Me Before You is a good old-fashioned tearjerker, fully equipped with personal tragedy, blossoming romance, and ill-fated love. Based on the best-selling novel by JoJo Mayes and directed by theater veteran Thea Sharrock, Me Before You stars Emilia Clarke as Lou, an infectiously good-natured young woman from humble means in need of a steady gig. When her job search leads her to an unexpected position as a caregiver, Lou meets Will Trainer (Sam Claflin), wealthy banker and former playboy who became quadripalegic in an accident two years earlier. Bitter, cynical and devestated by his new circumstances, the young man who once had it all has lost his will to live and Lou makes it her mission to change his mind. There are sparks, there is romance, and you should probably pack extra tissues.
With Me Before You arriving in theaters this week, I recently joined a group of reporters in Manhattan to chat with Sharrock and Mayes about the film. We talked about how a single career-changing book review led to the film, the extensive casting process that led them to Clarke and Claflin, cultivating Lou’s outlandish wardrobe, the intensely collaborative vibe on set, and how it was all so very British.
How did this, you wrote the book, and how did it get turned into a film? How does this happen? Give me the brief story.
MOYES: I originally, actually I’m not going to tell the really long version of this, I’d had an extraordinary review in the New York Times, who don’t I think normally review “light weight”, as they would have assumed it was, women’s’ fiction. I got what is probably the review of my career, where they took out a page and it couldn’t have been a better review. Literally the next day there were twelve movie studios and production companies banging on our door. I went to meet MGM who we really liked the sound of what they were going to do with it. I talked it through with them, and then they found Thea and we got on quite well, mostly, yes and that was it. Then we just basically worked on the script for months and months and months until we got to filming.
Thea was generous enough to let me be on set, which I know doesn’t always happen, and so we kept working the whole way along, it’s been completely collaborative.
You worked on the script together from the beginning?
Thea, you come from the theater and are probably best known to audiences for Henry V. What was it like transitioning to filmmaking?
SHARROCK: Very hard you know, I much prefer to work with dead writers, and ones who were writing four hundred years ago. [Laughs] For me it’s always about the story so in many ways it was very easy. I hadn’t read the book, so I read the script for the first time, that’s how I came across the story. And I loved it. I just found it immediately accessible, I loved the characters, I could really see the world of it, and you know, it was right, it’s been such a pleasure. It’s been a lot of hard work but we had a great time doing it. I’m sure you guys have, I don’t know if you’ve met Sam and Emilia yet, but it was a very tight and a very very happy ship and I think as a result, we all allowed ourselves, trusted each other to really go as far as we could and to really explore every particularly emotional aspect of it which we needed to get right to get the reactions that we wanted for the film.
MOYES: They were immensely flexible, the pair of them, so sometimes Thea would be ringing me at six o’clock in the morning saying, “Can we change scene 122 so that it’s more like this,” and I would be writing the lines, I think on some occasions right up to twenty minutes before they were due to be filmed. I think some actors could not have coped with that, but those two were just permanently game. I think we all felt the same thing, we just wanted to make it the best we could, and if that involved changing things and listening to the dialogue and trying to work out what was working and what wasn’t, they were fantastic to work with.
SHARROCK: I think there were two things that really helped it, one was that we spent quite a lot of time rehearsing, largely with Sam and Emilia but also with some of the other supporting characters which happens so rarely in film. Of course, with a Theater background for me, that’s second nature, that’s really where the work goes in because you spend time together making … you’re allowed to fail is the big thing, behind closed doors. You can try things and if it doesn’t feel right, it’s okay, we just do it again. By the time we actually came to do the scenes, Sam and Emilia knew them inside out, they knew them so well, we had really charted the progress of their relationship. That’s one of the massive things that helped, so when JoJo was giving them new things because we needed it in that moment and there was no way as is often the way in films there’s no way of anticipating it, that’s why they were so ready to just get up and go.
Also, they individually had put in a huge amount of preparation and I really felt that, as the four of us, we really knew who these characters were and that we were completely on the same page. I think that’s what happened between the two of us very quickly, I think JoJo trusted that I just knew who these people were and they were the same people she had created-
MOYES: Which is I think quite rare, probably.
