Love, Simon – a high school romantic comedy with a gay teenage lead

LOVE SIMON

Love, Simon encourages the audience to be courageous and true to themselves.

The life of a teenage gay boy is turned in side out as he is forced to reveal his identity and embrace his sexuality in the endearing film Love, Simon, based on Becky Albertalli’s young adult novel Simon vs The Homo Sapien’s Agenda.

becky-albertalli-why-not-share-bad-book-reviewsAlbertalli never imagined that her book would be published let alone become an award-winning bestseller and now a major motion picture: “I was a psychologist when I wrote the book,” she says. “I was the mother of a one-year-old, now four-year-old.  I was writing during his nap times. I had always wanted to write a book, and decided I would give it a try. I don’t know where my idea for the plot came from, but the characters had been kicking around in my head for some time.  I had this image of a messy-haired, gay kid in a hoodie, and that turned out to be Simon. I’ve worked a lot with kids who identify as LGBTQ or gender nonconforming, and they are unquestionably some of the bravest people I’ve ever met.  As a psychologist, I’m painstakingly careful not to borrow my clients’ stories for my fiction – but in a general sense, I’m very much inspired by all the teenagers I’ve been lucky enough to know and work with.”

Everyone deserves a great love story. But for sixteen-year-old and not openly gay Simon Spier it’s a little more complicated: he’s yet to tell his family or friends he’s gay and he doesn’t actually know the identity of the anonymous classmate he’s fallen for online. Resolving both issues proves hilarious, terrifying and life-changing.

With his tight-knit group of friends branching out in new directions, his email correspondence with Blue growing more significant every day, and Martin’s potential threat hanging over him, Simon starts to feels out of control. Now he has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or losing a shot at happiness with a guy whose real name he doesn’t even know.

isaacaptaker_elizabethberger_09974Published in January 2012, the book won the William C. Morris Award for Best Young Adult Debut of the Year and was included in the National Book Award Longlist. The screenplay adaptation was crafted by Elizabeth Berger & Isaac Aptaker, a writing team who work in features and television.  The two are currently under an overall deal with 20th Century Fox Television where they co-showrun the hit NBC drama This Is Us with Dan Fogelman and develop projects for the studio.  Prior to This Is Us, Isaac and Elizabeth wrote for half-hour series such as Fox’s Grandfathered, NBC’s About A Boy, and ABC’s The Neighbours.

Isaac and Elizabeth met at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where they became friends and then collaborators before moving to Los Angeles where they both currently reside.

Producing a high school romantic comedy with a gay teenage lead

Producer Wyck Godfrey, and Marty Bowen, his partner at Temple Hill Entertainment, have become adept at recognizing literature that is ideal for screen adaptation. Having produced the phenomenally successful Twilight series and the adaptations of The Fault in Our Stars and The Longest Ride, they saw the big screen potential of Albertalli’s story.

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Wyck Godfrey

“We produce a lot of movies in the young adult space,” says Godfrey. “Every time, you’re trying to find something new and different and fresh that feels like it hasn’t been done before. And fundamentally, we’d never seen a high school romantic comedy with a gay teenage lead.  And so that was the thing with the book: we all read it and said, ‘Oh my God, nobody’s done this.’  Nobody’s just unabashedly openly made a movie about a kid that’s going through the process that every gay individual goes through of figuring out their identity and when they should come out.  And played it against this great, mysterious, evolving romance.  With this anonymous guy online.  And the book was hilarious.  And the character of Simon was such a winning, lovable, kind of embraceable character that we thought it was worth developing.”

 

Producer Pouya Shahbazian was the first to board the project, “Becky Albertalli’s book agent called me when he sold the book to Harper Collins. I read it and loved it and became involved at a very early stage.”

“I think we’re always looking for stories that are relatable,” adds Temple Hill’s Marty Bowen. “Even as adults, you’re looking for things that remind you of your high school experience and feel authentic and relatable.  And the journey of seeing somebody have to come to a realization that they need to truly be themselves by admitting their sexuality is a fairly universal thing today.  And the way that was approached in the book is the way we approached it in the film, which is to treat it like your first kiss or the challenges of asking out the girl that you care about.  Let’s essentially treat coming out of the closet as a normal, everyday, high school decision, which it is for many people.”

Conversations with Temple Hill, including with one of the film’s producers, Isaac Klausner, reassured Albertalli that her beloved book was with the right team to usher it to the big screen.

“My initial conversations with them convinced me that they understood these characters and the story that they are trying to tell,” confirms Albertalli. “They had a feel for the spirit of it. The name ‘John Hughes’ was thrown around a bit: the humor, and heart, of his films and striving for that balance.  So I knew they wanted to make a film that would have been my favorite movie as a teenager!”

“As someone who grew up on the John Hughes films, that was sort of the touchstone for me,” admits Godfrey.  “When I pitched it to the studio, I said, ‘It’s kind of like Sixteen Candles but instead of Molly Ringwald it’s a guy. And Jake Ryan’s still Jake Ryan.’  It was like taking that beloved movie and contextualizing it for them to understand what’s going to make it different.  For me it’s John Hughes meets John Green.  It’s a great mix of kind of classic, really relatable high school characters set in a fun, buoyant, world – the sort of the thing that John Hughes did so well when I was growing up but resonant to today’s teenage audience.”

