Gayle Forman’s best-selling novel, “If I Stay,” comes to life on screen in a powerful film about love and loss that’s heartbreaking, moving and full of hope. When 17-year-old cellist Mia’s (Chloe Grace Moretz) promising life changes in the blink of an eye, she must find the courage to move forward. The love of her life, Adam (Jamie Blackley), who shares her passion for music, is at the crux of the most important decision she will ever make. Opening August 22nd, the romantic drama directed by R.J. Cutler from a screen adaptation by Shauna Cross also stars Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard and Stacy Keach.
At the film’s recent press day, Moretz, Blackley, Leonard, Cutler, Forman and Cross discussed bringing the emotional experience of the book to the screen, the challenge of finding the right cast, Blackley and Leonard’s preparation for their musical roles, creating the onscreen chemistry in the relationship between Adam and Mia, Stacy Keach’s heartfelt portrayal of Gramps, Forman’s reaction to seeing her novel adapted to film, and Cutler’s desire to recreate the roller coaster experience of the book but tell a story that’s ultimately life affirming and has a positive message.
Here’s what they had to say:
QUESTION: R.J., let’s start with you. Give us a little story on “If I Stay.” What’s your take on this film that you just made?
R.J. CUTLER: “If I Stay” is a movie based on one of the most beautiful novels ever written, Gayle Forman’s “If I Stay.” So, it’s Gayle who should set us up.
GAYLE FORMAN: (Laughs) Way to pass the buck.
Q: We can start with you, Gayle. This is where it started with your book.
FORMAN: It’s about a 17-year-old cellist who leads this beautifully charmed life, but is faced with these decisions that a lot of 17-year-old girls face about leaving home and whether to go to Juilliard or stay with her boyfriend who she’s in love with. Then, one day, there’s a little bit of snow in Oregon. School is cancelled. She goes out on a drive with her family. There’s an accident, and then everything changes, and she’s left with this one choice. And that’s whether to live, to stay, or not.
Q: Shauna, you adapted this to the screen. What are your feelings about that now that this whole thing has gone through all of the motions?
SHAUNA CROSS: Well, when I read Gayle’s book, I was a little… I mean, her book is amazing and it’s funny and it’s moving. My whole approach was just to recreate the film version of what I felt like when I was reading the book. It comes on without a sense of its own importance, and then, slowly, slowly unravels, and then it kind of destroys you. So, that was my project. It was just to protect that.
Q: Chloe, I once read that you’d never played an instrument before. Is that true? And, if so, how much practicing did you have to do with the cello in order to get the hand movements and gestures to look so beautiful?
CHLOE GRACE MORETZ: Yes. Basically, there were about seven months of training with the cello where we had this “If I Stay” cello that traveled around the world with me and found me in every location I went to. So, that was this looming “If I Stay” kind of a feeling. I trained with it every day for seven months, two hours a day, as much as I could. Honestly, I’d be silly to say that in seven months I learned such an intricate instrument. So really, what it was, was learning the emotionality of it and the kind of passion that comes with being a cellist and how you have to surrender your entire soul to this instrument as you play it. The technicality came more from the Frankenstein head cutting and putting it onto another person’s body a little bit. That way, it meshed the two sides of Mia perfectly.
CUTLER: One of the things that Chloe did was study the performances of the great cellists which are available. One of the remarkable things about the moment we live in is that you can research these things. Chloe would study the cellists, and in a way, summon them. She learned about breathing, and she learned about the relationship between the cello and her body and all of those things. That’s what was so important and what was able to be communicated by her performance.
Q: I’m not your demographic for this film, but I really liked it.
CUTLER: We don’t think that’s true, by the way. We feel you all should know that. We do not think of this as a movie for teenagers or for girls. We think about this as a movie for people who are in families who have parents or who are parents. And we find that all of those people respond to the film and respond with the kind of full emotional impact. So, please help us spread the word about that.
Q: One of my favorite moments in the film is when Mia turns to Adam and asks, “When did you know you were going to play music?” So, for Chloe, Jamie and Joshua, when did you know you were going to act?
MORETZ: I started acting when I was five years old. Pretty much I found it randomly through listening to my brother studying monologues, and I auditorially started memorizing them for no reason, and started repeating them to anyone that would listen to me. Then eventually, I begged my mom to let me do whatever that meant because I couldn’t even put into words exactly what that meant. It just made me happy. Then, when I was eleven years old, I looked to my mom and I realized what I was doing, and I went, “Wait. Could I make this something that I could do for the rest of my life?” And she was like, “Yeah. Sure, if you want to.” And I was like, “Okay. Great. I think I might want to do this forever.” That was the moment when I actually realized that I was doing more than just gymnastics or tennis.
