Author David Levithan might have one of the most unique stories in having his novels adapted into feature films, in that he’s genuinely pleased with all three of them. That includes the latest, a big-screen version of 2012’s Every Day, the story of a high school girl named Rhiannon who falls in a love with a character named “A” who wakes up every morning in a new, pre-existing body. And while the basic story feels like a teen romance, there’s a great deal more going on in the realms of gender fluidity, identity, the soul, and that vague feeling that someone you care about is going through changes that make them a new person.
The film wonders, if you can love a cute guy one day, why can’t you love the exact same person in the body of girl the same age on another?
The success of the film version of Every Day rests very squarely on the shoulders of Australian-born actress Angourie Rice, who appeared in The Beguiled and Spider-Man: Homecoming (as Betty) last year, as well as co-starring in The Nice Guys in 2016 as Ryan Gosling’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter. But Every Day (directed by Michael Sucsy and adapted by Me and Earl and the Dying Girl author Jesse Andrews) also depends a great deal on a small army of largely unknown actors (with a few exceptions) playing the various, similarly aged incarnations of “A,” who doesn’t identify as male or female, but spends each day in someone else’s body and does their best not to screw up that person’s life in the process.
Since the early 2000s, Levithan has made a career out of writing a great deal about young, gay characters in the same way generations of other writers have approached young teen romance stories for decades, beginning with the groundbreaking Boy Meets Boy. He’s certainly tackled all aspect of youth culture in such works as The Realm of Possibility, Are We There Yet?, Every You, Every Me, and Two Boys Kissing. He’s also written a series of books with Rachel Cohn, including two that were also made into films, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List. In addition, he co-wrote Will Grayson, Will Grayson with John Green.
While the novel Every Day is written entirely from “A’s” perspective, the 2015 companion book, Another Day, covers the same time period and most of the same events from Rhiannon’s point of view. This also happens to be the approach of the film, even though the screenplay was written largely before Andrews had access to Levithan’s manuscript, which he opted not to examine. (A proper sequel novel, Someday, is set for release in October.)
I had a chance to chat with Levithan while he was in Chicago last week and dig a little deeper into what “A” represents in the bigger picture, as well as how Rhiannon represents a great deal of her fellow Americans, who are on a learning curve when it comes to new ideas and discoveries about gender identity. It’s a fascinating talk; please enjoy…
Hi, Steve. How are you doing?
Good. I’ll admit right up front, I don’t frequent the young adult section of the bookstore very often, but in doing research for this, I came to find out there are two books, one from each perspective of the two main characters, and the film seems like a combination of the two, perhaps leaning more toward Rhiannon. I know you didn’t write the screenplay, but talk about landing on that way of approaching this story.
I think that when I first talked to the producers before they bought the rights, my only concern was “In order to do this movie, you have to promise me that the character of A will be played by a different actor every day.” I do not want a scenario like “Quantum Leap.” I love “Quantum Leap,” but it was hard to believe some white male actor looking in the mirror and saying, “Oh, look. It’s somebody different than me. Ha ha. Move on.” And to their credit, they said, “We would not want to make this movie unless we cast a different actor every day,” and I was sold.
But then we realized very quickly, and Jesse who wrote the screenplay realized really quickly, was that because you have all these different actors playing one of the leads, the movie really does become Rhiannon’s movie, and I think Jesse very consciously, very early on when he was writing his first draft decided to frame it more as her story than as A’s as far as viewpoint is concerned, knowing that she would be the constant POV.
Amusingly, probably more amusing to me than to him, he was working on the script as I was writing Another Day because I wanted to rewrite the story from her point of view to understand her role better. We talked about whether he wanted to read the book that I was writing as I was writing it or not, and we decided that was too confusing, and he would just pick up her story from Every Day, and that’s exactly what he did. But as a result, it’s true, the movie is sort of a hybrid of both books just because of that.
And now I understand you have another book. I don’t know exactly how much further along it picks things up, but my initial thought at the end of the film was “I wonder how A turns out as an adult, and what changes are there in A’s life as a part of growing up and maturing, because we’re only really seeing A as a teenager.” Is that the concept of the new book? Can you even say?