“I think if John Hughes had continued to make his high school series of films, that it was just a matter of time before he would have broken down those barriers and done a film like this,” observes Marty Bowen.  “So in a weird way this film is as much a part of the John Hughes legacy as it is anything else including Temple Hill.”

The Screenplay

Screenwriters Elizabeth Berger (This Is Us) and Isaac Aptaker signed on to adapt Albertalli’s novel.

Shahbazian says, “It’s a dream scenario to have screenwriters write a first draft of a screenplay the way that Isaac and Elizabeth did for Love,Simon. The script came in, and it was in fantastic shape from day one.  They were busy writing for television, and we had to wait for them to become available but it was worth the wait.”

Albertalli adds “They wrote a first draft and gave it to me and asked if I had any notes. I had read it and sobbed, and downloaded every single song they mentioned.  And I thought: ‘I’m supposed to give you notes?’  The script was perfect.”

Director on board

The author was equally delighted when director Greg Berlanti (Everwood, The Flash, Riverdale), was brought on to help develop the script: “Greg Berlanti is in charge of a lot of superhero shows on television.  He is a literal superhero.  He is absolutely brilliant.  I was already a fan of his before he was on board.  When I heard he might be interested, I lost it.”

Berlanti made his film directorial debut in 2000 with “The Broken Hearts Club”. He also directed “Life as We Know It”, which grossed over $100m worldwide. Berlanti is best known for his work as executive producer and co-creator of The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl.

Berlanti started in television as a staff writer on the hit show Dawson’s Creek where he was promoted to showrunner by his second year on the series.  Since then, Berlanti has served as creator, writer, and producer behind several of the most creative and lauded television series in history including WB’s Everwood and Jack & Bobby, ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, Eli Stone (for which he was nominated for a WGA award), and Dirty, Sexy, Money, and the USA Network’s mini-­‐series Political Animals (for which he was nominated for a WGA, DGA and Golden Globe award).  During Upfronts 2017, it was announced that Berlanti would make television history with a total of 10 scripted series on the air at the same time.

He currently resides in Los Angeles with his husband and child.

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WGA, DGA and Golden Globe nominated writer, director, and producer, Greg Berlanti, is the force behind some of the most inventive and acclaimed works in film and television and has been credited with being at the forefront of introducing gay characters and storylines into mainstream entertainment.

Shahbazian adds, “Greg Berlanti is the most thoughtful, considerate person I have ever met.  He brings that humanity in directing this movie.  He is telling a very personal story for himself, and as we developed the script with Greg, there were many times where he was able to draw upon his own experiences to really add a whole nuanced layer underneath what was already a very fun, brilliant and nuanced story.”

“Greg is an unbelievable creative force,” echoes Bowen. “And one of the defining characteristics about all of his work is the humanity of the characters. He just has a fundamental understanding of it.  It is who he is, it’s part of his DNA.”

Writer Isaac Aptaker agrees, “Working with Greg Berlanti has been a total dream for my partner Elizabeth Berger and myself. He has this incredibly rare blend of being confident and wildly collaborative.  This is also a very special story to him.  The producers asked us to make a director wish-list.  I have no idea if they ever looked at it or if it was just something to make us feel good, but Greg was at the top of that list.”

“This has been a really significant and fun experience for me,” acknowledges Berlanti. “I was a closeted gay high schooler, so it works on that level.  It means a lot to me.  But, I have also done a lot of high school projects over the years, and I have really wanted to do a high school movie that dealt with really iconic moments and themes regardless of sexuality.  So when this one fell in my lap, and it had a gay point of view but was actually a movie about announcing yourself to the world, that anyone could relate to, I was really excited.”

Albertalli got to spend quite a bit of time on set especially since the movie shot entirely in her hometown of Atlanta.   Shahbazian says, “Becky Albertalli is not only an amazing person and fantastic writer, but she has been a big asset to have here in Atlanta during filming.  She has been nothing but positive.”

Berlanti adds, “I think everyone is always ready for a story well told.  And, Isaac and Elizabeth and Becky all gave us that.  This story should remind everybody, straight, gay, anyone, of who they were in high school and before they figured themselves out.  What it is like to fall in love for the first time.  What you do to protect that, what it is like to have great friendships, what it is like to have a family that gets a little bit too involved in your life sometimes.”

Says director Greg Berlanti: “It wasn’t a story that I felt already existed.  It reflects my own high school experience yet still feels like it’s for everybody, you know? Where the central point of view was something that rang close to home, but what the film had to say was something that everyone could relate to.”

The Cast

Nick Robinson takes on the role of Simon Spier.  The young star of Jurassic World and Everything, Everything was excited to be part of Love,Simon.  “This story has not been told before, in this way,” suggests Robinson. “This movie has the potential to reach a lot of people and help them in a way that hasn’t been done before.  At its core it is a coming of age story, set in a high school. I feel like this telling was past due, and I wanted to be part of the team that helped tell it.”