JAMIE BLACKLEY: I think I’ve always from a young age had an active interest in it, and then, I can’t remember how old I was, but I watched “Control” in which Sam Riley played Ian Curtis. That, for me, was amazing and I thought how much fun that would be to do and how hard that must have been for Sam to do. That’s when I thought I think I’ll give it a go.
JOSHUA LEONARD: I had a father who was a theater director and taught theater and stage, and when I was six years old, he cast me in a show he was doing called “Life with Father.” I got to rehearse and I got to stay out really late every night, and twice a week he would take me to Baskin Robbins and I got to get ice cream on school nights. I was like, “This is definitely what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
CUTLER: One of the things that Chloe and I talked about the very first time we got together to talk about this movie was the fact that, like Mia, she had discovered this great passion and gift at a very early age, and had committed herself to it, and had spent her whole childhood developing it and working really hard. It’s something very real that she was able to bring to her portrayal of the character and part of why I think it’s such a powerful performance.
Q: For everybody, the film is funny and happy and positive and very, very sad, why do you think people like to go through sadness like this in movies and books?
FORMAN: I’m going to jump in with the whole why do we like weepies and why do we like sad movies. I understand why people are asking that question, but I don’t think it’s actually what we really like. It’s not that we like sad movies that make us feel like, “Oh my God, what a bummer.” We like emotionally moving experiences and this is nothing new. This is a catharsis. It goes back to the Greeks. We like movies and books that give us this emotionally moving experience where you feel like a slightly different person and you see the world a little differently after you finish, because it lets you see your own life in a different way and it actually makes you feel really good. So, even though there might be sad content that is making this happen, I think the feeling that you’re left with is one that is quite good and quite hopeful and clarifying and uplifting.
CUTLER: Our goal in this film, as we will all say, was to emulate the experience, respond to the experience, re-create the experience that we had when we first read the book. And that experience was a roller coaster. It was thrills and chills and spills and twists and turns and ups and downs and triumph and tragedy and laughter and tears. It was all of those things. We, of course, hope that that’s the experience the viewers have when they see the movie.
Q: Chloe, you started at 11 professionally and now you’re 17, and you’ve become a movie star in the space of six years. How does this journey seem to you that you’ve been on? How difficult is it to play these young, traumatized women?
MORETZ: It’s been really hard. I’ve been working since I was five years old, and I had everyone in my life outside of my family look at us and go, “You’re crazy. Take your kid out of the business and put them in school, because you’re never going to succeed.” That was my entire upbringing. My mom was always like, “Look, if you love it, do it. If you’re actually having fun, and I know my kid’s having fun, she’s going to do whatever she wants. Whether that’s gymnastics or learning the guitar or acting or just being a normal kid, she’s going to do whatever makes her happy.” That’s how I’ve always lived my life and it’s been hard for a number of reasons. I’m still fighting for every role that I get. I’m still fighting the boundary of how old I can be or how young I can be, and how they want me to be something else that I’m not. You’re always constantly having this struggle, especially as a female actress, against the higher powers that are trying to keep you in a spot which makes them feel comfortable. That’s a major thing that I’m battling with right now. Even though it’s been hard, it’s been easy in a way because I’ve always followed my heart. With every project I’ve ever chosen, it’s been something that I feel I couldn’t live without. I couldn’t spend another day in my life not knowing that I didn’t do that role and give my all to that role and give all my emotions and soul to it. So, yes, it’s been hard, but it’s also been incredibly uplifting and eye opening, and without it I wouldn’t be quite the same young adult woman that I am now. And then, why do I choose the really dark roles? I think because I have quite a normal family and I’m kind of bored with how normal my family is. I want to mess stuff up a bit, and I choose the messed up characters because I find that that’s acting. It’s doing things and exploring emotions that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to explore.
Q: Shauna, how difficult is it to take a book that is so well loved and respected and be responsible for the words that are in these actors’ mouths?
CROSS: I felt responsible to Gayle and the book and the experience I had. But honestly, when I read it, I come a little bit from a comedy background, so I thought the parents were so funny and so rich like so many of the characters that I fell in love with all of the funny moments. It wasn’t until I was walking through it with the studio when I first started writing it that I went, “Oh, I’m writing a tragedy.” So, in a way, making it and focusing on the light parts of the story versus the sad parts of the story kept me from getting buried by the heaviness of it. I felt lucky and grateful that I get to protect it. When you have your own original screenplays, you question yourself in different ways. But when someone else has already done the hard work and has already been there and it’s already been their baby, you can protect it a lot more because they’ve already given you the map. You’re very trusting about what they’ve given you.
Q: Chloe, what did you learn from your character and her relationship with Adam about long term relationships and friendship?
MORETZ: I come from the mindset that if you want it to work, it will work, whether it’s a friendship or a relationship or whatever it is. If you’re both in the same mindset that you guys want to be together and you want to make it work, you can make it work. It just takes dedication and knowing that there might be some miscommunication and lack of communication sometimes. Jamie and I both talked about this. We’re in a job where we both spend…or I spend eleven months of my year not home. You have to understand what you’re getting yourself into. Even my best friends, I’ve had all my best friends since I was 9 years old and they’re like, “You’re like our best friend, but we text more than we see each other face to face.” They’re still my best friends, and I’m still their best friend, so if you want to make it work, I’m pretty sure it can work.
Q: Gayle, I’m wondering if you could talk a little about what the experience has been like for you to see your novel brought to life on screen?
FORMAN: It’s that roller coaster that R.J. describes. At first, I didn’t believe that anybody would ever make a film. First of all, I didn’t believe there was going to be a book when I wrote it. I saved the file on my computer as “Why not?” as in this is never going to be a viable book, but I feel the need to write it, so why not. Then I wrote it and people seemed to be interested in reading it. Then there was talk about Hollywood and I was like, “No way.” And then it got optioned and I was like, “How is anybody ever going to take this crazy story that I’ve written with this structure that alternates back and forth with these non-chronological flashbacks?” A lot of the present tense happens internally in her head. Enter Shauna Cross who knows how to write a screenplay. And so, it went from there. I have to say the moment where I just relaxed and knew that it was going to happen in the right way was two-fold. It was when Chloe came aboard. I don’t know if you remember this, Shauna, but early on we had said, “Who can play Mia?” We were having those conversations, and you remarked that it’s too bad that Chloe was so young — this was in 2010 – because she’s such an extraordinary actress. It took a few years for the project to make its way into production, but in those few years, Chloe became the perfect age. When Chloe came on, there was that moment like, here is an actress who is so diverse and has such depth and is very chameleon-like in her roles and who could handle the heavy lifting. And then, I met R.J. and we had a coffee together and a conversation. It was at that moment that I knew that it was going to be made, and it was going to be made in a way that I wanted it to be made, which could be different from the book. I didn’t want it to be a direct page to screen exact replica, but I wanted the emotional experience. And after having that conversation and knowing the script that we had and Chloe, I knew it was all going to come together. So, from that point on, it was really gratifying. I was like, “Okay, it’s in good hands now.”
Q: R.J., I was very impressed with your view of what it is to be young and in love which is very optimistic. Why was that important?
CUTLER: That’s a really interesting question. It’s not just the film’s viewpoint and the book’s viewpoint of being young. It’s what the whole piece is about. It’s a movie about life. It’s not at all about death. And in every way we made the film, we were focused on the life side of it. I often get asked, “Well how did you make the decision not to have spirit Mia be transparent or float through walls or things like that. It was clear to me the moment I read the book and thinking about the movie that she would be as real as possible. And we would respond to her as if she was real because she was having this real experience. That, to me, was a way of making the story of what’s going on with her about life, not about death. Similarly, the story of her life is a very affirmative one. It’s a story of that great love that some of us are lucky enough to have or burdened enough to have at a young age. When I was 17 years old, the phone rang at 6:30 in the morning and it was my best friend in high school calling me, and he said, “What’s the name of that short girl who was in your play?” I told him and he said, “I just had a dream about her. I have to meet her.” This is 30 years later. They’re married. They’ve got four kids. I’ve experienced that. I got to see it up close. When I read the book, I knew what Kat was talking about on New Year’s Day when she said, “It’s the real thing.” And that’s the love we wanted to portray. I also know what it’s like to be young and passionate about art. I discovered the theater when I was in first grade and started directing. I know what that is like and I wanted to convey that as well. These guys have a remarkable family. And it’s a remarkable family, because even though they think to themselves and Mia thinks to herself that she’s so different from everybody else, and she describes herself as a Martian and she says she was switched at birth, they see each other. They know each other. What they care about is that they understand each other. There’s that beautiful line in the film when Adam first meets Mia. He says, “I see you.” That’s what this whole film is about. That’s all very affirmative stuff. It’s not that I think it’s important to get the message out about a positive message. It’s who these people are and it’s what this story is.
Q: Music plays such an important role in this movie. It’s its own character. Jamie and Josh, you’re musicians in this. Is that you really singing?
