HOW I LIVE NOW
About the Production
When Meg Rosoff's novel How I Live Now was first published in 2004, it was widely greeted with acclaim and blossomed into a word-of-mouth best-seller. The London-based American author's remarkable debut found itself showered with prestigious literary awards, including the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize.
Written in the compellingly innocent but acerbic voice of its heroine, an intelligent but angry and anorexic 15-year-old New Yorker named Daisy, How I Live Now deftly and movingly touched on themes of love, loss and loyalty beneath the topical shadows of war, chaos and carnage. Exiled by her father from Manhattan to the English countryside, Daisy's coming of age is a mixture of bliss and heartache, the former generated by falling in love with her cousin Edmond, the latter by the darkness that falls when Britain is plunged into war. Suddenly, this self-absorbed teenager is solely responsible for her youngest cousin Piper and forced to embark on an epic and courageous journey of survival.
It was the imaginative scope of Rosoff's story, set in a parallel or not-too-distant future, and the relatable poignancy of Daisy's detached but sharply ironic observations about love, war, cousins and countryside that made the novel appeal to young and adult readers alike. Among its fans were Charles Steel and Alasdair Flind of Cowboy Films, who secured the option on Rosoff's best-seller and put the adaptation into development at Film4.
Early on, they sent the book to Kevin Macdonald, who Steel had worked with on The Last King Of Scotland. He also read it and loved it but, after The Last King Of Scotland, he was a filmmaker in demand and his schedule rendered him unavailable. Macdonald was always drawn to the prospect of making a serious film about the teenage experience, as well as one that featured a female lead and a love story -- both are firsts for the talented director. When the project came back around to him, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
"I think Meg's book is really beautiful," says Macdonald. "But as is so often the case, when there's a really beautiful book, you often have to move further away from it than you would if you were adapting what was a mediocre book. So much of what the book did you can't do on screen. For one thing it's Daisy's internal monologue, which meant that the structure of the book was very hard to replicate. And although Daisy's voice is so strong in the book, we realized she needed to be slightly different in order for the film to work."
The producers were faced with the challenge of distilling a novel that ventures into both youth and adult terrain in terms of its themes and subject matter, but without losing the poetic vision that made Rosoff's manuscript such a celebrated success. Different screenwriters with varied skillsets were brought on board: Tony Grisoni (Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, In This World) was the first to work on the adaptation, before he passed the baton to Jeremy Brock (The Last King Of Scotland, The Eagle). Acclaimed young playwright Penelope Skinner came on last to put the finishing touches on Daisy, who falls in love with one of her cousins and faces extreme challenges throughout the story.
"Kevin was looking to bring a young female voice to capture Daisy's voice," notes Steel. "Penelope did a fantastic job and has contributed enormously to the screenplay."
"We tried so many different voices for Daisy," explains Macdonald. "The breakthrough was figuring out that the key to Daisy was her willpower. She is somebody who has an amazingly strong sense of self and identity, but she has used that willpower in very negative ways in her life because her life has been very negative. But she ends up using the same thing that's made her a troubled person to survive."
Although it's likely to be classified in the young-adult section of any bookstore, Rosoff's novel was strongly embraced by both a teenage and an adult audience. The book's publisher, Penguin Books, even created separate covers to target both markets. Although that crossover appeal is strongly reflected in Macdonald's adaptation, everyone involved was aware that the more they defined their target audience, the better chance they had of crossing over to reach both groups.
"Driven by Kevin, we've fully embraced it as a teenage love story aimed towards a teenage audience," says Steel.
"What makes the film stand out," adds Flind. "Is that this is Kevin's version of a teenage love story. He has the ability to make it real and rough around the edges in all the right ways. He'll make it stand out."
Ronan was an actress whose name came up early on in How I Live Now's development, around the time of Atonement's release. Although she would have been too young at the time, the Irish actress' talent and charisma were obvious to all, and she has gone on to become the standout actress of her generation. Call it serendipity but by the time the stars aligned for How I Live Now to move into production, Ronan was the right age to play Daisy.
Initially, Macdonald had considered going with a cast of non-professionals to portray How I Live Now's group of five, and he arranged open casting calls to find an unknown to inhabit Daisy. Later, he abandoned that plan and began meeting with teenage actresses, but couldn't find anyone he felt had the edge that Daisy needed. Until he met Ronan and was blown away. "She came in to read and she was just fantastic, I mean jaw-dropping," says the Glasgow-born director. "The most amazing thing was that she'd come over from Ireland but hadn't received the new pages we'd sent her so she had literally 10 minutes to prepare when she arrived. But she did it and she was fantastically good."
The most enjoyable part of the shoot for Macdonald was getting to work with his teenage and younger cast. "They were fun and energetic and obedient, for the most part," he smiles. "They were just a pleasure to work with and having so many kids around the whole time, even though Saoirse is 18 and George had just turned 20, created a lovely atmosphere for everybody. I was 44 when I shot it so quite distant from those sort of feelings and obviously I've also never experienced what it's like to be a teenage girl so I came to rely on them in different ways than you do when you're making a film about adults."
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