RJ Cutler, 52, has some fun with a young adult movie

By Zaki JufriMovies - 01 September 2014 3:30 PM | Updated 4:04 PM

RJ Cutler, 52, has some fun with a young adult movie

He has been making documentaries on the likes of Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Anna Wintour, but a book has taken RJ Cutler out of his comfort zone of sorts.

He is directing a movie based on young adult fiction, and the 52-year-old has read the book himself.  

He said: “It’s a very powerful, very emotional experience to read the book, and I thought it would be great fun to make as a movie.

“There was a great opportunity for music, and great roles for actors, and I just got very excited about it.”

The book is the bestselling ‘If I Stay’ by Gayle Forman. It tells the story of Mia, a young cellist who goes into coma after a car crash that killed her parents and her younger brother.

Her spirit leaves her body and flits about the emergency room eavesdropping on friends and relatives, experiencing extended flashbacks, and wrestling with whether to leave or stay on in the human realm with her hunky rocker boyfriend.

The screenplay is adapted from the book by Shauna Cross. Mia is played by 17-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz, better know as Hit-Girl from the ‘Kick-Ass’ movie series 

The movie packs the same tearjerking punch and sweeping romantic caress as other young adult hits such as ‘The Fault in Our Stars’.

‘If I Stay’ author Forman said at the movie’s press conference recently: “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.

inSing caught up with director Cutler to find out more about how he is seeing the world differently with his latest feature 

When you were initially drawn to ‘If I Stay’, what resonated with you most about the novel?

When I first heard the book, I had this unusual experience. Of course, I loved the characters and I loved Mia. I loved her relationship with her family and the way in which she and Adam saw each other and understood each other in ways that no one ever had, even though they were apparently so different.  

I was very struck by that. But I just found myself moved on a kind of visceral, cellular level, in a way that I have rarely been moved. And my goal in making the film was to recreate that experience for the audience.


Chloe Grace Moretz stars as protagonist and cello player Mia

Tell us about the character of Mia and what qualities Chloe Grace Moretz brought to this character?

At our very first meeting, one of the things we talked about was how much we loved the book. We also talked about music and how important it was to her and to me and to this story.

But what is so interesting about Chloe is that here she is, child prodigy, playing Mia Hall, child prodigy. They both have this deep, profound, innate talent that neither of them fully understands. They’ve had to work very hard to develop their talent, but it’s part of the essence of who they are.

For Chloe, it’s acting; for Mia, it’s music. And this is something that I think Chloe was able to uniquely bring to her portrayal of Mia.

Moretz has talked about a “phantom cello” that followed her around Europe while she was shooting other films. Can you tell us about that

Chloe is a very busy working actress. I think she did six movies last year and didn’t have much time off, so this wasn’t a situation where she was going to spend two months studying the cello every day.

But, nevertheless, it was very important to me that she be as comfortable as possible with the cello. The more familiar she was with the instrument, the more the fingers on her hands felt the rawness and experienced the calluses that a young cellist would have; the more that she knew what it meant to sit for some hours with a cello and to play it; and the more she felt those muscles developing, the truer her performance would ultimately be when she was on screen.

She was in Eastern Europe and there was a cello. She went to Boston and there was a cello. And, certainly, when she was home in LA, there was a cello. And not only was a cello there, but a cello teacher was available to her on call on the other end of a Skype connection for whenever she had the time to take a lesson.  

A classical musician and a rock star fall in love

Can you talk about casting Jamie Blackley as her onscreen boyfriend Adam, and the chemistry between the two?

This movie doesn’t work unless there is a deep connection between Adam and Mia that defies the differences between them. He’s older and more experienced; he’s a rock star. Everybody knows him. He seems destined for greatness.

She’s a little introverted, and is a classical musician. She has a few friends and passes through the halls of school unnoticed, except by Adam. They appear, on the surface, to be different, and yet something connects them. It’s chemistry.  

In casting this film, you’re looking and hoping that that thing is palpable between the two actors. Chloe and Jamie have it. It was immediate and palpable and exciting and adorable.

How did you envision bringing the experience you and so many readers had reading the book to come alive on screen?

I wanted to make sure that the moments we tracked in Adam and Mia’s relationships were right out of the book.  

My background is in theatre and documentary film and I like to quote the playwright David Mamet, who once said, ‘Always tell the truth. It’s the easiest thing to remember.’  

When I’m working on a documentary, I always say, ‘Well, what actually happened?’ 

In the case of ‘If I Stay’, ‘What actually happened?’ meant ‘What was in the book?’ That’s reality. So the book became the foundation of everything, for production design, costume design, music, the dynamic between the characters, etc.

When you’re adapting a piece of material, you take from it a moment, a glance, a gesture, a scene, a chapter. For me, I wanted the DNA of the book to inform the DNA of the movie, and I made certain that those things happened.

Chloe Grace Moretz and RJ Cutler on set

What emotions do you hope to evoke with ‘If I Stay’?

I describe this film as a rollercoaster, so I want audience members to have all the experiences that one has on a rollercoaster: the thrills, chills and spills, twists and turns, surprises and excitement, emotion, joy, and, at moments, terror.

I’m very gratified when people tell me ‘If I Stay’is a film they loved seeing, but that they also loved thinking about in the days and weeks that follow.  

‘If I Stay’ opens in cinemas 4 September

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