From left to right, director Thea Sharrock, actress Emilia Clarke, and writer Jojo Moyes. Photo: Rex

FILM

The women behind Me Before You, the most talked-about film of summer

Emilia Clarke, Jojo Moyes and Thea Sharrock talk to Lynn Enright about weepies, women in film and portraying disability on screen 

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By Lynn Enright on

Surely, you’ve seen the poster? At a train station? Or at your local shopping centre? Or emblazoned on the side of a bus? This summer, it’s been hard to miss that image of Emilia Clarke as Lou Clark, wearing a red 1950s-style dress, gazing lovingly at Sam Claflin’s Will Traynor, who is seated in a wheelchair. And if you follow film news or even just showbiz gossip, the film has surely appeared on your radar. 

It’s massive, mainly because the book on which the film is based was so wildly popular, selling a staggering eight million copies worldwide since its publication in 2012, women (and it is mainly women who loved it) urging each other to buy it and read it, albeit with the warning: “It will make you cry.”

Me Before You is a tearjerker; both the book and the film adaptation – also written by Moyes – leave people (even the cynical among us) sobbing. It is a love story, about an unlikely couple, but it’s always apparent that the challenges these two face, namely that the male protagonist Will is left quadriplegic after a road traffic accident, will not be neatly tied up in a saccharine denouement. The audience know that we won’t get a happy ending, assisted suicide is mentioned early on; instead we watch the film wondering just how unhappy it will be. 

That’s what I loved about it: two people who shouldn’t be together fall in love with each other and take each other on a journey that they would never have gone on otherwise – Thea Sharrock

And when Jojo Moyes first wrote the book, she too was undone. 

“I cried so hard when I wrote the final few scenes that the man in the office next to me came in to check that I was OK and I had to explain to me that I was actually just having a really good writing day,” she tells me, promoting the film at a London hotel. “I think he thought I was completely mad, but for me it is a kind of litmus test. If I laugh, I think the reader will laugh; if I cry, I can be fairly confident that the same thing will happen.”

The film is being positioned to take on the big blokey blockbusters this summer, with movie executives hoping that it taps into the audience that lapped up the American Fault In Our Stars, another film based on a book that dealt with love amid illness and life-changing injuries. 

Me Before You though feels particular to  Britain, as the class system plays a key role in proceedings: Lou is a happy-go-lucky young woman from a small town who can’t seem to locate her ambition and has never even watched a film with subtitles, while Will’s family own an actual castle, and before his accident, he was a London financier. Always present is the fact that if they hadn’t been thrown together by a random set of circumstances (Lou lost her job at a coffee shop and became a paid carer for housebound Will via a Jobcentre ad), they would never have been interested in each other. 

British director Thea Sharrock, who came to the project having directed theatre and TV but never a feature film, said that she wasn’t daunted by the huge themes the story represented – class, living with disability, what makes life worth living – but felt that it was important to focus on the central relationship. 

“That’s what I loved about it: two people who shouldn’t be together fall in love with each other and take each other on a journey that they would never have gone on otherwise,” she says. “And that for me was the thing that I was ultimately drawn to, it feels like a very life-affirming and uplifting story, and if along the way, we were also able to deal with some difficult topics then that just made it more interesting.”

Sharrock denies deliberately setting out to make audiences cry, but says she “knew that there were elements of this story that we had to make completely real … [we had to] be truthful to those emotional moments”. She could tell she had nailed a scene when she looked over at Moyes on the shoot, and saw her welling up. “She always, immediately, when we got it right, she just had an emotional reaction. And for her, I think it was almost like going back in time to when she originally wrote the scene.”

I never know whether to attribute the genius of this filming process, and the genius of Thea, down to the fact that she has a pair of boobs – Emilia Clarke 

 

For her lead, Sharrock chose Game Of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, who isn’t the first person who might have sprung to mind for Me Before You readers. “Khaleesi doesn’t smile very much, so yeah!” Clarke snorts when I tell her that she might not have been obvious casting. However, she has much in common with the gauche but lovable Lou, she’s eager to point out. “From a character point of view, it wasn’t an undertaking at all for me. We’re so akin energetically in so many ways, that I felt right at home being her. It didn’t feel difficult; it felt wonderful.”

Also wonderful for Clarke, she says, was working among so many women on a film set. Unusually, there was a woman director, a woman writer and women producers. When I ask her though, whether that had on impact on the process and the outcome of the film, she is circumspect. 

“You see this is the thing, I don’t know how to fully answer that because I never know whether to attribute the genius of this filming process, and the genius of Thea, down to the fact that she has a pair of boobs,” she hoots. “I would love to say that as someone who also has a pair of boobs, that’s the reason – because they [Sharrock, Moyes and the movies’ producers] were women and there’s this sensitivity – but then I feel it would almost be, I don’t, anti-feminist to say that just because they’re women, it was a wonderful experience. Because I think they’re all geniuses in their own right, regardless of gender. But the fact that Thea nailed it, and she’s a girl, it’s just very good for everyone.”

Sharrock too is reluctant to discuss gender in relation to filmmaking. “I just don’t think like that, I think about individuals, I think about writers, directors, actors even, and how they approach their work…” she says when I ask her if women filmmakers tell different stories to men. “For me it’s more about who that individual is and what they, as an individual, are interested in, and of course within that, what their gender is plays a part, of course it does, but I don’t think it’s the beginning and the end at all. I guess I’m a bit gender-blind, I just don’t really think along those terms.”

Perhaps, unsurprisingly given the subject matter, Me Before You has not arrived on cinema screens without controversy. Amid the hype and the celebrity screenings and the junkets in hotels, there has been concern voiced by disability activists, with protesters at the London premiere castigating the film as a “disability snuff movie”. 

Moyes, who wrote the book at time when she had “two relatives who required 24-hour care just to stay alive” says that she strove to “maintain a balance”. “So in that book, and also in the film, there are no right or wrong answers,” she says when I ask her if she thought the plot might offend disabled people. “There is no ‘how to’, there is no suggestion that one way is the right way. What I was very keen to do is show that everyone had a different opinion and what I was interested in was almost an extreme situation, which is: what do you do if you have someone who is rigidly refusing to adapt to a different way of life? What do you do if someone just refuses and shuts down and I’ve spoken to a nurse who worked on a spinal unit and she said she’d had two cases in her life, who just wouldn’t engage and I suppose that extreme suggestion was what fascinated me. How do you adapt to that? How do you cope when somebody you love is just refusing to do that?”

I cried so hard when I wrote the final few scenes that the man in the office next to me came in to check that I was OK – Jojo Moyes

Sharrock faced another question: should she cast a disabled actor in the role of Will? After all, campaigners and audiences are beginning to view “cripping up” – when non-disabled actors play disabled characters –  as disdainful as “blacking up”.   

She’s clear where she stands on the debate when I bring up the subject. “Well, of course we discussed it right from the beginning with both producers and with the casting director early on, but again it’s a bit like the gender thing,” she says firmly. “If an actor is fully able to, there’s no reason for me why he couldn’t play a disabled character … And Sam immediately connected with this character and very much wanted to play it. And he committed himself fully to physically making sure that he told the story as true as it possibly could be, and making the character as authentic as it would be if he'd had been played by a disabled man.”

There will be many who disagree with Sharrock on this, and many too who will throng multiplexes all around the world tonight as one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the summer hits cinemas. 

@lynnenright

From left to right, director Thea Sharrock, actress Emilia Clarke, and writer Jojo Moyes. Photo: Rex
Tagged in:
disability
Film
Jojo Moyes
women in film
Books

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