After – From social storytelling sharing platform Wattpad to Big Screen

Some stories are destined to become movies long before they are published.

Producers showed interest to turn Anna Todd’s best-selling novel After into a film before the story was published in book form; the story became a publishing sensation after beginning as fan fiction on the social storytelling sharing platform Wattpad, read more than 1.5 billion times on Wattpad.

“We were in talks with publishers, and Wattpad said somebody wants to make this into a movie. Really?! It’s not even a book yet. What a strange but also amazing thing,” says Anna Todd, a New York Times bestselling author and avid reader, who began writing stories on her phone on Wattpad, the reading and writing multiplatform for original stories.

“A movie felt like such a far-off concept,” says Todd.”A book made sense because the story was already written word. But honestly until the movie was to set to film, it was compartmentalized in another part of my brain.  Most books that get optioned don’t ever get made into a movie, so I focused on publishing books. The movie would always be a dream, but probably not reality.”

An authentic tale of first love and self-discovery , After began as fan-fiction online, posted one chapter at a time, almost daily, with the fans weighing in on what author Anna Todd was creating.

“The beginning of After was me reading fan fiction,” says author Anna Todd. “I’ve always loved fan fiction, and I saw on Instagram where people were writing fan fiction about the band One Direction. I was the only one of my adult friends who liked One Direction’s music. There’s something infectious about them and their music that makes people happy. I joined the app Wattpad so I could read it. I had never thought about really writing fan fiction myself.”

Soon Todd had read everything available about the boy band on Wattpad, an online social storytelling platform where you can read and write for free. “I only wanted to read fan fiction about One Direction specifically, so I though I’ll just write a chapter. It was literally this random thought. I’m glad I didn’t really think about it, otherwise I would’ve never done it,” laughs Todd. “I’ll write a chapter to entertain myself. After about three months it really started picking up, and eventually crashed the website.  Wattpad reached out to me about publishing it as a novel. The book went to an auction and I got to choose the editor and publishing house that I wanted, which is literally like a writer’s dream come true.”

After became Wattpad’s most-read series with over 1.5 billion reads, and in the years since Wattpad has grown to a global reach. The print edition of After was published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster and has since been released in over 30languages with more than 11 million copies sold worldwide. After has been a #1 bestseller across the globe including Italy, Germany, France and Spain.

Anna Todd

The main male character in the posts was, at first, inspired by one of the band’s popular singers, whose name’s initials matched Anna’s character’s. “But Hardin Scott definitely became the exact opposite of what Harry Styles seems to be in real life. Once I wrote that first chapter, nothing about One Direction stuck in my head, beside their appearances. Nobody in my story is even in a band, no one sings. Nobody is even British in the book, except Hardin. Most of my characters have a bunch of tattoos. When I first started writing the book on Wattpad, Harry Styles had three little tiny tattoos and I had Hardin with his whole chest covered in ink. Then slowly Harry kept getting more tattoos, so that was fun because I just wrote it into the next chapter. Every time Harry would get another tattoo, I would mention one of Hardin’s that looks exactly the same. When Harry’s hair started getting longer, Hardin’s hair got longer too.”

It took time for Todd to solidify the overall arc of her story and come to choose its somewhat enigmatic title – whose relationship to the story also evolved with time. “In the beginning on Wattpad the book didn’t have a title at all – it literally said ‘A Harry Styles Fan Fiction’ until I was almost halfway done,” remembers Todd.  “Once I started getting into the story and started realizing how the characters were changing through the entire story, the title ‘After’ referred to who Tessa is after she meets Hardin and how she becomes this different person.  But then as the series progressed, the title became more of who he becomes after her.  I’ve had a million interpretations from fans, including what happens after they fall in love.  I like the explanation of what happens after you fall in love, who these people are after they meet each other.”

Todd really responded to the community on Wattpad. “The best thing to me about Wattpad is that the people that write and read there, for the most part only write and read there, and only do it out of passion,” comments Todd. “The readers are so organic and it’s a place where people literally write stories just because they want to write them, they don’t care about what’s selling, or what their editor thinks. They just write for fun and that is magic to me.”

