Caretaker: Theatre vet Thea Sharrock makes film debut with romantic tearjerker ‘Me Before You’

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British theatre’s Thea Sharrock has finally stuck her toe into the cinematic pool by directing an adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ bestselling novel Me Before You, and the timing couldn’t be better. The result fits right in with that reigning wellspring of sensitive, youthful tearjerkers which have been overflowing on the screen lately (The Fault in Our Stars, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Spectacular Now and Paper Towns).

In fact, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who scripted most of the above, came in briefly to do a rinse of Moyes’ first draft, and you readily understand why.

This is a love story about an inexperienced caretaker and a quadriplegic set on ending his life—that’s two and a half strikes, if you’re counting. Is a happy ending remotely possible?

When Sharrock entered the picture, she returned to Moyes’ original script—“largely, to be honest, because we lived very close to each other in London, so it was easier for us to keep getting together as we did. Often, we’d spend whole days together, working on the script.” The novelist gets sole scripting credit.

“I became a fan of the story by reading it first as a screenplay,” Sharrock confesses. “I had not read the book. My first encounter with it was Jojo’s screenplay. Looking back on it now, I’m really pleased that it happened that way around. When I read it in screenplay form, I saw it instantly as a film. That’s what drew me into the project.

“Then, of course, I went back and read the book and constantly used it as a kind of bible to go back to whenever the screenplay didn’t seem to be working. Jojo was amazing. She left the book completely behind and never went back to it. It was always me saying, ‘Oh, look, we should do this.’ And she’d say, ‘Where’d you get that from?’ And I’d say, ‘Page 72, in your book. Go have a look.’ I always saw it as a film.”

Finding the right screen chemistry for the lead lovers, Will and Lou, was achieved by bringing together stars from The Hunger Games and “Game of Thrones”—Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke—this, Sharrock said, “only after an incredibly extensive audition process. I met a huge number of actors and actresses and then whittled it down to six. As soon as Emilia and Sam came together, I knew how to make the movie.”

Will and Lou grew up in the same small English hamlet, but boy never met girl until two years after a motorcycle clipped him and sentenced him to a wheelchair for life.

The class system and a castle kept them apart. She’s from a working class who can’t find work, and his parents are wealthy enough to own the castle that sits in the center of town. They engage Lou, a freshly sacked tearoom waitress, to bring him back to life’s mainstream in six months’ time. After that, euthanasia is the next stop.

The handicap aspect of the story was no problem for the newbie filmmaker: “It’s such an important part of the character—any inhibition he has because of it was something we took onboard,” Sharrock says. “Sam and I and the designer and the DP—all of us were committed to show what it is really like to be in a wheelchair.”

Because of the popularity of today’s teen-weeper genre, trailers for Me Before You have been blitzing movie houses. “It’s a very interesting world we’re living in right now in terms of audiences—a) what they want to see, and b) how they want to see it,” Sharrock observes. “With social media being as overwhelmingly strong as it is today, the marketing departments of the studios are finding out what it is that people want as they go along. People are kind of dictating what they want, and they are not necessarily following the trends that have already been established.”

Does she believe her movie comes to the proper conclusion? Sharrock ponders the question a moment, then responds, “For me, the movie is brave enough to deal with very big subjects—ones we’ll increasingly be dealing with. I wanted to put the topic on the table strongly but in no way make a judgment as to what is right or wrong. I think you can’t really make that call till you’re in the position yourself. To be honest, if it had gone the other way, I don’t know if we’d be talking about it right now.”

What she didn’t have to ponder was how much she enjoyed taking on movies for the first time. “It was thrilling, absolutely thrilling,” she trills. “It’s a huge, steep learning curve that just kept going, but I was surrounded by amazing, generous and experienced people—from the studios themselves [MGM and New Line from the beginning, and now Warner Bros.] to all the heads of departments. I chose very carefully people I felt really believed in the material and I had a good synergy with. I also wanted all of them to be the very best in their fields—so they could teach me as we went along.”

Sharrock hasn’t wholly surrendered to the new medium. In November, she is transplanting her London stage musical The Bodyguard, based on the Kevin Costner-Whitney Houston film—to New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. It may pull her back on Broadway, where she debuted with the Equus that starred the nude Harry Potter.

“God love Daniel Radcliffe! I’m super-proud of him. He’s a very, very, very brave performer. To have taken that part on at the age of 17 as his stage debut performance—I mean, I look back now and say, What? I can’t believe he had the strength of mind to do it at the time, but he absolutely did. Of course, what he had instinctively was the vulnerability of a 17-year-old that that character needed so much, because he was actually 17 when we did it. He had incredible bravery and strength to give it everything and to trust completely in me and his fellow actors.”

The late Richard Griffiths, who co-starred with Radcliffe in Equus (and the Potter series), is the actor that Sharrock has worked with more times than anyone else. “The very first professional job I had,” she says, “was to direct Art with George Segal, Paul Freeman and Richard. We did Art twice and Equus twice. We did Heroes together, and he was in my TV production of Henry V that I did for Sam Mendes. I directed his last stage play in London—The Sunshine Boys with Danny DeVito.”

As for movies, Sharrock fully intends to go back for seconds and thirds. “I had a great time making this one, and I’d really love to do another. I have a couple of scripts that I really love and I’m attached to, so I hope they will all work out.”

Me Before You debuts in theatres on June 3.