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FOREVER MY GIRL

About The Production
Over the past two decades, Mickey Liddell has produced such diverse films as director Doug Liman's drug-fueled youth-culture comic thriller Go, Joe Carnahan's intense wilderness thriller The Grey, and last year's critically hailed biopic, Jackie, which racked up three Oscar nominations, including Best Actress for star Natalie Portman. His latest production, Forever My Girl, marks yet another foray into new territory for Liddell and his prolific production company, LD Entertainment.

"We were looking at young-adult novels," explains Liddell. "An intern found a book that she really liked called Forever My Girl by Heidi McLaughlin. It was different from anything we had done before - more emotional and romantic, but with a really good story. We switch genres all the time, because that's what makes life fun. The challenge is always to make the best version of whatever that movie is."

As they explored developing a big-screen adaptation of the book, Liddell and his team met with a number of screenwriters, including writer-director Bethany Ashton Wolf. "It was an assignment that many screenwriters were going in for," recalls Wolf. "But I just knew it was meant to be for me. I was so inspired by the hook in the book and then my brain took flight. I went into the pitch hoping that they were ready to really sit down and pull out their popcorn and go on this ride with me."

Wolf's take on the adaptation included a number of departures from the book. One of the most significant ones was changing the central male character from a rock star to a country music star. "I wanted to shine a light on the country music community and small towns everywhere," says the filmmaker, who grew up in rural Louisiana. "I come from a small southern town that really has each other's back in good times and bad. And they see each other through celebrating family, friendship, love, community, music, all the things in life that are free. I thought it was a really beautiful message and one that we really need right now."

The film's love story also resonated with Wolf. "I wouldn't say I'm a hopeless romantic - I think I'm a hopeful romantic," she laughs. "I think love is at the heart of everything that we do as human beings. So whatever story I'm telling I'll always infuse love and romance into it because everything we do in life involves that universal feeling and emotion."

Wolf had directed the Louisiana-based drama Little Chenier as well as several short films. Given the quality of her previous work and her intense passion for the project, it quickly became clear to the producers that she was the ideal filmmaker to direct the film as well as write it. She immediately signed on and became one of the driving forces behind getting Forever My Girl made.

At the time, the film was part of a slate of films LD was considering producing in the future, but Wolf was determined to do whatever it took to move the project from development into production, even going as far as commissioning the film's soundtrack before it was green lit.

"I kept talking about how important all the music was going to be and then I realized I need to stop talking about it and just bring the music in," she says. "So without telling anyone - the folks at LD, my agents, my manager - I just said to songwriters Jackson Odell and Brett Boyett, if you guys want to do this on spec, let's have you write all of the songs and I'm going to surprise them and bring you guys in to play them in a meeting."

After Odell and Boyett worked with Wolf on the songs for about two months, she had them bring their guitars into a previously scheduled development meeting. "She told me, we need you here, we've written some songs for the film and we're going to have these guys come in and sing it," remembers Liddell. "I didn't know what to do. This happened to me a long time ago in a pitch and it didn't go well. If someone performs three or four songs right in front of you and you don't like them it's hard to fake it."

But no faking was required. Liddell and his colleagues were won over right away by the music. "We were like, 'Green light, it's done,'" recalls Liddell. "You just couldn't help but love the songs." Small-Town Love

As they moved forward with the project, the filmmakers knew they had their work cut out casting an actor with the singing and acting chops - as well as the charm, charisma and looks - to convincingly portray Liam Page, the small-town-boy-turned-country-music-heartthrob who leaves his high-school sweetheart at the altar to pursue his career. "If you didn't believe him, we had nothing," says Liddell.

Auditions went on for weeks as hundreds of actors tried out for the part. "It's a very complex role," says Wolf. "Most redemption stories begin with a person having a revelation, then they go home to atone, to be redeemed of what they've discovered from within. The beauty of this story is that when we meet Liam Page, he has not had any revelations. We're witnessing his rebirth, which is beautiful and different."

Alex Roe was one of the last actors the filmmakers saw, and on paper at least, an unlikely choice. Not only is Roe not Southern, he's British - and he had never sung in public before. But the actor had several other things going for him, says Liddell. "When Alex came in, every girl in the office was peeking in and trying to get a look at him. He's just so good looking and so charming. And he nailed the accent. I'm from Oklahoma and I hate fake southern accents. People came in doing these terrible exaggerated drawls. Alex's was so perfect, at first I thought we had found a singer from Nashville who could act."

