Reacting to ‘Remember Me’: An Interview with Screenwriter Will Fetters

Robert Pattinson in Remember Me
Photo: Summit Entertainment

NOTE: This interview contains story details that will spoil the ending of Remember Me. If you have not seen it yet, not only do I urge you to head to the theater, but you also may want to skip reading this interview until you have.

Anyone that read my review of Remember Me already knows I enjoyed it, and was one of the select few. In fact, I have strong opinions of the film, not from the perspective of how great the acting is or whether director Allen Coulter turned in a tour de force bit of filmmaking navigation, but merely at the idea behind the film and its intentions. However, it’s intentions, it seems, have been largely lost on the critical community.

Remember Me has been painted as a romance story by the majority, but is it? I saw it as something entirely different. As a result, it became a case of reading review after review and saying to myself those most cliche and pompous of all phrases, “They just don’t get it.” But instead of writing some all-encompassing editorial of how I thought I was right and everyone else was wrong I decided to go to the source. I contacted Summit Entertainment and requested interviews with first-time screenwriter Will Fetters and director Allen Coulter. Coulter, as it turns out, is on vacation for a week, but Fetters was available for a conversation and our discussion ended up being more than enough when it came to realizing my intentions of the piece.

Fetters began work on what is a very personal script for him in 2004, at the age of 22. The story had been boiling around in his head for about two years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and while trying to go to law school, it took a misunderstanding with Delaware law enforcement to finally find a starting point, a misunderstanding that can be seen in the film in a slightly fictionalized form as Tyler (Robert Pattinson) is arrested by Chris Cooper’s character. In fact, Will describes the film as very personal, saying the relationship between Tyler and Caroline (Ruby Jerins) is a very literal one, resembling the relationship he has with his two younger sisters. While this relationship, and the relationship between Tyler and his family and his new girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin) and her family are central to the story, it’s not specifically about those relationships.

So what is the film about? What were Will’s intentions? This was the starting point of our interview, which took place on Monday, March 15, three days after the film was released to largely negative reviews (28% on RottenTomatoes) before going on to make $8 million opening weekend after being made for $16 million.

Featured below is our lengthy conversation addressing what the film is about, the critical reaction and how Fetters is handling such negativity on what is only his first screenplay.

What is the film about and what were your intentions?

Will Fetters (WF): It seems people didn’t seem to get what the film was about. I think on some level, even getting what the film is about, people aren’t necessarily going to like it. I think preconceptions tend to play a role, and what this film was, in a lot of ways, was a study of grief and a study of these “bolts from the blue” that alter the trajectory of life and for me the script started as a 22-year-old kid’s therapy session.

I had some personal tragedy in my life and this broader event occurred and it dovetailed what I experienced as a young man into the same kind of anger and sadness that follows, and this story, this script, was a way to kind of work it out.

I think the fairest criticism that I’ve read is going after the basic story points, which when you write a love story you’re going to tread on similar grounds, that kind of stuff I really get. Some of the dialogue is a little cute and some of it seems contrived, I get that, but I think a lot of people aren’t getting what our intentions were. Like the idea I wrote this 100-page script and then with five pages left I didn’t know how to end it so I did this with 9/11. It was so far from that. This whole movie is about dealing with that trauma, dealing with that anger and trying to see how people can be united and divided by it.

I thought it was interesting how some critics called the ending a cheat, but in reality isn’t that exactly what that experience is? It’s cheating the audience out of the bond they formed with that character as the result of a tragic and unexpected accident.

WF: Absolutely, that’s exactly what it is. Ultimately, this is the challenge, I think this was kind of the paradox of doing a film about 9/11; How do you recreate an event that came out of nowhere?

I want to look at it kind of like Precious. I think coming up through the film festival circuit Precious got a lot of buzz for being dark, but with Remember Me, I think the fact it was presented to the world as this Dear John, Nick Sparks romance and it ends up being something much different has hurt it is as far as people going into it. What we tried to do with the ending, and maybe someday somebody will make a movie about the event better than we did, probably they will, maybe they already have, but as far as recreating the actual emotion of the actual experience and what I tried to do with the writing was try to foreshadow tonally and emotionally what the movie is about without actually telegraphing it literally.

We tried to give enough breadcrumbs, enough culpability for the audience to kind of have some sense, but not actually know. Because if they actually know, like in United 93 and World Trade Center, it’s a very different movie going experience. So I guess [what you said was] well put, it is a “cheat,” it was supposed to be devastating and with some people it just made them really angry, which it’s fine to be angry, but I wish they would have kind of respected the intentions of everyone a little more. I don’t think anyone was ever trying to exploit anything.

That’s sort of the funny thing. I’ve talked to people already that said the ending was a cheat or it angered them and I told them that’s perfect and asked them how they felt when 9/11 happened. People felt angry and felt cheated out of the thousands of lives that were lost. In essence, the movie puts the audience in that situation to some degree.

So, when Manohla Dargis at the “The New York Times” calls it “a shamelessly exploitative end,” as did others, I fail to see what the exploitation is because this movie was always about 9/11, it just wasn’t explicit in telling the audience at the outset. Similarly, when people woke up on September 11, 2001 they didn’t know what the day would bring. The only way I think you can see this as exploitation is if you don’t understand what the movie is truly about.

WF: I think that’s the key. People who aren’t connecting to what the broader message of the story is — Allen Coulter and I talked about it and we couldn’t help but think of David Chase when trying to describe it. At the ending of “The Sopranos” he kind of famously said “it’s all there” and everybody killed him for his ending. Our movie is tied to an actual event so in a lot of ways it’s an unfair parallel, but I think for Allen and me, we spent so much time thinking about every single decision we were making narratively to do everything we could to foreshadow it.

In a lot of ways the movie is flawed in some instances, I would never step back and say it isn’t. Every time I watch it there is dialogue I hear and think we could have done it differently, but as far as handling 9/11, we put the World Trade Center in the first shot. If you look at the shot setup it’s deliberately done. There are three characters in that opening shot.

As far as the exploitation, I think that’s completely unfair because it’s been used in different art forms — books have been written, fictional stories — and I don’t know what the statute of limitations on it is. I guess that’s what I’m most confused by. I don’t get why we’re exploitive for making a really small movie that essentially deals with the emotion of the day, and how that’s different from a movie like World Trade Center which, while being true, just recreates an event and puts you through it all literally again.

Before the movie came out the Internet spoiled the ending.

WF: Yeah, we knew that was going to happen.

Do you think that affected the way people went into the movie, or even caused them to not even see it because there was an immediate misunderstanding as to what it was about? Because there was a lot of talk of it being “the biggest twist in the last decade” which it really isn’t a twist, it’s a plot development.

WF: No, I wish people would stop using the word “twist.” I really do. I think that “twist” implies there was deliberate intention to kind of fool people into thinking it was something different. There are two sides to the review coin, which is as much as I think yeah, the Internet did spoil the ending, it’s really amazing to me how many critics knew from minute one exactly what was going on and they killed us for using it as a weight that was hanging around the neck of the movie, and [then] other people didn’t get it and thought we tacked it on at the end.

The ending being spoiled online is inevitable nowadays in film. Would The Crying Game hold up end-wise today? I don’t think so. I think it would be out — especially if you put popular actors in it — I think it would get out off the set. It’s a different world. Modern media has changed, politics has changed, everything [has changed] and I think the Internet is always going to be something filmmakers are going to have to overcome. Keeping the ending to Remember Me a secret, obviously we think the experience is more pure when you don’t know, but we realized we weren’t going to be able to control it about the day Robert Pattinson signed on. We knew we were going to be exposed from the beginning.

Will Fetters (left) and Remember Me director Allen Coulter
Photo: Summit Entertainment

An interesting paradox I’ve noticed is that almost the appropriate response to the movie is to be angry for it cheating audiences out of this character they’ve come to know and like, and yet you don’t want an angry audience because you want them to come back and see it again and tell their friends to go see it. So in essence the film works, but it almost works to its own demise, not to mention those coming out of it angry don’t even realize that was part of the film’s intention — to as closely mirror that experience as possible through art.

WF: That’s a good evaluation, because I’ll be honest, it’s been like Chinese water torture reading reviews over the last week. I don’t know about other people, and maybe I’ll eventually form a callus and be like the George Clooney’s of the world who don’t have to read them, but for me I want to know how people felt, especially critics I respect. So it’s been really kind of difficult to see the anger flowing.

I think this movie was always going to be polarizing. I always knew that going in. I think everybody knew that. We were going to have a certain amount of people that were never going to get it, they were going to think it was unforgivable and it was morally reprehensible and we never should have gone there. The easy kind of out for this movie, from the critic’s side, is [to say you] can’t believe Coulter and Fetters went there at the end and that just goes back to what I said before, the idea that anyone would think I would sit down to write a script and involve 9/11 and not have the entire movie be, in some way, about 9/11 is shocking. That’s been the most confusing side.

I tell you what, just hearing someone like you and knowing that someone got it, and critics that get it, I’m holding on to them like a lifeboat. I feel as if I had ten minutes to sit down with anyone that hated it, I would hope I would be able to convince them otherwise. I was 22 when I started that script. I was a kid. I was just trying to figure out the world and the funny thing, like I said; I ended up with some clichéd and contrived plot stuff because I was so young and that was the world I was living in.

I almost think you need those clichéd and contrived moments, though, to allow audiences easier access to the characters. After all, it’s only a 90 minute film and it sets out to accomplish quite a bit.

WF: The thing was, Allen always wanted to make a film about love and I think just being in love at a young age, people go through very similar situations and find themselves experiencing similar emotions. Kids are silly and self-involved and yes, everything seems like it’s the end of the world and so of course Tyler thinks every thought he has is [important] and he’s smarter than all of the adults. It’s just the natural progression, that quarter-life crisis you go through where you try and figure out who you are and who you’re supposed to be in relation to all the people you know.

Cliché is a word I’m using today only because everyone has been throwing it at me for a week, but I do think it was a deliberate choice in making the film. There’s also this sense of innocence lost in America after 9/11 and I think showing young people, I know for me, my life and the world changed very significantly and I think older people had their JFK fascination, even those that were around for the Berlin Wall, for me as a writer, using young people just seemed to work for this.

I’m by no means being pretentious or arrogant, trust me I’ve been worn down to a nub over the last week, my ego is very much in pieces, but I still think this movie is going to find, and has connected with, a certain portion of the movie going public. When you deal with a movie that is intended to, like you said, “cheat” people out of this character they’ve come to love by recreating an event that cheated 3,000 families out of the human beings they loved, you’re going to leave the theater devastated and some people are going to immediately lash out and I think some critics have lashed out at us personally and questioned our intentions and integrity. That has been, with a script that is so personal to me, difficult.

Fetters currently has two screenplays in development. One is an adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel “The Lucky One” with Scott Hicks (Shine) attached to direct and the other is a remake of A Star is Born with Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook). He tells me both of these projects are still alive, but as with anything in Hollywood, you never can tell.

Remember Me is now in theaters everywhere. You can read my review of the film right here and watch the trailer directly below.

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Weekend: Dec. 12, 2019, Dec. 15, 2019

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