Last Letter From Your Lover director on how the movie's love story matches up with her real-life romance
Augustine Frizzell talks bringing Jojo Moyes' beloved novel to Netflix.
When director Augustine Frizzell (Never Goin' Back, Euphoria) was sent the script for the adaptation of the novel The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes (also known for penning Me Before You), she immediately identified with the story of two lovers exchanging letters to fuel their connection.
Starring Shailene Woodley and Felicity Jones, the dual-narrative Netflix drama takes place in two different eras, following the lives and loves of Jennifer Stirling (Woodley, Big Little Lies), an American woman living in 1960's London and contemporary London journalist, Ellie Haworth (Jones, The Theory Of Everything). Though decades apart in age, the two women's lives are intertwined when Ellie stumbles across some heartbreakingly beautiful love letters addressed to Jennifer in the archives at the newspaper where she works.
Looking for her next project and hoping to go in a different direction towards something
"that felt traditional and not edgy," Frizzell read the script for Last Letter and called her producer crying. "It was exactly what I wanted and it's very similar to my own story," the director tells EW.
Frizzell met her husband and fellow filmmaker David Lowery back in 2001, but after dating briefly, the couple went their separate ways. Eight years later, they reconnected for dinner in Dallas, Texas one night and Frizzell and Lowery remained in contact, sending songs and emails to one another and later graduating to mixed tapes and care packages. "Finally we ended up meeting up in person and then it turned out we were both in love with each other," says the director. "A year later we got married."
Readers of Moyes' novel will know that things don't go quite so smoothly for Jennifer when she falls for troubled journalist Anthony O'Hare (Callum Turner, Fantastic Beasts) while married to the frightfully well-to-do, yet cold Laurence Stirling (Joe Alwyn, The Favourite). Despite the beautifully crafted love letters they send to one another as they attempt to keep their affair a secret, Jennifer is bound by societal expectations, her charming yet controlling husband, and later by her limited recollections — after an accident affects her memory. It was that internal battle that drew Woodley to the role. "You witness a woman's journey in how she chooses to live her life," she says. "You recognize the struggles that come with being a woman, specifically in that time era, making decisions for herself and choosing a path that perhaps isn't the most well-worn, yet is the most fulfilling."
Frizzell always knew Woodley was the person she wanted to bring Jennifer's struggle to the screen, even though the actress wasn't immediately available. "She was the very first person I mentioned when we started looking at the cast," says the filmmaker. When Woodley's schedule changed and the two met while the script was still in development stages, Frizzell says she "just fell in love with Shailene." The women discovered they had similar world views and a shared commitment to bringing this story to life. "She's just a great girl — and we also shared a mutual love for Dirty Dancing," says the director.
Likewise, when Frizzell met Jones, the pair "just really clicked." That unity between the actors and director really contributed to the collaborative movie-making experience, especially since Woodley and Jones also serve as executive producers on the film and were open to giving notes on the script, breaking down the characters, and attending early screenings of the movie to share feedback. "[Being a producer] gives them a bit of ownership," says Frizzell. "I feel like when you have that, you move outside of yourself in the role and you see the project as a whole instead. You have a more balanced view of the project overall. We, as women, have been held back from those positions of authority for a long time and now that they've become available and people are more ready to offer them, I just want to go in full force. I want that to be the case with every actress I work with. I can't wait for both or either of those women to start directing. I know they will at some point — they'd be so good at it. I just told them both, 'Anytime, come shadow me!'"
While Woodley's Jennifer is busy in the '60s with a husband and lover, in the present day, Ellie grows closer to the newspaper archivist, Rory, helping her dig through the library for a work assignment, played by Nabhaan Rizwan (1917). "With Ellie, she's someone who's had a rough time in a previous relationship and has lost hope in love even existing," says Jones of her character. "When she stumbles across these letters about a completely unabashed and passionate love, it really starts to make her feel that maybe there is hope and a possibility of true connection, but it's done in a way that is very simply and truthfully told."
That true connection starts to unfold with Rory while they unravel Jennifer and Anthony's love story. Having watched tape after tape of actors auditioning for the role of the archivist, Frizzell really took note of Rizwan when he nailed a line everyone else seemed to be misinterpreting. "He just said it with such sincerity, it gave me tingles," she says. (When the director brought this up to him later when they were shooting the same scene on set, Rizwan admitted he hadn't even realized what he'd done.)
When it came to casting Jennifer's two love interests, Frizzell had a similar intuitive feeling about the actors who won the roles. Having found Turner "magnetic" in a previous indie movie he's made, the director was convinced he could bring the enigmatic Anthony O'Hare to life. "He just seemed right," she says. "And lucky for me, he and Shailene clicked instantly and really hit it off."
For the role of Jennifer's husband, Frizzell knew whoever was cast had to be able to bring Laurence's deceptive charm. "[Joe Alwyn] has the sweetest face," she says. "It's so kind looking and just like a soft-hearted angel, but there's a little twinkle behind his eyes and you're like, 'Ooh, wait, he's got a little mischief in there. I bet he could get up to some trouble if he wanted to'. So he was just perfect."
With her dream cast in place, Frizzell hopes that when people watch the movie they'll be won over by the sophisticated and complex romance of the story. "I hope that people feel a renewed belief in true love and they feel that it's never too late," she says. "I think so many of us get to a certain age or we have one too many heartbreaks and we decide not to go there again, but I think it's worth a try because you never know how it's going to end up. Keeping open to the possibility is such a unique way of living and it really does pay off." Grab that letter-writing paper, friends!
Last Letter From Your Lover is available to stream on Netflix now.