Falling in Love with a Love Story
"The wit of David Nicholls' writing appealed to me," says One Day director Lone Scherfig. "But what compelled me was just how much of a real love story the piece is - and at a level you rarely come across."
"It is a love story," affirms David Nicholls, the author of the internationally praised bestselling 2009 novel One Day and also the screenwriter of the 2011 movie adaptation One Day. "It's also about friendship and family, nostalgia and regret, and the way that our hopes and dreams don't quite come true - at least, not in the way that we're expecting them to. There is a bittersweet quality to it.
"I wanted to write an old-fashioned - I suppose it is that - romance showing the ups and downs of a relationship over a long period of time."
Nicholls spent two years working on the novel. "I was writing other things alongside it," he notes. "Also, it required a lot of planning beforehand, like a jigsaw puzzle; planting seeds in one year of the story that turned into plot points in another. I had to work out what was going to happen on the many July 15ths. I didn't write One Day as a screenplay in disguise but I love writing dialogue and fiction, so perhaps inevitably there was a filmic quality.
"Writing One Day was a real pleasure. I wrote the first half and then took a break from it for about six months; then went back to revise the first half and carried on to the second half."
Film producer Nina Jacobson, well-versed in recognizing books' potential as movies and shepherding them to the screen, was struck by how much One Day affected her as she read it. She says, "I fell in love with the characters. The story is very universal. These characters, Emma and Dexter, and their journey truly speak to the way in which you transform after graduating from college and living your life; who you are then, and who you are twenty years later.
"It takes us time to grow up and until we do, we can't necessarily be with the person we're meant to be with. That time is necessary, yet it's also something you can't get back. So there is a wistful tone to the story."
Seeing the novel's potential as a classic movie romance, she worked to secure the film rights - promising Nicholls that she would keep the story within its original British setting while he adapted the book into a feature script. "Nina has been a great champion of the story," says Nicholls. "She is a force of nature! I'm amazed that it all came together so quickly."
Jacobson offers, "At many studios, the inclination would be to Americanize it and not to keep the U.K. setting and keep the characters British. To me, that would have meant compromising the specificity of the book and the singularity of the characters; the setting is part of the appeal.
"We sought out creative partners whose inclination would be to not make that change." The film was soon set as a co-production in the unique partnership of Random House Inc.'s Random House Films division and Focus Features, with the U.K.'s Film4 co-financing. The security engendered by this confirmed backing early freed up the filmmakers to concentrate on getting the movie made.
The writer had made the page-to-screen progression before, as his novel Starter for Ten became the movie Starter for 10. The narrative of One Day was more ambitious but, as Nicholls reflects, "There's a challenge involved in trying to condense twenty years of a character's life into a novel anyway. When you have to condense it even further, into maybe two hours of screen time, you just have to accept the fact that you're going to lose things. Having said that, One Day is a very faithful adaptation in terms of both the mood and the tone - as well as the storytelling style."
Jacobson clarifies, "Dex and Em are seeing each other more than that one day a year, but we are seeing them once a year. That's how it is in the book, and in the movie as well.
"With him being the writer first and last you always knew that even if you had to condense, say, three different bits of the book into two pieces of the movie, that the big themes of romance - and Dex and Em's respective emotional and spatial journeys - would absolutely still come through."
Talk of directors soon turned to Lone Scherfig, whose film An Education was then becoming one of the most-discussed pictures of the year, ultimately receiving 3 Oscar nominations including for Best Picture. But Nicholls and Jacobson had also seen the director's earlier features Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, and well remembered them.
Nicholls comments, "It was clear that the qualities she has as a director were ones that One Day was going to need; integrity, and a sense of how to modulate the highs and lows of the story."
"Lone was our first choice for the movie," says the producer. "You watch her films, and you see how she has an incredible command of character and of performance, and of the intimate moments between people.
"We knew that she would find the nuances in the characters and their evolution, and communicate all of that while capturing time and place - without losing sight of Emma and Dex as the essence of the story. It would be a matter of conducting the orchestra while making sure the melody didn't get lost."
Scherfig was prompt to commit, and just as promptly began envisioning the right lead actors with Jacobson, who was keen that "the casting of the movie should feel right on the money - given how many people read and loved the book."