Despite his musical inexperience, Wolf says the filmmakers were blown away by Roe's audition performance. "Then he looked at us really earnestly with a look of, 'Was that okay?'"

The director likens Roe to classic Hollywood stars of yesteryear. "There are so few leading men who have that brooding, swooning magnetism while also being profoundly talented, and at the same time incredibly humble and grounded," she says. "Alex could care less about being a movie star. He just wants to be a working actor and do his best work. And he is extraordinary. His acting is unbridled, exhilarating, complex, and unexpected, and that's exciting to watch unfold in front of you and on screen."

Roe says he was initially drawn to the idea of overcoming the daunting challenges the role presented for him, most notably learning to play the guitar and sing with a country twang. "But then I was drawn to the story. It's got a lot of heart and it's kind of funny at moments where you think it's going to get too sentimental. And there's the romance with Liam and Josie and the fact that they've never fallen out of love with each other."

As Roe threw himself into an intense period of musical training before shooting began, he developed a genuine love of country music. "We don't really get that much country in London, so I started listening to the country stations while I was in Los Angeles," he says. "In fact, I listened to nothing but country for about six months. I was playing the guitar every day and working on these songs, so country really took over."

Although he grew up nearly 4,000 miles from Nashville, Roe says his own working class background made country music's heartland ethos easy to relate to. "It's very real and very much about staying true to yourself and staying true to where you came from," he says. "Part of what Liam goes through during this movie it that he discovers he's lost a little bit of that. He is this adored country singer but he's not real anymore."

Once on the set, Roe was impressed by Wolf's preparation, enthusiasm and warmth. "Bethany is a very active director, which was really cool," he says. "She's put so much thought and so much work into it and she wanted to go deeper and connect with real moments. She was a guiding force, like a spiritual guide through this journey. And she brings so much love to her sets. She creates a great atmosphere for everyone to work in."

The next piece of the casting puzzle was finding an actress to play Josie, first as a young jilted bride and then, seven years later, as the feisty entrepreneur and single mom who has moved on with her life without Liam.

"Josie is a woman who went through her own storm and is now a smooth sailing ship," says Wolf. "Instead of a girl who is waiting for a guy to come back into her life and sweep her off her feet, she has truly rebuilt her life and found her happiness. She doesn't need him to save her."

The role required a nuanced performance to convey a woman whose heartbreak had not hardened into bitterness. "The scene we auditioned with was the one where she and Liam first reconnect," says Wolf. "So many girls had a tendency to play it really angry. We were talking about a girl who has worked hard to heal herself. I really saw that in Jessica Rothe."

Rothe, whose credits include a supporting role in La La Land and one of the title roles in the MTV comedy series "Mary + Jane," recently starred in the Halloween horror feature Happy Death Day. She will also play the lead in the upcoming movie musical adaptation of the 1983 teen comedy classic Valley Girl.

Scheduling conflicts prohibited the filmmakers from conducting a "chemistry read" between Rothe and Roe. "Alex was out of town and Jess was still on her TV show and we were worried that we might lose her," says Wolf. "I just knew in my gut that the two of them were going to have amazing chemistry, which they did."

Rothe read the script about two years ago and immediately fell in love with the characters and the story. Initially unable to meet the filmmakers in person, she prevailed upon a director friend to help her submit an audition tape. "I met Bethany for the first time at her house on a Saturday, which happened to be my birthday!" the actress says. "She was so wonderful and lovely. She gave me this beautiful piece of rose quartz as a birthday present. We had similar ideas and goals for the character and I was lucky enough that she and the producers over at LD wanted me to be a part of the movie."

Josie first appears in the film as a love-struck 18-year-old, waiting for her high-school sweetheart Liam to meet her at the altar. "She ends up just heartbroken and embarrassed and devastated," says Rothe. "Flash forward eight years and Josie has become this incredibly independent, proud, fiery woman who has not let that define her. She has so much joy and passion for life. She owns a flower shop. She's raised a child on her own. She doesn't need anyone else to make her life work."

Initially unwilling to let Liam into her life, Josie grudgingly allows her daughter to get to know her dad. "She doesn't want to deprive her daughter of the chance of having a father," explains Rothe. "She's not malicious or cruel and that feels so important to her. So even though she doesn't want Liam to become a vanishing figure in Billie's life, she would never take away the opportunity that her daughter could have a relationship with him. They begin the delicate dance of figuring out how to be co-parents, if he even can take on responsibility."

Although Wolf had a strong vision for the film, she was receptive to the actors' ideas, says Rothe. "She was always willing to talk about other options and kind of play around with things. And she was very open to us improvising and joking around. It was a really fun set."

