The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Chemical Hearts.
What did your writing process entail?
It kind of had the whiff of destiny, from the time I read the book. Because I connected with it so much. Then I went to meet with Lili — she was shooting her TV show in Vancouver, I had never met her before — and I had a whole vision I wanted to relay to her. I was showing her still frames from other films and talking about tone and music and my own experiences and she was very much on the same page and really got into that vision. From that day forward, I started writing the script. Now, mind you, we didn’t have the rights to the book at that point! We knew that the author was represented at the same agency as we were, and we both knew we had a passion for the project. I normally wouldn’t take that risk. But I felt so compulsively driven. I’d wake up every morning and just have to work on it. I had this other thing that I was on deadline for and I knew I should work on that, but I just couldn’t. I needed to work on this. So I just went with it. I told myself I’d give myself three or four weeks to exercise the demon that was the idea for this film. And that’s how long it took. It was a very intuitive process— I didn’t need to outline because I was using the bones of the book. That was new to me, and comforting, to have Krystal [Sutherland] there as this sort of unwitting collaborator. And then luckily we got the script to her and she loved it, and gave us the rights.
You shot the film in your hometown. Was that something that you wanted to do at the outset, or did the stars just align that way? What was that like for you?
Well, the book is set in an unnamed suburb of America. And it was great that Krystal wrote it that way; it allowed me to plug in my own hometown and location. And so I wrote it to the town… or at least, to an amalgamation of the surrounding towns and my town. From the time that I started pitching the project to studios and financiers that were interested in the script, I was talking about it as taking place in New Jersey. I just wanted to plant that in people’s minds, as well as the idea of shooting on film. I just figured those would be the two toughest things to have to persuade people on, so let me just start planting that idea immediately. The New Jersey thing was actually easier to get people onboard with. The film thing… we were triumphant, but it was a battle up to three days before filming. So all credit goes to Amazon for finally giving us the go-ahead. On one level I just saw it there. On another level, I thought it would be in keeping with this nostalgia project… or this time travel project, to be shooting as close to the locations and the areas that my friends and I walked around in, and partied in, and talked about life and love and death for the first time in our lives. It just felt like I could draw some sort of energy from that. And I think I did. At one point we were filming around the corner from where my mom currently lives — which is still in the town — and our base camp was basically at the end of her driveway! And she would drive to work in the morning, come by the set to say hi, and come back in the evening to check in… I mean, it was a real friends and family affair. It was lovely in that sense, too.
to me, it’s actually a story about failure
The end of the film doesn’t conform to a traditional romance, which is refreshing. Did you look at other films of the so-called “YA” genre for inspiration on what to do, or not do?
No. I actually have a little bit of a bone to pick with the label “YA.” Back when I was a teenager, in the early 2000’s and late ’90’s, you could have a movie like Rushmore, or Better Luck Tomorrow, or Ghost World, and they were allowed to be coming-of-age, or a crime parable, or a satire… but somewhere along the line, I guess with the proliferation of YA literature, anything that’s about young people these days — for the most part — gets stamped with the “YA” label. And, you know, I got to make this movie because theoretically on paper at least it’s a “YA” story. So, great, I got to slip a personal movie through the cracks because of what I think is sometimes a mischaracterization. The movies about young people that I’ve responded to recently, like The Hate you Give, or, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, or, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, they just seem like good movies that happen to be about young people. There’s a type of movie that’s about young people but told from the point of view of adults. For instance, Ladybird, or Boyhood. They’re fantastic films, and they’re looking back on adolescence, kind of with the wisdom of age. And then there are other movies about young people that are telling it from the perspective of the young people themselves. I guess there are tropes that I’m not as aware of in the “YA” genre. Krystal told me, in fact, that she deliberately tried to subvert some of those tropes when she wrote the book. One of those is the “manic pixie dream girl” trope. The whole point in writing the book — or I should say, one of them — for her was the excitement of being able to push back against that trope. Henry can’t fix her. Henry’s not capable of it, she has to fix herself. And Henry’s got to fix himself. And they both end up on this shared journey that gets bifurcated and they go off on their own ways, and have to have their own agency and do it themselves. Now, the book walks a fine line, because it’s told from the perspective of the boy, but that’s the way that Krystal wrote the story, and I think she wrote it that way to highlight just how different her female character was going to be from some of the others in the genre. But I can only speak to what I wanted do with the movie, which was to only try to let it be itself. To just be honest to what we were creating. In terms of it being an anti-romance, what I would say is that I don’t actually think Grace and Henry were in love with each other. I think that Grace needed Henry as a catalyst at that time — I’m not saying she didn’t like him, I think she definitely liked him — but she needed him to sort of distract her, or to show her that she wasn’t ready, or was ready — he’s a vehicle to her, in other words. And she needed that, and sometimes you need a friend who can be that for you. I think he, on the other hand, thought he was in love with Grace, but was really more in love with an idealized version of her. So to me, it’s actually a story about failure. It’s a story about picking up the pieces after you’ve failed, to get what you want or to make something work. And that, to me, made it unique from other stories I’d seen about teenagers.