Thea Sharrock talks about Me Before You, marking her feature film debut

”I wanted it to look almost like a modern-day Merchant Ivory: that’s what I had in my head.”

Thea Sharrock

A theatre veteran, Sharrock won the James Menzies-Kitchin Young Director of the Year Award in 2000, making her directorial debut with a production of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls,” which transferred to the West End and toured the UK twice.  Sharrock was then made Britain’s youngest artistic director when she took over the Southwark Playhouse for three years before going on to become the artistic director of the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill. Since then, as a freelance director her credits include productions for the Almeida and the Donmar, the Royal National Theatre and numerous West End theatres, including productions of “Equus,” with Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths (also Broadway); “The Misanthrope,” with Keira Knightly; “Heroes,” with John Hurt; and “Cause Célèbre,” with Anne-Marie Duff at the Old Vic.  Her production of “After the Dance” for the National Theatre won eight major awards. She has also directed “Henry V,” starring Tom Hiddleston for Sam Mendes/Neal Street and the BBC, as well as the 2013 Christmas Special of “Call the Midwife,” also for Neal Street and the BBC.  She directed Richard Griffiths in his last stage performance, “The Sunshine Boys,” with Danny DeVito at the Savoy Theatre, before directing her first musical, “The Bodyguard,” at the Adelphi, which is now on a number one UK tour, before coming back to London this summer.  It will also play to packed houses in Germany and Holland, and open in the United States, Italy and South Korea, later this year.  She recently directed Miranda Hart in her first arena tour and Kevin Spacey in his first one-man show, “Darrow,” for the Old Vic.

What drew you to Me Before You and made you want to direct the movie? 

 What drew me to the project was the love story – how falling in love with somebody can change your life and theirs forever. The believability of the characters and the journey they take each other on.  Their journey is universal and yet there is this very unique aspect of their story that allows it to stand apart, that I believe we have dealt with very gently and carefully, never passing judgment on.

What convinced you that Emilia Clarke was right for the role of Louisa “Lou” Clark?

I saw it the second she walked in.  I thought, ‘This is Lou Clark!’  In some ways, it’s much more impressive to think how she managed to go into the Game of Thrones audition and say, ‘I can do this,’ because Khaleesi is so different from her.  But, for me, she made it very easy.

How much do you think Emilia is like Lou?

A lot!  More than just the surname.  You know what’s interesting? When Emilia first saw the film, her Mum and Dad and brother came with her, and one of her best friends.  The best friend said that whenever Will called her ‘Clark’ in the film, she found it incredibly affecting as it felt like he was talking to Emilia, not Lou (as that is what so many of her friends call her.)  As though the thin line between Emilia Clarke and Lou Clark was merging.

Did it help that she and Sam Claflin, who plays Will Traynor, knew each other a little bit?

They’d met on a couple of photo shoots together – twice, maybe three times, that was it.  So there was a newness to their relationship that grew with the job, and I think we captured it in the film, forever.  You can see it today: they’ve still got it.  There’s a real friendship there.

Were you concerned how they would gel together?

Of course, because the chemistry between the two lead actors was the most important thing in terms of the casting choices.  The casting process was extensive as it was absolutely essential that we got it right.  The shoot was 49 days and they probably spent 45 of those together.  So, yes, the chemistry was the most important thing. But I know we made the right choice.

me-before-you-movieHow challenging was it to have a leading man who spends most of the film in a wheelchair?

Very, very challenging for Sam, for myself and my whole team.  Very quickly it became the defining thing for the designers, for the camera team, and for the rest of the cast and the crew. We all did a huge amount of preparation, and we made sure we had a specialist consultant on set at certain times; we knew it would be a huge challenge.  We had the wheelchair in rehearsal so Sam could get used to it as quickly as possible.  In fact, we had two chairs, actually – the wheelchair had its own stunt double [laughs]!  Both tailor made for Sam, as would be the case.

How did Sam do in the chair?

He was brilliant. The chair became an extension of him. Sam got very, very attached to the chair.  We shot the beginning of the film first, so he hadn’t used the chair at that point, but the scenes where he’s playing football on the beach or making the jump that’s in the video, we shot those quite late on, so for him to be in front of the camera without the chair was much harder than I think either of us had ever have anticipated; he had to re-figure who Will Traynor was.

How did you come to Janet McTeer and Charles Dance for Will’s parents, Camilla and Steven?

Janet is somebody I’ve admired for many, many years but never worked with. She was my first choice for Will’s Mum, and I knew as soon as I got her I needed to get an actor who could match her – and be tall enough…  And I’m really proud of achieving that as Charlie is very tall [laughs]. Charles was fantastic to work with: so precise, utterly charming and incredibly respectful of Janet and what she brought to the part of Camilla.

They were fantastic together. I’m very, very proud of their performances. Both of them have a theatre background, like me, so how we spoke about the characters and scenes came very naturally to all three of us, which really helps when you have so little time relative to theatre.