SHARROCK: Through the casting and stuff, JoJo wasn’t there but as soon as I got a really good feeling about somebody, I would pass it straight through to her immediately to see how she felt and if that felt like we were in the right ballpark.
Why Sam and Emilia, why were they the right picks?
SHARROCK: The chemistry was just amazing. When you walked into the room and they were there together. With the women we saw, I think it was maybe three hundred and fifty actresses-
MOYES: I’ve been saying less than that, I thought it was about two sixty
SHARROCK: It was a lot. There were a huge number of tapes that you probably didn’t even know about, and the guys slightly less, harder to cast, and it came down to six girls, six boys, and we got them into chemistry read together. We did it the old-fashioned way, there they were in the room, and they suddenly made what had been an incredibly difficult process, because until you really know, you just don’t quite …and then suddenly we put the two of them in together and it was like, okay, okay, this is it.
MOYES: Thea sent me that audition tape with the chemistry read between Emilia and Sam, and I was sitting in a café in Paris, with my computer kind of turned away from everybody else, and I sat there I and watched it, and I just … it was a key scene that she had them rehearsing and I was weeping in the café at eleven o’clock in the morning and I was like, “Yeah, that’s it, that’s it,” and luckily the studio was in agreement.
Is there a certain trait you were looking for, when you say that high of a number, that is a lot of people-
SHARROCK: It’s a lot of people.
At what point do you say, you know, when you get to the hundredth person, you know, what point do you whittle it down to six, I’m sure that obviously you broke it down from there, is there a certain trait you’re looking for, and at what point did you put the guy into chemistry?
SHARROCK: We looked for girls and boys at the same time. There were just many more girls to look at. To be honest, the casting director was fantastic, and we just kept going until we found her. The weird thing is, Emilia was literally the first person I Skype’d with. I remember, after we’d finished, I called the studio and said, “I know how to do this movie.” I didn’t mean necessarily with her, but having met or Skype’d with an actress who felt so just her energy was so right, I was like, “We can totally do this.” Then I went off on the trip of three hundred and forty-nine girls, and she was then, the last person to walk into the room, because of her scheduling. She was the last girl in to read with all the guys.
Up to then, we’d seen lots of, well, so the other girls had elements of Lou, but no one else had quite everything, so I thought we were probably going to be in a situation where it was going to the best combination of bits of Lou that we could get. Then she walked in, and honestly, when she took off her coat she knocked over something on the table-
SHARROCK: And she was like, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” but she did it with such warmth and generosity it was like, “I can’t believe it,” and she had just walked into the room. It suddenly got very easy.
MOYES: She’s a lot more like Louisa in real life than she is Khaleesi. It’s extraordinary, actually how similar Lou.
You’ve directed a lot of people on stage. Are you surprised at the range these two? I mean, we know him for The Hunger Games and we know her from Game of Thrones, does it happily surprise you?
SHARROCK: It doesn’t surprise me at all, it makes me thrilled for them that the rest of the world gets to see them actually doing what they can really do and what they’ve been trained to do. They were both so keen to throw themselves into this part if they got it. They were the ones who showed me through all of the weeks of auditioning we did, how much they wanted to take on the challenge and with both of them it’s very different challenges. For them it’s rare I think nowadays particularly on film to either have the arc that they have or the specific challenges, for example obviously for Sam, he could use none of his body for ninety-five percent of the film. He couldn’t move it, but what his body is doing is still absolutely vital to understanding who he is. The physical challenges for him, we put him on a massive crash diet and a fitness regime-
SHARROCK: It was brutal for him, and he took everything that we threw at him. She was in every single day, she was the first actress on the call sheet, which is tough, it’s really, it’s hard going.
Trying on a new outfit every day?
SHARROCK: A million outfits.
MOYES: Was it seventy-two?
SHARROCK: Yeah, we kept trying and we kept having to, the costume department were hovering all the time-
MOYES: It’s so integral to who she is, and Jill Taylor the costume designer was just amazing, she did so much research. She met with me long before we got to set to say, “Let’s talk about Louisa’s wardrobe,” and she wanted to know if it tallied with what I had in my head. Then she sourced stuff from cheap thrift shops-
SHARROCK: A huge number of her clothes come from charity.
MOYES: Cheap as chips, cheap as chips, it’s a British expression. There’s no couture in their darling.
