'To All the Boys I've Loved Before' Director on Social Media's Role in New Netflix Rom-Com

Susan Johnson and Lana Condor - Publicity - H 2018
Netflix/Awesomeness Films

"For me, this story was important because I love that we have a diverse cast that's new and fresh," helmer Susan Johnson said of the film, which stars Asian-American Lana Condor.

While the classic tropes found in romantic comedies are typically timeless, To All the Boys I've Loved Before makes space for social media to become a core element of the genre. In doing so, the film is particularly reflective of the current era.

The emoji-heavy text exchanges shared between the film's love interests, Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), appear onscreen. Peter complains about Lara Jean's lack of Instagram presence, and a mean classmate attempts to ruin Lara Jean's reputation with an unflattering video posted to Instagram. It's not surprising that social media acts as the de facto third member of Peter and Lara Jean's relationship, especially when so much of their interaction takes place on their phones.

Director Susan Johnson said she wanted to balance social media's pervasive presence with face-to-face moments in which Lara Jean faces her fears, literally. 

"We can't live our lives on social media and [Lara Jean] can't live her life reading books in her living room or her bedroom," Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter. "She has to get out there and experience the world."

The director, who grew up at the height of John Hughes' rom-coms, made her directorial debut in 2016 with indie comedy Carrie Pilby. While To All the Boys I've Loved Before is only her second feature, Johnson has worked in Hollywood for nearly 20 years, producing films including Mean Creek (2004), Nearing Grace (2005), Wieners (2008) and Unleashed (2016). 

The Covey sisters — portrayed by Condor, Janel Parrish (Pretty Little Liars) and Anna Cathcart — not only bring a set of fresh Asian-American faces to the genre but also challenge previous portrayals of Asian-Americans in Hollywood in films such as 16 Candles. Although the Netflix movie may seem to be in conversation with fellow rom-com Crazy Rich Asians, which hits theaters just two days before To All the Boys I've Loved Before drops Aug. 17, Johnson stresses that her film doesn't dwell on race. Lara Jean's heritage may be integral to her identity, but it doesn't define her, Johnson says. 

Speaking with THR, the director discusses adapting Jenny Han's best-selling novel of the same name, pressures the film's teenage audience members face today and bringing a new Asian-American lead to this summer's rom-com resurgence.

What was the most exciting part about being a part of this Netflix "Summer of Love" rom-com resurgence that's happening?

[Laughs] Well I love that there is a Netflix "Summer of Love" rom-com resurgence. I think it's pretty cool that they have the ability to pick out what an audience is looking for through their viewership and algorithms and research. That's unique to Netflix, so I'm glad that they're doing it.

For me, this story was important because I love that we have a diverse cast that's new and fresh, and the fact that it was Jenny's story and we just followed the map. But I like that we're seeing fresh faces.

The film references John Hughes and the classic rom-coms of the 1980s. How have films like 16 Candles influenced your work?

Very much. I grew up in the '80s watching John Hughes films. I remember being a similar age to the actors in those movies, so they had a big impact on me. Even rom-coms before that; I'm a huge fan of The Philadelphia Story, which goes way, way back. It taught me how dialogue and chemistry can work together. It's been a big part of who I am as a filmmaker.

When Peter and Lara Jean watch 16 Candles, they call out its portrayal of Asian people as racist. How does this film counter ethnic stereotyping in Hollywood?

I think it was important for us to honor that they are Asian-American women, as the three sisters, but past that we didn't dwell on their ethnicity through the telling of the story. It doesn't become about making fun of or even really honoring so much. We tried to put little touches in production, designwise — make the home feel like it was [the residence of] an Asian-American family, but I think it was important to let the familiarity of who Lara Jean is as a character play out and that didn't have really anything to do with her ethnicity.

Lara Jean's Korean-American heritage is brought up multiple times, but only ever in subtle, positive ways. What message does this send to audiences?

I think it's important to see yourself onscreen. For the Asian-American community, I think the casting does so in and of itself, but I can relate to that myself and I'm not Asian-American. Women are so underrepresented as directors in this industry. I understand what it's like to have that bag on your shoulder all the time. At some point you just have to shrug it off and move forward and be positive and figure out how to tell your own stories and be your own person. All those things, I think, played into the character.

Social media plays a major part in Lara Jean and Peter's relationship, rooting the film in 2018. How did you work to incorporate texting and Instagram as essential elements while also balancing them with something as traditional as love letters?

For me, the balance comes from [the fact that] every scene that is impactful and important is between two people having dialogue face to face, and I think that's a really important balance. [Lara Jean] has to get out there and experience the world and I think that's such an important reminder for everybody who could have lived their lives on social media. I just wanted to make sure that those scenes that didn't involve phones were the ones that hit home for people, and I think we achieved that.

Do you think the online world makes it easier for Lara Jean to avoid confronting reality?

I think it makes it harder. I think it's such pressure. I'm so glad I grew up and went to high school at a time when there wasn't social media. I think it can really mess with your head, and I think that's why she goes to her books and she goes to her letters. Those are both tactile things that aren't centered on social media.

Yeah, you can really see that pressure play out as Lara Jean endures cyberbullying toward the end of the film. What message do you have for young, female audiences that may be going through similar things?

I think the tagline Netflix came up with, which is "Face Your Fears," is brilliant. That's what this movie's about; I think that's what a lot romantic comedies or coming-of-age movies are about. If you reach out and try new things or have conversations with people you're afraid of, it might turn out great for you. You might end up with the love of your life or a job or a relationship or a friend. All those things happen because of face-to-face human interaction, and I hope everybody will face their fears and do something outside of their comfort zone after they see this movie.