It’s one of those problems where I can’t say, but talking about the people hinges on knowing what the ending of the first book is. So I want to tread very carefully here, because I think one of the interesting things about Every Day or certainly the reaction I’ve had to Every Day is people are not happy with the ending because it’s not the ending that they’re expecting. But Someday, the sequel, starts about a month later. And it’s basically, again, the premise which I don’t know how to phrase it without giving away the ending of the first book, but basically the choice that A makes at the end of the first book, both A and Rhiannon start to question it, and I’ll leave it at that.
I promise I’m not making this up, but on my way to the screening yesterday, there was a woman on the train with me who had like a jean jacket, and on the back of it, which I didn’t see until she got up to get off, it said “GENDER IS DEAD.” And I didn’t know anything about this movie coming into it, so I did not realize that was actually a key component of this story, and I thought “What a weird coincidence.”
It hasn’t been that long since you wrote Every Day, but in the last four or five years, these concepts of gender fluidity and identity have become much more a part of the mainstream conversation than they were even when you wrote this book. Do you feel like in a way you helped propel that a little bit? Was that the intention, to get people thinking about it a little more at an earlier age, even?
Absolutely, things have changed so much in the past five or six years. I’ve talked to a lot of high school and college students about the book, and it’s been interesting to see how things have evolved. And while I would love to take credit for it, I think it is much more the fact that we have the Facebook dropbox and there are so many different gender identities to chose from. I think it’s part of the conversation that teens have. And while people of my Gen X generation grew up with absolutes, I think that a lot of teens today are understanding that what society wants to portray as absolutes are not absolutes.
The book absolutely was a Trojan Horse insofar as there were all these discussions of gender and race and what makes identity and not being defined by your body, but being defined by who you want to be. That’s all in there. And it was great, because people would pick it up because they were like, “Hey, cool. It’s a book about somebody who changes every day. That’s neat.” So through the paranormal conceit, it led to the much deeper conversations, and what was amazing from the get-go in 2012, when the book came out, teenagers were very open to having the conversation.
But I will say that when I first toured with it, they didn’t necessarily have the vocabulary to discuss it. If I had said “non-binary gender,” I’d have to explain what non-binary gender was, whereas now when I talk to teenagers about it, certainly not all teenagers understand concepts of gender fluidity or non-binary gender, but an extraordinary number of them do. So I think there is a sea change afoot, and certainly the book plugs into that.
Well, the other funny thing is, for people who aren’t necessarily keyed into those ideas, this is also a story about, “If you can be in love with this hot guy, why can’t you be in love with the exact same person inside a girl’s body.”
Exactly. I think on the most basic level, and the movie picks this up and runs with it beautifully, is the notion of being seen for who you are, and that does evolve. But when you’re looking for love, you’re obviously looking for affection and intimacy, but really what you’re looking for is somebody who will see you for who you are and not for what they see, and I think that is true for pretty much every relationship in the movie, not just with A and not just with Rhiannon.
I think with the parents as well, the notion is you have to actually stop and instead of being lost in your own preconceptions or in the narrative that you have fallen into, you have to acutely step out of it and really look hard and the person you’re with and understand who they are, and that will actually help you grow as a couple or whatever the relationship is. Again, that is a through line through so much of the book and also the movie.
You’ve been through this process now a couple of times with Hollywood, or in this case Canada. Especially when you’re not the one doing the adaptation, how has that process felt to you.
Yeah, I don’t understand how I’ve gotten so lucky [laughs]. The odds of having three adaptations that you genuinely love, they’re not strong odds, so I am so, so lucky with that. All the movies have altered the books, but they’ve all been alterations that I think actually keep or enhance the spirit of the book, and that’s just amazing. Certainly with Nick and Norah and Naomi and Ely, it was great to see them come to life, but they’re also very straight-forward stories, so there wasn’t as much nervousness about what would happen to it.
Every Day, on the other hand, the whole thing hinges on 16 actors playing the same role, and that was unprecedented. Even during filming, I would joke with the director, Michael, and be like, “How do you know that this is going to work?” And he would just smile and be like, “Let’s hope it works.”
All the actors, the editing, everything just had to synch up in such a way to make it believable, and I can’t stress enough that I think they pulled it off. It was definitely more of a leap than the other two adaptations, so there was certainly nervousness about it. It wasn’t that I didn’t think that the people involved could pull it off, it was more like “Can anybody pull off this conceit?” And luckily the answer is yes.
