‘Simon’ says it’s time for queer cinema’s next big thing

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Scene from the movie
Scene from the movie "Love, Simon"
From 300 theaters to 2,400 — what’s changed about LGBT cinema, according to Love, Simon director Greg Berlanti

Historically speaking, the most culturally influential LGBT-focused films have been independent, slow-rollout, arthouse-screened touchstones, from Best Picture Oscar contender Brokeback Mountain in 2005 to Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight, released in 2016. Within and since that decade, and thanks to queer-cinema trailblazers such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, Paris Is Burning, Torch Song Trilogy and Philadelphia, queer storytelling has only abounded: Universal Pictures’ indie division, Focus Features, released  Milk, an account of activist Harvey Milk in 2008; two years later, in 2010, the studio rolled out The Kids Are All Right, starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as lesbian parents;  Weekend garnered much acclaim after its 2011 release via Sundance Selects; Focus released notables like Dallas Buyers Club, featuring Jared Leto as a trans woman, and  Beginners, with an affecting performance from Christopher Plummer as a gay late-comer; and last year, Call Me By Your Name roused critics and Academy Award voters alike, recently earning the film an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and plenty of rightful prestige for Timothée Chalamet’s star-making turn as queer, lovelorn Elio.

The movie "Love Simon"
The movie “Love Simon”

It was just a matter of time before a major “big six” distributor would take queer stories to the next level with an all-out same-sex romance, and that time is now.

In many ways, 20th Century Fox’s Love, Simon is the first of its kind: a classically helmed John Hughes-echoing rom-com, with two gay teens connecting via email, confronting their queerness together, and finding their happy, out-and-proud endings. The best part? Some teen in Small Town, America, where oftentimes queer indies don’t get a theatrical release, can see him or herself reflected on the big screen:  Love, Simon is opening wide — in a whopping 2,400-plus theaters (Brokeback Mountain opened in 683 theaters, while Call Me By Your Name capped at 914 theaters).

The movie "Love Simon"
The movie “Love Simon”

Known for a breadth of screen work that dates back to WB’s teen drama Dawson’s Creek, premiering in 1998, and which now includes hunky CW superheroes, writer, director and super-producer Greg Berlanti hasn’t just observed the waves of change that knocked down the doors for Love, Simon — he’s been making some of those same waves himself. Here, Berlanti, who directed Love, Simon, discusses shooting a Whitney Houston musical sequence for the film, what most people don’t know about casting queer actors for queer roles, and how far Hollywood has come since his last gay-themed film, 2000’s  The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy .

Chris Azzopardi: What scene in Love, Simon would’ve been the most pivotal to you as a closeted kid?

Greg Berlanti: That is a great question. I haven’t been asked that today! I think the kiss. The happy ending was one that, while we were shooting, I found it affecting me in a way that I didn’t realize it could. It was more substantial than I thought it would be, and it still makes me feel that way. And every time I watch it with an audience I still feel that way. It’s the scene that brings me most back to imagining I was a 16 — or 17-year-old kid.

And how if you’d seen that kiss, all the boyfriends you could’ve had.

GB: (Laughs) I missed my best years.

You have a husband (pro soccer player Robbie Rogers) now, so I think you’re good.

GB: It all worked out.

Whose reaction of the film so far has meant the most to you?

Scene from the movie "Love Simon"
Scene from the movie “Love Simon”

GB: My father’s. It brought up a lot of conversations about us that we hadn’t had in years. I’m 45 years-old, and he suddenly asked me about my high school years and being gay and what that meant in a way that he never could before, because he could ask it in terms of the movie. It made me realize something that I’m not sure I was totally aware of when I was making it, which is the kind of conversations it might stimulate between parents and children.

This is a great ice breaker for so many young LGBTQ kids to talk about queer issues with their parents.

GB: And old kids like me. (Laughs)

Ha! While we’re on the topic of old kids: Was the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” musical sequence a shout out to us old gay kids?

GB: It was. If you were to ask Nick Robinson (who plays Simon Spier) which scene he dreaded the most and what scene I was the most excited about, it would be that one. I can say to the world: ‘I’m done now. I have a Whitney Houston musical number.’ (Laughs) I’m not sure if there’s any other art I can do after that that could ever come close. So, I was really excited for that day. And there’s a coming out scene in the movie that was shot the same day, so I kept referring to it as the gayest day on the schedule. (Laughs)

For you, why does that Whitney song resonate?

GB: It does remind me of my youth. I just kept coming back to that one. The purpose of it in the movie is, he’s going through a lot and it’s not until the end that he really finally both accepted himself and is ready to announce to the world who he is. Because this wasn’t in the book (2015’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda) and this wasn’t in the original draft of the script, I wanted to show the audience what he imagined he might feel one day.

Why do you think it’s taken as long as it has to get a film like Love, Simon off the ground?

Scene from the movie "Love Simon"
Scene from the movie “Love Simon”

GB: I remember when TV was different, and it was harder and then that changed. I think arthouse has, throughout, been doing extraordinary work and the work there is magical and timeless. But mainstream studios make fewer of them, they make fewer bets, they take longer to get made, and I think now they’ve realized they have to catch up with television and digital platforms and all these other places that are making content that looks and feels like us and like the world we’re all living in. And if movie theaters wanna survive, they’ve got to tell stories that feel like today.

Were there any hurdles you had to jump to get this made?

GB: I actually think Fox 2000 and 20th Century Fox both should be really celebrated. They were making this movie and I applied for the job. I read the script and I asked them, “You know, there’s never been a teen film like this, of this nature, made by one of the six major studios in this way before — are you guys really doing this?” They said, “Yes, we’re making it, and we’re making it next March. We don’t need to know who the star is. We’re committing the money now. We are making this film. We love this story, and we think it deserves to be made.” And every one of those executives and the writers at the time, and all the producers, were straight. I was the first gay person to get involved with the development of the material, and they wanted to do it. They believed in it. And that just shows how important allies are to all of this.

