At a Manhattan screening of Me Before You, the film adaptation of JoJo Moyes best-selling romance novel, a packed crowd of critics and fans are sniffling and gulping to keep from sobbing. There’s only a few minutes left in the movie, and the tearjerker has fully put the audience through the emotional ringer by this point, making a mess of us all. At a particularly quiet moment, a woman in the front left of the theater just loses it, emitting a loud wail that resounds through the theater, piercing everyone’s attempt to maintain stiff upper lip, and mercifully, generating a theater-wide burst of laughter. As a person who tends to avoid weepies, it’s a strange place for me to be, but I’m glad I was there because it was one of those special moments of communal catharsis that remind you why movie theaters are such a magical place.
That moment came in no small thanks to director Thea Sharrock, a veteran of the stage who makes her feature film debut with Me Before You. By the age of 24, Sharrock became the youngest artistic director in British theater with a gig at London’s Southwark Playhouse. From there, Sharrock became a fairly prolific theatrical director, helming Pinter, Moliere adaptations, Ibsen, O’Neill, and of course, Shakespeare, and working alongside actors like John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Damien Lewis, and perhaps most famously, directing Daniel Radcliffe as the naked, horse-obsessed lead of Equus. She dipped her toes in the on-screen world with a pair of Call the Midwife episodes and her outstanding Tom Hiddleston-led Henry V entry into BBC’s The Hollow Crown series, and with Me Before You arriving in theaters nationwide she becomes one of three women this year to helm a summer studio pic.
In anticipation of the film’s release, I recently spoke with Sharrock about making the transition from theater to film and what she had to say for making me cry so hard (sorry, she’s not sorry). We talked about the power of emotional outpour at the theater, translating her theatrical talents to the film medium, her experience coming into the industry as a female director, how Henry V helped prepare her for her first film, and a lot more.
First of all, I want to know what you have to say for yourself, because I’m not sure I’ve ever cried so hard in a movie before.
THEA SHARROCK: [Laughs] Am I meant to apologize for this?
I don’t know. It’s a fascinating thing, these tearjerkers. It’s not something I usually watch, so it was a strange emotional experience. Obviously, as you said when you and Emilia introduced the film, you want people to cry. What do you think that provides for an audience?
SHARROCK: It’s funny because, yeah, this is a big thing for Jojo, and I’m much calmer on the crying front, but I guess it’s because she’s been with the story so much longer than I have. She’s come to get very used to people saying, “I cried so much.” For me, the thing is always about making things believable and making people and relationships and moments and places believable. If you can achieve that, then you have a shot at really finding emotional resonance between people and in certain moments. I just wanted always, and I always do want it, to tell a truthful story. Obviously, the joy of all the crying is that I don’t think you can really cry, in the same way you can’t really laugh, if you don’t connect with something. In that sense, it’s been a fantastic experience to hear these reactions.
The other thing I’m realizing is that I don’t think we do cry that often. I don’t know how … I’ve thought of course of lots of films that I’ve loved that have made me cry, whether it’s Terms of Endearment or Truly, Madly, Deeply — I remember seeing that with my best friend all those years ago. All of these are stand-out ones where you have a real, physical reaction, almost. I think it is a bit like going to therapy, having that emotional outpour, particularly when you go with people, which is the other thing that we’re discovering. When you get these screenings en masse, and you have lots of people in there together, you get a real shared experience. Did you see it in New York, or had you already seen it in LA?
No, I saw it at the New York screening.
SHARROCK: Were you at the screening with the wailing woman?
Yes. That was amazing.
SHARROCK: It’s amazing, and it just felt as though … I love the way lots of people described to me who were in there that there was … This huge wail comes out, and then people kind of laugh in a human-response way, and then you realize that it’s absolute relief, that someone else is releasing what you’ve been slightly holding in. Then there’s this massive, collective [sob] and it’s almost like a religious experience, not that I’m saying my film is a religious experience in any way, but there is something gorgeous about that.
I think it’s the shared experience that is so wonderful about seeing a movie in a theater, rather than watching it on your iPad or on a bus, even on your phone, on your way to work, which I see all the time. All of it is amazing that you can do it nowadays, but we are having such solo experiences. What’s been fantastic is, as I say, the shared experience that people have been having so far on this. It’s just been a reminder of how times used to be.
We’re all so obsessed nowadays, and the kids these days are just so locked behind their screens. It’s a weird paradox that even though they’re all speaking to each other constantly, they’re not actually communicating with each other as human beings, in terms of looking at each other and seeing and responding to how they’re feeling and thinking. It’s all very clever, witty word exchanges. I feel like I read all the time, or hear parents saying, “My daughter just got dumped by her boyfriend, but via text,” and you kind of go, “What?!” You know what I mean?
It’s always fascinating to see somebody come from the world of theater and into the world of film, but you did a really good job of not making it feel boxy, which can often be problem during that transition.
SHARROCK: Thank you, yeah. The producer, Karen Rosenfelt, who is amazing and remarkable, was so clear with me right from the start. She really hit on what my greatest worry was about me doing this particular project, which is that 60% of the film, or a huge percentage of the film, is just the two of them, just two characters, and often in the same place. You cannot shoot this like it’s a play. You cannot fall into that gaping hole that is right in front of you, so I was very very careful to talk about that with both the designer and the DP from very early on. In terms of how we shot it and where we shot it and where we moved the camera was being thought about from very early on, just because of the nature of my background and not having done film before, that was my greatest fear, that I would fall into that trap.
Yeah. You did a good job, and you’re right, especially for something that’s very much set in one place for a lot of it.
SHARROCK: Yeah. You have two people just talking to each other. It could be hell, right? If it was a bit naff, it would just be the worst film you’d ever seen in your whole life.
Talk about how you landed this job as a first-time film director, because there aren’t a lot of female directors landing studio jobs. As I’m sure you know, it’s a bit of a hot topic at the moment. What has your experience been like?
SHARROCK: I know, it’s so weird. Honestly, when those figures came out, I was astonished. I really was. I think it’s partly because I realized that my parents have always brought me up to take equality for granted, you know? I went to co-ed school for most of my life. Being a girl was just never … There was this one time that it really stood out to me that because I was a girl, I was being treated differently, and that was because I was chosen … I did a lot of sports as a kid, and I was chosen to be on the cricket team. Even the boys in my class were like … They were really cool about it. They were like, “Oh, wow. We’ve never had a girl before. This is cool.” When the other team turned up, the teacher said, of the other school, “You’ve got a girl on your team,” and my sports teacher was like, “Yeah.” And they were like, “Sorry, we can’t do that.” I wasn’t allowed to play, and my teacher was absolutely devastated. I, of course, was very humble and shy about it and was like, “Totally fine. Don’t worry about it,” and I sat on the sideline and watched. That was the one time where being a girl was not allowed, if you like.
Right, it literally sidelined you.
SHARROCK: It stands out to me because, in every other aspect, it made no difference. I’ve always had that, throughout my working life. I don’t think I’ve ever got a job because I am a girl, or not got a job because I am. Did it ever come up in discussion when MGM interviewed me? Only in the sense that I felt so strongly that this was, overall, Louisa Clark’s story, and I felt I really understood who she was in the story, how we needed to tell it. At the same time, I loved the character of Will just as much. I went to university with the guy, so equally, I understood a lot of him. The gender thing is extraordinary to me, and I believe very firmly that it’s going to change, and I think this whole hoo-ha has been, if nothing else, a good thing, because I feel very strongly that within the next couple of years, let alone five to ten years, I think it’s going to change. I think there will be many, many more female directors out there.
The interesting thing is, I look around … There’s a marketing team at Warner Brothers. Almost all the real heavyweights are women. Like we said on this film, no one was chosen because they are a woman, but it turns out that the two producers were women, the writer was a woman, the director is a woman, obviously the leading part is a woman, and that’s fantastic. If in some way we can help to move the dial on it, just in terms of our numbers, then that’s terrific. I hope that people will be inspired to work a bit harder, that if it’s not something they’ve ever thought about, that they will start thinking about it.