"Jess has the exact same work ethic as Alex," says Wolf. "She puts everything she has into every scene, every moment, and she is incredibly emotionally tapped into her truth. She's smart, her instincts are spot on, and she never, ever has a bad take. And she is ungodly beautiful."

Forever My Girl is essentially a fun, feel-good movie with a lot of heart and an important message, according to Rothe. "I hope that the audience takes away the idea that people deserve second chances, that people can change and that you shouldn't be afraid to fall in love or to be a romantic. Love can still exist even in this crazy time and world that we're in."

Liddell is an independent producer and financier who prides himself on spotting up-and-coming actors before they break through and command huge salaries. "I have given tons of actors their first role but I can't afford them now," he says. "We have to find those people that we think will be big stars but haven't been discovered yet, and that's both Jessica and Alex, in my opinion."

As powerful as the enduring romantic love between Liam and Josie is, there's another bond in the film that is just as powerful. When he returns to his hometown of Saint Augustine, Liam discovers that when he left, Josie was pregnant with his baby, who is now a smart, sassy, 7-year-old girl. The immediate and deep paternal connection Liam forms with Billy is a big part of what makes Josie give him a second chance.

Abby Ryder Fortson, who was 8 when she was selected to play Billy, comes from a family of actors. "Abby came in and she was undeniable," says Liddell. "She just became the character. She shouldn't have too much sugar before noon, but other than that, she's perfect."

Wolf agrees: "Abby is just such a bright light. She's so present and her energy is so vibrant and she's so mature and worldly. It's like you're talking to an adult, which is perfect for this character. She calls everything like it is. In movies that are quite romantic I think it's great to have fun with someone who's a realist, and how fun to have the realist be the kid!"

Despite her youth, Fortson has already amassed an impressive resume, including the acclaimed HBO series "Togetherness" and "Transparent" and the features Ant-Man and Playing it Cool. "Billy is a very strong, independent girl who wants to protect her mother," says the actress. "She is curious about her father, but he left her mother at the altar and she has to be careful not to make her mom sad. She takes careful steps to make sure she can trust him."

Rothe gives her young co-star credit for providing one of the film's most critical elements. "The only way the movie was going to work was if you got the sense that up until now it had been Josie and Billy against the world," she explains. "Their relationship is built on trust and on communication and on love. Abby made that easy to play."

Rothe says she loved watching Roe and Fortson work together. "Abby just thought he was the bee's knees," she says. "Our relationship on set very quickly became me as the mother trying to calm things down, and Alex saying, no-no-no we're just going to do one more joke, just one more tickle."

The film also features an appearance by country music star Travis Tritt. "I didn't tell him this until I met him on set but when I was in my 20s, my boyfriend was an actor, and he did a movie in Spain with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Travis," says Wolf. "After they wrap for the day they'd all pull out their guitars and we would just listen to them playing under the stars. It was the most magical experience. He's a living legend and one of the last outlaws and I really wanted him to do this movie. I did not know him at all and had no connection to him other than that we shared the same agency. But I took that one connection, and I ran with it as hard as I could. For about three months, I called or emailed every day."

Tritt eventually agreed to appear in the film and his scene is actually set in a small Nashville bar that was the first place he played professionally at the age of 17. "When you see that footage, there are joyful, welling tears each time I called action and cut," says Wolf.

Georgia Becomes Louisiana

Wolf set Forever My Girl in her home state of Louisiana as a love letter to small towns and the values of love, family, friendship, music, food, laughter and communities that rally around their own when someone is in need.

For practical reasons, however, the film was actually shot in Georgia. "The state has a lot of those small towns that are not that different from small towns in Louisiana," says Liddell. "You have to do some things like put moss on the trees to get the look right, but we found places that really had the right feeling - towns where people said hi as we walked down the street and everyone was like, 'you're kidding, you're shooting a movie!?' It was that friendly southern thing. That's where we got our extras."

Wolf and her design team created an idealized version of small-town America with warm, golden tones overall, accented by pops of lavender, amber, rose, and aqua blues. "And I wanted to make sure that we had watermelon sunrises, vermillion sunsets, crimson, gold, and violet dusks," she says. "I'm big on sunrises and sunsets. In small towns, where they slow down the pace and are present in the moment, they sit on their front porches and take in a sunrise or a sunset. It was part of my love letter to that way of life. I wanted gilded morning light through trees, and moonlit skies. I wanted purple and lavender magic hours. I could literally never have too many sunrises and sunsets in a film. And I wanted that one splash of pink to be in Josie's shimmering date-night gown."

