As part of the current Hollywood vogue of adapting popular young adult novels to the silver screen, If I Stay is one of the more effective entries in the genre. Starring Chloë Grace Moretz in the lead role of Mia, a teenager who hovers between this plane and the next following a horrific car accident, the film is directed by R.J. Cutler from the best-selling book of the same name, and it should find a welcome embrace by its target audience as it hits theaters this weekend.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to chat with Moretz and her co-star Liana Liberato, as well as novelist Gayle Forman, about the process of bringing the beloved book to the screen, any lessons learned on-set, and what they'd do in a similar position as the characters in the film. What follows are some highlights from that conversation:
Gayle, I wanted to start with you. The book came out in 2009. Where did it come from
Gayle: Many different places. It's partially drawn from a personal grief of mine that had happened many years before, but it had got me thinking about, sort of, what happens when, you know, tragedy strikes. And this was, a family had died, and the entire family had died but not all at once, and I had wondered if one family member knew that the rest of the family members had gone and chosen to go with them. And so, seven or eight years later, I woke up one morning and there was a 17 year old cello player in my head, and she was going to answer that question as it pertained to her, and I sat down and I started writing.
And Chloë, at what point did you get involved? Had you read the book before you got involved with the project?
Chloë: No, I pretty much read the book simultaneously as I read the script, and I kind of fell in love with the story of Mia in the book, and I really felt that I needed to do it justice and bring as much as I could from the book to the screen, and R.J. felt the exact same way. It was kind of dependent on a good meeting with R.J. and I, and that we would do the project together, and the meeting went really well. We had all the exact same ideas on who we wanted Mia to be from the book to the movie.
And what was your "in" to the character? How did you find her?
Chloë: I think one of the easiest ways was the fact that she found her passion at a young age. You know, she found the cello when she was, what, eight years old, and I found acting when I was about five, so I think that was my easiest kind of way to understand her immediately, right off the bat.
Gayle, what was the process like seeing your book, your baby, translated to the screen in terms of having to let go to an extent, and letting other people take ownership of it?
Gayle: I had already let go years ago when it was first optioned, and had kind of seen all the different ways it could go, so when it landed with a new studio, and with Chloë, and with R.J. The first time I sat down with R.J., and already knowing that we had this, you know, extraordinary actress who could really handle the role of Mia, and then I sat down with R.J. and heard him talk about it. That was the moment where I just understood that it was in good hands and I could let go.
But, ironically, that was actually the moment that I became more involved because we were so on the same page, and he was collaborative, and the producer, Alison Greenspan, was collaborative, that was the moment that I came aboard, sort of officially, as an executive producer and was more involved than authors usually are. But it was strangely, I think because I met him and knew Chloë's work, and knew, then, that it was going to be in good hands, that we all kind of had a similar vision for how it would become its own entity, sharing the DNA of the book but its own thing, and make that translation to the screen.
So, Chloë, you've been acting longer than a lot of people your age, and I think what's kind of interesting is the choices that you've made and the projects that you've chosen. I feel like many people in your position would've been kind of doing the rom-com thing or the teenybopper thing, and you've gotten to work with Kimberly Peirce and Tim Burton and Matthew Vaughn. What draws you to the projects that you choose?
Chloë: Honestly, I think it's not even about the director or anything else. It's honestly the script, and the story, and the character because I think if I feel emotionally connected and gravitated toward a character, I have to feel that. I have to feel the connection. Otherwise, I won't give up, you know, four months of my time -- that's just the filming process, you know what I mean? There's no point.
I've gone, you know, especially this year in particular, I could've done two movies that I just would've been doing just to work, and instead, I was like, no, I'm going to go do my play, and then I'm going to take time off, and then I'm going to do some press, then I'm going to start my movie at the end of the year. You know, I never work just to work. I only work when I feel emotionally connected to something.
Liana, same question for you. What draws you to the projects that you choose.
Liana: Basically, the same thing. I'm obviously, I'm behind Chloë when it comes to that, but when I first started working, it was really just trying to get my name out there, and working with really great people. Whereas now, honestly, Chloë's been really, it's been really cool getting to watch her and the decisions that she makes when it comes to taking films, just because I think that she has a really good philosophy when it comes to that. You know, you take your passion projects and the things you really care about, and you have to be picky.
[To Chloë] One of my favorite actors is Stacy Keach, and I think the scene near the end when he's speaking to you, that was probably my favorite scene in the whole movie.
Chloë: Me, too.
Did you get a chance to gain some wisdom from Stacy Keach? Did you learn something from him that you found beneficial just as a performer or as a person?
Chloë: I don't really learn things kind of like, by someone sitting you down and being like, "Here's what I'm going to teach you." You know what I mean? No one ever does that. I mean, some people do. I've actually only had one person do that, and it was Steven Soderbergh. He was the only person that was like, "I'm going to teach you something." And I was like, "Okay, that'd be great!" But mostly it's just people you kind of watch, and you watch the way they act, and you watch the way that they conduct themselves on set, and the way they kind of present themselves.
And I think you can definitely learn from him. He's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He's a genuinely good person and he has a great work ethic. The first scene we did together, we started shooting the scene at like 10 p.m. so he was, you know, most people were super annoyed having to work late, and they're kind of like pissy and weird. But no, he was immediately really nice, and just a good guy, and I think you can learn more from watching someone than even talking to them.
For my last question, this is for all three of you. If you were in Mia's position, what choice would you make?
Liana: I was just talking about that.
Chloë: I can't say that I would even know what to do. I mean, I don't, honestly, want to know what I'd do. I don't want to be put in a position to make that choice.
Very true. Right.
Chloë: But my family is the biggest part of my life, and I don't know any career or even friend that could make me come back. And I don't honestly know if Mia makes that decision in the end, you know what I mean? I think that, not to give it away, but I don't know if she makes that decision in the end. I don't think it is that conscious.
Gayle: Right, not suggesting that she dies but the decision comes from, like, it's not a conscious decision.
Chloë: No, I just, I don't think. I think the only conscious decision is death, and whether or not she walks out those doors. I think that's the conscious decision.
Gayle: I, you know, I get asked this a lot, and I like to think that if I were in Mia's position and I had these things, because she has this tug-of-war going on in her life before the accident, but if I had this great, grand love, and I had music, and all of these things that are a future, because she does have her future. Your family of origin is mostly your past. That is why I'd maybe have her live and make the decision that she did. Where, with me, if it were with my husband and my children, that is my future, and that would be wiped out, so then there's just no way. No way.
Liana: I don't really know. I think that the really great thing about what Mia was going through was that, not that it's great, but that she was consistently reminded throughout the film that she was loved and that she was wanted. I don't know if we were in that position, whether or not that type of stuff actually happens in real life, whether you would know if you were wanted and needed.
Gayle: You're loved! You're wanted!
Liana: I'll stay for you guys! (laughs) Yeah, I really don't think I could do it. I couldn't. Because my family's everything to me. I don't know what I'd do.
If I Stay is now playing at a theater near you. Many thanks to Chloë Moretz, Liana Liberato, and Gayle Forman for their time. For the audio from this interview, check out the latest episode of The MovieFilm Podcast via the embed below, or at the link:
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