One Day: an interview with writer David Nicholls

With the romantic comedy One Day out now in cinemas, we chat to novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls about the film, Hollywood rom-coms and more…

If you’ve spotted people reading in public over the last couple of years, chances are the book in their hands had an orange and white cover and bore the words One Day and David Nicholls. You could say the success of Nicholls’ third novel has been incredible, but if you’ve read it, you’ll know just how credible its popularity is. 

One Day is about friendship, anxieties, love and growing up, run though with a sense of humour and a thread of social satire. Set over a period of twenty years, the novel drops into its characters’ lives for one day a year between the late-80s and mid-noughties, charting a relationship against a backdrop of wry, whip-smart observations.

This week sees the release of the inevitable film adaptation of One Day, directed by Lone Scherfig and adapted for the screen by Nicholls himself.

After congratulating Nicholls on the massive success of the novel, we spoke to him about adapting his own work, Hollywood rom-coms, happy endings, cultural snobbery, making the nation cry, and his new adaptation of Great Expectations starring Helena Bonham-Carter and Ralph Fiennes.

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You’ve said in other interviews that the film of One Day is emphatically not a Hollywood version of your novel. Could you elaborate on that? What would a Hollywood version of One Day look like?

Well, I don’t think Hollywood’s a dirty word at all, I love a lot of Hollywood films.  I suppose often a note that you get when you work on a script is, “Are they likeable?”, “Is this a sympathetic way to behave?” and reading the book, Emma [play by Anne Hathaway in the film] and Dexter [played by Jim Sturgess] are often very, very unsympathetic.

Dexter in particular behaves incredibly badly. So, I suppose I was worried that we’d knock a lot of the corners off, that we’d make the characters perhaps more sympathetic, more soft. 

There is less promiscuity and less crazy decadence in the film than there is in the book, but that’s not because of any kind of pressure from the studios, that’s just to do with repetition really, just to do with not hitting the same note over and over again. 

There was never a pressure to tone down some of the darker passages in the book, some of the more dramatic scenes. There was never any pressure to change the ending, which I think was probably the biggest anxiety. 

Yes, I think we haven’t made the glossy version, the characters don’t all live in wonderful penthouse pads, London isn’t just Trafalgar Square, or…

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Knightsbridge? [Where the interview took place]

Yes, Knightsbridge. It is Hackney and Dalston and all of those places, as it was intended in the book.

This one’s a bit of an awkward question, but I wondered whether an expectation that the film of One Day would be a glossy Hollywood rom-com may have actually led to some of the more lukewarm reviews of the film?

I don’t know, I haven’t read the reviews [Laughs]. I didn’t even know they were lukewarm. I don’t know, do you think people wanted a more… a glossier film?

More that they came to it with different expectations.

Maybe, I’m happy to defy those expectations. I think we wanted to make a film for grown-ups and not make another kind of… Again, I like a lot of Hollywood films, but we were aware that this was going to be tougher and a bit less conventional, and I think that’s fine. I certainly don’t have any regrets about that.

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Bearing in mind that Starter For Ten was financed by HBO, and One Day, partly at least, by Universal, is it hard to forge a British film identity with American backing?

I suppose it’s not necessarily something that I know too much about, because it’s more the producer’s role, but I think probably those clear distinctions between a British film and an American film don’t necessarily apply so much anymore.

On this film, most of the crew, most of the cast and most of the production team were British, it was shot largely in Britain and there was some American money in it, but also some Film4 money as well, so I think that again it isn’t really a clear distinction. I think that’s the case with most movies now.

On the subject of the ending, all three of your novels have come to a point where things could just go brilliantly for the characters, in Starter For Ten, The Understudy and One Day, but then it all gets swept away from them. Do you think that’s symptomatic of a British sense of embarrassment about happy endings?

I don’t think that it’s British, if anything I think that it’s slightly… Well, a big influence on me is Billy Wilder. I love Billy Wilder, and I love the way that his films can be very touching and very moving and very romantic, and at the same time there’s always a little cynical undertone, there’s always something that undercuts things. So again, I don’t think of that as British, but certainly it’s something I’m aware of. 

I think probably I’m quite sentimental, I like big emotional stories, I like being moved by things, but I think I’m very embarrassed by sentiment. I’m very embarrassed by corniness. I think probably it’s a tendency on my part. Maybe that is also a British, self-deprecating thing, a desire to undercut things perhaps, though. I don’t know.

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You’ve mentioned Nick Hornby and High Fidelity in the past as another novelist and novel which combine comedy and tragedy, to use big dramatic terms. Do you feel that you fit into a similar position as Hornby as a British novelist?

Not consciously. I know it’s a comparison that comes up a lot, and I’m certainly very flattered by it. I think Nick is a really fine writer who is constantly doing new things. I think he’s a writer who writes women as well as he writes men, and a writer who appeals to women and men, and a writer who’s interested very much in human relationships and writing romantic stories, but stories which are always based in a reality that aren’t corny and syrupy, so I suppose we maybe have those things in common.

Again, I’m not consciously aware of an influence. If anything, I read a lot of American fiction and I’m influenced by a lot of mid twentieth-century American fiction, from Fitzgerald to Salinger, through to Philip Roth, and I suppose if I’m consciously influenced by anyone, it’s those writers.

On the subject of your literary tastes, you’ve mentioned having been something of a cultural snob in your youth, and that you may not have even read Starter For Ten [Nicholls’ debut novel], for instance, when it came out. 

No, I wonder if I’d have read One Day? I think I would, I think I would.

You should, it’s really good.

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[Laughs] I’ve heard that. I hope that people… I mean, I hate cultural snobbery. I suppose that when I do read fiction I tend to read more literary fiction, but I’d hate people to have preconceptions about this book.

