As queer people, we search avidly for representation, and when it’s not explicitly visible, we codify the media we do have, searching to queerness in the linger of a glance, the touch of a hand, or the chemistry between two actors. It means that when a film with a queer narrative does come along, we can often feel cheated or let down when it doesn’t quite fit what we’re looking for.
It’s a criticism that will be, and has already has been, levied at new gay teen movie Love, Simon. The film, which in the year 2018 is still the first teen romance with a gay lead to be released by a major studio, follows the plight of closeted teenager Simon as he comes to terms with his sexuality while falling in love with an anonymous classmate over email. He has his secret identity and online crush at risk, however, as Martin, the class clown, threatens to out him to the whole school.
Based on the wildly popular book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli and directed by Greg Berlanti, the gay man responsible for the cult classic gay movie The Lonely Hearts Club, Riverdale, The Flash, and primetime TV’s first gay kiss in Dawson’s Creek 15 years ago, Love, Simon perhaps isn’t as button pushing as people wanted (one piece even asking whether “today’s teens actually need it”). But in its own way, the low drama of its story and its tropey settinga clichéd teen rom-commake it subversive. Yes, young people are far more likely to identify as LGBTQ, but with the recent devastating news that a 12-year-old boy in Memphis has taken his life after being bullied about his sexuality, accusations of whether today’s teens “need” a Hollywoodized coming out story might be a little presumptuous.
With this in mind and ahead of the film’s release, INTO spoke to the movie’s director Greg Berlanti about the character of Simon, the ongoing importance of LGBTQ narratives, and coming out.
How different was it approachingLove, Simonthan it was makingThe Broken Hearts Club?
You know, they had a lot of similarities actually. Probably more than some people would realize. I knew that it was personal to me and I knew that I kind of wanted to give it the same emotion and energy that I felt like I was able to bring to that film, down to using steady cam a lot and being inside and with the lead. And then the tone of it, I think. Just working with actors that could deliver the tone that was both happy and sad, and when there was comedy just to let it happen. Honestly, it was about getting the kind of actors where you just have to figure out where to put the camera on and let them do their thing.
Nick Robinson, who plays Simon in the movie, has talked about you helped him research the role by talking about your experience of being a closeted teenager. How did you go about that process?
I shared a lot. In fact, I ended up sharing a lot more than I usually would with people. And I think, more than anything, it allowed them to share their own experiences, too. It says a lot about the movie that even though it’s about an LGBTQ teenager, that there’s a lot of themes of what they go through, and what I went through, that are more pronounced in certain ways, that are specific to the queer experience, but that are still very universalthat sense of isolation; that sense of loneliness; that inherent sense that I think teenagers have now of who they’re presenting to the world through social media; who they really are. It’s just a more intense version of what all teenagers go through when they’re both simultaneously trying to figure out who they want to project to the world outside, who they are on the inside, and how you get those things to align. I think for Nick, he had to play both those things. So I shared my story with him and we talked a lot about those themes and emotions that you go through at that age that are so profound.
Simon’s in a lucky position where he knows people are going to accept him, but despite that coming out is still a difficult thing.
That was our intention with this. It’s twofold: the aspect of Nick’s performance, which is just terrific, and you’re right, he’s quietly pained yet he’s still into comedy. But more generally, and what was a conscious choice was, again knowing we were making a romantic comedy, is that you can have this seemingly perfect life. And people always ask me: has coming out gotten easier? And I think there are aspects of it that are, because of the internet kids can feel more connected, and because kids are coming out younger and younger, and the communities are more openly accepting. But there are aspects of it that are always going to be just as hard. The internal closet that you put on yourself in and the shame you bring to something, even when you have parents who might seem liberal. Figuring out who you are, saying that, and the fear that if you’re different from how people think you are that they’re not going to love you as much. I don’t know if that’ll ever go away. I think that’s always going to be a part of an individual’s challenge when they’re LGBTQ.
We are in the midst of a huge sea change at the moment. But do you believe that questioning the validity of another coming out story is reductive?
