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
With films like I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, THE HERO and HEARTS BEAT LOUD under filmmaker Brett Haley’s belt, it’s clear he values introspective character-driven drama. His latest is an adaptation of Jennifer Niven’s young adult novel, ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES. The film, written by Liz Hannah (LONG SHOT) tells the story of two teens, Theodore Finch (Justice Smith) and Violet Markey (Elle Fanning), who connect and bond with each other in order to get through difficult circumstances.
How did this find its way to you and why did you feel compelled to be the one to helm it?
It came to me in script form – Liz Hannah’s draft. I hadn’t read the book when it came to me. Elle Fanning was attached as producer and star. I was very, very moved by the big premise and story. I cried when I read the script. I knew there was something, at its heart, that spoke to me. Upon reflection, I think it fit what I think about every day, how we get through life and that we’re all dealing with struggles that people don’t know about – that we don’t speak about, to our detriment.
To me, this was an opportunity to create a film that spoke to that universal thing. It was also an opportunity to get to do a big romance, which I had always wanted to do. It appealed on so many levels. I had a vision for it that was an incredibly grounded on. I was trying to tell this story in the most human way possible. All of that added up to me wanting this job, so I’m glad they hired me.
Speaking to that a little, was it a challenge to keep the tone balanced, so that it wouldn’t be twee, or cloying, and find that pure humanistic sweet spot?
I think that’s a challenge with anything: it’s all tone. Every element, how do you keep this from being twee? You’re trying to make a film that’s all at once romantic, cute, has some humor, release and that feeling when people from opposite sides fall in love, or get together. But there’s also these incredible swings of emotion and hard-hitting things.
I really tried to focus on that this is a conversation. It’s not a statement. We’re never saying, “This is the message.” But rather, “We see you. We understand this is a nuanced topic – many topics dealing with our own suffering in silence.” Yes, it’s a tightrope walk to never go into cliché, or be twee, or fluff, or flippant, or irresponsible. Oh my goodness, it was a challenge. I’m crossing my fingers that people see the work that we did to walk that tightrope. It was not easy and I hope people respond to it. I can’t control that, but I did do my best to make a human, grounded and balanced story.
Your use of music, both score and soundtrack, as another layer of storytelling is always a delight. What were some of ideas that you and Keegan DeWitt wanted to tap into sonically?
Big. I wanted it to feel like what the characters are feeling inside. Keegan sent me some classical music pieces that he said, “I want to do something like this with a lot of movement.” I said, “How do you want to start?” He sent me an overture – a suite – a 15-20 minute piece of all the movement he saw in the movie. And this was before we started editing. He had just seen the script and we had talked about it. He sent me this 19 minute symphony and I was blown away. I took that and I cut it up and put it in various parts of the film. We did a live orchestra record of this, which is the first time we’ve ever done anything like that. We did it at Capital Records and it was such a dream to have a live orchestra doing the music. I felt like this movie called for that kind of score.
You spoke of the musical movements, but from a narrative standpoint, this deals with the transient nature of grief and depression as you show the characters on bikes, walking, and in cars. I’m sure this was all in Liz’s script.
Liz was on set every day and she was my partner in crime on this in terms of the division of this movie and how we were approaching it. I couldn’t have made the film without Liz.
To answer your question, yes. What we’re doing is taking a character dealing with grief and a character dealing with mental health issues and we’re putting them together. One is helping the other and she has no idea he needs this help. It’s this tragic thing because he doesn’t speak up about it. It’s all about speaking up and saying, “I’m struggling.” Going back to the tightrope, it’s a very delicate thing that it doesn’t become on the nose, or afterschool special. It was very difficult to make sure it came from the place that people who have been dealing with grief, or mental health concerns, could look at the film and say, “They’re doing something that feels genuine and authentic.” It was about making sure the conversation was open enough and not too specific. If you make it too specific, and put too much a point on it, people will respond, “Oh that’s not how my bipolar disorder is.” By having Finch be undiagnosed and Violet’s grief be its own thing she’s dealing with in her own way, there’s specificity here, but it’s not a blanket statement.
What we tried to do, and we worked with mental health professionals, to not do anything irresponsible – that we weren’t flippant. But also that there is nuance here. There has to be nuance here. There’s a ton of visual notes and script notes that touch on these things, but again we wanted it to be a conversation with our audience. We didn’t want it to say, “This is how you fix this issue.” There’s a much bigger issue in this movie and we want that conversation to continue.
What did you learn from the experience of working with production designer Bruce Curtis, Richard Linklater’s frequent collaborator, since there’s so much that impacts the characters through their locations?
Bruce is a total pro and a guy I look up to immensely. I did another movie with Bruce and some of this same team, for Netflix, so I got to work with Bruce and Rob, my DP, again. And yeah. Bruce is a rock star. He’s got such a vision. I remember him showing me sketches of Finch’s room. That color red and the Post-Its – every little detail is there.
We had to recreate all of these real places. From the highest point in Indiana, to the dive wall, to the roller coaster in somebody’s backyard. We had to build that roller coaster. Bruce and his team worked with people to build a roller coaster. I learned a ton from him and we got along like gangbusters. Me and Rob and him collaborating, I’d love to work with those guys on every movie I make until I can’t make movies anymore.
Since you brought up the Post-Its, obviously there’s some that are part and parcel to the narrative, but there’s so many on Finch’s walls that aren’t. Was this a good cast and crew bonding exercise to write them out? Or was these all written by Bruce by hand?
Basically, we had a handwriting sample from Justice and Bruce is a master at [replicating] that. He wrote all of those except for the ones you see Justice writing on screen. And fun fact: Justice’s handwriting is actually the font for the title treatment. So yeah. Bruce recreated Justice’s handwriting on all those Post-Its. We didn’t have time to make it a bond experience. It was, “We need to show up and there needs to be a thousand Post-It’s with all these words and phrases written on them. Go!” Bruce and his team made it happen. We talked about the color and made it its own thing. I definitely was involved with what was going to be on those and most of that is from Jennifer’s book.
I noticed Prince is on one of them, as a reason to keep living. Do you have a favorite Prince song?
I think I have to go with “When You Were Mine.” I’m also a big fan of “Cream,” but I know a lot of people don’t like it. You put that on in a bar and it’s a good time.
That whole album is pretty great and stands the test of time too.
How many people cast and crew went on the roller coaster and did you need a larger insurance policy for it?
Not many went on it. Justice and Elle got to ride it many, many times. I don’t know who was insured or not. I know our stunt people rode it to make sure it was safe and there was nothing getting slammed around. I’m going to plead the fifth on if anyone else rode it.
What were some of the qualities that stood out to you with Elle and Justice?
Elle has an incredible depth and that really works for Violet, who’s very aware. She’s also an emotional athlete – that’s the best way I’d describe her. She can draw up anything, whether it be joy, or sadness, or grief. She’s a well of emotion and has this undeniable range. She’s also a movie star. You can watch her do anything. She’s got one of those presences.
Justice has a sense of humor, that bold, bright spirit that Finch has, that infectious energy and depth for the sadness and the suffering his character is going through. I think Justice related to him on multiple levels and really saw a lot of himself in this character and brought himself to the role in incredible ways.
To end on, like the character fill in the blanks on the chalk wall, I’d like you to fill in the blank on this: “Before I die I want to….”
Make as many types of movies that I can – tell as many types of stories as I can.
ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES begins streaming on Netflix on February 28.