Ivo van Hove on A Little Life | Director's Note

The theatre director behind the latest Screen Arts production takes us behind the scenes

The Picturehouse Team

18 Sep 23

To celebrate A Little Life coming to Screen Arts this September, we sat down with theatre director Ivo van Hove to learn the story behind his adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara's best-selling book. Read on to hear what inspired the bold,  utterly compelling production, in his own words.

It was all coincidence.

I'd often see A Little Life in bookshops. I'd seen the cover, this famous photo by Peter Hujar – I was a kid in the seventies, and this was a very famous picture at that moment – but seeing it, I thought "Oh, here we go again, a gay story of four guys who go to New York." It felt cliche to me, so I ignored it. But it was a bestseller, of course. A year or so after it was published, I came back after a holiday and I met a few friends, including my dramaturge, who said he'd read something. He said, "It's really something for you. I brought it for you because you really have to read it." I opened the bag and there it was. I read a few pages and forgot about it. A few weeks later, I met another friend and she also had a bag – "I've brought something for you, this is really something for you" – and there it was again. I thought, "Well, these are two of my best friends. I'll give it a go." So I gave it a go, and I couldn't stop. In those first eighty pages or so, you think it's a coming of age: these people come to New York looking forward to everything. I know all of this. But when Jude became the central character, another world opened itself up to me. 

I started reading it properly and immediately started making notes, cutting things I thought weren't necessary, and at the end I felt I could do it in the theatre. Another coincidence – sometimes you need luck – one day, when I arrived at my office in Amsterdam, a copy of the book was there. I opened it and there was a message from the author, Hanya Yanagihara. It said "To Ivo, with all the best and all my admiration, Hanya. PS, I would be deeply moved to have this book make its way to your stage: not to the stage, but to your stage." I'm blessed and very honoured to be the only one in the world who got the rights to do it on stage; I'm blessed she trusted me. 

Initially, I did the production in Amsterdam with my own company in 2018, with my actors, people I knew very, very well. Then came the idea to do it in English, with British actors. It was not an easy rehearsal process – it's demanding mentally, emotionally and physically – but it started with the search for Jude. There are not a lot of people who'd be able to play this role, but it was clear that James Norton connected to the material and understood it. He seemed to be a real collaborator, not an actor with ego, but a leader. He had so much work to do himself, but he really cared for the others, which not everybody does. When you do a movie, you film a scene once and it's gone forever. In theatre, you have to repeat it eight times a week, for weeks, months. It's a challenge. He was like a phoenix rising from the ashes, he did very, very well, all the way up to the last performance – as did the others. They all cared for it. Everybody cared for it and wanted everybody to be good. Working with them all was the easiest thing in the world, it was as if we had worked together for years.

I wanted to give people in the cinema an immersive experience, and to do that you have to get right up close and personal. A Little Life was filmed over three days, and what came out of it was exactly what I hoped: not a filmed theatre production, but a real film. You'll have a different experience than you'd have in a theatre, you'll see different things from points of view that you'd never see. The goal was a movie, and a movie is what we made. I think for everyone, it'll be totally different. It touches everyone on a different level; across all these different versions, I get a lot of different reactions. I wanted to tell the story of this person that we follow through his whole life. You may know people who share Jude's experiences, or you may have experienced them yourself. I feel it's such a human story that there'll always be something you'll recognise in it, even if you haven't lived through it. Indifference is impossible. That I can guarantee. It's not something you see every day at the movies.

As told to Simi Cheema. Edited by Lara Peters.

A Little Life comes to Picturehouse Screen Arts from 28 September. Book now.