When I realized what the premise was going to be, I thought “You have 16 different actors playing one role; if one or two of them aren’t as good, it’s okay because we’re going to get a new one pretty soon.” But Rhiannon is the lynch pin here. If Angourie Rice doesn’t work, you’re in trouble. And she’s phenomenal. What did you think when you saw her for the first time in this role? That had to be a relief, among other things.
It’s astonishing on so many levels. It was amazing to me when they first told me she was cast and they sent me a link to some of her work and a photo of her. I was like, “Yeah, she looks like she is Rhiannon.” And then, the fact that it’s a 16 year old playing a 16 year old, that almost never happens. It feels so real because that’s her. That’s just her life. At the same time, I have to admit, I’m in awe of her on so many different levels, but the amusing thing to me is she is such the perfect embodiment of an American teenager, but she’s Australian. I would be talking to her on the set, and she has this really amazing Melbourne accent, and I was just like, “How do you jump back and forth? It’s crazy.”
We had a screening at the American Library Association Convention in Denver with a whole bunch of my librarian and publishing friends, and I told them afterwards that she was Australian, and they thought I was lying. They were like, “No, no, no. There’s no way she could be that.” But she just pulls it off so beautifully and she walks that fine line between being open to loving somebody who changes every day, but also clearly being confused and vulnerable about it. The worse thing that could have happened is if she had just like portrayed it as somebody being so incredibly egalitarian like, “Great, this is wonderful. I’m all for it!”
She represents quite well a great number of Americans who are still on a learning curve about certain things.
Where did you even get the idea for this? Where did this idea even come from to have a character like A?
It really honestly was just one day walking to work, I was like, “What would it be like to wake up every morning in a different body?” I wish I could remember what prompted me to think this way, but I did and then I just ran with it. I never plot out my books, so I was really curious about this premise, and A and Rhiannon came from me wanting to explore that premise.
Why do you think it’s hard to escape these characters, because you keep coming back to them?
More than any other characters I’ve done, it is about a concept and it is about bigger things more than most of the books that I’ve written. So I do feel that talking about identity and talking about the fluidity of our identity, and talking about not being defined by our bodies, there’s a lot there, and I don’t think that one book was enough to explore it. Talk about a learning curve, I think I was on a learning curve writing the first book, because I really was exploring it for the first time. And I feel now, because of the first book, I talked with a lot of people about and really thought about it so much more, so it feels natural to go back and explore it further and take it farther.
So where does your film career go from here? I know where your book career goes, but do you think you’ll ever adapt one of your own novels or work on an original screenplay?
Never say never, but I think it would be less likely that I would ever adapt my own work. You have to have an extraordinary amount of restraint and perspective in order to do that, and Jesse did it so brilliantly. He did the extreme case. Not only did he rework his own book, but they shot it in his parent’s house, and they did it in his high school. It blows my mind how close he was to that. We’ll see if someday I write something. I will say, I felt an extraordinary urge after seeing Ladybird, I was like “Where’s the gay Ladybird? Where is that gay coming-of-age story that isn’t Call Me By Your Name or isn’t Moonlight?” I would love a very nice slice-of-life gay coming-of-age story that has less operatic moments. So we’ll see.
You have some books that certainly broke some ground in young adult literature that might work in that respect. I don’t know if anyone’s ever come to you about those.
We’ll see. We’ll see. Again, I’m very, very excited for Every Day, but I’m almost as excited for Love, Simon right now.
That’s the next one, right?
Yeah, and I love the author of that book, and by all accounts, it is a really fun, wonderful movie. I feel that that more than anything else could be a game changer as far as getting queer teen voices finally at the multiplex.
Were you able to make it to the set at all? What was that experience like?
It was fantastic. I did get up there, and it was just really cool. They were shooting in a high school, so it was very strange to be walking the halls of a high school alongside some of my characters [laughs]. But it was really great because you could sense that this was something special, and everybody involved who I talked to really understood what the book and what the movie were about, that it wasn’t just about getting the plot down or getting the characters down; they really were dedicated to making sure that the themes came out as well, and I think the end product certainly demonstrates that.
For sure. David, thank you so much. It was really great to talk to you. Best of luck with this.
Great to talk to you too.