I don’t think that there’s any question that minorities in general are underrepresented in mainstream cinema. I don’t question that as an audience member, and I think it’s refreshing that people are starting to realize it. In part it’s because of some of the work we’ve been doing in TV, where there’s been a lot more progress. We were doing things there 15 years ago that mainstream cinema is only just starting to do. If they want to keep their audiences choosing to go out to the movies they have to catch up. And while that’s all ood, it doesn’t mean by any stretch that the work is done. Even when people think it’s done, there should still be room for more kinds of stories. In terms of Love, Simon, I hope people judge this movie on the merits of the movie and not what they perceive what void they think it might be filling or not filling.
It’s difficult with LGBTQ media, because there’s so little of it, people so want to see their experiences on screen but when it doesn’t live up to what they expected there can be harsh responses.
15 years ago when we were putting the first gay kiss on prime time TV, or when I didBroken Hearts Club, there were always individuals who thought it wasn’t gay enough. And there were certainly individuals who thought it was too gay. And 15 years later, people tell me all the time whatBroken Hearts Clubmeant to them, and people tell me all the time what the gay kiss onDawson’s Creekmeant to them. Those stories are still here. The change might have come, but people are forgetting about the individuals on the fringes that weren’t happy. My hope is that we’re apartof a change. Do I wish it wasn’t 2018 and we weren’t some kind of first? Absolutely! And now, younger people are so much more open about gender and sexuality than my generation ever was. It’s such a beautiful thing, and they discuss it with more fluency. They’re so impressive, y’know? And I have no doubt that the stories that they’ll tell are going to be even more specific and more impactful. I’m impressed every day everyday by their openness and their desire for continual change.
I liked that the film was also such a normal teen movie. Why was it important for you to include those teen tropes?
I think because before you can subvert something you kind of have to honor the genre as it is. You know, for a while we actually thought about changing the Ferris wheel at the end. I’d done it on a show and other people have done the Ferris wheel in movies. And then I realized while we were, just for a brief second, trying to find another location, I went, ‘You know, I think it’s important that it is exactly what you’d expect to see just that the genders are the same.’ The actual tropes, as it were, or the exterior world surrounding them is the same, but the heart of it is altered.
Then in terms of your comments about a “normal” teen experience, whatever that means, right? But I think what’s wonderful is that this movie couldn’t exist without MoonlightandCall Me By Your Name. But we’re trying to do something different than those films because we are trying to fit into a historically shaped box. All of the LGBTQ films that came beforeLove, Simonhelped us do this.
I was outed at school in a similar way to how Simon is in the movie. How did you approach that topic, because it can have very adverse consequences?
It is a very devastating thing, and traditionally it’s a much darker thing than you’d typically find than it is in a film like this. And in real life, the odds are that it would be a lot more cataclysmic than maybe a film like ours can present it.
That being said, it was always in the book and it was always visceral part of the book for me. There were things in the book that, I think if you had written them as an original screenplay, the studio would have said, “Woah, is Simon being too much a jerk to his friends?” There are things like that that are darker, but my sense is that young people will still praise that because it makes these characters flawed in a way that they feel flawed. Young people are flawed; they’re still trying to figure out their own moral code. My sense throughout, really, was that we tried to honor it and be as sensitive as we could to the outing. It is still tough, right, but we had to remember what the tone of the picture was.
Without giving too much away, the most moving scene for me was when Simon shouts at his sister when things start to fall apart for him and she starts crying.
It’s definitely the darkest part, I think, in the movie, and there’s a reason why we do all the techniques that we do there to capture his shame in that moment. The shame he’s feeling with his secret exploding that he’s tried his whole life to keep down is the most real and dark we get.
In the film, Simon doesn’t actually say the word gay for a long time. Why was that?
The very first time he says it out loud is to Abby in the car. But there are several coming out scenes in the movie and we wanted them all to be distinct. The thing that’s really true is it’s not until the end of the movie that he says it without also simultaneously wishing it weren’t true. That’s the journey for him in the back half of the film. He’s practicing, you know, which is so common with the young LGBTQ experience. There are certain circumstances in my life now, at 45 years old, that I have to make sure that I’m fine to declare who I am in all those different circumstances. It gets easier, obviously, and it becomes a more natural part of your life, but when you’ve spent all of those years denying it and shoving it down, you can’t just imagine you’re going to put new sign in the shop window and change. It’s a process.
They say: You don’t come out once. You come out for the rest of your life.