[Interview] Michael Fimognari soundtracks character & artistry with ‘TO ALL THE BOYS: ALWAYS AND FOREVER’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Cinematographer-turned-director Michael Fimognari didn’t have to get re-acclimated into the world of Lara Jean Covey after his directorial debut TO ALL THE BOYS: P.S. I STILL LOVE YOU simply because he never really left it. While in the final stretch of the editorial process on the sequel, they were already at work filming the third and final chapter, TO ALL THE BOYS: ALWAYS AND FOREVER. It’s in this film where Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and her boyfriend Peter (Noah Centineo) are tasked with some big life decisions – mainly where they’re going to attend college and if that will impact their romantic future. Not only does this fantastic feature put a perfect capper on the trilogy created by author Jenny Han, Fimognari’s captivating sense of visual storytelling matures right alongside these beloved characters.

Cinematographer-turned-director Michael Fimognari didn’t have to get re-acclimated into the world of Lara Jean Covey after his directorial debut TO ALL THE BOYS: P.S. I STILL LOVE YOU simply because he never really left it. While in the final stretch of the editorial process on the sequel, they were already at work filming the third and final chapter, TO ALL THE BOYS: ALWAYS AND FOREVER. It’s in this film where Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and her boyfriend Peter (Noah Centineo) are tasked with some big life decisions – mainly where they’re going to attend college and if that will impact their romantic future. Not only does this fantastic feature put a perfect capper on the trilogy created by author Jenny Han, Fimognari’s captivating sense of visual storytelling matures right alongside these beloved characters.

This final chapter is a pas de duex between Peter and Lara Jean’s wants for their relationship. How was keeping the primary focus on Lara but maintaining Peter’s arc too?

Yeah, coming out of the second film where Peter was allowed to fade a bit, when we come into ALWAYS AND FOREVER, we’re on solid ground and made it through some tough communication issues like you do when you’re in a relationship and now they have a plan. They’re gonna go to college. They’ve got a life plan. As things develop, it doesn’t go the way they quite planned. What’s good about seeing Lara Jean’s anxiety, we also can understand where Peter’s fear come from and why he wants to be with her after school and why he’s holding onto her so tightly. While this story is very much always focused on Lara Jean, it’s her arc and trilogy, this one’s as much about Peter and how he needs to mature in order to have a good relationship with Lara Jean.

The color palette of Lara Jean’s world has always been colored with blue, yellow and pink. Was the plan always to turn up that nob when her vision for her future becomes more crystalized? 

Yes, this was the opportunity to bring in a new color. In the second film, we added a bit more red since it was more Valentine’s Day focused. In this one, the palette expands as she travels. Her experience in Seoul and primarily in New York, helps her see a life that might exist beyond a Pacific Northwest or West Coast, school or life, and that expansion is what allows us to bring out another color palette. We still stuck to our rules for the most part with magenta and yellow and cyan.

What were some of the challenges of shooting on location in this chapter, in New York City and Seoul? Maybe you had a lot of colorful characters on the subway?

The good news about those experiences is that we had a pretty robust prep. Because we shot the movies together, our prep for Seoul and New York was concentrated into a gap between the second and third film. We almost didn’t prep the Vancouver portion as much as we did the other two. Our production team did a terrific job where we were able to scout through stills and videos before getting there. When we landed, we isolated the spots where we were going to put the camera. It was hard, but it was pretty well organized.

The subway thing: we actually had a closed… what the city did at the time was that they have certain subway lines that aren’t functional for traffic and you can shoot in them. We were able to control that platform. We were able to paint it in our colors so we could keep it in the TO ALL THE BOYS world. But, there were times where we fully embraced the city life – both in Seoul and in New York. There were times when we went in the street with cast and camera and we said, “This is gonna be what it is and we’re gonna have a great time.” And it works. The energy of that is right. Staging that would be a huge cost and not work as well. We had those days in New York where we would drive around in little caravans. We knew where we were going and set it up, called for cast, do it as quickly as we could, get back in the vans and move on.

When we were in Seoul, there were street markets that were thousands and thousands of people. I had experience shooting in markets like that in Taipei on a project years ago and thought it was the most kinetic, fun thing so we did that. We had our team ready to go and brought them it.

