Warner Bros. was counting on two powerful men to storm the box office this year with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but the studio just might find a bigger profit with a much smaller film — one that was written, directed, and produced by women and has a female lead.
“Me Before You,” the romantic drama that hits theaters June 3, is an intimate tearjerker strategically placed into a summer schedule full of blockbusters.
The film stars Emilia Clarke — best known as Daenerys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones” — as Louisa Clark, a working-class Brit who takes a job caring for the paralyzed Will Traynor (Sam Claflin, from the “Hunger Games” movies). Despite his initial resistance and their class differences, the two forge a unique bond and end up making signifcant changes in each other’s lives.
The gambit may sound familiar. Such counterprogramming took off two years ago when “The Fault in Our Stars” opened during the first weekend in June and went on to gross more than $300 million worldwide for Fox 2000.
Like “Fault,” which cost $13 million to make, “Me Before You,” produced by MGM and New Line and released by Warner Bros., is rumored to have kept production costs low, at less than $20 million.
“I think if we can get enough people to see it initially, it will have great word-of-mouth and play for a long time, like ‘The Notebook,’ ” says Jonathan Glickman, president of the motion picture group at MGM, citing another wildly successful romance. “It has breakout and sleeper potential.”
But unlike “The Notebook” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Me Before You” was led by women, with screenwriter Jojo Moyes adapting her 2012 novel, and noted theater director Thea Sharrock calling the shots. In fact, the strong women behind the movie resemble those in Moyes’ bestselling novels.
“It’s really important to me to have female characters who do stuff, rather than buy stuff,” says the British author of more than a dozen books. “I have an 18-year-old daughter, and I always ask: ‘What message would she take away from this character?’ I’m not interested in stories where everything is all right because you get the guy or the handbag or the designer shoes.”
|Sharrock directs Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin Courtesy of Universal|
“Me Before You” comes with no guarantees for success. Though they tell the story with care and heart, the women who are the film’s driving force are movie-business newcomers. “To be honest, I assumed it would be the studio’s worst nightmare to have the writer attached,” admits Moyes. “But it’s such a fine balance of humor and tragedy, and the moral and ethical issues are quite delicate, and it has a very particular voice.”
Moyes gave herself a crash course in screenwriting, which she says involved reading and deconstructing the screenplays of every film she loves. “Not just of the genre — I read everything from ‘Alien’ to ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.’ ”
Producers met with countless directors for the project, including “a lot of the usual suspects in the genre,” according to Glickman. “But there was never the perfect fit.”
Sharrock had made a name for herself in 2001 when, at 24, she took the job of artistic director at London’s Southwark Playhouse. A few years later, she directed Daniel Radcliffe in an acclaimed West End production of “Equus” that transferred to Broadway, then Benedict Cumberbatch in the Olivier-winning revival of “After the Dance.” Her “Henry V” chapter of the BBC miniseries “The Hollow Crown,” starring Tom Hiddleston, earned her rave reviews, and an agent at CAA. She had circled other projects, most notably “Legacy” (now known as “The Book of Henry,” directed by Colin Trevorrow of “Jurassic World”), but that wasn’t quite ready to go when she became aware of “Me Before You.”
“I absolutely campaigned for the job,” Sharrock says. “I showed my passion for it and my understanding for the world and its characters. It sounds throwaway or glib, but I really felt it was Louisa Clark’s story, and you need a British woman to be behind the telling of the story. I’m not saying a man couldn’t have told this story, but I knew what I had going for me, and I understood that from within.”
Endorsed by “The Hollow Crown” executive producer Sam Mendes, who has a close relationship with MGM from directing recent James Bond films, Sharrock got the job.
Moyes says she had no strong feelings about the gender of her director when she started the project. “But over the last couple years, as I’ve realized how rare it is to have the director of a big Hollywood movie who is female, I feel very proud that we had a female-centric production,” she notes, citing the trio of producers — Karen Rosenfelt (“Twilight Saga,” “The Book Thief”), Alison Owen (“Suffragette,” “Saving Mr. Banks”), and executive producer Sue Baden-Powell (“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”).
“These are kick-ass women all around. And then a kick-ass actress onscreen.”
The fact that she’s a huge fan of “Game of Thrones” gave Moyes pause when it came to casting Clarke. “When they first mentioned her, I couldn’t see it,” she confesses. “On the show, she’s almost monosyllabic, very serious — she’s the Mother of Dragons! But you meet her in person, and she has a warmth and quirkiness that just shines.”
