The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Thea Sharrock's "Me Before You" is a film that feels rare today—an unabashed romance for the multiplex, one that doesn't come with a cynical Nicholas Sparks manufacturing label. Written by author/adapting screenwriter Jojo Moyes, it's a tale of opposites, of a working class, sunny young woman named Lou (Emilia Clarke) who is the caretaker for a wealthy, dour quadriplegic named Will (Sam Claflin). The log-line gets a great deal of charm from Clarke's hilarious, sparkling performance (akin to Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky") especially as she begins an (initially) platonic relationship with a recluse who has removed himself from life's various joys. It's one of the summer's biggest surprises so far, not just with its emotional gravity but for how it introduces viewers to a whole new kind of magnetism that Clarke could be creating for decades to come.
Along with playing Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons on HBO's "Game of Thrones," in a short amount of time Clarke's ascending career has included adapting numerous respected fictional characters, from Holly Golightly in a 2013 production of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" on Broadway to Sarah Connor in "Terminator Genisys" in 2015. Moyes makes her screenwriting debut with an adaptation of her 2012 book "Me Before You," one of many books she has written, along with her work as a journalist.
RogerEbert.com spoke with Clarke and Moyes about respecting quadriplegics and caretakers with this film, the creative release that came with being funny, farting, the "Friends" character they identify with most and more.
Do you consider yourselves glass-half-full or glass-half-empty people?
JOJO MOYES: I was a glass-half-empty person, and as a result of this story I’m a glass-half-full person. It actually changed me. I had to fundamentally change my views on life. I was fearful, and now I’m not fearful, because amazing things do happen. I wrote this book when I was out of contract, I wrote it because I felt I had to write it, and from the moment Penguin picked it up and put it out there, it started to roll, and amazing things started to happen. And then it became a best-seller, and then it became a best-seller in more than one country, and then it became film and I got to work with all of these guys and then I got to write the film, and now we’re sitting in this lovely suite in Chicago and the film is about to go out. You can’t be fearful, you have to just grab the opportunities and run the risk of failure and do it.
EMILIA CLARKE: I was born and raised as glass-overspilling [laughs]. It can be a flaw sometimes, trust me. people are like, "juuust be miserable."
JM: "Just turn it down!"
EC: No, I get that a lot! I have worked with people, who shall remain nameless, who have said, “Your smiling is just … no one likes it,” truly. And I’ll say “OK!” They were mean.
JM: That’s so interesting, because I was just listening to a podcast about Julianne Moore, talking about how she likes to chat with people to and from her trailer. And one day, the guy said, “Ms. Moore, could you just not talk so much?” Everybody thought she was too chatty. Emilia can get chatty, and she’s got a great smile!
EC: I can get grumpy! I can throw down! But just whilst being angry, my glass is full about being angry.
JM: We had long days on set where we were making this girl cry, we were dragging her down, at one point she had a fractured hip. And she was still smiling. She’s more than a glass-half-full, she’s like a bartender’s-stock-of-glasses-full.
EC: It’s because we were all having such an amazing time, that’s why. We were all just hanging out and we were mates and there just happened to be a camera somewhere in the room.
Emilia, why do you think you’re that way?
EC: I think there’s a lot of things that people are born with, and a lot of things that people aren’t, [that] you develop as a person. The experiences shape who you are. But for me, I was told, though I look back at videos and it’s like, “Obnoxious ISN’T glass-half-full!” [Laughs] My parents said I was happy and always smiling, and I’m like “Yeah, because I wanted the attention, probably.” I’ve been told and I feel very much like glass-half-full, like Monica from “Friends.” You know what I mean?
JM: You are so not like Monica from “Friends.”
EC: No, I’m nothing like her [laughs].
Jojo, who’s your “Friends” character?
EC: Yes, I was so hoping you’d say Phoebe!
JM: I think “Smelly Cat” is one of my favorite songs.
EC: I feel like I couldn’t say Phoebe, but I’m glad you did. She’s the coolest.
JM: You’re like Jennifer Aniston-Cox, you know. But cheerier. No one’s cheery enough.
EC: Goddammit, “Friends”! Joey! Can I be Joey? Yay! I’ll be Joey. [Laughs]
Who were some comic influences for you? Your script is funny, Jojo, and you’re funny in the film, Emilia.
