“The Last Letter from Your Lover” is the time-jumping saga of two couples, defined by the standards of communication and relationships from each era. In the 1960s, there was socialite Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) and her affair with journalist Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner), the two communicating by letter in between a wild course of events that brought them together briefly in gorgeous places like the Riviera or a swinging nightclub in downtown London, and then tore them apart, more than once. Their bond was challenged not only by a car accident that gave Jennifer amnesia, but also sexist laws that prevented women from Jennifer from true independence, in this case from her wealthy and possessive husband Laurence (Joe Alwyn).
The words of love between Jennifer and Anthony are then discovered decades later by another newspaper journalist, Ellie Haworth (Felicity Jones). Ellie has more independence in general than a woman like Jennifer, but has her own modern difficulty with expressing herself when she starts to gain feelings for Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan), a man who works in the paper's archives. Ellie's own budding love story parallels her investigation into what happened between Jennifer and Anthony, especially as the two lost touch for mysterious reasons.
Jojo Moyes published the book back in 2008, and has since adapted her novel “Me Before You” into a romance starring Emilia Clarke (our animated interview from 2016 can be read here). "The Last Letter From Your Lover" has now been retold on a majorly cinematic scale by director Augustine Frizzell, previously of “Never Goin’ Back” and episodes of “Euphoria,” a Texan making her sophomore film in London. Visually influenced by the likes of “Brief Encounter,” “Phantom Thread,” and “Bonjour Tristesse,” Frizzell treats the story with beautiful movie stars, sumptuous soft lighting, and a few physical gags straight out of classic slapstick. And in its blend of 1960s and 2021 London, the story is pure romance, working with different tones that come in a story of two people connecting and finding the words.
Moyes and Frizzell spoke to RogerEbert.com about their approaches to the same story, a few non-spoilery changes that were made in the adaptation, the similar scene that Frizzell’s movie shares with “A Ghost Story,” and more. Be sure to return tomorrow for our interview with stars Shailene Woodley and Felicity Jones about their work in the film.
Jojo, without the letters being so impactful in the book, the whole story does not work. I’m really curious—way back in time, how tricky was it to write the letters?
JOJO MOYES: It was really easy, which is kind of weird because I’m not a very romantic person. It’s like when I write stuff, I inhabit somebody else. I think it’s a little like acting, you have to kind of inhabit a person to write properly, if that doesn’t sound horribly pompous and presumptuous. Or I think writing is a story is a bit like directing a film, in that you have to be fully immersed. Because I knew I wanted this story to be 100% romantic, without a kind of nod and a wink to camera kind of thing. I just let it all go, and it came out in the words. I think also, if you know your characters, and [Anthony] is the character who finds it much harder to express things in the spoken word, but when he’s allowed to write it, he just flows. So that made it pretty easy to write.
As a self-proclaimed non-romantic person, do you look at that as an advantage or disadvantage?
JM: I just find it bizarre that I’ve had so much success as a romantic writer. Apart from this one, I don’t think my stories are very romantic. I write about some really horrible subjects, but because they have love threaded through them, that’s how they get described.
Augustine, as someone who told the story in your own way, how did you go about tackling the book’s “ships in the night” energy with a smaller timeframe?
AUGUSTINE FRIZZELL: The most important part was staying true to what was in the book. And that didn’t mean specifics scenes or specific bits of story, it was more about the spirit of what the book was. And so the book, to me, was super romantic, and there was no irony about it. If you want to watch a romance, this is what that’s going to be [laughs]. We’re not shying away from that, we’re going all in on romance. That’s what I really wanted to do; it was that and staying true to these women. I think Ellie changed a bit from the book to the movie, but her spirit was still the same. That was really important, taking this character and just putting her in a few different circumstances, but the character was still essentially what was in the book, and same with Jennifer.
What film references did you work from to create your own vision of the story?