Jojo Moyes Author free pic

Jojo Moyes is the author of twelve books, including the global bestsellers Me Before You and it’s follow up, After You, and The One Plus One. Her books have been translated for sale in more than 40 countries. She has twice won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award, and was recently named Author of the Year in Germany. She spent ten years as a journalist on the Independent newspaper and South China Morning Post, covering stories from Belfast to the handover of Hong Kong and the death of Princess Diana. She lives on a farm with her husband and three children, and she is currently adapting two more of her books for the big screen.

Jojo Moyes, who is the author of the book and also the screenwriter, has said that you believe she based the character of Lou on herself.  Is that true?

She claims that it’s only when I’m around that the Lou in her comes out, but it happens all the time!  I find it incredibly endearing and I do think that there are aspects of her in Lou.  They’re different generations, so I’m not saying she is Lou by any means, but I suspect she draws on herself much more than she realizes.  Her understanding of Lou is complete, of course, and I think that comes a little bit from the inside.

It’s unusual in Hollywood to have the author adapt her own novel.   How did you first meet?

Jojo and I met in March 2014, and from then we spent lots of time -either together or remotely by email – working on the script.  By the time shooting began, we’d spent nearly a year working together, exchanging ideas, so I knew that she completely trusted my vision of the film, of the characters, of the story, and knew that I wanted to stay very loyal to the spirit of what she’d originally written in the book.  She stayed with me throughout the whole of the shoot; nearly every day she would be there, ready to respond to whatever was needed, which was incredible.

How did she adapt to screenwriting, do you think?

Jojo very quickly stepped into the role, which was fantastic.  What was so impressive was that she was able to let go of the book very, very quickly.  There was never that sense of, ‘In the book this happened, so we have to do it this way!’  She was always so receptive to the difference between writing a book and making a film.  I was impressed by her ability to move forward; it never felt like we were going backwards because of her tie with the book.

 You have so much experience in the theatre but you’re making your feature directorial debut with this film.  What was the toughest challenge for you as a director transitioning from theatre to film?

The endurance needed. When I stop and think about just how hard it was on a physical level, what you have to do for that length of time… It’s the equivalent of running a marathon when you’re used to doing 400 meters.  Over the years, I’ve done a lot of 400 meters – sometimes 800 meters, if it’s a musical; but, by and large, it’s 400 meters, and you go as hard as you can, but that only lasts for that relatively limited time and then you get to press night and you’re done.  But with film, it’s a marathon.  And you’re carrying many more people who need answers all the time.

How did you find the editing process, which you don’t necessarily have in the theater?

Well, I realize that, as a theatre director, you do have an editing process – the previews, when you respond to the first audiences, who can help guide you as you shape the show. You can move scenes around; you can move bits of set, change aspects of performance.  But, yes, there is more freedom in the edit of a film, largely because it’s much more private – just you and your editor.

With film, you have to get as much shot as you possibly can.  That’s what people kept telling me: ‘Get as much as you can, and then you give yourself options.’  But that is ultimately about being as prepared as possible.  When you’re in the middle of a scene, you’re utterly convinced that this scene is about X, and therefore you could only ever want this kind of a reaction from somebody.  But then sometimes you sit in the edit and think, ‘Oh, this scene could be about Y – why didn’t I get a take where she’s smiling?!’

 The costumes on this film are sumptuous, particularly Lou’s.  How did costume designer Jill Taylor put together that fantastic wardrobe? 

Jill Taylor is a genius and she has the most fantastic team.

A huge number of the clothes were found in second hand charity shops, so there are some genuinely unique pieces of clothing that are completely Lou-like. It was a mad jigsaw puzzle.  We had a room full of photos of all the tops, bottoms and their possible combinations, so we could swap them around and then finally decide what she would wear in which scene.  It was like the biggest Rubik’s Cube you could ever imagine.  But it was a brilliant addition to making the film and the journey was a lot of fun.   We were very, very careful to chart the progress of Lou’s wardrobe – so the girl you meet in The Buttered Bun was one person and by the time you see her in Paris, she’s absolutely the same girl but there is a level of sophistication about her that has been carefully charted throughout the character’s journey in the film.

 Talk about the style of the film.  What were you looking to achieve?

 I had a very clear vision for the style of the film from very early on.  I wanted it to be accessible. I wanted it to be real but not gritty. I wanted aspects of it to be lush when it needed to be. I wanted it to look almost like a modern-day Merchant Ivory: that’s what I had in my head.

The light for me was really important.  I wanted the tone of the movie to go from being never dark but small, and I wanted that sense of escapism to really grow.  So, as Sam’s character starts to go outside, there’s a bit more breath, and by the time they go away, I wanted it to feel even bigger: beautiful empty skies that meet the horizon of the sea.   And then, by the time you go to Switzerland and then to Paris, I wanted it to feel that we were taking in a whole new world.