Kids who are the age of your 2-year-old, Caleb, aren’t gonna know a time when queer, mainstream, major-studio fare didn’t exist. Interesting to think that, right?

GB: I hope so. I hope there are so many more too, and that a few years from now people can’t remember what the first one was. That would be my real hope, I think. In some ways, I love when it kind of gets lost to the windfall of other stories.

You’ve certainly left your mark on LGBT characters on TV. After Love, Simon, are you interested in infiltrating the film arena with more of your queer powers?

Scene from the movie "Love Simon"
Scene from the movie “Love Simon”

GB: I think if you’re gonna do stories about people and about the human condition your best asset is to tap into that part of yourself, and that’s because it’s really the thing that you bring to the table, that nobody else can bring. So, if I were to make more movies, especially original material, those are always going to be the stories that speak to me and the themes that resonate the most.

Where do you stand on LGBT actors exclusively playing LGBTQroles, and how much of the queer community is a part of Love, Simon?

GB: I have a lot of different feelings about it. I never ask. I don’t ask people their personal business, and I don’t even think Producers Guild of America-wise I can ask anybody when they come in the room to audition. When people consider this conversation, they have to consider those things too. I’m not asking people about their personal life when they walk in the room, so there’s that part.

There’s the other part of, I’m old enough to remember when the real challenge was casting LGBT people at all, as any straight character. There were definitely times I would have executives and casting people kick actors back to me and say, ‘Doesn’t he seem a little soft?’ ‘Doesn’t she seem a little tough or hard?’ Which was code for too gay. I remember how upset I would get about that. I felt like, ‘Well, no; if they seem like the character, they seem like the character,’ and so that was one of the fights we were fighting. Finally, the element of when you’re dealing with young people, I think they’re still in real life figuring themselves out. With all that being said, we were cognizant, and I was really cognizant, of wanting real representation in the movie. I just didn’t know when I started out where it would necessarily be, and we have straight, gay and bisexual actors in this movie playing all sorts of different parts and I think that’s the real representation. It’s one that I’m proud of.

How do you find queer actors like the ones in Love, Simon if you can’t and don’t ask about their sexuality?

GB: Sometimes you find out after the fact. Sometimes you don’t find out until after they decide they want to talk about it to the press. Keiynan Lonsdale (who plays Bram) is an example of someone who won the part because he was the best person for the role. I worked with him on The Flash and we were friendly, and he had recently, before we made the film, come out to me, but he wasn’t out publicly and chose to come out right after we finished making the film. The thing I’m hyper conscious of as a producer and a director? I never want a studio, or anybody, to tell me they don’t want to cast somebody because of what that person might be in real life. That’s the thing I can truly protect against.

Ethan, the gay, black character who has a major influence on Simon’s coming out, was written specifically for the film, right?

GB: I added the character. When I read the script, he was not in the script. I felt like even at some of the smaller schools, there’s more than one kid who happens to be gay. The last shot of those two individuals represents two very different walks of life of the gay experience. I remembered what it was like when I got to Northwestern, where I went to college, and I wasn’t ready to come out and how brave I thought some of the kids in my theater program were. They were wonderful examples to me every day and just lived so bravely.

I remembered thinking to myself, ‘Why don’t I have their courage?’ So, although it has to be centered on a person, I didn’t just want it about Simon’s gay experience. I also wanted to make sure that the additional gay characters we had weren’t just there for laughs. It was really important to me that (Ethan) have a poignancy and a point of view and a strength that Simon maybe wasn’t ready to exhibit.

Based on your other work over the years, how have you seen the tide change for queer representation in media? What can you do with gay characters now that you couldn’t do in the late ’90s?

GB: I mean, everything. It’s so different. There’s so much openness, and part of that comes with all the young people who are coming up now and what great storytellers they are and how they grew up in a different world. They’re even more open and more brave and more honest, and they want to take all of these stories to the next level.

I’m excited for the world to see Love, Simon, but I’m really excited to see what happens next. I really believe it’s just the beginning, and I didn’t feel that way when I was bringing The Broken Hearts Club around 20 years ago. I remember feeling like, ‘OK, the world, it might be awhile.’ But I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel like the studio system knows it has work to do to catch up.

How was the reaction to The Broken Hearts Club different than what you’re seeing and hearing regarding Love, Simon?

GB: We had to work twice as hard to get to 300 theaters. And when I talked to Nick about this role, it never came up once about playing gay. When I talked to any actor’s back then (the film starred Zach Braff, Dean Cain, Andrew Keegan, Timothy Olyphant, Billy Porter, Justin Theroux and Ben Weber) about playing a character who happened to be gay, they were all cognizant of it. It was always going to be a conversation — if not with them, then with their agents. Now, people were just supportive from the beginning. They understood the value of making a film like this.

You know, every Sunday I’d go to dinner with the young cast, sort of like dad taking them out to dinner. They started a text chain, or whatever you call it —what do you call it? (Long pause)

A group chat!

GB: They started a group chat. And I titled it “the kids” — and I didn’t realize that when you title something on a group chat that everybody can see it, (laughs). So, it’s a good thing I didn’t call it something else. So, the kids and I would go to dinner on Sundays and it was just amazing to me to sit and listen to them talk about the way they perceive the world, and so much is different. But the thing that is still the same: the human heart.

Chris Azzopardi photo by Andrew Potter
Chris Azzopardi photo by Andrew Potter

As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars.