Fans of popular British novelist Jojo Moyes’ heart-wrenching novel “Me Before You” are in for a big treat (well, relatively, the story is a tear-jerker of the highest order) with the opening of Thea Sharrock’s big screen adaptation of the bestseller. Written for the screen by Moyes herself, the story casts Emilia Clarke as the wonderfully off-beat Louisa “Lou” Clark, who finds her life irrevocably changed when she begins a new job caring for quadriplegic Will Traynor (Sam Claflin). As the two very slowly spark to each other, Lou discovers a wrenching secret about Will that threatens their new relationship (and so much more).
For first-time filmmaker Sharrock, a long-time theater director who recently made the jump to television with a stint helming episodes of “Call the Midwife,” the film provided her with the unique opportunity to leave her own mark on an already beloved story. It’s also a new medium for Moyes, best known for her slew of bestsellers (and the recent sequel to “Me Before You,” titled “After You”), as it’s not only her first book to be adapted for the big screen, but the first time Moyes has penned any kind of screenplay. But Moyes wasn’t precious about her book, and Sharrock recounts some of the surprising changes from the original story to the final film that Moyes of all people pushed along.
IndieWire recently got on the phone with a very excited and eager Sharrock to talk about how to adapt a novel to the big screen, some of the larger subplots that were excised from the final cut and why leaving their audience in tears means something very different to both Sharrock and Moyes.
Are you prepared for what this film is going to do to people? Everyone was sobbing at my screening.
Tell me this, as you left the theater did people mainly have smiles on their faces?
Yes, it was a crying through tears type thing.
Listen, maybe I am going to save people a huge amount of money on therapy. Would that be possible? It’s funny now because Jojo gets very, not competitive exactly, but it’s really important to her when people cry she does a fist pump and is like, “Yes.” Whereas I come out going like, “Oh, I hope you’re okay.” She goes, “Yeah, you get extra points if I made a man cry.”
Jojo’s book is hugely popular. Had you read it before you got the script?
I don’t want to sound pompous in any way, but I think I’ve made the movie that I wanted to make. I saw it very, very clearly. I had not read the book when I was given the screenplay. That was my first introduction to it. Of course I then went back and read the book where of course, it’s 400 pages, there’s a lot more to it.
I was immediately drawn to the simplicity of the love story and yet the complexity of what lies within it. I was so drawn to these characters. I just felt like I knew exactly who these two people were.
It’s a tricky story to handle. How did you strike a balance between the kind of heart-wrenching conclusion and the surprisingly uplifting love story at its heart?
I knew from the get-go that the balance that we had to strike in terms of the tone of the piece was one of the biggest challenges and was something that I kept constantly in check with throughout.
Filming is a kind of strange material business. Things change sometimes a lot, sometimes really a tiny bit. They’re constantly shifting at all times. I just knew if we went too far one way it could be so heavy that it could feel like a very heavy and kind of dark piece. I never, ever thought like that.
I’ve always seen it as a very bright, ultimately uplifting, life affirming love story. I just knew that we had to, in the way that it looks and the way that it felt, otherwise the serious aspects of it would simply take over and drown out the balance.
There are a number of subplots from the book that Jojo excised from the screenplay. A major one is a bad experience that Louisa has in the castle’s maze when she is younger. How did that happen?
We worked very, very closely and made all of those decisions very much together. The first one was the maze. It wasn’t in the first draft that I was given. It was my first question. It was like, “Guys, where’s the maze? This is like an instrumental part of the plot in the book?”
One of the things that we worked first on was how to include that section within the screenplay. What was fascinating was however we did it, whether we did it as straightforwardly as in the book or kind of in a more flashback opaque kind of way, it really altered the entire narrative and feel of the film. It suddenly became a film about a young girl who was raped a few years ago possibly, and how she’s dealing with that now. That for me is not what this book is about. It’s not what the story is about. We worked for months trying to put it in and trying to do it in different ways.
There’s also an extended subplot involving Will’s parents, and his sister also shows up throughout. Why were those bits cut?
With the parents, firstly it struck me very early on once I went back to the book that the characters, the sister for example, she really is only there in two very important places [in the story], otherwise she’s in Australia, which seems very convenient. She’s there when we reveal Will’s plan. She’s there at Dignitas. Because the way the book is structured through multiple points of view, she earned her place.
In the film when you don’t do it like that, if somebody is only there in those moments, particularly with Dignitas, I just thought every time we did that scene with her there, it just felt slightly incongruous to me. I just felt that she didn’t quite earn her place as a character to be there in that incredibly intimate moment, whereas the parents absolutely do.
That was one of the first things that I did with Jojo, which was to shift the reveal from it being the mother and daughter to being the mother and father, thereby strengthening the character of the father. I loved that we then had one parent who was completely against what he wanted to do and unable to put him first but not be able to go beyond, “He’s my baby.” The other parent who is saying, “I don’t want this to happen either but if it’s his choice I have to support what he wants.” I thought that that had more weight on screen.
It does help humanize Will’s father who, in the book, doesn’t come across so well. For instance, he has an affair, which is also not in the film.
We did actually shoot that, because I was very strong in feeling throughout shooting that is it a really important aspect of the father’s life and just how complicated life can be and the rest of it. Once we put it in, very definitely it jarred with your relationship with the parents. It just sort of got in the way.
Your collaboration with Jojo sounds like it was a driving force in crafting the film. How did that collaboration develop?
We took it step-by-step. Neither one of us knew where the solution was going to lie. Our producer Karen Rosenthal and the studios, MGM and New Line, were really brilliant at reading what everybody’s instinct was. As soon as I got on the job, they said, “You should meet up with Jojo and see what comes out of it.” I did.
What came out of it was we discovered very quickly that, although we have very different working experiences, they’re are kind of strange things that we have in common. For example, we were both brought up within a few streets of each other. We knew each other’s schools and weird things like that. It means you understand somebody actually pretty much quicker than you often would.
We have a very, very similar sense of humor, which helps hugely. She was remarkable, I have to say, in how easy she found it to leave the book behind. She wanted to really work on the screenplay as a movie and think of the story and these characters as part of a movie. It was me that was constantly going back to the book as reference whenever I felt we needed it, much more so than her.
That’s not always the case with authors adapting their own work for the big screen.
Of course, innately she knows those characters so well that I always felt completely confident we were never going to step out of line in terms of what somebody would do or what somebody would say. It meant that she was never tied down by the book. When we needed a new solution to something she was really, really open to finding what that would be so long as it was within the real world of who these people are.
Fundamentally, you know what? I really believed in her story and I think she really believed in how I wanted to tell it.
“Me Before You” opens on Friday, June 3.