BLACKLEY: I’ve played the guitar since I was about 12, just alone in my bedroom. In the build up to this, I had a few lessons back home to make sure that I was ready in terms of knowing the songs as well as I could. Then, we recorded a bunch of the tracks over two or three weeks before we started shooting. And then, we had a bunch of band rehearsals with me and the boys before each concert scene, which was amazing fun.
Q: Did you like being a rock star?
BLACKLEY: Yeah, it was amazing. It was so good.
Q: What guitar do you play at home?
BLACKLEY: I have a Gretsch Electromatic guitar which is kind of a cheap one but it sounds nice and it makes you feel like George Harrison for a little bit.
LEONARD: I’m a terrible musician. I’ve tried to learn time and time again, both for myself and for film roles, and it never really works out. However, I did get to take drum lessons to prepare for this movie. I’m evidently way better at banging on stuff than I am at finding musical chords. But to speak to the larger issue of music being the air that these characters breathe and how much a connection that is, both between my character and Adam and the Hall family and Mia, and even though they had such different aesthetics in music from the classical to the parents who loved punk rock, it’s really a common ground that I think they find in the love of music.
CUTLER: And, of course, it’s what bonds Adam and Mia. They appear to be so different, but what they share, what Adam sees when he says he sees her, is that love for music, and that’s what connects them. I’ll tell you a quick story or two. Both of these guys are being a little modest. Jamie may have just played the guitar in his bedroom, but when he came in and auditioned and performed for us, we were like – in addition to the fact that he and Chloe had such wonderful chemistry – we were like, “Wow! He’s nailing it on all fronts.” Finding the guy to play Adam in this film isn’t an easy thing. You’ve got to find a great actor, a charming guy, and someone who’s got a connection with Chloe, and someone who’s going to be a rock star. When he came in, we saw all of that. Then, when they got on stage the first time and performed when we were filming, we were like, “Whoa! This is the real thing.” So that was really exciting. And then, when we filmed Josh’s scene, Josh really did work so hard and took these lessons, and we shot his band playing one night, and it went so well. It was great. I was like, “Cut! Great! Awesome! We’ve got it.” And he came over to me and he was like, “Dude, I took so many lessons. Can I please have another take?” So we gave him a couple more takes. It was awesome.
Q: Chloe, the relationship between Mia and Adam really resonates as first love. How did you bring that to life? How did you draw on your life experiences because you’re young, too? Was it awkward and how did you do that?
MORETZ: Everyone says you have to draw from a modicum of self-experience for roles, but sometimes love in particular, when you’re creating a love story… When you’re in relationships with people, not every relationship is the same. Not every love that you find is the same. Every kind of love that you get from every different person is totally different types of it, and you learn through each relationship that there are many different ways you can love someone. With Jamie and I, we became good friends and we were able to create this love relationship just by goofing around with each other and being silly and having a good time and rapping to Kanye and being like kids and just having fun on set. It’s always awkward when you’re having to kiss someone and R.J. says, “Turn your head to the right, please. Make it look like you actually like each other.” And we’re like, “Like this? How do we look? Do we look good?”
CUTLER: It worked though, right?
MORETZ: It worked though, once we got it. You and John de Borman, two men telling these two kids how to make out. (Laughs)
CUTLER: It worked so well, like “One more take, please.”
Q: For Jamie and Chloe, I want to know if you believe in life after death? And what is the most difficult decision you’ve ever had to make in your life?
BLACKLEY: I don’t know if I believe in life after death. I’d like to think that I do, but I’m not quite sure. I certainly believe in little things and little signs of people passing and kind of coming through the woodwork maybe now and again. Maybe. But I don’t know. I’m not committing to that. I’ve been really lucky. I haven’t had a lot riding on a certain decision. Maybe when I decided to leave college after six months and just leave my education and go and give it a go and be rebellious. My mom was like, “What are you doing?” and I said, “I’m leaving college.” That’s probably it, and it’s pretty boring, right?
MORETZ: No, it’s not boring. Do I believe in life after death? Here’s what I find interesting about this movie in particular to keep this centered not just around my religious beliefs but whatever else. I think what is interesting about this in particular is that even though it deals with life after death in this middle ground area, it isn’t religion based. And what I love about this movie is that you watch it without being force fed Christianity or Catholicism or Confucianism or something else. You don’t have one kind of religion being stuffed down your throat. You’re understanding that there is a soul. There are beings. There are emotions. There are feelings. There’s love. There’s passion. And that exists post-accident, post-death, etc. I don’t even know if that deals with life after death or whatever else. I think it just deals with these are incredibly real feelings that you feel and they do continue on in a sense. So I don’t really know if that answers the question, but I think it comments on it a little bit.