Again, it’s a bit like looking too long in the mirror. I don’t know if it’s very healthy to think too much about where you belong.

You mentioned Nick Hornby’s ability to write women well, and you’ve also said that writing, at least in the first person, is very much like acting for you, so were you almost in drag writing Emma?

No, definitely not. Actually, quite the opposite. I think the worst thing you can do is sort of put on a hat and think that you’re writing in a feminine mode, a female mode. I never asked, “What does it feel like for a woman to…?” I never particularly worried about it.

I think there are certain experiences that I’d be wary of writing about from a female point of view, but Emma’s anxieties about her romantic life or her profession or family relationships or where she lives, I think those are all universal. I don’t think women have a unique or distinctive take on those dilemmas, so I think I just thought of the character and not the gender.

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You mentioned earlier that you like big emotional reactions, and in terms of the reaction you wanted people to have to One Day, do you feel at all guilty for being named as “The man who made the nation cry”?

No, I saw that one. No, not at all.

You’ve upset a lot of people though…

[Laughs] I suppose the wariness I have about it is, if it implies a kind of manipulation, a sort of glib, easy, corny manipulation. I think I wanted the book to be quite emotional, but I didn’t want it to be syrupy, sentimental or manipulative. I don’t even know if manipulative is the right word, because all writers manipulate the reader, in that they make them feel things that they want them to feel…

But you didn’t want to frogmarch people to emotions rather than let them…?

Exactly. I do get a lot of letters, and often people say at the start that they’re quite angry [Laughs], which is fine, because usually, by the end of the message, they come around to saying they enjoyed the book. I love being moved by books and films and television.

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On that point, you named the scene in One Day of Dexter and his father watching television as the one which broke you, in terms of crying. For me it was Rafe Spall in the café, the letter which became a dramatic scene.

Oh yes, yes.

That was one place, I felt, that the letters weren’t missing from the film. Perhaps it worked even better as a dramatic scene than as a letter. But for the rest of the film though, the letters were missed.

The letters, yes… I think there are excerpts of the letters in dialogue early on, in the scene where Dexter visits her in the restaurant.

I was a huge letter writer. I think I became a writer because I used to write letters to my friends, and I used to love writing them. I loved the idea that you can put marks on a page and send it off, and two days later, someone laughs somewhere else in the world.

Writing letters was my first real experience of the pleasures of writing, and in my early twenties I wrote a lot of letters, and I wanted to get some of that enthusiasm into the book. And then of course, when you try to put that on screen, you realise that letters on screen don’t work unless you have fifteen minutes of voiceover…

Which you wanted to avoid?

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Yes, I think so. I think so. We did talk about it. I think there were drafts where Dexter went to India and there was a lot of voiceover, but we tried to get that growing bond and that growing familiarity into those scenes where they’re in a room together, because things like telephone calls and voiceovers never have quite the weight that you want them to have.

Another novelist who’s recently been adapted into film, Joe Dunthorne, who wrote Submarine, said he felt terribly nostalgic when he visited that film’s set, especially that of the main character’s bedroom. Did you feel the same way on your films?

Yes, yeah, absolutely. Both on this and Starter For Ten. On Starter For Ten, I don’t know whether they got some of the details from my photographs, but it was an absolute spitting image of my bedroom in 1985, and likewise, Emma’s bedroom in 1988 was pretty close as well.

Can you tell us at what stage your Great Expectations adaptation is at the moment?

Yes, yeah. We almost have a shooting script, and we are having a read-through quite soon, and then we start shooting in October. I’m really excited about that. The script is pretty faithful to the book. Events are slightly concertinaed, and there’s a little more urgency in the screenplay.

Things take place over a shorter period of time, but I think it’s going to be a different vision of Dickens, I hope. There’s much less of the kind of satire and the comic grotesquery, and much more energy and violence. 

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I think Great Expectations is the leanest and tightest of Dickens’ novels. It has a terrific plot, and terrific forward momentum and I’m hoping that we’ll get that on screen in the film, and it’ll feel different to how Dickens is usually portrayed on the screen.

You’ve certainly got a strong cast.Yeah, I’m very excited. I mean, Helena Bonham-Carter as Miss Havisham, I think, is a terrific idea. People always think of Miss Havisham as this old crone and actually she isn’t, in the book she’s in her mid-fifties, and when Pip first meets her, she’s sort of early-forties, and I think that this will, again, be a different vision of those characters, of Magwitch and Miss Havisham.

Great Expectations is one in a series of adaptations you’ve done of novels by writers who are long-dead. I wondered if, as a writer who also adapts, that might be because then there’s less of a chance of comeback?

No, I feel particularly, almost more so when they’re dead and revered like Dickens and Hardy, that you have to be faithful, and actually, the most faithful adaptations that I’ve done have been of dead writers. 

I did an adaptation of Blake Morrison’s memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, and Blake is very much alive, which was quite demanding, because suddenly the characters are around us, you know, at the premiere, but that was more of a free adaptation.

Okay, last question. As a former actor, can I ask if you got paid as an extra for your cameo in One Day?

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No I wasn’t [Feigns outrage]. I wasn’t and [Smiling] it’s so good that I feel I should be, and I might bring it up!

Can you tell us where to look out for you in the film?

Okay, well it’s not even a cameo. I basically stand… I walk up some stairs in the background. There’s a scene where Emma and Dexter are coming to this terrible restaurant, and they’re about to have this awful, awkward evening out together, and the plan was that I would walk upstairs and Dexter would tip me five pounds as we passed, but that just proved too complicated for me! So all I do is walk past them in long shot, and the camera is a very, very long way away.

David Nicholls, thank you very much.

One Day is out now in the UK. You can read our review here.