Shahbazian was thrilled to have Nick Robinson join the cast as Simon, “Nick is a brilliant young actor who has a tremendous future ahead of him.  He has a huge presence. He captures all of the nuances.  And, like Simon, Nick is a little bit of an introvert, and he plays the role beautifully.  I believe it is a timeless character and Nick Robinson’s done it incredible justice.”

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Nick Robinson and director Greg Berlanti during the filming of Love, Simon

Robinson’s views on the story, themes and characters mirrored those of the author, producers, and director: “Love, Simon is a coming of age story about two high school kids that fall in love,” he says.

Berlanti agrees: “To me, it’s a coming of age story and in that sense, very traditional.  But in another sense, there had not been a major studio film with a gay lead at the center of a coming of age movie.  It has romance and comedy and all the stuff that fills up a young kid’s life, but it is also told from the point of view of a kid who is in the closet, who is about to be outed by the class clown if he doesn’t hook up his best friend with him.”

“It is difficult for me to describe how perfectly Nick Robinson captures both his character and the turmoil he is experiencing,” says Albertalli. “There is a line in the script that I wish I could claim from the book. Simon’s mother says, ‘For the last couple of years, it’s been like you’ve been holding your breath.  Like I could feel you holding your breath,’ and I see that in the way that Nick is playing Simon.”

“Even in the moments of joy with his friends there is a part of him that is holding back,” continues Albertalli. “You see him grappling with it throughout.  It is an undercurrent through the whole movie. I love Simon.  He has been in my head for a long time.  His vulnerability, his awkwardness.  His joy.   Nick just nails it.”

Love, Simon lives and breathes Simon’s world.  “The film is definitely centered around the character,” acknowledges Robinson. “His voice and his point of view.  His worldview.  His comic sensibilities.  I think that is what makes it unique for this genre.  It is not on its surface a gay film.  It’s about a kid going through something, trying to find his place in the world which is hard enough.  All of this is compounded by the fact that he is struggling with his sexuality.  I also think that is where a lot of the comedy comes from because he can turn situations that might seem bleak to some and find the humor in them.  That was something I found very appealing.”

While Simon has an online flirtation, his lifelong friendship with one his best friends Leah, played by Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why), becomes strained.  “Leah is insecure and quite fragile herself,” says Langford. “She is struggling with all of these people growing up around her and wants to hold on.  She is especially jealous of Abby, the new girl in school who bulldozes her way into their lifelong friendships.”

Abby is played by Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse) and is the girl in high school that everyone wants to know. “I think Alex does a great job of being that, but also of being in the moment when Simon comes out to her,” says Robinson.

Shipp says, “Abby is the hot girl in the school, which is awesome because I wasn’t the hot girl in school! So this has been a really fun part to play.  The core group is Simon, Leah, Abby and Simon’s friend Nick (played by Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) and Simon and Abby are really close although Abby’s relationship with Leah is a little tumultuous at the beginning. I think, primarily because there is an unrequited aspect to Leah’s feelings for Simon.”

The relationships between the four friends evolves throughout the film but the catalyst for all the changes begins when Simon sees a post on the secret high school social media site “Creek Secrets.”  The post is about a student who is gay and afraid to come out.  It resonates with Simon so much that he has to reach out.

“It’s significant to Simon,” says Robinson, “because it represents a peer, a colleague who is going through the same thing and not only are they going to the same thing, but they go to the same school.  What starts out as a curiosity quickly becomes something that is essential to his life.”

As well as Simon’s friends, we also meet his family, including his parents Emily and Jack, played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel.

Garner says, “This movie is about a number of things, including family.  The family you are born in to and the family that you create for yourself with friends.  Especially that precious group when you are in those teenage years and they mean everything to you.  You think you know everything about them and they think they know everything about you. It’s also about having the courage to really stand up for yourself and say what you need to say.”

“The movie is about family and love.  But it is also about secrets,” says Jennifer Garner. “It’s about letting them out, being who you are and having the courage to really stand up for yourself and say what you need to say. And the movie deals with these themes and the theme of being yourself but in a fun and refreshing way.  There is definitely some fun in the movie and it’s not all drama.”

One of the major themes of Love, Simon is living your truth, learning to be and accepting yourself. As Greg Berlanti explains: “It is never too early to be who you are.  There are a lot of kids who don’t get to come out in high school and Simon is outed, pulled out, but he learns to accept who he is and live with his own truth and being himself.”

The movie encourages the audience to be courageous and true to themselves.

“I hope people watching the movie and people reading the book will feel empowered to own their true self,” says Becky Albertalli.

Nick Robinson agrees, “I think everyone had been through this at some point in their lives.  Trying to find yourself and being the person that you were meant to be is very universal.  I think everybody can relate to that.”

Alexandra Shipp adds, “I think a lot of teenagers can relate to the struggle because I think that a lot of teenagers are struggling with finding themselves.  They don’t know who they are.  They don’t have an idea of who they want to be when they grow up.  It’s not just about sexuality.  It’s about who you really are.  Not who you sleep with but who you really are on this planet.”