It was less than a year ago when I last spoke to Chloë Grace Moretz (for CARRIE, back in October), but I’m glad I got to speak to her for her latest film, IF I STAY, because it was clearly a story that is near and dear to her heart even before the idea of a movie was presented to her. It’s about a talented teenage musician named Mia whose gift for the cello is going to take her places in life, until a horrible accident puts her in a coma from which she may never awake. The film traces Mia’s out-of-body experience as she looks at her life with her family, friends and new boyfriend Adam (a rock musician played by Jamie Blackley).
Without giving anything away, Mia must decide whether to come back into a world that has been shattered as a result of this accident or move on into death, presumably to a life without pain and loss. Although she’s made R-rated film before, IF I STAY (a PG-13 affair) is certainly Moretz’s most mature role to date, and she has a couple of wonderful coming-of-age moments in the film, including many with her cool parents (Josh Leonard and Mireille Enos) and her best friend Kim (Liana Liberato). There are no villains in this film (other than death); this is just a very good film about very good people, and sometimes those are the right ingredients for a touching movie.
I had the chance to set down with Moretz, Blackley and IF I STAY author Gayle Forman, who had a fairly significant role in keeping her wildly popular novel from getting screwed up in the transition to film. Please enjoy my talk with the three of them…
Chloë Grace Moretz: We’ve met before, haven’t we?
Capone: Yes, we met for CARRIE last year.
CGM: I remember.
Capone: Something that occurred to me when I watched this is that Mia discovered her passion for the cello probably around the same age that you might have started to realize that acting was your thing. I’m guessing that that didn’t escape you when you were making this and reading this book.
Capone: That had to be an amazing connection to have with her and to know that early in your life that you wanted to do something.
CGM: Yeah. I think that was my biggest connection to her was knowing her passion and drive for playing, and how I found my passion for acting at five years old, and she found the cello at five years old. Right?
Gayle Forman: A little older. You were a little more precocious.
CGM: But yeah, it was an amazing correlation, and I really was able to know her right off the bat very quickly without even doing a lot of research. And yeah, it just furthered us, and I was able to understand her kind of tenacity and how she won’t really allow her relationship to ruin her true first love, which is music and the cello, and that’s how I feel, you know?
Capone: At least the way the film portrays it, it’s music that kind of pulls her back from the brink. It’s not the other things that we see, necessarily; it’s certainly not Adam.
CGM: That's funny. You got the exact portrayal of what I wanted to show people, without us even talking about it specifically in the film.
GF: I don’t think any one thing was enough, but it’s all those things together. The fact that she has a family and Adam and music.
Capone: When you decide to turn your baby over to Hollywood, what steps did you try to take to make sure it didn’t screw it up?
GF: Destroy it completely?
Capone: Plus, you were an executive producer; I don’t know if that gives you any more control in that department. Gayle, what did you want to do to make sure they didn’t screw it up, and Chloe, what did you want to do to as a fan of the story?
GF: By the time it came to Chloe, it had already been in development for several years. So many ideas had gone back and forth that I had seen the various ways that possibly it could get screwed up, and it never did, thank goodness. But so many ideas get bantered about, and you’re like, “No, no, no. Please.” And at that point, I had no control.
So when it switched over to MGM, and Chloe was officially on board, at that point I had been working more closely with the producer, and I had met RJ [Cutler], the director, and he was very collaborative. I shared with them some of my ideas for how I saw it and where I thought we could go, and they were right there. It seemed like we all thought the same stuff, and we all could help each other, and that’s when the collaboration became more formalized.
And all I’ve always wanted, which is all that Alison [Greenspan, producer] and RJ and I think Chloe wanted, was for the emotional experience of reading the book to translate to the screen. And if they have to make changes in plot, character, or pacing, fine. It has to be a different animal. Film is. But I wanted the characters to feel like the characters, and not some Hollywood-fied version of them, and for the emotional experience to carry over.
Capone: As a fan of the book, what did you want to try to maintain?
CGM: As a fan of any book, when you go see your favorite book adapted into a movie, you’re always…or at least I’ve been incredibly disappointed so many times. You know what I mean? You go in and you’re like, “Oh my god, my favorite book.” And then you’re like, “Oh. This is nothing like the book. It’s made so cheap.” Or this, or that, or the other. And it’s all done with the ramifications of, “Oh it’s film. You have to change things for film.” And I didn’t want to make that type of movie. I didn’t want to have any of the real true fans go, “This is BS. You sold us this beautiful candied package.”
What I loved about the book is that it wasn’t candy coated. The kids were falling in love for the first time. They were having some alcohol on New Year’s Eve. It was not all sugar plum fairies. It was real life. And I just really wanted to show that realness and the rawness of it, because that is mainly what you loose when you start to adapt novels; you loose the depth of them, and they become very transparent very quickly, and I wanted to help try and keep the dimensions. I think another huge part of that was having Gayle on the script too, where she actually was writing in the script and bringing the ideas from the book into the script, and that helped infiltrate it.
Capone: While the does sort of capture a certain type of innocence at a certain age and that first big love in your life, there’s also a maturity to the love story that is really not ever there in stories about younger people falling in love. How do you sort of strike that balance?