JM: I love everything from “Airplane!” to Nora Ephron. I like dark humor. In England, we’re like raised on Monty Python. But "Me Before You" is actually the first book I’ve used humor in. None of which had trouble with the best-seller charts, and none of which were remotely funny. So, I think that probably tells me something.
Was it a release then, to write something that was kind of funny?
JM: It was because that I knew the subject matter could be really dark, and I felt that the only way I could write this and make people not want to go away and stick their head in an oven is to—can I say that? That’s really bad.
EC: You can!
JM: In my experience, and we were talking about this, is that the dark is always interspersed with light. It’s like, the emergency services always have the best jokes, right? And I have disability in my family, and we have a lot of bad jokes that possibly outsiders would not understand, about disability, and we all laugh because that’s how, if you’re a certain kind of person, especially a certain kind of British person, you deal with tragedy and bad luck.
EC: By trudging on, and having a good show of it.
And for you, Emilia, who were your comic influences?
EC: Lucille Ball. I grew up watching her show when I was like four or five.
JM: You should play her!
EC: And my granny loved Lucille Ball. And I used to go visit my family in New York, and I’d have this jet lag, and stay at my cousin’s bedroom and literally from the age of four I would just watch Nickelodeon after hours, obsessively. I think that’s where I absorbed the eyebrow stuff, do you know what I mean? You can move your face, it’s allowed! I love a good sitcom. I’m not ashamed to like the old school and far -
JM: Fart jokes?
EC: Flatulence, no? Just farting. I love farting! [Laughs]
JM: Have you seen “Angie Tribeca” [on TBS]? It’s amazing. With Rashida Jones doing really “Airplane!”-like gags. It’s one of my new favorite shows. You’d love it. You could totally do that.
EC: Well, here we are. Done! Write that one down! [Laughs]
There’s an intriguing dynamic of opposites, of class, optimism and pessimism in the film. Do you believe that opposites attract, or that people are similar and just don’t realize it?
JM: For me, it’s almost a technical thing, which is all good stories thrive on tension. So you’ve got to have the tension between the rich and the poor, the different outlooks on life, and that’s what makes it funny when people just don’t come at each other from the same direction. But I’m married to a geek. He probably isn’t going to love me describing him like that.
EC: That’s alright!
JM: Geeks are sexy now, right?
EC: No, it’s good to be geeky now!
JM: And I’m like a total doofus around technology.
EC: I don’t understand Snapchat! I’m just behind.
JM: I want pictures of her trying to do Twitter.
EC: I can’t, I can’t. There’s not enough words!
JM: You can! You just came out of a fire naked.
EC: I should be on Twitter now! [Laughs]
JM: You’ve seen her Instagram, right? She’s not just mother of dragons, she’s mother of all hashtags.
EC: I like a long hashtag. I like a super, duper long hashtag.
There’s also an interesting element to the movie where you play it platonic for a long time. Despite their eventual attraction, we spend a lot of time where it's not her smitten with him, or him being smitten with her.
JM: It needed to be more organic. For me, everything comes from character. And, you would not have believed that relationship if those two people came from those two disparate places at the start,and then suddenly gone, “Oh, I really fancy him. I might just saddle up to him now.” That’s not going to happen. He’s an ass in the beginning, and she’s just too weary of him, and it’s only really once they start butting heads that they have the meet-cute. There’s a lot more for them to overcome. She’s in a relationship, and she’s a good person, and we realize that she’s in love with him long before she does. But I wanted it to be not obvious.
EC: When I’m reading scripts, because I’m … lucky enough to read a few! That’s the worst bit. It’s like, “Oh, god, no! That’s not how people meet.” And it’s like, “How do I act that?” And that was never a thing with this.
It’s nice to see men and women simply be friends for a long time in a movie.
EC: “When Harry Met Sally …” it’s possible! [Laughs]
JM: Nora [Ephron] is always right.
EC: Nora is always right!
With Lou's outfits, even her coveted bumblebee tights, costume design is a huge part of this character.
EC: So, Jill Taylor is our costume designer and was an absolute genius, but was also incredibly collaborative. So the costumes are so much a part of Lou, and it was really very early on was just me sitting back and going, “Okay, what are we doing?” And then after a while she would be asking me what I was thinking, and I would be grabbing the belt and putting a weird bag on it, and “Can I get this?” It was a wonderful experience.
