Director RJ Cutler and Author Gayle Forman Talk IF I STAY, the Emotional Response, and the Potential Sequel WHERE SHE WENT
Based on the best-selling novel by Gayle Forman, If I Stay tells the story of Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who is deciding whether to pursue her musical dreams as a cellist at Juilliard or follow a different path with the love of her life, Adam (Jamie Blackley), who’s on the verge of becoming a rock star. When a tragic accident changes everything in an instant, Mia is caught between life and death with only one decision left to make.
At the conference at the film’s press day, director RJ Cutler and author Gayle Forman talked about what Chloe Grace Moretz brought to the role of Mia, what it took for her to pull off playing the cello, why audiences like emotionally moving experiences with books and movies, why this is more than just a young adult story, what it’s been like to see this novel brought to life, focusing the story on life instead of death, the role music plays, the importance of the parents, and whether the book’s sequel, Where She Went, might also get turned into a film. Be sure to watch the trailer and check out our RJ Cutler and Gayle Forman interview after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
RJ CUTLER: Like Mia, Chloe discovered this great passion and gift, at a very early age, and had committed herself to it and had spent her whole childhood really developing it and working really hard. It’s something very real that she was able to bring to her portrayal of the character, and it’s part of why I think it’s such a powerful performance.
What was the key to Chloe being able to pull off playing someone who was so talented with the cello?
CUTLER: One of the things that Chloe did was study the performances of the great cellists, which are available. One of the remarkable things about the moment we live in is that you can research these things. So, Chloe would study the cellists and, in a way, summon them. She learned about breathing, and she learned about the relationship between the cello and her body. That’s what was so important and what was able to be communicated by her performance.
GAYLE FORMAN: I understand why you’d ask that question, but I don’t think it’s actually what we really like. It’s not that we like sad movies that make us feel like, “Oh, my god, what a bummer.” We like emotionally moving experiences. It’s nothing new. It’s catharsis. It goes back to the Greeks. We like movies and books that give us this emotionally moving experience, where you feel like a slightly different person and you see the world a little different, after you finish. It lets you see your own life, in a different way, and it actually makes you feel really good. And even though there might be sad content making this happen, the feeling that you’re left with is one that is quite good, quite hopeful, clarifying and uplifting.
CUTLER: Our goal with this film was to emulate, respond and recreate the experience that we had when we first read the book, and that experience was a roller coaster. It was thrills and chills and spills, and twists and turns, and ups and downs, and triumph and tragedy, and laughter and tears. It was all of those things. And we, of course, hope that’s the experience viewers have when they see this movie.
Do you feel like this is more than just a young adult audience?
CUTLER: We don’t think this is a movie for teenagers or for girls. We think this is a movie for people who are in families, who have parents or who are parents. We find that all of those people respond to the film and respond with the full emotional impact. So, please help us spread the word about that.
FORMAN: It’s like the roller coaster that RJ described. First of all, I didn’t believe it was going to be a book when I wrote it. I saved the file on my computer as “Why Not,” when I wrote it. I didn’t think it was ever going to be a viable book, but I really felt the need to write it. And then, I wrote it and people seemed to be interested in reading it. And then, there was talk about Hollywood, and I was like, “No way!” And then, when it got optioned, I thought, “How is anybody ever going to take this crazy story that I’ve written, with this structure that alternates back and forth with these non-chronological flashbacks, and the present tense happening internally, in her head?” Enter Shauna Cross, who knows how to write a screenplay, and it went from there.
The moment where I really relaxed and knew that it was going to happen in the right way was when Chloe came aboard. Really early on, we said, “Who could play Mia?,” and Shauna remarked, “It’s too bad that Chloe is so young because she’s such an extraordinary actress.” That was in 2010. It took a few years for the project to make its way into production, and in those few years, Chloe became the perfect age. So, when Chloe came on, there was that moment of, “Here is an actress who is so diverse, has such depth, is very chameleon-like in her roles, and who can handle the heavy lifting.”
And then, I met RJ. We had a coffee together, and we had a conversation. It was at that moment that I knew that it was going to be made, and it was going to be made in a way that I wanted it to be made, which could be different from the book. I didn’t want a direct page-to-screen exact replica, but I wanted the emotional experience. And after having that conversation with RJ, and knowing the script that we had and that Chloe was involved, I knew it was going to come together. From that point on, it was really gratifying. I was like, “Okay, it’s in good hands now.”
CUTLER: It’s a really interesting question. It’s not just the film and the book’s viewpoint of being young, but it’s what the whole piece is about. It’s a movie about life. It’s not at all about death. In every way that we made the film, we were focused on the life side of it. I often get asked about how I made the decision not to have spirit Mia be transparent or float through walls. It was clear to me, the moment I read the book and thinking about the movie, that she would be as real as possible, and we were respond to her as if she was real ‘cause she’s having this real experience. That was a way of making the story of what’s going on with her about life, and not about death. Similarly, the story of her life is a very affirmative one.
It’s a story of that great love that some of us are lucky enough to have, or burdened enough to have at a young age. When I was 17 years old, my best friend in high school called me at 6:30 in the morning to say, “What’s the name of that short girl who was in your play?” I told him and he said, “I just had a dream about her. I have to meet her!” It’s 30 years later, and they’re married and have got four kids. I’ve experienced that. I got to see it up close. And when I read the book, I knew what Kat was talking about, on New Year’s Day, when she said, “It’s the real thing.” That’s the love we wanted to portray.
I also know what it’s like to be young and passionate about art. I discovered the theater when I was in the first grade. I know what that is like, and I wanted to convey that, as well. The Hall family is a remarkable family. Even though Mia thinks that she’s so different from everybody else and she describes herself as a martian and she says she was switched at birth, they see each other and they know each other. What they care about is that they understand each other. When Adam first meets Mia, he says, “I see you.” That’s what this whole film is about. That’s all very affirmative stuff. It’s not that I think it’s important to get a positive message out. It’s who these people are, and it’s what the story is.
CUTLER: It’s what bonds Adam and Mia. They appear to be so different, but what they share and what Adam sees when he tells Mia that he sees her, is that love for music. That’s what connects them. When Jamie [Blackley] came in and auditioned and performed for us, in addition to the fact that he and Chloe had such wonderful chemistry, we were like, “Wow, he’s nailing it on all fronts.” Finding the guy to play Adam wasn’t an easy thing. We had to find a great actor who is a charming guy and is someone who’s got a connection with Chloe, and he had to be a rock star. When he came in, we saw all of that. And then, when they got on stage, the first time they performed during filming, we were like, “Woah, this is the real thing.” That was really exciting.
Why was it important to you to make sure that the parents were so fleshed out?
CUTLER: That’s to Gayle’s and Shauna’s credit, but also to the credit of Mireille [Enos] and Josh [Leonard]. They brought so much to this performance. They brought so much love, and it was such a beautiful thing to see. I’m thrilled that we cast those two remarkable actors, but their commitment to come from such a place of truth, in terms of their love for their children and their willingness to make the kinds of sacrifices they made and their connection to each other, gives the film such a rich texture. You don’t have much time to feel it before the accident happens, but you do feel it, so the loss is so much deeper when the accident does happen. So, hats off to them.
Have there been any talks yet about making a film for the book sequel, Where She Went?
CUTLER: Gayle talks about it a lot. Kidding. We’re so focused on this film. Let’s hope we have that conversation. We just really want people to come out to see this movie. That’s 100% of our focus, right now.
If I Stay opens in theaters on August 22nd.