endings, and then the reader can decide whether they want to get the happy one or the sad one.” This was followed by a really long silence on the other end of the phone [laughs]. I won’t tell you exactly what she said, but it was really quite straight-forward. So let’s just say that I stuck with the original ending and I am indebted to her, because I think that although the ending is a bit controversial, if I had gone the other way and given it a saccharine ending I would have been accused of sanitizing everything and going the easy route. And I think it wouldn’t have had one-third of the audience that it had.
When I wrote this story, I never expected it to be a bestseller. My husband joked that it was the book that would finally kill my career. So the fact that people have responded to what is an extraordinary human story; a story about ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation. That’s what people seem to be responding to, rather than any of the elements that might surround it.
Dealing With Audience Expectations
Emilia Clarke: My track record is naively taking on much-loved characters, and messing them up [laughs]. I did Breakfast at Tiffany’s [playing Holly Golightly on stage], Terminator Genisys [playing Sarah Connor], Game of Thrones [Daenerys Targaryen] and now this. So while all of them have been incredibly daunting, with this one I just felt so akin to Lou and I felt like I understood her so much that I was like, “No, I don’t care what you guys think about her. This is what I think about her.” And I felt very vindicated in that I feel that I was in agreement with everybody else. Whereas the other ones had maybe been up on the mantle a little bit longer, so people may have had more opinions.
Thea Sharrock: The Lou Clark that you see in the film is really remarkably similar to the Emilia Clarke, who we have come to know and love very much. And it’s so great to see her range now, and people can see that she can look very, very different, and that she’s funny. These are qualities that don’t come around that often. She’s gorgeous in such a healthy and delicious way. She’s got real warmth and a generosity that absolutely shines through. It’s a rare thing.
Jojo Moyes: Everybody had fallen in love with her by the end of production; men, women, dogs, you name it.
Emilia Clarke: Jill Taylor, our incredible costume designer, was very generous in being collaborative with me about it. It got to a point that there was like 72 [outfits], so we had it down by that point. Every day I got to pick my jewelry—I like my earrings—and the nail polish. It was pretty amazing.
Thea Sharrock: That’s another thing. If we had gotten the costumes even slightly wrong, [Louisa] would have turned into a completely different character. She would have been clownish and kooky, and really trying to stand out, and she’s not like that. She’s just who she is. She dresses a little bit differently than everybody else, but not in a way that’s necessarily trying to attract attention.
Jojo Moyes: They actually stitched pockets into all of Emilia’s outfits, every single one of them, because they realized that one of her things that she would do as Lou was to thrust her hands into her pockets. It was kind of an awkward reflex she has. So Jill [Taylor] was saying, “Okay, she would have pockets in everything she wears,” so every single costume had the pockets. Jill interviewed me at length, long before filming had started, talking through Lou’s mindset and she went out and sourced cheap clothes; the kind of clothes that any normal working class girl from England could access through thrift shops and discount stores. The wardrobe sale at the end of production was not like most movies [laughs], because most of the things were like $7.99. It wasn’t a desirable wardrobe, apart from the red dress.
Emilia Clarke: In life, I draw from Lucille Ball, who has been an idol of mine since about the age of three. And Julie Walters is another one of my favorites. But I think as actors you go through life and you experience a huge amount. I think actors are quite naturally empathetic and sort of sponge-like. And you just go through your life just absorbing things anyway, so when it comes to that part I don’t think you have to go back to “my dog is dead, my dog is dead,” because you have that within the fabric of who you are. So when you read a story, you emphasize with it and you understand it because you lived it on some level. For me, I don’t need to go back to that particular place, because if the writing is over a certain caliber and the cast and the director all come together beautifully then it’s just there.
With this film, we all collaborated a huge amount. So if there were any scenes that Thea wasn’t sure about, we would work on it and work on it and work on it so that by the time we came in to shoot it on the day, we were so comfortable with it to the point where it felt effortless. And that is very rare in film. That’s the difference between stage and screen.
Jojo Moyes: I like to sit in the back at screenings because it’s terrifying watching your own material and I want to know how many people are crying. I reckon that we’re at about 70% tears at the moment, which makes me really happy [laughs], because if someone is invested enough in the film to actually express some genuine emotion then I think it’s worked. I was thinking about this the other day, because I really miss those old black-and-white movies. I’m 46, so I remember going to the sofa on a Saturday afternoon and watching something like Dark Victory, where I knew they were going to make me cry and just enjoying that process. I think that’s sort of been missing from theaters for a while, and I hope that people will find something to laugh and cry about with this film; bit of an emotional catharsis [laughs].
Me Before You opens in theaters on June 3.