In a chic Islington restaurant, Dolly Alderton asks me where I met my partner. While most people will politely smile and half-listen to the answer, Alderton — who eats love stories for breakfast — virtually squeals at the meet-cute I serve up, which I had a hunch she of all people would appreciate.
The London-born Alderton is one of the most recognizable columnists in the U.K., and has built a career as a journalist and author on, well, love. And, really, you would struggle to find someone who flits as effortlessly between waxing poetic about Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” and quoting Rob Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally.”
Alderton this week makes her screenwriting debut with a Working Title-produced adaptation of her hugely popular memoir, “Everything I Know About Love,” which premieres on BBC One on Tuesday night. (A U.S. deal for the show is still in the works.)
Britons will recognize Alderton from her hit pop culture podcast with co-host Pandora Sykes, “The High Low,” as well as her Sunday Times dating column, and reappearance in 2020 as the paper’s agony aunt. Incapable of being single after a five-year relationship? Tired of being judged for getting together through an affair? Ask Dolly.
But it wasn’t until the publication of “Everything I Know About Love” that Alderton became somewhat ubiquitous. The 2018 memoir details the Londoner’s romantic entanglements and learnings from her 20s, yet its enduring message was about Alderton’s relationship with her best friends, many of whom have become local celebrities themselves.
The book was optioned for TV by Universal International Studios-backed Working Title before it was even finished — super-producer Eric Fellner was a fan of Alderton’s Times columns and had been tracking her career — and the resulting seven-part series is as much a celebration of best friendship (a tier, in the words of Mindy Kaling) as it is a chronicle of careless, messy youth.
But don’t expect a faithful adaptation. I was curious, for instance, how Alderton went about diversifying her real-life story for screen. As much as I loved “Everything I Know About Love” — a top pick in my book club — I didn’t necessarily feel nor see myself reflected in Alderton’s close friend group and their personal experiences. The book may be, as some have dubbed it, a “bible” about love and relationships, but told through a specific lens.
Alderton recognized as much, and in adapting the book for the BBC, surrounded herself with a diverse writers’ room to grow the world of her book into something more representative. “As a writer, you want a variety of stories, and a variety of characters and personalities,” she says. “So why wouldn’t I take the opportunity, in a world that’s semi-fictionalized, to expand the world?
In a wide-ranging interview with Variety, Alderton spoke about bringing her beloved book to screen, why she won’t be writing about her personal life again anytime soon, and exactly how she’s going to write the next great romantic comedy.
The show isn’t the book, is it? Can you describe the process of creating a show based on your memoir, but also departing from it?
It’s inspired by the book, and that was really exciting for me for two reasons: The first is, when you write a memoir, you are so restricted by the facts of life. And that means that the world can be quite small and the story can be quite small — the story can lack structure, just like life is often disappointing in terms of its plot. So it kind of freed me up to marshal the narrative in a more satisfying and symbolic way. It was good because when you’re writing memoir, understandably, what people hone in on and connect with is the fact that it happened to a real person and that makes it incredibly relatable, but it also is incredibly exposing, whereas adding this slight distance of a semi-fictional lens over the top of it just freed me up because it meant there are things that have happened in my real life that are in the show but that weren’t in the book, because I didn’t want my mum and dad to know that happened to me, or I didn’t want to incriminate people. So it made things murkier in a way that made me feel much less self conscious. When I interviewed [“Eat Pray Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert], she said to me, “If you want to know the most about me, don’t look in my memoir, look in my fiction, because that is where you can hide in plain sight.”
How involved were you in the casting process?
I was very involved, and the casting was so fun. It’s one of the most creative parts of it. And it is really, really like falling in love, where you meet someone, and you would know they were perfect. There are so many logistical things that you have to get through before you put them in the show. And I would, like, be at home stalking their Instagrams, and watching interviews of them and kind of dreaming about them. And [co-director China Moo-Young] actually said to me that, as a director, you do sort of become obsessed with the main ensemble, because you have to watch their face so much, and you have to edit them so much. You sort of have to fall in love with them for a year. And you think about them all the time when you’re not with them. So yeah, I was very involved with it — and I loved it.
How do you have that conversation with your friends about bringing your shared experiences (or theirs!) to screen?
They’ve let me use everything, really. I’m really, really lucky. My friends have never, ever told me that something is off limits. I think my friends are basically my partner. I’ve lived with them for years; they know my family, I know their family. I’m saying this like it’s this revolution, but I think this is very common with our generation. I’ve grown up with them. And they are all my partner. So, they just know that if I’m writing about love, that’s my main experience of love.
It’s amazing how the show really captures that feeling in the book, of losing your friends to their new relationship. That’s really accurate.
I’m so pleased, because that’s the main thing that we took from the book. Because actually, the book is kind of plotless, and we were really keen with the show to elevate the nuances of this relationship and what it is to grow apart and then come back together in the same way that a romantic relationship is the central drama of a rom-com. That’s hard to do because it means that the main dramatic movement of it is just this relationship. So we had to be really careful at every step, in every episode, to make sure that we were telling that story really clearly and that sometimes that is just in looks, or sometimes it’s when they’re dancing, and Birdy kind of drifts away from her.
Is there some talk of Season 2?
I fucking hope so. I am raring to go! Because so much of episodes 1-3 was about establishing these characters. There’s so much [more]. I want more of Amara’s love life, I want more of Nell’s family, I know that there’s just so much I want to explore of all these other characters.
How did you tackle making the screen adaptation more diverse than your lived reality? It was interesting because even in that scene in an early episode, where Amara and Maggie are talking about their experiences on dating apps, Maggie doesn’t really seem to understand how it is a very different experience for a young Black woman.
It was something that was tricky to navigate. I kept having Maggie behave in a more self-aware and sensitive way than a girl aged 24 in 2012 would have behaved and I kept having to bring myself back to the reality of where conversations were then. It wasn’t so much about me. Obviously, there is a need for representation on screen. But as a writer, you also want a variety of stories, and a variety of characters and personalities. So why wouldn’t I take the opportunity, in a world that’s semi-fictionalized, to expand the world? The first thing we did before I even started writing is we did a one-week writers room with a real range of writers — of different ages, different backgrounds, different writing histories and writing skills — and they helped me chuck the book away, and just think about who these other two girls [besides the two best friends of Maggie and Birdy] would be. And some of those discussions were about race, because I didn’t want to write two white characters, and cast two actors of color. I wanted to write two characters of color. And to develop that, yeah, some of the conversations about their stories were inflected by their heritage. And then lots of the stories weren’t inflected by their heritage.
In the landscape for TV now, it feels like the more specific and detail-oriented shows are, the better they are. Audiences are tougher critics, too.
Something I’ve learned with this is that you have to be real about the oppression that a character has felt, whether it’s all four of them as women, Birdy as a Jewish woman, Nell as a half-Chinese woman or Amara as a Black woman. But equally, you don’t want to be lessening through those characters, and you also want to give them room to be people as well. So it’s about really thinking about when stuff’s relevant, and when it’s not.
Early in your career, you were a producer on “Made in Chelsea” so you had some experience in the TV world, albeit not in scripted. What was it like making the transition into drama?
It’s so different. On “Made in Chelsea” I was a story producer and I was mainly in the office trying to “storyline the reality” of what was going on day to day. It was such a different experience. I think it’s much easier, editorially, making something that’s scripted because you just decide where things go. Whereas the thing that makes structured reality so chaotic and stressful is you’re not dealing with characters from a page, you’re dealing with young, hormonal, horny, vibrant people who you can’t predict what they’re going to do. So, week in, week out, it’s such an around the clock job. Whereas the thing I hadn’t realized about writing a scripted show was how much of the creative process was dealing with heartbreak, mending your heart and finding a solution. Like, you have a dream for something, and when you’ve got your writer’s hat on, you’re not thinking as a producer — you’re dreaming big. You’re thinking of a million locations, a million songs, a million different actors. The production process is basically removing those week by week and it’s very creative in itself, of finding a better solution that serves it in a different way. And I feel more prepared for that with the next series.
How did you end up working with Working Title?
So [Working Title co-founder Eric Fellner] had been reading my dating column years back. I think he kind of read them with interest because he was very into Helen Fielding’s columns when she was writing the column [on which “Bridget Jones’ Diary” was based] for The Independent. So he read that, and I think he sort of lobbed that if I was ever taking those columns into a more narrative space to maybe get in touch. And then I literally had written a proposal [for the book] which was 14,000 words, and it had gone out for submissions, and some scout got their hands on it, and gave it to Working Title. Eric got me in for a meeting and I signed a deal with them before I even finished the book, which is crazy because I never, ever, ever thought that it would be on screen. And, actually, when I signed that deal with them, I had to forget it existed because I didn’t want to write my memoir like a TV show.
You obviously have a huge profile in the U.K. but how do you think it will fit in the wider landscape, because it’s not a thriller or a crime show — it’s a moving story about friendship. Do you think it will resonate with audiences?
Basically, what I decided is that the thing that in my lowest, most anxious moments I worried [the show] lacked was the thing that, in the end, makes it special. There are moments when I worried about its lack of trauma, darkness or super high-concept “why isn’t one of them an alien, or from the future, or a vampire?” And actually, the first meeting that we had with the BBC, I remember them saying, in this horrible time of darkness, this [script] was a very warm place to land. And that’s just something that I’ve decided to be really proud of actually — its warmth. There don’t have to be vampires or aliens or even trauma in a woman’s story to necessitate it being compelling.
How do you think it will land in the U.S.?
I really have no idea. I can’t work out my relationship with America, because “Everything I Know About Love” was published a month before the pandemic so it didn’t do enormously well, and it took us a long time to sell it. One of the reasons is the book is incredibly British in its references, and that’s potentially kind of alienating. But then [Alderton’s second book, a novel] “Ghosts” was published and is selling crazy well in America, and that’s equally quite a British story. So, I just don’t know.
What are your next projects? Are you writing another book?
Yes, I’m working on another book. I’ve got a deal for two more novels.
No more memoirs?
Never memoirs, ever, ever again — until I’m completely down on my arse.
Like when you’re 85 years old.
Exactly, this is my thing. I either need to be like really down on my arse, and have to start using my real life again. Or I also think it would be kind of fabulous to do a follow-up to “Everything I Know About Love” when I’m at an age where I just don’t fucking care what anyone thinks on Twitter; when Twitter doesn’t even exist, post-Elon Musk, when we’re in a world where I am so unselfconscious. And I do see that happening with women as they get older, and I would feel just excited about sharing my life again, and I wouldn’t feel anxious anymore.
What about your next TV project?
At the moment, my main thing is to get another series of [“Everything I Know About Love”]. Like, my brain is exploding with ideas for all those girls.
What would be your dream project?
What I really, really want to do — and this is my dream project, and I think it will sound very simple, but I know for me it will be a huge challenge — is I really, really want to write a story about men and women and about sexuality that is full of hope. Now that I’ve written scenes between men and women that are flirtatious or full of chemistry and full of longing and full of love, I now realize how unbelievably difficult it is. And I now rewatch those scenes of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan kind of connecting but rubbing up against each other and complementing each other and contradicting each other in their personalities. And I know now that the fizzle and crack of that is the most impossible thing that you can put on the page between characters. Realistic chemistry! And I long to do that.
I long to write a romantic comedy with characters that you’re really rooting in, that’s original and recognizable, and I want it to pull off all those old rom-coms that I love — those Billy Wilder rom-coms, the early rom-coms of Diane Keaton like “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” those films of Nora Ephron. I want a beautiful, evocative jazz score, and I want a story in acts with a clever cast and I want an ending that mirrors the beginning. And I want hope, because every story that I’ve written about heterosexual relationships has been hetero-pessimistic. And I just think it’s so easy to be cynical, and I just want to be sincere. Treading the line between cynicism and sincerity is the most important thing to me and my work. And I just really want to do that in a romantic comedy that will really be around forever. That’s my big dream project.
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