As it happens, notes Scherfig, Academy Award nominee Anne Hathaway had read the script "at an early stage. She liked Emma so much that she flew to London to talk to me and tell me why she should have the part! Anne shares Emma's humor and strength. She is a highly experienced actress who lends huge warmth and fragility to the part, more than anyone else I can imagine."
Hathaway muses, "If you're lucky, you can find a story that really moves you. If you're lucky, you can find a character who speaks to you. With One Day, I found both."
She reports, "Nina Jacobson had sent me the book, which had been published in the U.K. but not yet in America. I read the script before I read the book. I will always remember the experience of sitting at my kitchen table and reading it - the script seemed like it was on fire, as if lit from within. I was so entertained; all these unexpected things happened throughout. I could envision the whole film so vividly. I could hear Emma's voice, her northern English accent; I related to her, and I loved her.
"I didn't think they were going to see any American actresses, so when I found out that Lone would be open to meeting me, I was very grateful."
Scherfig describes Emma as "witty, insecure, hard-working, and bookish. There's always the question that we and she are asking; is Dexter too privileged for her, is he too self-assured? With her vast range as a performer, Anne captures those doubts but also all of Emma's more tenacious qualities - and her ability to see through Dexter's façades.
"Her interpretation of Emma is empathetic and nuanced. Anne's warmth and courage as an actress are extraordinary; these are rare qualities that she shares with some of the great stars of classic British and American cinema."
For Hathaway, "these two characters were vividly and truthfully drawn in David's writing. You feel instantly that you know them. When they feel something, you feel it too. The emotional moments hit you hard because you're so invested in Em and Dex as individuals - and as a couple.
"Each of them has their own priorities, their own individual arc, and then their relationship has an arc as well. You're watching them make mistakes that are understandable; you think, 'I'd probably do that as well.'"
Nicholls comments, "Emma Morley is a complex character who puts in the effort to achieve her life's ambition. We see her through an initial disappointment in terms of her seemingly unrequited attraction to Dexter and then through working in a Tex-Mex restaurant - Loco Caliente - and later as a schoolteacher, before she finally comes into her own as a writer of children's books.
"Anne Hathaway has the vulnerability and intelligence that Emma Morley needs. Through Anne, you see Emma grow and change. She is spot-on."
Hathaway states, "I believe in Emma; I wish I knew her. She is a girl that I recognized as true, and I hoped that if I could then everyone watching the film could too."
Actor Jim Sturgess adds, "Dex tells Emma that she's 'the smartest person I know.' Well, there's a lot of Emma in Anne. She has an intellectual wit, as has Emma. On the set, I'd often find myself sitting next to Anne; I'd be reading a foolish magazine and she'd be reading some highbrow novel - that's Em and Dex right there! She's lovely, and we got on straight away.
"I was glad to get to act opposite someone who cared so deeply about the story - which is a lot of fun but also very emotional - and these characters."
Sturgess got to act with Hathaway because, as Jacobson recalls, "When we first saw Jim audition opposite Anne, one of the most striking things was how natural they felt as friends, and how much you wanted them to be together. For a movie romance, those are the essential ingredients.
"Anne greatly identified with Emma, and Jim immediately understood how layered a character Dexter is as well as how extensive his emotional journey is. Jim shares Dexter's humor and laid-back elegance, and understood how to play the character's less-sympathetic moments in a way that you can comprehend and forgive Dexter his mistakes - which are many."
Scherfig adds, "Jim is extremely musical and collaborative. He will modestly downplay his efforts, but I found him to be thorough in his preparation with a real attention to detail including in the psychological sense."
Nicholls comments, "What we have in Jim Sturgess is an attractive actor of great charm and warmth - I've always admired him in the movies I've seen him in - who is able to take the edge off some of the worst of Dexter Mayhew's behavior."
When asked to evaluate his character, Sturgess is inclined to give Dex his due. The actor reflects, "I felt it was important not to judge him too harshly. He was a hard character to pin down, because he changes so much throughout the film and I don't think he really knows who he is. He wants to enjoy life to the fullest.
"But he's different things to different people, which I feel we all are in life. Dex starts off as a bit of a lovable rogue and a carefree student; for example, to his mother Alison [played in the film by Academy Award nominee Patricia Clarkson], he's a sort of passageway back to her youth and she enjoys his antics and his spirit."
The same cannot be said of Dexter's father Steven, who is portrayed in One Day by Olivier Award winner Ken Stott. Sturgess admits, "Steven sees his son as having become obnoxious. Dex does get clouded by the world of celebrity in his career as a TV presenter, but changes again when he becomes a husband [to Sylvie, played by Golden Globe Award nominee Romola Garai] and father."