Having said that, what we really need of course is a head of a studio. A female head of studio. Now, when that starts to happen, and again, I don’t think that’s that far off, but when that starts to happen, now we’re talking.
That’s a really good point. That’s the top of the line. That’s where it ends and begins.
SHARROCK: That’s the top of the tree. Shadow of a leader, there we go.
What was the impetus to transition from theater to film directing? You sort of had the middle step with The Hollow Crown, which is a bit of theatrical filmmaking.
SHARROCK: I did, and that was totally … Would it have happened without that? I don’t know, but it was an amazing gift of a step, because I didn’t even know about that project when Sam Mendes was first putting together The Hollow Crown idea, I hadn’t heard about it. When I got a call from Tim saying would I like to come in and talk about this, I was a bit like, “That? Henry V? A girl doing Henry V? Wow!” I was kind of inspired by how open he was to it, and the fact that I’d never been behind a camera before.
I think the key thing was that, of course, because it was Shakespeare, a lot of the film directors that Sam had first approached to think about it, they were put off by the language. They felt that they didn’t know how to tell that story. So in the end, in every single part of The Hollow Crown has been directed by theater directors. Of course Sam and Stephen Daldry are the perfect example of fairly recent British theater directors who have somehow eased so effortlessly from one medium to another. He wasn’t in any way worried that I had never been behind a camera before, and he told me as I’ve been told often before, the most important thing is to surround yourself by the best possible people, and don’t pretend you know something when you don’t.
“The Hollow Crown” was amazing, and it was set up in many ways much more like a film, even though it was for TV. I learned a huge amount from that, and it’s off the back of that that I got an American agent, so we started together looking at film scripts. When this one came in, my agent called me and she said, “I have a feeling we may have found it. Have a read and tell me what you think,” and that was that.
What appealed to you about the film medium? You’re pretty prolific in theater.
SHARROCK: Listen, I’ve always loved to do new things, and I love doing something that I don’t know how to do. On a very basic level, I love movies. My husband loves movies. Our kids love movies. We go to the movies every week. It’s a real part of our lives. In terms of taking the leap, it was more exciting for me than it was nerve-wracking. It’s just a slightly different way of doing it. Many things, of course, are the same, and I love discovering, above all, how to trust the camera. It’s amazing what the camera can see that the naked eye can’t, and how the camera can move in order to help tell a particular moment of a story.
Again, if you surround yourself with very experienced DPs, designers, costume designers, as I did, they can really help you to voice my naïve but very strong instincts about things. If you couple that with experience, if you’re lucky, you get a very good alchemy of different people and personalities, and we have a great, great time as a result.
Now that you’ve done the first one, was there a particular lesson or two or something that really stuck out to you that you’ll carry with you onto the next film?
SHARROCK: Oh my god. I learned a million lessons a day. Gosh, that’s sort of hard to answer because there was so much of it that I will absolutely take with me, and there are so many things that I will just know, not necessarily not to do next time, not that I did things wrong, but that I’ll just know that that’s what comes next or that this is the most important thing to be thinking about now.
It’s funny. Everyone says you make the movie three times. You have to make it in prep. Prep is absolutely essential, because without that, you don’t have the army of answers that are constantly needed as soon as you start shooting. Everybody is asking you questions all the time, and it can be about something that’s happening right now, something that’s happening in an hour’s time, and something that’s happening in three weeks’ time. You cannot say, “I don’t know what color I want that sofa to be. I can’t think about it now.” You can’t say that, because the sofa’s got to be made. The worst times were when my AD would come up to me and say, “I’m really sorry to tell you this, but for the one week we’re going to be in X, it’s now looking like it’s raining the whole week,” and I’d be like, “AAAAHHH!!!” There’s nothing you can do about that. You have to respond to that in the best possible way. Those are the really tough ones. It didn’t rain, by the way, in the end. It rained when we needed it to, but it also didn’t when we needed it not to.