She asked director of photography Duane "D.C." Manwiller to emphasize movement and depth of field, even though many scenes take place indoors. "D.C. is such an accomplished cinematographer," says Wolf. "We had so little time to prep together that I pulled visual references to show how I wanted the film to feel. One of our pinnacle moments is when Josie and Liam are dancing on their romantic date night. I wanted it to be spectacular and very specific, with sort of a rose hue over it, and I showed him an example from another film. D.C. said, 'You want that shot? I can do that shot.' My assistant told me afterward that D.C. had shot the original scene I was referencing. He didn't say anything. He is literally the most humble man on the planet." Songs in the Key of Love

At the heart of Forever My Girl are the country songs that Wolf commissioned during the development process from Jackson Odell and Brett Boyett and are sung onscreen by Alex Roe.

"I was in the midst of writing the screenplay," recounts the director. "My son was in the backyard with his friends and one of them, Jackson, is an aspiring singer and musician. I could hear him in the backyard singing. I had planned to reach out to all these well-known singers and songwriters but it ended up being Jackson, who's at our house every weekend. He mentioned he had these regular music sessions with Brett Boyett. I looked up Brett and discovered he is a like a one-stop shop, an accomplished composer, singer, producer and songwriter with his own band."

Boyett and Odell went through the script and found the points where they felt songs should go. "We got a vibe on what the movie was about and wrote some country that fit," says Boyett. "Bethany directed us which way to push the music because writing for film is different from writing for artists. With films you have a bit more leeway, whereas with artists you have to tailor it more specifically for country radio. It was important to find something that fit the emotional context of the scene but would also be good for the artist to put on their album."

The songs are the movie's emotional engine, according to Roe. "The soundtrack makes the movie in a really subtle way," she says. "The songs aren't too on the nose, but they capture the essence of each scene."

Wolf immersed herself in country music and insisted Roe also learn as much as possible about the music and the people who create it as he prepared for the role. "I'm fortunate enough to have some friends who are in the country music scene who've had a lot of success," she says. "I really wanted Alex to experience that world first hand. He had never been to Nashville. It was really important for him to have the time to go from a guy who's naturally talented to someone who can command a stage while performing in front of 20,000 people."

For months, Roe worked diligently with Boyett on his guitar playing and singing. "I helped him with phrasing like a country singer and learning to play guitar like a professional," says Boyett. "All of it was about looking like he'd been doing it for the last 20 years. I've worked with a lot of actors in the past and I've just never seen anybody work as hard or be more dedicated than he was."

As the shoot approached, the filmmakers rented out small venues where Roe could practice his performing skills in front of LD staff members with a live band Boyett had assembled.

Then Roe and Wolf went to Nashville where Wolf's friends Little Big Town were performing and Roe got to talk to the band members backstage. "They'd just come off playing for 50,000 people, so I was able to get an understanding of what that feeling is and how addictive and overpowering it can be," says the actor. "Because that's essential to Liam's character: he's left his hometown and his family and friends to chase this feeling." When it came time to actually film the performances, Wolf had just a day and half to shoot three full-blown concert scenes. "These were major set pieces with hundreds of extras, cranes, jibs, Steadicams, and multiple cameras being shot all at once," she says. "They were massively packed days, which is always exciting and thrilling to pull off. Alex was totally prepped and ready."

Even the extras committed fully to the concert scenes, says Roe. "They learned the songs and were singing along. It felt like a real performance!"

The result is music that even non-country music fans find hard to resist, says Liddell. "I've seen people go like, 'I'm not going to tap my foot,' and then they do. I'm not a big country music fan but it's really good music. I love every song in the film. I've shown this to everyone from high-art people who were like, 'oh, I would never go see that,' and then they're crying and falling in love, to guys in my office who are like, 'ugh, why do we have to make this?' and now it's their favorite movie. It's just really universal."

Roe concurs: "I think this film will be appealing to anyone who's ever missed their hometown love, anyone who has had a relationship and wondered what it would be like if they got back with that person, anyone who's made a mistake before and thinks they'll never be able to make up for it."

Forever My Girl offers something for everyone, according to Wolf. "When we sit in on the screenings all over the country, you see that it's not just a movie for women, it's not just for young people or old people, it's for everyone," she says. "Men, women, teenagers, everyone is finding a piece of themselves in one of our characters - or many of our characters.

"I want people to feel that they can always go back home," she adds, "and that doesn't necessarily mean literally, but to their own truth. That no matter where you are in life, you can find your way back to your true self. It's never too late."

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