How I Live Now
Taglines: Love will lead you home.
How I Live Now is a British drama film based on the 2004 novel of same name by Meg Rosoff, directed by Kevin Macdonald and script written by Tony Grisoni, Jeremy Brock and Penelope Skinner. The film stars Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, Anna Chancellor, George MacKay, Corey Johnson and Sabrina Dickens. It was screened in the Special Presentation section at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
Set in the near-future UK, Saoirse Ronan plays Daisy, an American teenager sent to stay with relatives in the English countryside. Initially withdrawn and alienated, she begins to warm up to her charming surroundings, and strikes up a romance with the handsome Edmund (George MacKay). But on the fringes of their idyllic summer days are tense news reports of an escalating conflict in Europe. As the UK falls into a violent, chaotic military state, Daisy finds herself hiding and fighting to survive.
Filming began in June 2012 in England and Wales. The film was released on 4 October 2013 in the United Kingdom and was set for release on 28 November 2013 in Australia. On 25 July 2013, Magnolia Pictures acquired the US rights to distribute the film.
About the Production
“The summer I went to England to stay with my cousins everything changed… Mostly everything changed because of Edmond.” – How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff
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.
“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.”
“No matter how much you put on a sad expression and talked about how awful it was that all those people were killed and what about Democracy and the Future of Our Great Nation the fact that none of us kids said out loud was that we didn’t really care.”
How I Live Now depicts its wartime with frightening realism, and yet, seen through the eyes of its largely oblivious teenage protagonists, leaves a shroud of mystery around what’s actually happening. The unknown enemy that manages to seize control of the nation remains a shadowy force. “The world that Meg created is very much about ambiguity and we wanted to leave it in that world,” says Macdonald. “I’m sure that some people will ask, ‘Who are the enemy? What’s going on?’ But I believe it’s the right decision to keep it as vague as possible because, in a way, it’s all a metaphor. It’s not a political film, it’s not a film about the situation in the world, it’s the story of an unhappy teenage girl falling in love.”
“I don’t think it’s necessarily important for the audience to know everything that Eddie’s been through,” says MacKay, agreeing with his director. “What’s important is that the film is about healing damaged people and Eddie heals Daisy through their love. Sex and true love are new discoveries that come with being with each other and at the end of the film; Daisy is on the path to healing him.”
Macdonald wanted to steep the film in the English romantic tradition, which is why songs by melodic folk-rockers Fairport Convention and English singer-songwriter Nick Drake feature on the soundtrack. “It’s about the beauty of the landscape and the threat of the landscape at the same time,” he notes, “and I want to reflect this magical, melancholic version of England in the music.”
More than any film Macdonald has made, How I Live Now rests on a single character’s journey. Daisy goes on a staggering arc during the narrative, conveyed by Ronan with extraordinary conviction; the novel’s numerous fans will be thrilled to witness her performance. “I know teenage girls who got so excited when they heard I was making this movie,” says the actress. “Having a leading young woman like Daisy who’s very messed up and unsure of herself and insecure, I know as a teenager they’re the kind of characters I relate to more because they’re not perfect and they’re not glorified. Pretty much every teenage girl goes through at least some of what Daisy experiences.”
“What I find interesting about Saoirse’s performance is that she’s not always sympathetic in the film and she did sometimes find that difficult because she is, by nature, such a lovely person,” muses Macdonald. “But that makes it a particularly strong performance because it’s Saoirse as you’ve never seen her before. She’s tough, ballsy and the most grown-up we’ve seen her be. In this film, we watch her becoming a grown-up in front of our eyes and that’s exciting. After this film, you’ll see people start casting her as a leading lady.”
How I Live Now
Directed by: Director: Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, Anna Chancellor, George MacKay, Corey Johnson, Harley Bird
Screenplay by: Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni
MPAA Rating: R for violence, disturbing images, language and some sexuality.
Production Design by: Jacqueline Abrahams
Cinematography by: Franz Lustig
Film Editing by: Jinx Godfrey
Costume Design by: Jane Petrie
Art Direction by: Astrid Sieben
Music by: Jon Hopkins
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Release Date: November 8, 2013