SHARROCK: You know how the weather can change? You check the weather for three days’ time, and it says it’s going to be a massive downpour, and then you check it the next day and it’s like, “Oh, maybe it will just be cloudy.” You go, “Okay.” You just have to go with it and hope that it will be alright in the end.
It seems like mentally switching from theater to film would be a huge intellectual challenge because the way you’re presenting to the audience the action and the image is so different.
SHARROCK: It’s so different.
In terms of say, the camera moves. The stage, it can rotate, but it stays in one place. You can draw attention to something on stage, but you can’t zoom or do extreme closeups.
SHARROCK: That reminds me … When I was answering the question before, obviously, the other two times you make the movie. You make it in prep, then obviously you make it again when you’re shooting it, and you deal with whatever changes happen then and there, and you deal with the actors in the moment. Sometimes you really imagine so carefully that this scene is going to go this way, and then somebody does something new that you hadn’t thought of but it’s brilliant and suddenly it goes another way, so you’re making it again. Then of course, you get the quiet of post, and it’s just you and the editor and you sit in there and go, “Oh! Hang on. That scene was brilliant when we shot it, but now when I put it in context, it changes everything and we don’t need it,” and you take it out. That’s amazing, and in that sense, that’s also what’s so different to working in theater.
It seems like an exciting challenge to repurpose your skill set.
SHARROCK: Yeah, but you know the funny thing is, when I read a script, I realize … I did a play once, a new play, at the National Theatre, and my dad came to see it. He came quite early in the evening. He came half and hour early or something, so he bought the play scripts, and he didn’t tell me this until afterwards, but he started to read it, and he absolutely hated it. Clearly, poor guy, he was really dreading how it was going to be. Then, of course, the fairy-tale answer to the story: He loved it. He said to me, “God. I just don’t understand. I just sat here. I read the words, and I got a slight sense of who the people were, but I don’t understand how you do what you do. I don’t get how you fill in the gaps.”
Of course, for me, that’s what it is all the time when I read a script. It doesn’t matter whether it’s for a play, for a film, for TV. If it works for you, I see it straight away. I see a lot of it straight away. I see either the whole look of it, if it’s a building or a room or a car or something, you just get this instinctive feeling if it’s true to you. Sometimes, I realize that with the film, even, there were moments when … I remember having this really strongly with Henry, as well, when I did Henry V. There were certain moments that I could really see that what my eyes were doing was exactly what I wanted the camera to do. That just comes through. The big thing is about following your instinct, like I said before. If all you really have as a director, and you have to trust it sometimes. Sometimes? All the time. You have to really trust it, and also be open to when someone else says, “What about this?” and you go, “Oh my god. That is so much better, and I had never thought of it.” Or, equally, you have to be really strong.
There was one brilliant moment with my DP where we weren’t sure exactly where to set a particular scene, and for him, it made a huge difference if we shot it in this particular place because of how he could light it. It was a difficult scene to do, and it was a difficult time of day we were going to shoot it. It was not easy for him, so he was of course coming from a very practical place in his head. All I knew is that it had to be shot not there, but in the other place, because that’s what the scene was all about. It was a really interesting tousle between us. It was never difficult, but there’s a part of me that always wants to accommodate other people and to help them, because I know ultimately that they are helping me or that they have an instinct also and how to tell the story and we’re all aiming for the same thing and maybe their instinct is better on this one. But on this particular one, I just kept saying, “I know what I’m asking of you is really, really difficult and really annoying, and the crew are going to have to work extra hard to achieve this, but I just know that every time I picture this scene where you’re saying we should do it, it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work.”
So, I’m out of time with you now, but looking forward, have you caught the filmmaking bug now?
SHARROCK: Oh my god, I loved it. It’s really dangerous how much I enjoyed it. Listen, I’m open to all projects. There’s a play I’ve completely fallen in love with that I hope to do. Somebody just proposed a new musical idea to me that I think is really exciting, and there’s a couple of film scripts that have come my way that I really, really would love to do. All of these, they’re all reliant on timing and the right person being free at the right time to make it happen and the right team of people and all of these things. But yes, I would absolutely love to be given another shot.