Jamie Blackley: I think they’re together for what? In the period of the movie, what is it? Like 18 months or something?
GF: 18 months.
JB: So by that point, you know your partner really well, and it takes on a different thing. It’s not lust anymore. It becomes something different. You live with each other. It’s not like you go see them on the weekend; it’s like, “What are you doing today? Oh yeah, I’ll stop by.” It become like a more...
CGM: A life.
JB: Yeah, a life. I’ve never really done that before, so I thought that would be cool to see if we could do that. And it felt easy once we knew where we were at in the kind of relationship. It felt pretty easy.
GF: I think there’s this idea that all young adult stories are young stories, but sometimes they can just be stories that happen to be about young people. Sometimes the love stories can be about people who meet when they’re young and wind up together forever. It happens. It happens quite a bit. They have a really tough road, because it’s a really shitty time to fall in love. It really is. You have to navigate a lot of rough stuff if you fall in love at that point.
CGM: You’d inevitably break up for a period of time.
GF: Yeah. You break up, you come back together. It’s a lot. They are young, but their love story isn’t young, and I don’t think the story itself is young, and even the way that Adam meshes in Mia’s family is not typical of a high school love.
Capone: The parents are right there with it. In a lot of these stories, the parents are a discouraging force.
CGM: The villain.
Capone: Yeah, exactly. Josh and Mireille are not the most typical parents. They’re the coolest parents ever. I was trying very hard in the last question not to say the words “young adult.” Does that label mean anything anymore, or is it just more insulting at this point to have that stamped on your books?
GF: It’s not insulting. I think it means stuff to booksellers and critics. Increasingly, it doesn't mean anything to readers, because they are reading-- I think there’s a statistic that 80 percent of young adult books are bought by not young adults. So I think they’re just looking for good books or not good books or certain kind of books. I don’t find it insulting. Maybe you do.
CGM: Incredibly insulting.
JB: I’m about to jump off this balcony.
CGM: I wouldn’t mind jumping right now.
Capone: I feel like we may be passed that label at this point.
CGM: I do agree with that. We are passed the label. I think this book and this story transcend the label of “young adult.”
Capone: Yeah, I agree. As much as there’s this love story at the core, what moved me the most about the film was the family material. I almost never cry in movies anymore, but when Stacy Keach is there in that hospital scene, the things that he is saying to you are hard to hear and almost had me going, but they’re absolutely essential. That’s an incredible scene. Let me ask about just the framing device, the out-of-body experience. What do you get from telling a story like that that you maybe wouldn’t get from a traditional narrative structure?
GF: The story I wanted to tell, there was no other way to tell it. I knew that the premise of this was “what if.” What if something catastrophic happened to your family, and you knew what had happened to them, and you were hanging in this balance, and you could choose. The only way that can happen if you had been in this accident yourself, is if you had been out-of-body. So I knew that, and it gives her this ability to see what’s happening but be dislocated from it, which is important both physically and emotionally because otherwise she would just cry the entire movie. And yeah, I think it allowed, both in the book and the film, for an interesting use of flashbacks, and it was great to see how the flashbacks came together, because that’s a tricky maneuver.
CGM: Yeah, I think what’s so beautiful about that kind of structure—at least when I watched the film and when I read the book—is that you feel such a sense of bittersweet. You see this family being formed, you see this love relationship being formed, and you see all the stuff that can never exist again. And even though it’s so beautiful and even though you love it so much, it hits you so much harder, because these people you’re looking at are gone. They’re dead. This beautiful life that you see being formed will never be formed again. Without that format, you wouldn’t have had that emotion.
JB: It kind of helps you understand the kind of battle that she is having. The whole stay or go thing. You look back and you see what she’s seeing. You see this life, you see what she’s lost, you see what she could possibly stay for, and it’s like “What would you do?”
CGM: You never forget the question.
Capone: I know that RJ has done a lot of documentaries that I’ve seen and a couple of films, but what was it about his vision that you loved so much?
GF: We met for coffee, and this was before… we knew we were going to switch studios, but we didn’t know where it was going to land. And he was showing me the initial palette, and then he said something, “God is everywhere in this film.” Not God per se, but when he said that, I knew what he meant. I knew that he understood the kind of spiritual, metaphysical aspect that runs through it—these unanswerable questions. And that’s what told me immediately. And then he also handed me a CD of a musical palette, and he got the music; we hadn’t even talked about the music, which he nailed on every level. I was just like, “Yes. You.” And I knew from that moment that he was going to make it and make it beautifully. And I was right.
Capone: It was great to meet you all. Thank you so much. Chloe, good to see you again.
JB: Thank you. Nice to meet you.
Capone: Am I remember this right. You’re in the new Woody Allen movie?
JB: Yeah, yeah. We’re just doing it now. It’s halfway though. We have a little bit to go.
CGM: Isn’t she really nice?
CGM: Emma Stone. She’s the best person ever.
JB: Oh my god, yes. So nice.
CGM: She’s so sweet.
JB: Really, really lovely.
CGM: Are you having fun?
JB: Yeah. It is fun. It’s nerve wracking, the first couple of days.