As a young Army wife, Todd wrote much of the first book while her husband was deployed. “The fans just wanted to know what happens next. It felt like they were as much owner of the story as I was, because we were doing it together,” Todd adds. “Literally I would write and post, I didn’t edit or re-read. It is a social way of writing and I like it. Later I wrote a book called The Spring Girls and I wrote like a proper writer, sitting in a room by myself, and I was miserable. I’ll never do it again, ever. Writing on Wattpad is way more fun and social and I found I’m not a reclusive type of writer.”

Todd has hardcore fans – who call themselves Afternators – who have been following her right from the beginning on Wattpad. “Their influence has been this sea of fish that’s a friend for me. Their comments in the beginning sometimes made me write the next chapter. Their passion – having all these people say ‘I need another chapter, I need another chapter’ – really did help me write fast. I wrote a million words in a year,” comments Todd.

The After Series now includes five published novels: After, After We Collided, After We Fell, After Ever Happy, and Before; as well as two books about an After character in The Landon Series, called Nothing More and Nothing Less. “My foreign publishers have never seen sales like this from an American author writing on a random website with no experience whatsoever,” shares Todd.

Producer Jennifer Gibgot was the first filmmaker to come on board.

“When I first set this project up, it was still the beginning of Instagram. I’m not sure if I even had Facebook at the time,” shares Gibgot. “When my daughter put me on Instagram, and Anna posted a picture of the two of us, all of a sudden all of these young girls from all over the world would write me these direct messages through my social media. That was when I really became aware of what a big thing this was becoming.”

Gibgot was struck by the relatable story and characters.

“Honestly, I love the love story between Hardin and Tessa because it’s a very imperfect love that felt authentic. Their love didn’t feel fluffy. The story is two damaged people coming together and healing each other, and learning to trust one another,” Gibgot comments. “The other thing I really responded to is that it’s about first love. When you read the books, it’s a very visceral emotional experience of what it feels like for a young girl to fall in love for the first time, and it brought me back to being a teenager. Hopefully everyone has experienced a first love, a first heartbreak, a first time of being touched by the right person, and people want to be brought back to that experience.”

Just as with readers of the novel, Todd agrees that moviegoers can also find commonality with the characters in the story. “The short version is two unlikely people coming together – one college freshman Tessa Young, raised by a single mother struggling to get by, and their whole goal was to get her to college and have a career. The other Hardin Scott, who doesn’t really have any goals. He’s smart, actually gifted, but he’s just skated through. He is a very angry, lost person. In fact, they are both lost in their own way.  She thinks that she is an adult and she’s not. He thinks that he is an adult and he’s not. They make a lot of mistakes together and separately.”

Prom Book to Big Screen

The producers felt it was essential to find the right director who could bring the story to life on-screen without sacrificing any authenticity. “Particularly for the first movie, because the story is from Tessa’s point of view, it felt completely right for me to have a female filmmaker tell that story,” comments Gibgot.  “I saw Jenny Gage’s documentary which I absolutely loved, and I thought it was so beautifully shot.  I loved how authentic and real it felt, and I really cared about those characters.”

Jenny Gage

Jenny Gage is both a skilled filmmaker and a fine arts photographer, having previously worked in art, fashion, and advertising along with husband, Director of Photography Tom Betterton. Their editorial work included stories for W magazine, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. They have collaborated on advertising campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Estée Lauder, IBM, and Sony.

Gage made her mark as a director with the debut of her feature documentary All This Panic in 2016. The project received much critical acclaim, appeared at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, and was released in March 2017. The New York Times described the documentary as a “Cinematic Confidant of Teenage Girls.”

Todd appreciated Gage’s take on After. “I wanted a director who could make the movie visually beautiful,” Todd notes, “but I also wanted to make sure that the novel wasn’t taken word for word because I’ve also seen adaptations where it’s exactly like the book and it’s not the best thing.  I wanted somebody who would take the essence of my story but make it modern and visually appealing, and Jenny is a talented photographer.  There was no question that she could make it visually stunning.  She also presented a great mood board, and was really in touch with the story itself, and that made me feel comfortable.”