AF: I have a ton, and for a lot of different reasons. I think what I gravitated to were old romances, even a lot of old black and white films, like “Brief Encounter” and “Casablanca.” But then “Phantom Thread” was a big visual for Jennifer’s house, and it had that softness. And with the Riviera scenes, “Bonjour Tristesse,” “Purple Noon,” these great old films that had such vivid colors. And I remember just saying, “I want it to be really bright, but also soft.” I wanted to have these great colors. My production designer, he bought these gorgeous umbrellas for the beach, and I was like, “They’re too bright!” And he said, “We’re going to age them, don’t worry!” [laughs]. There was this beautiful pastel palette, and we worked from a lot of photographs like Slim Aarons, and some paintings. A lot of references.
And then modern day, “Notting Hill” was such a big influence. I loved that movie, so we had a lot of things like that.
One of the more curious changes from the book concerns how Jennifer’s marriage, and her situation with her husband Laurence, unfolds differently. Was there a big discussion about that?
JM: I think it’s just space, it’s the old problem that to fit certain things in, you have to work out what you’re going to lose. We could have added another hour to that film easily, and it’s a very long and convoluted book so that It was really about staying true to the spirit of it. And if I’m honest, when I look back on that book which I wrote 15 years ago or so now, I have no idea how I strung that plot together. It’s so complicated. And so for me, just the fact that Augustine has managed to create a plot which makes sense, which leads the audience around has a bit of intrigue and a bit of mystery, but doesn’t confuse the audience ever, I feel like that’s the achievement. So I’m not going to get icky about elements that had to go. Also, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo, I understand that you have to make sacrifices.
AF: It was hard, I have to say. Modulating Laurence’s storyline was one of the most challenging aspects of it, because there was so much more that I wanted to include of Laurence, and so much more about … we had a million conversations. How did they meet? Why does she want to be with him? What does this mean about who she is? How do we show why she would be with someone like that, because he had to have a charming side. That was important to me. You’re seeing this person who is controlling and demanding, and maybe mildly abusive, but also what drew her to him? So he needed to be really charming and really handsome, so all of these things that a woman might fall for, and you realize, Oh god, the rug’s been pulled from under me. I’m with this person who is not great. But it was tricky and we didn’t have time, so I look at that as we … should have a prequel? [laughs] And show Laurence and Jennifer meeting, how did they fall in love? What was Ellie’s relationship before?
Was there a lot of discussion to modernizing Ellie’s story from the early 2000s to 2021, or was that a given?
AF: When I came on, it had already been done in the script. Esta Spalding was the first one who took the book and did the first version of the script, and then Nick Payne came on. It had all been done at that point, and we didn’t look back.
I was just talking to Felicity about one of the film’s funnier moments, when she’s eating a sandwich, aggressively, at her co-star Nabhaan Rizwaan because she has to obey his "No Food or Drink" poilcy. I couldn’t help but remember that your husband David Lowery also has a movie with a similar long take, in that case of someone eating a whole pie (“A Ghost Story”). Do you two like food? Is that a connection?
[laughs] Totally! That wasn’t in the script, that was something I actually came up talking with my husband. Not the long take, but “What would be funniest there?” And we were batting around ideas. And that’s how it came about! [laughs] And who doesn’t want to see Felicity Jones eat so many croissants?
JM: While maintaining eye contact!
AF: Yes, that was the thing. For her to angry-eat at him.
One of the larger themes from the book, and carried into the movie, is that of embracing people with more complicated relationship backgrounds like affairs, divorce, etc. Do you feel as a society we’ve gotten better about that?
JM: I think we just limp along, whatever generation we’re in [laughs]. I think it depends on the person and how much therapy they’ve had.
AF: I think we’re doing a better job accepting. Back in the day, divorce was such a horrific thing. You just didn’t do it. Now it’s like, half my friends have been divorced, they had an early marriage and now they’re with their forever partners. A lot of people did that, so luckily we don’t shun everyone for the most part.
"The Last Letter From Your Lover" arrives on Netflix on July 23.