CUTLER: There’s definitely a spiritual dimension to the film and there are moments of the unknown. There’s that beautiful moment between Mia and Gramps at the bedside when she takes his hand and he looks her right in the eye, and she says, “Gramps” and he can feel her. And we all know that experience. There’s that great moment with Teddy (Jakob Davies) where he swats the fly away. He doesn’t know what it is. And then, when Mia is saying goodbye to Kim (Liana Liberato). And also, one of my favorite moments in the film is when we see spirit Mia standing up overseeing the Labor Day picnic when everybody is playing. It’s hard to explain it, and yet it feels true in that kind of spiritual way that was very much in Gayle’s book, even though none of those specific moments were in Gayle’s book. That’s a perfect example of a kind of cinematic translation of the emotional experience of the book.
Q: I appreciated that all the adult roles were fleshed out. I love the scene with Mia and Gramps in the car. Chloe, can you talk a little bit about working with Stacy Keach?
MORETZ: Working with Stacy was absolutely amazing. He’s honestly such a genuinely good guy as a person. He is so paternal and sweet and kind. So, it wasn’t hard to have this great relationship with him because I have this piece in my heart for him from the time I met him. After the car scene, when the hospital scene rolls by, I think we shot double coverage on that and I was so torn up. I did not expect for him to drop that tear. I was like, “Man, you killed me.” It was hard. He’s an amazing guy. He really hit my heart strings pretty hard.
Q: What does this say about books to screen and movies and best-sellers, because now this book has taken another life of its own? The ads that are running on TV have new fans of the book. What does this all mean in terms of movies and books that we’re able to have this kind of pairing?
CUTLER: It’s awesome. It’s awesome that Gayle’s book is the number one selling book in America, soon to be the number one selling book on Earth. That’s coming in like three days. It’s awesome that new audiences are discovering it and that this audience is going to have the chance to discover the movie. It’s exciting. I’m not sure how new it is. There’s a rich history of literature to film and they have an impact on each other. But it’s certainly awesome to be seeing drama and dramas in the cinema and films that have a relatively lower budget reaching a broad audience and being supported, and young people coming out and going to see films that this summer are a little different. It’s great. Romantic dramas. What a great genre for there to be now and hopefully there’ll be more. I say, “Thumbs up!”
FORMAN: I also say, “Thumbs up!” But I also think it speaks to an adaptation that does at least what I want it to do, which is that it gives you the emotional experience of the book, but then it gives you something else. If you’ve read the book and you liked the book, I think you’ll go to see the film and take something completely new from it for so many different reasons just because you’re seeing the story in a different way. But the music is something that for me elevates it. It’s a musical as far as I’m concerned. No matter how good somebody writes on the page, music is only music. You see in the film. First of all, the music itself is fantastic to listen to, but you see Adam’s trajectory from playing these little clubs to getting bigger and bigger. You feel the energy in the room. When Mia has her Juilliard audition scene, you see her virtuosity, but you also see emotionally what it does to her and how she is transformed as a musician. You see the two of them on these parallel paths and crossing, so you understand the conflict in the relationship, but you see it in terms of the music and you hear it. That is something that you just can’t do in a book. And so, I think you can have this experience in the book, and you can have an adaptation and a translation that just opens it wide open. So, when I see a book to movie, that kind of a pairing, it’s what I want as a reader as well as the filmgoer.
CUTLER: It’s a whole other experience. There’s this great process that Gayle went through writing the book. There’s this great process that Shauna went through writing the screenplay. And there’s this other process that Linda Cohen, our music supervisor, and Heitor Pereira and I went through creating the soundtrack. And then, there’s Keith Henderson, the editor, and the work that we did in post. There were months of work even before we started shooting – finding Adam’s songs, selecting the songs that Mia would play on the cello, the songs that Denny would play with his band – and that was a whole other layer of the film that isn’t in the book. Somebody mentioned how fleshed out the parents’ roles were, and that is again to Gayle’s credit and to Shauna’s credit, but my lord that is to Josh and Mireille’s (Enos) credit. They brought so much to this performance with so much love and it was such a beautiful thing to see. I’m thrilled that we cast these two remarkable actors. But, their commitment to that, to come from such a place of truth in terms of their love for their children and their willingness to make the kinds of sacrifices that they made, and their connection with each other, that gives the film such a rich texture. You don’t have much time to feel it before the accident happens. But you do feel it and so the loss is so much deeper when the accident happens. So, hats off.
Q: Have there been talks yet about a possible sequel?
CUTLER: Gayle talks about it a lot. (Laughs) I’m kidding. We’re so focused on this film and let’s hope we have that conversation. We just really want people to come out to see this movie. That’s one hundred percent of our focus right now.