Having miraculously remained 29 years old for almost eight decades, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) has lived a solitary existence, never allowing herself to get close to anyone who might reveal her secret, except for her aging daughter (Ellen Burstyn). But a chance encounter with a charismatic philanthropist, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) reignites her passion for life and romance. When a weekend with his parents (Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker) threatens to expose the truth, Adaline makes a decision that will change her life forever.
The Age of Adaline has been kicking around Hollywood for a decade with different directors and stars attached. At one point it was set to star Katherine Heigl, Angela Lansbury, and Donald Sutherland. The version that is finally opening today, directed by Lee Toland Krieger, is gorgeous, clever, and beautifully acted. I talked to screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe about the film’s long journey to the screen.
Danny Miller: This sumptuous film feels like it’s based on a novel, but it’s not, is it?
J. Mills Goodloe: No, it’s an original screenplay that was sold ten years ago!
Did you use any other films as inspiration?
It’s funny because a lot of people bring up The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but the truth is I have not read Fitzgerald’s short story and I sold the script long before the movie was made. But for a while this film was stalled because people would say, “Oh, it’s like Benjamin Button.” If any film helped to inspire The Age of Adaline, it was the French film Amélie with Audrey Tatou. I really liked that character and felt she was a very strong, interesting woman so that was probably where Adaline started.
I was thinking of films like Portrait of Jennie, Somewhere in Time or even Woody Allen’s Zelig — the idea of seeing someone unchanging in all these different time periods. I admired your restraint in this film — iIt was such a cool concept that I might have been tempted to dip a lot more into the various decades that Adaline has lived through.
It was never constructed be like that. It’s true that you could make 15 different movies out of this premise and rich material but I felt that jumping around too much in the different periods would give you a really fractured narrative. I wanted the main thrust of this story to exist in the present and to only use flashbacks to other parts of Adaline’s life when they served the story. Considering it takes place over a very long period of time, it’s a pretty linear film!
And despite the very unusual concept, it’s basically a love story.
Absolutely. I think love stories are very hard to do, and if you can find a way to do one that you haven’t seen before, that’s what I was going for.
Even with Adaline’s multitude of experiences, I never felt lost in a kaleidoscope of images and time periods. It was fun imagining her life across all those decades based on the things she would refer to in her current life.
Yeah, I didn’t want it to just “show off” or have it be some kind of nostalgia trip. As far as I’m concerned, the script has just one necessary buy-in: that Adaline has this accident that has somehow stopped her aging process. Once you accept that conceit, everything else in the movie plays out in reality and the flashbacks you see are triggered by something that is happening to her now. We always cut into her memories for a reason. The rule of thumb on stuff like that was that if we could cut it and it didn’t really affect the scene, then why do it?
I do love how you let us use our own imaginations to fill in our understanding of how Adaline turned into such a loner. I’m also impressed by how you disposed of the science pretty quickly considering how preposterous it is! It was just enough to explain it without making us stop and go, “Huh?” too often.
I felt that if we didn’t explain it at all she’d be spending all that time trying to figure out how it happened to her and then the movie turns into a detective story which I wasn’t interested in doing.
And if there had been some kind of “magical” explanation, that would have been a whole different film, too. I loved the touch of adding that the phenomenon that happened to her won’t actually be discovered until 2035. I thought that was perfect — here’s what happened but we’re not quite smart enough yet to truly understand it!
Yeah, and as I said, it’s the one buy-in we require, that’s all we ask! Back to the Future is a great film and they have this one device that you have to believe this DeLorean can be turned into a time machine that can go back and forth into time. Once you buy that, you can go with Michael J. Fox and meet his parents as teenagers. But you don’t want to have too many rules, either, like you can go back a certain number of years, but only stay for nine minutes at a time. If you end up needing a cheat sheet, it’s too complicated and you’ll lose the audience.
And then you wouldn’t be able to delve into what this character is really about which was looking at issues of loneliness and love and attachment. I have to say I was wildly impressed by Blake Lively, I thought she really nailed it.
Me, too! When I was on the set, I was especially struck by her voice. I think Blake grew up in Burbank but the way she spoke and how she clipped her sentences impressed me so much. I thought she totally inhabited this character and you kind of believed that she was over 100 years old — even though she still looks like she’s 29!
It’s amazing what we’ll accept in a movie when it’s done right — I completely believed the mother-daughter relationship between Blake and 82-year-old Ellen Burstyn.
I know. We could have made a whole movie just about that relationship. There were so many different people attached to this movie over the years but I got extremely lucky with the team that ended up making it. I’m grateful that Blake was just the right age by the time we made the film and that we got Ellen Burstyn, Harrison Ford, and Kathy Baker. I mean, you can’t get better than that.
There must have been times over those ten years where you thought, “Okay, this movie is never going to happen.”
Are you kidding, I was absolutely sure it was never going to happen — it became a kind of joke between me and my wife! I have to give a lot of credit to the sheer tenacity of the producers. Many producers get bored with material after a certain period of time, or they want to keep tweaking it, but these producers were steadfast over all that time about keeping the story what it was, they just never wavered. We had such such a great group all around — I’m grateful for our director, Lee Toland Krieger, our production designer Claude Paré, the costume designer Angus Strathie, our cinematographer, the hair and makeup people, just everyone involved. They really pulled it off!