Noah Centineo and Lana Condor in TO ALL THE BOYS: ALWAYS AND FOREVER. Cr. Katie Yu / Netflix © 2020

How much pressure did you face choosing the song for Lara Jean and Peter?

It was not in the book in that way. It oddly went faster than I anticipated. We tend to obsess about these details, like if you’re going to pick the song, it’s gotta be one that works. There was a song that Katie Lovejoy pitched early on that we were going with for awhile, and then “Beginning, Middle and End” surfaced and I couldn’t stop listening to it. I felt it was right for the trilogy. I felt it was right for them. It’s something that lives on as an idea for love and I couldn’t get it out of my head. So we settled on that.

It seemed like there was double the music on this soundtrack than in the other films in this series. How was working with your music supervisors to help build out the sound of Lara Jean’s world? 

I love them. Lindsay Wolfington and Laura Webb are our champions. The whole team, they work so well together. Lindsay and Laura and then our editors, Michelle Harrison, Joe Klotz, Tamara Meem, and the way they inform each other, the way the song will inform the edit and the edit will inform the song, and we’ve got a great music editor, Mikael Sandgren.

This one, as you observed, does have double the songs, I think you’re right. I think it’s 47 or 48 songs and that’s an extension of the maturity of the character. The arc of this one is that Lara Jean is coming to a place where she is making choices about her life and future and I found that in the TO ALL THE BOYS themes related to score it almost felt false to plant a movie score in certain places than to have a soundtrack, or song with the theme behind it. And the score matures as well. What Joe Wong wrote for the score is not as bright or bubbly as you heard in all the other TO ALL THE BOYS films. Motifs are there, but not the instrumentation or the sound.

Also, the other challenge in this film was we were picking out songs in advance of shooting the film. We had to pick their song. There’s a scene where they go to a party on a rooftop and those songs had to be performed on the rooftop and we had to use music in advance. We needed to know the character values in the scenes. Expanding Lara Jean’s world was not just about the physical space and architecture of Seoul or New York. It’s also about the soundtrack and different languages – heavier bass – something that felt like it was propelling her into a new part of her life. Not safe for Lara Jean in any way. We tended to have a slightly more poppy sound in the first. The first and second films were like homages to the John Hughes days and we moved them out of that, into something with a little more guts.

Author Jenny Han has made cameos in the other films, but what went into her appearance here?

I just love Jenny being in the film and, even though we retroactively organized who this character might be, because she is in all three movies, but it still tracked. We got to see her in the first film at the dance, which, in theory, could’ve been their middle school and she could’ve been the Principal then just enjoying the dance. In the second film, we saw her consoling a heartbroken student and that tracks because maybe she’s gotten a promotion and is working at the high school. I thought it was very important that she be present for something special in the world of the story. I don’t want to spoil it, but that she would be there for a special moment is right.

I know you’re working on MIDNIGHT MASS with Mike Flanagan. How influential has Flanagan’s work style been on you as a filmmaker?

It was nice to get back on set with Mike. He’s family and we love working together. From the beginning, when we made OCULUS, we were a match in our cinema appreciation – the way we approach the merging of theme and how that relates to the performance and how that relates to the camera and how we prepare. I think we’re just aligned in that way. And we enjoy the process. What I learned from him is that there really is a care and a construction of what a scene can be and how the thematic elements inform the behavior and how that behavior lands with the camera. That’s in all the work I’ve done with him, that’s how he approaches it.

There’s certain languages that we were inspired by that we did in GERALD’S GAME that are directly used in the TO ALL THE BOYS films. So I borrowed that from Mike. I’ve been really fortunate to have such a special relationship with a filmmaker. When I was in film school years ago, cinematographer Woody Omens, who I adore and who is a big part of being a mentor to me, said, “You don’t know what kind of projects you’re gonna get. Just do what you can. Tell good stories. But the thing I wish for you is that you find filmmakers that you wanna show up and work with every day.”

I feel very fortunate, both in the world that I have with Mike and Trevor Macy and the TO ALL THE BOYS world, with Matt Kaplan, Jenny Han, Robyn Marshall, Aubrey Bendix and Katie Lovejoy, and that’s a family too.

TO ALL THE BOYS: ALWAYS AND FOREVER begins streaming on Netflix on February 12.

About author

Courtney Howard

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.