It is no exaggeration to say that it has been a troubled journey bringing Patrick Ness’ 2008 book The Knife of Never Letting Go to the big screen. With numerous rewrites, reshoots, and a worldwide pandemic delaying the release, Chaos Walking (retitled from the novel) has been pushed back on two separate occasions. However, things change on March 5 as the film finally hits theaters. Starring two of the world’s biggest stars in Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland, the film follows Todd Hewitt (Holland) who in the not too distant future discovers a mysterious girl named Viola (Ridley) after she crash-lands on his planet where all women have disappeared.
Chaos Walking moves “past the expectations of just another genre movie” and “deserves to be seen at the very least.” As the original author, Patrick Ness took it upon himself to join the film’s production also as a screenwriter. We were lucky enough to speak exclusively to Ness and pick apart the process of bringing his beloved work to the big screen. With numerous successful novels and screenplay adaptations, Ness’ career is littered with success and one that not all author-turned-screenwriters in Hollywood are so fortunate to see. We dive into how it felt watching Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley bring his characters to life and what to expect from his collaboration with director Doug Liman in Chaos Walking.
Could you tell us how the story of The Knife of Never Letting Go first came to be?
Patrick Ness: It started with an idea about information overload. When I was writing the book between 2007-2008, social media was really taking off and was in its first Golden Age. We were starting to feel obliged to share our lives and the boomerang effect was that you start to hear everybody else’s life. That was interesting to me because it felt quite noisy, noisier than I’ve ever been before. We had never been faced with something like this in our culture and I thought the next logical step was: what if we didn’t have a choice? What if we had to hear everything we thought and what if it was everybody? What a nightmare that would be, particularly, if you were young and trying to figure out who you are and what mistakes you could make without everybody noticing. So that’s where it began, with the question of how does sharing affect us?
How were you approached to adapt your novel for the screen?
Patrick Ness: There was a producer called Doug Davison who was very interested since book one, but I said, “I’m not selling the movie rights until all three books are out.” He kept the faith and very patiently waited. He then brought Lionsgate in and we talked about where it might go, what might happen. I got a couple of different things and then they approached me because I said, “Look, this is how I would do it, can we start the conversation?” I just tried to be helpful to the process, which doesn’t always happen, but I really do believe that despite the cynicism that people have about Hollywood – it really is filled with people who want to make good stuff. You’re part of that process and if you’re there to help them, they’re really going to embrace you. So I just tried to stay helpful and stay onside with the team to make something good.
In addition to writing the book, you also co-wrote the screenplay. Could you tell us a bit about the differences between writing a novel versus a screenplay?
Patrick Ness: There are a couple of key differences. The main one, of course, being that the novel is entirely mine. I am in charge of everything, which has pluses and minuses, but which I and other authors have to embrace. A screenplay is totally collaborative. I’m writing the story, but I am doing it with the input and the visions of people who have different skill sets than I do and who are bringing, ideally in a collaborative sense, their best stuff and coming up with things that I wouldn’t think of because of their different talents.
A lot of it is also puzzle-solving because it is very strict screenwriting, it has to do certain things and has to be certain lengths. Everything has to earn its place and I find that quite exciting because creative limitations are huge creative challenges as well. For example, you can get great ideas from having to overcome structural problems that will not move, but you have to solve them. I love it. It’s so different from book writing, which I will never stop doing, but then to also get a chance to collaborate with really talented people and to solve some puzzles. Yeah, I like that!
You were the first person to visualize this world, to make that translate to screen I imagine there would have been a lot of collaboration between you and director Doug Liman, what was that process like?
Patrick Ness: For me, that’s about picking great collaborators where he starts talking and you think, “I see how he sees it” and I was very happy getting onboard with it. It’s a science-fiction story, but it is also, substantially, a Western story. He really understood that part of it with the horses and chasing across fields and so on. That felt really exciting to me. Again, it’s skills that he’s got that I don’t have yet, but to really bring my best game and his best game, that’s the most you can hope for.
Before actors come in and embody the characters, it’s the writer who knows them best. When you were writing the script, did you have any actors in mind, and did you have any involvement in the casting process?
Patrick Ness: It’s funny, because a lot of readers think that the author is in charge of casting every role, and we’re really not – it’s mostly studio stuff. So you dream of people, but it’s like getting a movie made, it seems so impossible and so improbable that it’s just all pipe dream stuff. I would say, “Well this is how I pictured her so maybe somebody like [blank],” but I don’t know if she’s available or even interested. What you get is a really smart casting director. Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, we cast them and then they proceeded to become stratospheric, mega superstars in gigantic franchises. Then there were such clever ideas like, “What do you think about Cynthia Erivo for Mayor Hildy?” It would never have even occurred to me what a great idea that is. So I didn’t really picture people.
What was it like spending time with Tom Holland and Daisy Ridely and getting to see them bring these characters to life?
Patrick Ness: I was on set a lot, and I did a lot of writing on set as well. When you see actors actually start to embody characters, you realize that’s what they’re bringing, so then I can then do this in the next scene. What I like about them both is that they’re approachable. They’re movie stars and breathtakingly gorgeous people, as you would expect of movie stars, but the thing about them is that they’re friendly and you can’t fake that. People love Rey because they think, I could be Rey and I could be Rey’s friend and they love Peter Parker because he’s funny, kind of a dork, and I could be his friend. That’s what they bring, real centered humanity. They don’t seem untouchable and so that felt great for these two characters, because I wanted them to be human first and foremost, I didn’t want them to be types. I think they did a great job.
Filmmaking can be a really long process, what’s it like seeing the film go from the initial script to the release?
Patrick Ness: You know, I’ve run four marathons and it always seems like a great idea when you start. Then by the time you get to the finish line, you’re chafed, bleeding, and exhausted, but you’re so happy to finish and you get this big runner’s high of endorphins. That’s what it feels like. It feels like finally, it’s here. I can’t wait for readers to see it because they’re so excited. It feels like it has been hard work and I’m so thrilled that we’re crossing the finish line.
As you can imagine, there are people who would have read the books before as well as people who haven’t, what do you think these two different audiences will make of the film?
Patrick Ness: I think the movie stands alone, it works on its own and it’s thrilling and exciting. Tom and Daisy are so funny together, Nick Jonas is such a fine actor, so I think it has a lot to appeal to people who haven’t read the book. And if you have read the book, as I said, it’s that remix idea. It’s a remix of the book and how exciting that can be when it works. There are changes, but they are very justified and good changes for what a movie needs. I hope it will please both, I’m really excited for readers to tell me what they think of it because nobody’s seen it yet. I’m really excited to hear what they think for sure.