The Screenplay

Once Gage signed on, she immediately went to work on the script. “I met Anna Todd early on in the process of pitching for the project, and always loved talking to her about her vision. As I started screenplay revisions, I always bounced ideas off of her,” comments Gage. “She’s captured this amazing story of youth and first love. Anna is the mother of Hardin and Tessa, so she’s a vital part of making this film.”

As the script developed, several writers including Susan McMartin and Tamar Chestna made contributions.

“In the beginning, Susan McMartin and I worked very, very closely together and she came to be my friend. Then Jenny Gage came along, she wanted a different take,” remembers Todd. “The thing I was most worried about was the story. There’s no way to make a 600-page book into a 90-minute movie without some changes. There will always be scenes that don’t happen, but I always said to everyone involved, as long as the characters don’t change, I will be very open to things. It’s been a pretty good collaboration. It’s also been a long road and I’m so glad that it took this long, because now all the pieces of the team are exactly what they should be.”

Screenwriter Susan McMartin‘ television credits include “Californication,” “Two and a Half Men,” and “Mom,” which she is currently co-executive producer on. Her feature films include Mr. Church, starring Eddie Murphy and directed by Bruce Beresford, and her feature adaptation of the international bestselling book series by Anna Todd, After, is set to be released in theaters April 2019. McMartin is currently adapting the novel Miracle on Voodoo Mountain as a feature for Sony and Affirm Studios with Doug Belgrad producing.

Screenwriter Tamara Chestna was an EP on the final season of “The Art of More” starring Dennis Quaid and Kate Bosworth and spent the last year working on her project “Wildside” for YouTube Premium, with Gary Fleder directing, and “Scartlett’s Method” for Snapchat. It was recently announced that Amy Poehler would direct her adaptation of the Jennifer Mathieu novel, Moxie, for Netflix, with Poehler’s Paper Kite and “Veep”’s Morgan Sackett producing. On the feature side, she wrote Other People’s Love Letters and Revenge Wedding for CBS Films. The latter just brought on Cheryl Hines to direct. Additionally, she wrote Everything’s Cool for Iconolocast/Anonymous Content, and wrote After, which just wrapped with Jenny Gage directing.

First and foremost, the filmmakers knew they needed to stay true to the story. “All along we knew a few iconic things in the book that there was no way we were going change: number one was the lake scene, but also Tessa’s arrival to college with her mom and Noah that sets up that fish out of water feeling of her in this new world; when Hardin’s dad gets married; the truth or dare game; and the reveal at the end – those were things that we just didn’t want to touch from the book because we knew that the readers would be upset,” says Gibgot.

At the same time, the film needed to resonate with more than just the fans of the book. “The messages in this movie are a huge thing that I think about a lot,” shares Gage. “One of the reasons why I was attracted to the project is, in this day and age, everyone has a responsibility to tell authentic, inspiring stories.  First love is never perfect. It’s often messy but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be something that we learn a lot from, and that is inspiring. As a female filmmaker, as a woman, as a mother of a daughter, I think about that all the time when making any art.”

For Todd, seeing the characters she created come alive on film has been a revelation for the author. “Jenny’s take made the film more of an awakening story. Jenny has pointed to directly what Tessa’s feeling and experiencing through her eyes the entire film, which has been cool to watch.”

Todd also serves as a producer on the film and was on set daily for the shoot in Atlanta. “We embraced Anna’s involvement, and it’s important that Anna is here is because when you have the author present, she can assure certain iconic lines or moments or items, like the dress, that when you’re a filmmaker you might overlook,” comments Canton. “For instance, she’ll tell us that the fan base is crazy about this maroon dress that Tessa wears. 

Her fan base is rabid about every detail.” Solomon adds, “Fortunately, we’ve had Anna working with us to have the most important things in the movie. We feel like we have the lines that the fans have been waiting and wanting to hear. We’re bringing their characters to life and they’re living and breathing. The fans can also look forward to the surprises we’re putting in the movie that they very likely aren’t expecting, but that have the blessing of Anna.”

“I hope audiences will get that same feeling of the old time love story, like from Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, or from She’s All That or even Cruel Intentions,” says Todd. “Our movie has a nostalgic feeling of a love story but very modern, and painful, and angsty, and happy. The same story that readers loved, but with a couple surprises I love.”