Sturgess never lost sight of what mattered most to Dex, even when the character himself does. He offers, "This story realistically approaches what 'love at first sight' is. The most consistent thing which Dexter remains all the way through the film is being the love of Emma Morley's life. That is a stabilizing force. How, then, does he choose to handle it? This is the journey that he takes in the story."
That journey, says Hathaway, "is such a big part of the story of One Day. Dexter has never really been all that challenged in his life. At the beginning of the story, he has a sense that he belongs everywhere, a sense that everything is going to turn out just fine, and for a while it does. When things start to go a bit badly for him and life happens, he doesn't know how to handle it. He gets lost, and we watch him with the hope that he will find his way back.
"As a fellow actor, it was eye-opening to see Jim's approach to the work; he's very soulful and has an enormous heart and openness about him, but at the same time he's so hard-working and creative. All of his own qualities lend themselves to Dexter; Jim brought so much to the part. His Dex is heartbreaking."
Beyond the chemistry required for a movie romance, Scherfig found that "Anne and Jim seemed to forge an understanding that they would do whatever they could to make this project special. There is great chemistry and respect between them, an uncomplicated enjoyment of each other's company, which I think the viewer will be able to feel."
With the leads in place, Nicholls realized that they would be taking ownership - at least temporarily - of his characters. He notes, "A book only belongs to the novelist - it's their story. They decide what the characters say and how long it is and even, sometimes, what the book cover looks like.
"A movie is entirely collaborative, and you have to embrace that."
For her part - and, for her part of Emma - Hathaway was delighted to have an abundance of source material. She confides, "If I could control anything in this business, I would try to have a book written along with every single script that you get. Because usually you have to fill in gaps yourself. On One Day, when you didn't know what the subtext of a scene was or might be, you could just go right to the book. I found this to be an invaluable resource.
"Since the book and the script were both written by David, there was considerable overlap between the two. The book was the sort of material that you love returning to. I read it several times, and each time I would fall in a little deeper, and new things would surprise me."
Nicholls continued to hone his screenplay adaptation through the winter and spring of 2010. He reports, "A novelist doesn't get to leave the house very much; screenwriters have to go to meetings and come up with solutions. It's much more collaborative.
"You do debate things, and go back-and-forth many times in great detail, but it was pretty stress-free. Nina and Lone were a delight to work on it with."
Scherfig remarks, "Whether you are reading David's book or his screenplay, you feel as if you are reading something written by a friend. I think the screenplay adaptation is particularly extraordinary because he has both a big, profound love story and the ability to focus you on what's mattering to these people in their ongoing lives."
After a cast and filmmakers read-through of the shooting script, which Nicholls described as "terrifying and exciting at the same time," filming was ready to begin.
By the time the movie One Day began filming, the novel One Day was already a bestseller around the world. It had been sold for publication in 31 different languages - a rarely reached benchmark for a book these days - and would go to #1 on the bestseller lists in the U.K., Italy, and Sweden; #2 on Germany's; and #3 on Russia's. Read more
St. Swithin's Day
The "one day" of the book, the film, and Dexter and Emma's love and lives is July 15th, which is also the date of St. Swithin's Day. Read more
Places of the Heart
Eight weeks of filming One Day took the cast and crew to locations in and around London, Edinburgh, and Paris through the summer of 2010; this was most appropriate, since Dexter and Emma's story unfolds over summer days. Ultimately, the production shot at over 50 different locations. Read more
Twenty Years, On Call
Anne Hathaway notes, "Lone is so detail-oriented and so specific; she is involved in everything. The hair, the make-up, the clothes..." Lone Scherfig confirms, "Shooting One Day was a fantastic challenge for each of the departments. The film opens at daybreak in 1988 and ends at dusk in the summer of 2011, travelling through all the intense, witty, and moving moments in David Nicholls' story. I felt fortunate and privileged during our summer of work.Read more
Nina Jacobson comments, "The way Lone tells this story feels original and authentic, natural and organic. The performances that she has gotten from our actors are extraordinary." Anne Hathaway assesses working with Lone Scherfig as "a real lesson in everything. Lone would always make a choice that I couldn't predict, whether it was a location or a scene approach." Read more
The art of adaptation