[This story contains spoilers from the movie Love, Simon, as well as the book upon which it is based.]
Writing partners Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker understood the weight their first feature film carried. Directed by prolific TV producer Greg Berlanti (Riverdale, Supergirl), Love, Simon revolves around a teenager coming out while navigating the pressures of high school. It also happens to be the first feature film with a gay lead, something Aptaker and Berger were drawn to after reading Becky Albertalli‘s 2015 YA novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.
Here, Aptaker and Berger — who also happen to be co-showrunners alongside creator Dan Fogelman on NBC’s time-twisting family drama This Is Us — talk with The Hollywood Reporter about what Love, Simon represents for queer cinema, changes from the book, how they were influenced by out director Berlanti and more.
How did you first hear about Becky Albertalli’s book, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda?
Isaac Aptaker: We had been looking to do a movie with Temple Hill, the producers, for a while. They sent us Becky’s book, and we absolutely loved the writing. What really put it over the top was when they told us that there had never been a major studio movie about a gay kid. This was 2016 or 2017, and we thought that was completely ridiculous. We felt very compelled to be the ones to try to change that.
The book is told in large part through emails. Did that ever give you pause?
Elizabeth Berger: That, we knew going into it, would be the biggest challenge of the adaptation. How do we take all of these beautiful exchanges and make them visual? Once we locked into imagining the different guys and putting all the emails on their feet, that’s when we thought, “I see this movie and I know what it’s going to be.” Then we were able to use so much of Becky’s original, beautiful stuff and just make it more cinematic.
Did you have any reservations about adapting it?
Aptaker: We try not to take jobs unless we feel we know what the movie is because you want to be able to hopefully deliver something good. So, no, we felt like we pretty much saw it all there.
Given that this is the first studio feature with a gay lead, what sort of notes did you get along the way?
Aptaker: The best note we got on this movie, and I think the best note we’ve gotten on anything, was the scene in the movie where Simon (Nick Robinson) discovers Bram (Keiynan Lonsdale) hooking up with the girl at the Halloween party, and using that to really throw the audience off the scent. At its core, the movie really is a romantic, whodunit mystery where you, along with Simon, are trying to figure out who this guy is. We always knew that we wanted Simon to share screen time with Blue, so you can see that they have chemistry and that there’s a connection there and it’s not just a stranger showing up. But you also don’t want your audience to get ahead of it. Once we got that note of really misleading everyone in thinking that he’s straight, then you really do stop thinking about that guy. We’ve seen the movie a bunch of times with audiences and they all seem pretty surprised, so I think it was very effective.
Berger: Another thing was our initial challenge of how to streamline the book because so much takes place inside Simon’s head and from his perspective. What are we going to zero in on to give this the structure of the movie? And then we decided that it was this twofold thing where we’re tracking the mystery and we’re tracking Simon’s relationship with his friends and how having to deal with Martin (Logan Miller) impacts those friendships. Once we began narrowing in on those two themes, the movie began to take shape for us.
As two straight writers, did you consult with anyone about what the coming out process is like?
Aptaker: What’s so cool about this one is working with our director, Greg Berlanti. It’s so rare that you meet someone who is so accomplished and so confident but also so collaborative at the same time. And he was amazing to us. He kept us involved throughout the entire process. And he’s also amazing because he’s a gay guy, and he had this personal experience to draw from that we did not of coming out and what that’s like.
Once he came onboard, a lot of the script development was about sitting with him and really hearing his personal stories and trying to incorporate that into the movie, which really took it to the next level.
How involved was author Becky Albertalli? Did you run ideas by her?
Aptaker: This book has so many fans, and Becky is so involved on social media with them and knows what they love and what they respond to. When there were things that we wouldn’t necessarily know but she knew were really important to her readers, she would always flag those for us. Some were the tiniest things, like the significance that Oreos play in Simon’s life and in the book. And that wasn’t just us. That was the production designer and Greg. She would give them the little tidbits that she knew were important to her audience, and so we made sure those were present in the movie.
Berger: She is fiercely protective of her characters and was this incredible resource of, “Guys, don’t do that.” She was invaluable.
How did your experience as co-showrunners alongside creator Dan Fogelman on NBC’s This Is Us impact your work on Love, Simon?
Aptaker: They’re similar in spirit in a lot of ways. We’re focused on putting content that is hopefully good for humanity and shows that deep down we’re all more similar than we are different.
Berger: We actually wrote Simon first [before being named co-showrunners] and, if anything, the experience of writing Simon was addicting, in terms of, “Oh, it’s nice to do this content that you hopefully feel like is good for the world.” We want to keep doing that. So it’s been nice to thematically do work where you feel like, in the best possible universe, it is really reaching people and is meaningful to them.
One of the book-to-movie changes is the character of Ethan (Clark Moore), the only other openly gay kid at Simon’s school who isn’t in the source material. What was the inspiration for that character?
