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
Writer-Director Richard Tanne’s romantic love story SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU humanized a political figure and was released in a time of joy, hope and renewed strength. However, his follow-up feature CHEMICAL HEARTS is opening at a time when our country’s morale has been significantly lowered and forced into a depressive state. Yet it feels perfectly suited to speak to its audience at any time.
Based on Krystal Sutherland’s book, it also centers on love story, this time involving two teens figuring out how to piece their lives together – one experiencing the growing pains of post-adolescence (Austin Abrams) and the other (Lili Reinhart) struggling with her traumatic past.
What was it about Krystal’s book that struck you and made you feel you were the perfect person to adapt this?
First and foremost, it wasn’t afraid to embrace the darker side of teen longing – the pain and the anguish that comes along with crossing that threshold of adolescence to adulthood. And dealing with adult emotions for the first time – the tragedy and immortality. In Henry’s case, wanting something so badly and not being able to have it, those were bigger, juicier themes to play with. I related to that a lot. For me, my high school days were not the greatest years of my life. They were some dark times. I was a very sensitive kid.
Superficially, there were a lot of similarities between my life and Henry’s. I was the editor-in-chief of my school paper. I had a very similar dynamic with a girl when I was in high school, where I was on a push-pull rollercoaster, and didn’t get to be with it. And what’s interesting is that I didn’t even connect those similarities until after I wrote the script. It was the first themes and tonalities that created this compulsive need to write the script in the first place. And then I looked back and saw I was kind of Henry – and kind of Grace in a lot of ways too. I had her sense of existentialism and fatalism and dealt with the mental health issues. I don’t think I would’ve been able to articulate it at that time. But in retrospect, it’s easier to.
Was the plan always for you to direct, or did that decision happen after you wrote the script?
The plan was always…Lili had read the book and she had identified it as something she wanted to star in and play Grace. So she wanted a writer/ director. She had seen my first movie and could relate to it. It was always a situation of if I’m gonna write this, I’m gonna also direct it. I was excited. At the very least, I can aim to get at some sort of mood, or truth, here about what it feels like to be young.
How involved as a producer was Lili?
Lili was a great partner. She was behind my vision and weighed in on the casting. As an actress, I gave her and Austin a tremendous amount of leeway and latitude and freedom. I would always say, “If this doesn’t sound right coming out of your mouth, you’re much closer to the high school experience. So tell me if this doesn’t sound right.” And they would. We’d rehearse every night before filming and change things around to make it sound natural. Lili was so dedicated and committed in every way.
It’s a privilege, and I’ve had this on both my films now, when you’re partnered up with the lead actress as producer partners and your lead is behind you in your vision, it’s a very powerful thing. You’re both working towards the same goal.
With every adaptation, there’s stuff you have to lose. Was there anything you had difficulty losing, or found challenging to translate cinematically?
No, there really wasn’t. I read the book once. I met with Lili and that night, I was so inspired, I started writing the script. We didn’t even have the rights to that book at that time. I wrote it very quickly. I went back here and there to maybe reference lines of dialogue, or certain moments, or situations, but I never re-read the book a second time. I knew how I wanted it distilled down.
The part of the book that really reached in and grabbed me was the dynamic between Grace and Henry. I knew that’s what I wanted to focus on primarily – and focus on the darker aspects. Krystal wrote very funny characters and side plots and a lot of it was great on the page. For me, some of those things didn’t particularly interest me, as a filmmaker, enough to try to find a way into it. I’m so lucky that Krystal granted me that freedom. She said, “This is going to be a separate piece of art. You’ve got to do with it what you need to tell the story.”
Right. These can now be two co-existing properties.
The book will always be the book. For people who love the book, my hope is that it captures some of the spirit of the book. And for people who love the movie and are first reading the book, you’ll certainly feel Grace and Henry from the movie in the book. But it’ll almost feel like an extended cut of the movie.
There’s such a pathos and power to this film. And of course, all films are a collaborative effort. But yours felt like it was a creative dance you and your cast and crew. Can we talk about you working with those teams to hit those right thematic notes in terms of the aesthetics?
It’s a great question. The overriding aesthetic and emotional mission statement from me and everything that you see on screen from the different departments was birthed from this, was that we were trying to get at was a beautiful imperfection. So let’s find ways to convey that in every aspect of that movie, starting with the format we’re filming it on. We’re not gonna shoot this on digital. We’re shooting this on film, because film goes through its own chemical process. We’re your processing celluloid, it has grain and texture and a tactile quality. Not every frame develops the same way. I wanted it to feel like the movies I watched when I was growing up. Digital is great. I’ve shot on it before and will shoot on it again. But to get that lived-in and almost broken texture I wanted to shoot on film.
Then you talk about what’s the soundtrack going to be. I’m working with Stephen James Taylor, who I worked with on my first movie, and I think there’s two worlds in this movie. There’s this surface suburban world that they’re privy to during the day and then there’s a nighttime world where they traverse the forest at dusk and go into the factory. And Henry’s up in his room, obsessing about Grace, backlit by the moon. And so, how do we train a disparity between these two worlds. Music can be a function in that way.
So it was those two mission statements: beautiful imperfection and the disparity and connection between the dark world and the light world. We thought about that with wardrobe. With that, we went more internal. We assigned Grace and Henry colors. When the two characters get together, they start wearing each other’s colors. When they grow further apart, we notice Grace is losing Henry’s color and she’s regaining Dom’s. And towards the end of the movie, she assumes her own authentic color. These are all things taken into consideration. Maybe they work, maybe they don’t, maybe they’re noticed. But that’s where it comes from.
Did it take a long time to find locations like the suburban streets and the abandoned factory with the basement?
The finding of locations were easier than you’d think. I was insistent that we shoot in Northern New Jersey where I grew up. We shot this in and around my hometown of Livingston, New Jersey. I knew streets very well. As a matter of fact, Dom’s house is literally down the street from where my mom and her husband live. Our base camp was set up on my mom’s block. She’d wake up and go to work every morning passing by our base camp. This was very close to home.
In terms of composing it, I’ve been thinking about these streets and neighborhoods my entire life. It’s all just echoes of my past. The factor, that, it’s funny you point that out. That was the hardest location to figure out. We were less than a week away from filming at the factory and we still hadn’t nailed it down. What we ended up doing was, there’s a series of abandoned buildings in Paterson, New Jersey which have been converted into warehouse space, soundstages and artisan craftsmart. They remodled some of the building into event space, but maintained the look outside and, in certain cases, inside of this broken down factory – a rustic feeling.
What we did was, everything you see in the exterior, that’s all undressed. Same thing with some of the interior shots – it’s exactly the way that it exists. One thing we did to that factory space where the drama plays out, that’s just a huge warehouse space in one of the buildings that my production designer completely built from scratch. He built a pool for the koi. He built a catwalk for the stairs. He built those windows and the DP blew lights in through the broken and beautiful windows. It’s all scene construction and practical trickery.
What did you learn about yourself making this film?
I think I learned that I’m still very much in touch with my 16-year-old self, for better or for worse. I do feel like being back in New Jersey, in my town, around my family because they all still live back there, my friends who are back there, would come and visit. And I’m dealing with scenes and issue like I did when I was in high school – I was able to fit it all back on like a glove. Whether that led to some sort of closure, I don’t know. Whether it’s still me as a 35-year-old guy feeling like an adolescent inside, I don’t know. I do know that I was able to assume that role and make this movie, to the best of my ability, from the vantage point of my younger self.
CHEMICAL HEARTS begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on August 21.