Jojo, this was your first screenplay experience. What was it like, diving into that?
JM: I couldn’t really believe it when MGM asked me to do it, because as we know it’s often a studio’s worse nightmare. So, I felt a huge responsibility to get the script right and to just not be an ass. If I’m frank, yeah. And perhaps to blaze a trail for future writers on set. But these guys were really nice, and luckily we all had the same vision for the movie, so I just didn’t hit any of those huge obstacles that a lot of writers hit in Hollywood. I know that’s going to make a lot of people want to kick me in the head, but it was a journey, as these things always are. But Thea, from the start, got the book and if the writer and the director are on the same page, it makes life so much simple. We were basically tweeting, not butting heads.
EC: Mum and dad weren’t fighting, which so often happens on set.
Emilia, you have adapted a lot of characters, like Holly Golightly or Sarah Connor.
EC: Yes, I take them off the mantle, and put them in my hand. “Muahaha! How can I mess this up? Let me find the ways!”
Do you prefer to work with the way that it’s written, or go into it as a separate entity?
EC: It’s weird. With the stuff that’s dusty on that shelf for a while, that’s been sitting there and endowed with a lot of love before I massacre it, there’s a lot more of how can I interpret this? It’s been interpreted by so many people before me, by people or writing or whatever it is. With those, it’s a different path completely. But with this, this was ... I innately understood Lou from the first page. It was never a “How can I interpret this?” It was just that I totally understood her. This was the most lovely collaborative experience, that there ever was, amen! [Laughs]
You were becoming that character, or can really identify with her.
EC: Yes, that’s what I mean. That’s why I was jumping up and down in my “Terminator” outfit! "Yes!!!" [Makes a motion of firing a giant rifle in the air]
“I’m going to smile again!”
EC: That was it! I’m like, half-crying and laughing reading it like, “Yes!!! Move out of the way Arnie. I’m outta here.”
Was this something you were looking for, a script like this?
EC: It found me. I didn’t need to be brave or bold and it sort of happened. No, my agent sent me the book and said, “I think you’re gonna love this.” And yeah. This ONE time, he was right.
JM: I have to say that I was surprised when they said that [Emilia] was one of the people they were looking at. I assumed she was blonde, and scary and kind of forbidding. And then she walks in and kind of runs away with the audition, and you go, “Should we send everybody else home now?”
And she’s not scary.
EC: Not scary, not scary!
JM: She’s not scary, what she is is Louisa, with better shoes.
In writing this story and then performing it, how did you want to respect the experience of quadriplegics and their caretakers?
JM: The nice thing for me is because I’ve had a couple of years of responses under my belt from caretakers, and families of people who had been in similar positions. Two things I took from it, one is that I felt we had got the portrayal pretty well right, and we had the Christopher Reeve Foundation contact me via the publishers to say that while they have no opinion on one of the issues in the story, they really felt that it was a good three-dimensional portrayal of what it’s like to be a quadriplegic. But most of all, what they liked is that here is a man who is super sexy, who just happens to be quadriplegic. That was the key thing for me, was that I want people to see the disability as the least interesting part of somebody. And the thing that’s lovely in these early screenings is that the women walk out of the screening saying, “How can I live without Will Traynor?” Because it’s not about the disability, it’s about the man. Too often as a society, we just look away, or we look too hard. And we need to just grow up, I guess.
EC: I think in the filming of it, we were incredibly respectful. We had a lady who works full-time with the spinal cord injury clinics in London to make sure that everything that Sam, who plays Will Traynor, was accurate and respectful and true to the situation. And we did a huge amount of research, and I went on message forums and we really ... Thea, Sam and I would send each other articles, and things that we’d read recently.
JM: And we had a quadriplegic on set for a while as well, which was wonderful, who actually knew the person who inspired this story.
EC: There were a huge amount of things that we were taking into consideration when making it.
JM: And Thea was asking the questions all the time: “Was this honest? Is it true? Is it correct and is it respectful?”
EC: So to have achieved that, I think is the … cool thing that we did. That you did. That I turned up for!
Favorite romance movie?
JM: It’s probably “When Harry Met Sally … “
EC: I was just about to say that!
JM: We can both have it. It never gets tiresome.
EC: Meg [Ryan]! Oh, Meg! Or “Sleepless in Seattle.” Helping her out of her car!