Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
No matter what genre cinematographer Michael Fimognari (DOCTOR SLEEP, FAST COLOR, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE) is working in, his talent lies in setting the perfect mood and orchestrating the story through the use of light. He created a beautiful, youthful world as seen through the lens of beloved, love-struck protagonist Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) in Netflix’s wildly successful TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE. So when the opportunity arose for him to not only DP, but to also make his directorial debut with the highly-anticipated sequel, TO ALL THE BOYS: P.S. I STILL LOVE YOU, he jumped.
Had being the D.P. on the first film made the transition into directing this a no-brainer?
Yeah. I loved going to set every day. It was a joy to spend every minute there and a fun world to be in. When we left, we never knew how this stuff would go. That film was not made with an expectation there would be another one and it’s been thrilling to see it take off. It was definitely a thrill to go back and step into that world for two more movies.
What initially connected with you about this story and what did you want to make sure to tap into with your movie?
I’m such a sucker for good high school movies. Going back to the classics we all love – SIXTEEN CANDLES and BREAKFAST CLUB. They’re all fantastic because they take the world of these students seriously. They embrace their traumas, passions and fears all as real things. They don’t trivialize them. Jenny Han did that with the books.
I’ve also been a part of another high school film, BEFORE I FALL, which was darker, but also took its universe seriously. I also believe that these are worthy stories not just for a young adult audience, but for us who’ve experienced those events as that’s the time where it sticks. It’s good to revisit that and apply that to your everyday life and see how it shaped your world.
What I love about Jenny Han’s books is that this three book story about Lara Jean Covey is a very special coming-of-age story about someone discovering love, finding a relationship she had fantasized about, but then having to understand what it takes to be in a partnership where you’ve got to communicate, share and be vulnerable. And then start to share all your hopes and dreams and how to deal with that. The grander arc of these is special and why I wanted to be a part of it from beginning to end.
Have you encountered any fallacies working in romcoms? People seem to flippantly treat it as if it’s easier than working on horror, or drama.
Every story we tell is different. I like that about the projects I’ve been a part of, whether it’s a horror story, or a romantic comedy, they are all equally challenging. There’s physical challenges you’re dealing with in certain genres that we don’t have to deal with when we’re spending time in living rooms and class rooms. But that’s just film production. The core reasons to participate in any story are the fears, hopes and dreams of your characters. I just like being a part of good stories. I have no preference what genre it is. I just want to connect with it as a storyteller and whether I want to put myself in that world for a length of time. I would dispel any myths that one is easier than the other. They are all equally rewarding and joy to discover and create.
Color teal is used a lot in Lara Jean’s world but also in a few of your other projects. What’s the significance of this color signature for you?
I didn’t put that together myself until a few years ago. I do have a preference to that cyan color. I think that’s how I interpret certain feelings. I’ve now tried to incorporate that whether it be in the lighting, or just into the tonal shadow. When we were building the color palette for the first TO ALL THE BOYS movie, it was one of those things I presented as a look – a way to distinguish the world of Lara Jean Covey than something that might feel a little bit ordinary. I wanted to create a very restricted color palette that is invisible in the wardrobe and set design, but somewhat in the lighting. Those colors were cyan, yellow, and pink – or magenta. It’s a look I find pleasing. Specifically the cyan color is the one that offsets warmth the best. It makes both colors pleasing. Yes, it’s an artificial design, but it doesn’t feel artificial. It feels like a heightened reality.
Your film opens on a loving homage to ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING. How long take to do? Did you want to do the dance exactly as Elisabeth Shue did it, or have it be a little looser inspired?
That was one of my first ideas to open the movie that way, because I love that movie – love the way it opens, love what Elisabeth Shue does in that dance sequence. As soon as we started talking about Lara Jean’s first date, also that she loves 80’s movies, it seemed a no-brainer. Of course, she’d fantasize that as she gets her first date, that she would dance around her room and put on outfits and prepare. It seemed like we should honor ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING while also being true to Lara Jean as a character. It felt fun. Maybe this new audience doesn’t know ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING and will find it this way. And then for those of us who love that movie, we get the bonus feeling that the right homage can give you. It took us a day to shoot it. We shot it in it’s almost full, shot-for-shot way so we could have it if we wanted to use it that way, but also knowing that there’s fun in the economy of the spirit of it was better.
Did you have to test how messy Lara Jean’s room was with your production design team? It’s the perfect amount of teen girl messy.
I agree. We showed up on the first day, and, as sometimes they do, they just want to make everything look nice. It was clean. I just went into the closet and started pulling clothes off the hangers. I spent ten minutes making a mess. That was fun.
Did you film this back to back with the third?
It wasn’t exactly back to back. We finished the second film and then we prepped for a length of time on the third.
Was this a benefit that you were able to stay deeply entrenched in Lara Jean’s world versus working on another project in between?
For all the right reasons, it was easier. We needed a break when we finished the second movie. It was a challenge, as all movies are, and we needed a breath of air. As filmmakers, we didn’t get that break because we went right into prep. But the change of script and scenery was enough of a reset where it felt great. Because we didn’t ever leave that TO ALL THE BOYS universe, it was still in our heads, we were almost able to keep going without skipping a beat. I think the actors were able to jump into some tough location work right off the bat and they were just right there with no warm up period. We enjoyed it every day.
The hardest part for me was I was in editorial on the second while shooting the third. So time becomes a factor. You only have so many hours a day to be on set shooting while also editing and that became tough. But I will say that what was great about that was that we were exploring things in 3 that we were dealing with in 2 in the edit – and they fed each other. It was a really nice way to deal with the third film while also confronting the challenge of the second.
Lana is a champion. She’s in 99% of the scenes in these movies. She never gets a day off and she carries it on her back and does incredible work. I’m in awe of her.
Have they announced yet when the third will be released?
Not yet. I don’t know when we’ll announce that. We’re in editorial now and it’s great to be a part of it. I’m starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s a little sad. There’s gonna be a day where I don’t get to work on TO ALL THE BOYS and it’s a strange feeling. I’m not there yet, but I’m starting to see that down the line. It’s been a real joy.
TO ALL THE BOYS: P.S. I STILL LOVE YOU is now streaming on Netflix.