David Nicholls: love, literature and London
Time Out meets the author and screenwriter of 'One Day'. By David Jenkins
‘I was incredibly naive back then.’ David Nicholls admits as he recalls his first brush with the big time. ‘One evening I was sat at home watching “Top of the Pops”. The phone rang, and this voice said, “Hi, it’s Jeff here.” I thought it was my girlfriend’s dad, Jeffrey. So I started this informal, chummy conversation.’
The call continued in this vein for several minutes before Nicholls realised that the man at the other end was not his prospective father-in-law. ‘It was Jeff Bridges, calling with his script notes.’ An understandable error. After all, which of us hasn’t mistaken a major star for our partner’s dad? But this was an important time for Nicholls.
It was 1999, and the man who would go on to be the literary sensation of 2009 with his novel ‘One Day’ had been given the chance to collaborate with playwright-actor Sam Shepard on the Hollywood thriller ‘Simpatico’, which counted Bridges and Sharon Stone among its cast. ‘Yeah, I lucked out on that one,’ says the 45 year old with modesty. ‘I was still working as an actor at the time but dabbling in script-editing.’ And how did he overcome the embarrassment of not recognisng one of the film’s stars? ‘I just had to try not to laugh.’
But what an appropriate starting point for the one-time bit-part actor from Hampshire who has gone on to master the dynamics of the modern romcom as an author and screenwriter. The title of his third novel, ‘One Day’, refers to July 15, St Swithin’s Day, the date on which his two protaganists first meet. That day every year is our window on all the later amorous action. As with his previous novel, ‘Starter for Ten’, about a lovelorn student attempting to get on ‘University Challenge’, this one has been adapted for the screen. Anne Hathaway – boasting a Daphne Moon-style northern twang – steps into the scuffed DMs of the virtuous, highly principled and attractive Emma Morley, while Jim Sturgess stars as her flaky, louche and dangerously impulsive foil, Dexter Mayhew. Danish director Lone Scherfig, who captured Lynne Barber’s formative romantic clinches so convincingly in 2009’s ‘An Education’, diligently ushers the adaptation to the screen.
In its literary guise, ‘One Day’ has been a runaway success, the very definition of a page-turner (many joke that the title also refers to how long it’ll take you to read). It’s also a novel with movie potential leaping off every page. You can’t help but mentally transpose its machinations to celluloid as you flip from page to page, year to year. Think of the almost-but-not-quite drunken canoodling session in Emma’s dingy Edinburgh Uni digs, or Dex’s early ’90s transformation from dashing fop to swaggering yuppie shitbag.
But when Nicholls finished writing ‘One Day’, a frantic bidding war for film rights was notable by its absence. ‘There wasn’t this great rush to buy the rights at all,’ says Nicholls in his wispy, meditation guru voice when I meet him at Claridges. He now lives in north London with his partner and two children. In CV terms, Nicholls’s services to film and television outweigh his services to literature: he’s written teleplays for ‘Cold Feet’ and ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and adapted Blake Morrison’s memoir, ‘And when Did You Last See Your Father?’, for the screen in 2007.
‘Books and movies are my two great loves, but when you’re writing a book, you shouldn’t be thinking about the film. Though once you’re finished, you inevitably start pondering if it will have another life, and I thought there were lots of practical reasons why “One Day” wouldn’t work as a movie. For a start, 20 years is a long time. It’s hard to have actors ageing up and ageing down. It goes all over the world, and that’s expensive. I also think the story is driven by a literary device rather than a cinematic one.’
Those stumbling blocks were overcome with ease, and Scherfig’s film, adapted by Nicholls himself, sticks closely to the tricksy timeline of the book. The story of ‘One Day’ begins in 1988 as Em and Dex celebrate their graduation, and as we watch them get older and wiser, we also see fashion and culture evolving in the background. The musical cues run from Tears For Fears through to S Club 7 via Primal Scream, Fatboy Slim and Tricky. Stonewashed jeans and baggy Fruit of the Loom T-shirts segue into gaudy designer clobber which then segues into tasteful pastel-hued modern couture.
It’s clear that Nicholls gets a rise from making sure all these social historical tics are present and correct. Does he see himself as a nostalgist? ‘I hope not. It can be a little easy to ride on nostalgia. When I went through the novel for the second time, I removed a lot of the 1992 jokes. I suppose writers tend to write the period they know. Even if you go back to Dickens, when he’s writing about a childhood, it’s always a period novel. He writes his childhood, even if it’s not him. People think “Great Expectations” is set when it was written, in 1855, but it wasn’t. It’s a period novel set in the 1820s. That’s a natural instinct.’
When writing ‘One Day’, Nicholls fleshed out his memories of this era by listening to music, reading old letters and scanning through photos. ‘I was surprised how much I could remember about a mood. I remember little about 1990 and 1992 because I was drifting between slightly aimless jobs. I went to America to train as an actor after university [in Bristol], and in 1990 got a job at the Dome Café on the King’s Road. Suddenly my main income came from cutting limes into slices to stick into bottles of Sol and Corona.’
Emma is the one who has to slice the limes in ‘One Day’ for her low-wage job in a Tex-Mex cantina, while Dex, on the other hand, coasts on his personal wealth and becomes a drug-hoovering celeb in the world of yoof TV. Both book and film do not present the early ’90s Soho media set, or, indeed Dexter’s hedonistic lifestyle, in a flattering light.
‘I sometimes worry that it’s a judgemental or moral book,’ admits Nicholls. ‘That [it says] if you stay up late, take drugs and be promiscuous you will be punished. And I wouldn’t want it to be preachy, because we all have our moments of not behaving well. But there was a sense in the late ’90s that there was a kind of edge to everything, a spikiness, a kind of selfishness and meanness. It’s very rare that drugs make someone a much nicer, better person, so hopefully it’s more observation than preaching’.
Though there is a certain amount of globetrotting in ‘One Day’, it’s the twilit side streets of London that play host to Em and Dex’s complex courtship. Em visits Dalston’s Rio cinema to catch ‘Army of Darkness’ with her hapless comedian boyfriend Ian (Rafe Spall). Later, Em gives Dex a severe tongue-lashing in Berwick Street Market. London is the main supporting player in ‘One Day’ and its presence gives this romance a sense of universality. ‘I’m weirdly obsessive about London,’ Nicholls says. ‘I go on long crazy walks around the Circle line, and along the Thames to Richmond. I try and class the walks as thinking time, but they’re just ways to relax. I just love the city.’
But it wasn’t always like that. ‘When I first came to London, I found it terrifying and depressing,’ he says. ‘I thought it was unknowable, that you could never really feel comfortable here. And it is a maddening place in many respects, but I do love it. Often when you see London depicted on screen, particularly in romantic comedies, people work in trendy bars, and then they go home to these wonderful apartments in Covent Garden. And we wanted to make it more real. We wanted it to be Dalston and Hackney: a lot of the places I lived when I was their age.’
In September, Nicholls is giving a lecture at the Institut Français on the work of François Truffaut, which is interesting given the resemblance between ‘One Day’ and Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films in which we are invited to grow older with a set of fictional characters. His next writing gig is underway, a feature version of ‘Great Expectations’ directed by Mike Newell with Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch and Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham. I ask Nicholls if we’ll ever see his dark side, and he replies, ‘I sometimes wonder if that would be the thing to do. To write a brutal war novel, on the Russian Front in 1943, and just deliver it to the publisher and see what they say.’