In fact, in “Me Before You,” Clarke is virtually unrecognizable without her “Game of Thrones” blonde wig and flowing gowns. “They took me out of the corset and put me in pigtails,” she laughs. The actress was shooting her studio debut, “Terminator Genisys” when she was asked to read “Me Before You.” She was instantly smitten.
“All my roles have been these kick-ass women, and this fell from heaven into my lap,” she says. “It was so wonderful to play a part that was real; I instinctively knew her.”
The casting was key; with the character’s upbeat nature and offbeat, thrift-shop clothing, there was the risk that Louisa could become a trope. However, says Moyes, “she’s more multilayered than the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s not the projection of somebody else’s ideal.”
Indeed, Louisa displays real grit in her dealings with Will, Moyes says. “Thea and I agreed on this philosophy from the start: You can love someone, and you can also take the mickey out of them.”
The same considerations went into casting Claflin’s role; in fact, both actors went through a lengthy audition process. While neither is considered a big marquee name yet, Sharrock says that wasn’t a concern. “The story is the star,” she notes. “My job was to find the best two actors for the roles.”
Claflin campaigned hard. “Meeting Thea at the beginning inspired me to want to get involved further,” he says. “She had a vision and a passion for this project that sparked a fire in me, too.”
The cast went through a long rehearsal process, a strategy Sharrock attributes to her theater training, and Moyes worked closely with the actors on shaping the script. The plan was to leave no stone unturned so that all details were set by the time they got to filming.
“I didn’t want people discussing scenes for the first time on set,” Sharrock says. “So we spend time together. We trust each other. We have a sense of teamwork and collaboration.”
Both actors have high praise for Sharrock. Clarke admits to being the type of person who “agrees with everyone all the time,” and says Sharrock would call her on it: “When she would ask for something, I’d instinctively say, ‘Yeah.’ And she would look at me and say, ‘Is that a yes ‘yeah’ or a no ‘yeah’? She could read me so well, and then would take the time to work with me.”
|“It’s important to me to have female characters who do stuff, rather than buy stuff. I’m not interested in stories where everything is all right because you get the guy or the designer shoes.”
Claflin notes that Sharrock’s skill as a director “goes beyond gender,” with Clarke adding, “Thea is a straight-up genius. She’s smart and sensitive, and she gets it done. I don’t know that I would categorize those as female traits or not, but I loved it.”
There might be more to the tale once “Me Before You” opens; Moyes has penned a sequel, “After You,” and MGM owns the character rights. But for now, everyone is concentrating on the first chapter in the story.
“I said to myself when I wrapped, ‘I don’t care how this movie does because I have taken so much good from it,’ ” says Clarke.
Though “Me Before You” could achieve what the big-budget “Terminator Genisys” failed to do — make Clarke a major movie star — she says she doesn’t think of her career in those terms. “From a business standpoint, I’m in it for the long haul,” she says. “It’s not a sprint. How one movie does or doesn’t do doesn’t affect me. But I have all the confidence in this one.”
Sharrock says the studios have been generous in keeping her in the loop on marketing plans, including seeking her involvement in choice of poster and trailer. The strategy seems to be working: Response to the trailer was immediate and passionate, racking up more than 100 million views across all platforms.
Those involved know the best PR tool might be word-of-mouth. Glickman reveals that a Los Angeles preview had an exceptionally strong showing. “Nobody really knew the book, there were two British stars at the front, and Emilia doesn’t have blonde hair and dragons on her shoulder,” he notes. “And the audience went crazy.”
Moyes adds that she’s seen some before-and-after pictures that audience members have been taking at the screenings, and she enjoys the ones “with mascara running down their face.”
Sharrock is aware that a major success for the film could open doors for more female directors. “To be perfectly honest, it surprises me, because when I go to work every day, I do not think of myself as being in the minority,” she notes. “I’m a huge believer that the right person at all times should get the job. I don’t think a woman should get a job just because she’s a woman. But equality is something I take for granted, and I thank my parents for that.”
She notes that film business is lagging behind the theater world, where there are more women directors. “But there’s no reason for me to think it’s not going to catch up,” she adds. “No one set out for this to be a heavily female-led production, but it happened. And it’s been fantastic to be surrounded by these strong, talented women. I think the tide will change.”