Aptaker: One of the really cool things Greg introduced to the movie is the character of Ethan. We wanted the movie to feel contemporary, and it didn’t feel realistic to us that at this pretty big public high school in 2018 Simon was the only kid dealing with and struggling with his sexuality. Ethan was a great addition because you also get that amazing scene where it’s two gay guys sitting next to each other who could not be more different and it’s a reminder that Simon is just one particular story of coming out, and this movie is just one particular movie about it. And while it’s the first big one, hopefully it is just the start of many because there are so many different ways this can look.
Berger: It was important to all of us to show that there isn’t one type of gay person, just like there’s no one type of any kind of person. We also wanted to give Ethan a perspective on Simon as well. The two of them have no interest in being the way the other one is, and that was important to show.
Aptaker: In the moment where Tony Hale (who plays the vice principal) disciplines the two jerks, he jumps straight to assuming Simon and Ethan must be boyfriends because they’re the only two out gay guys at this school. I love that because there is this well meaning ignorance a lot, and, “Oh, they’re the two gay guys, so they must be together.” And these were two guys who would never be friends, who could not have less in common. Simon has way more in common with his straight buddies than he does with Ethan. And it shows that this is just one part of a person’s identity.
What about Simon’s relationship with his parents (played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel)? It was refreshing to see that they so positively received Simon’s coming out.
Berger: One of the things that Greg was obsessed with us executing perfectly was Simon’s resolution with his parents. He knew it’s so important to a kid going through this experience that their parents accept and embrace them with open arms. We wrote many drafts of that and Greg kept pushing us to make it better, and thanks to him, those scenes grew leaps and bounds and became the best version of themselves.
Aptaker: And I think thanks to Jennifer Garner too. She’s a mother and she came in with this intuition that that big scene where she told Simon he could exhale now — she came in and said, “I feel like there’s something missing from this mother-son story.” She pushed Greg and he pushed us to include it. It’s one of our favorite scenes in the movie.
To what degree were you thinking about mass appeal in portraying Simon’s sexuality? Because of lingering homophobia across the world, did you feel you had to tone anything down?
Berger: Our No. 1 priority was to give gay teenagers the classic, cheesy-at-times rom-com experience that straight people of all ages have taken for granted their entire lives because they’ve always had it. We also wanted to show that that kind of romance does not necessarily have to look that different from ones we’ve seen before. A lot of falling in love in high school is universal no matter who you are. That’s the way we approached it.
Aptaker: What’s so great about [studio] Fox for doing this is we didn’t receive a single note related to [Simon’s sexuality]. There was no, “Oh, they can’t kiss for that long.” There were notes about teen drinking and the universal stuff you’re going to butt up against in any high school movie. As far as anything concerning the gay content, there was nothing. They were so supportive.
Both the book and the movie feature an inclusive cast. Were you pushing to make sure actors of color would be involved in the movie?
Berger: We honestly didn’t have to push it in that direction. That’s the direction it naturally took and we thought it was indicative of what groups of friends look like today. It was very important to everyone — Greg, Becky, the producers — that Bram was not whitewashed. That was never discussed. He was always going to be the same as the book.
Was there anything notable you wrote into the script that wound up being cut in postproduction?
Aptaker: There was a big sequence that we wrote and filmed where Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) takes Simon out to a gay bar after he comes out and before he goes back to school for his first day. The guys were great in it, and Greg did a great job with it, but in terms of the momentum of the movie, it was this long sequence that took you out of the world we’d been in for this long, eight-minute thing. It messed up the pacing and the momentum of the movie, so we had to cut it.
Looking back at just what Love, Simon represents, was there a moment when you realized this movie would be a big deal?
Berger: The first time that we were able to feel how potentially meaningful it could be is when we went to a screening with LGBTQ youth and influencers. To get to see their reaction to the movie was extremely powerful and so special to us. That was the first time where we collectively felt, “Oh wow, hopefully this movie can really help people and be meaningful to a lot of people.”
Why do you think there hasn’t been a movie like this made before?
Aptaker: I think it’s crazy that it has taken this long. I think it’s crazy that it’s taken this long for a movie like Black Panther to come out. Movies are big, expensive financial risks, and there’s been this not-true belief and perception that making movies for certain audiences won’t be financially successful. The only way to disprove those financially based fears is for people to show up and buy tickets to things. So Black Panther, in an insanely awesome way, disproved that notion, and now we hope that the same will happen for this.
What do you think Love, Simon means for queer cinema?
Aptaker: That’s a big question. I think there’s been amazing movies, Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name. Those get limited releases as they’re art-house movies, and I believe both of those are rated R. The fact that Love, Simon is the first big, PG-13 movie with a major studio putting a big marketing push behind it … that will always be the headline of the movie, that it was the first, but our hope is that it’s the first of many and that when you look back, there will be nothing remarkable about a big romantic comedy that features two guys or two girls because people won’t be afraid to spend the money on it.