SHARROCK: Except for the end.
MOYES: The red dress actually, that was the one thing that was made specially, because that had to be the show-stopper.
Yeah, yeah, it is.
SHARROCK: And it had to fit her perfectly and we wanted it to have a particular feel.
What were some of the challenges you had adapting from the book to the screenplay, was there something that you wanted to include that you had to get rid of?
MOYES: Yeah, there’s always stuff that you have to get rid of, that is the hardest thing and what we had to do was keep boiling it down to it’s essence, which is who are these characters, what is essential to show who they are, what is essential to keep the balance between the humor and tragedy, between the love story and perhaps the more contentious aspects. It was so finely balanced that Thea and I were speaking all the time — Have we got this right, is there too much of this and not enough of this? There were some scenes we that we lost however that most people will feel, if they read the book they will feel that it’s as true to the book as we could get. I follow social media a lot and the early screenings people are saying it was true to the book and that’s a relief.
SHARROCK: I think the thing that was most important to me was trying to capture the spirit of the book that Jo had originally created, just the essence of who those people were, and I think that’s what the incredibly loyal fans who’ve seen the early screenings, it’s much more the response has been, “Thank God, Lou is who I wanted her to be, and Will is … ” going all the way through to the parents, so the people are the main thing. The story is the story that they’re looking for and that they’re hoping again will be there, and that we’ve hit certain moments-
MOYES: The emotional-
SHARROCK: Yeah, well that too, but also the bow will be tied, it’s the red dress…
MOYES: The key points.
SHARROCK: The key points that they love, and I think therefore they’re much more forgiving about-
MOYES: What we had to lose.
Did you go back and read the book? I know you said you hadn’t.
MOYES: She knew the book better than I did. Way better.
SHARROCK: Really embarrassing. Can I tell [this story]? I love this bit, okay, so there was this moment where, there was just a moment where there was just a step missing, just a bit of dialogue, it just didn’t … “A” was right and “C” was right but “B” was not.
MOYES: It was missing.
SHARROCK: It was just not, and I was sitting on the coach going to Wales for the movie and I was like, “Let me just go back to the book, let me see what the book …” so I get like the really leafed piece of, you know, it’s like falling apart and I go back to that scene and I read that scene and I’m like, “Oh, there it is, that is what we need,” so I text JoJo and I’m like, I didn’t say what it was, I just said it was missing and she said, “What, where did you get that idea from?” And I was like, “Page seventy-two of your book, lady!” It was kind of brilliant but that just shows that the other thing that was huge and given that JoJo’s never done this before, her willingness to let the book go. She never ever went back into it.
That’s why I knew it so well, because I mean there were times that I asked you to, obviously, but she was never hanging on to it, she completely let it go and understood the screenplay had to be the screenplay. That’s really why we managed to just to make some tiny manipulations or some quite big, but still within the tone of you know, telling the overall story.
MOYES: That’s why we’re still speaking [laughs].
You said that the actors were very flexible working with you. How flexible were you two with their input? Did they have ideas that you hadn’t thought of?
SHARROCK: There’s a couple of lines in there, I’m not going to tell you ones, which are theirs..
MOYES: Some of them are quite good. They also had some terrible ideas.
SHARROCK: Yes, it makes it sound like it was so lovey-dovey. You know what I think at the base of it we were dealing with two things, one is a really, simple beautiful love story, and then the other is a very, very delicate subject that one way or another we all either have to deal with or will have to deal with, I suspect. It’s an easy thing to have an opinion about-
SHARROCK: Until you’re up close to it and then it’s very difficult. And for those two, because of those two things, the respect and the trust in the room was huge. If you start from that place, actors will go anywhere you want them to because they actually want to be taken to as far away from themselves and as far into the characters as they possibly can give you. All they want to do is give you their best. That’s all we wanted to do too, so between us, you know, I think we got the best that we could.
MOYES: I should just say, there were few egos in the room, and I think that was key. Everyone was prepared to back down, everyone was prepared to be collaborative. I have not got enough experience to know how that relates to other productions but I can say that I spoke to crew members, veteran crew members who said, “Yeah, this is a happy shoot. It is not always like this.”
Sounds very English.
MOYES: It was very English, and then we solved everything with a cup of tea. Thank you very much.