Director Craig Johnson talks about telling his most personal story yet
Alex Strangelove is perhaps the most personal story yet from Craig Johnson, the director behind The Skeleton Twins and Wilson. But he’s also a fan of movies like Superbad and Pretty in Pink, so this coming-out and coming-of-age tale will definitely sprinkle in some psychedelic frog-licking and ’80s throwbacks.
Above, EW exclusively debuts the trailer for Johnson’s fourth feature (dropping June 8 on Netflix), and it definitely has a Love, Simon feel as it introduces Alex Truelove, played by Canadian newcomer Daniel Doheny.
Alex is a high school senior who’s panicking because he has one more teen milestone to hit before heading to college: sex. His longtime girlfriend, Claire (Beach Rats’ Madeline Weinstein), has been trying to “devirginize” him for some time, to no avail. Maybe it’s because Alex is not entirely straight.
When he meets Elliott (Altered Carbon’s Antonio Marziale) at a drama kid party, he’s thrown for a loop. In an age when people consider themselves amid the larger LGBTQ+ spectrum, he doesn’t know what box to check anymore. “I describe Alex as the sexual confusion of my teens and my 20s crammed into one kid’s senior year of high school,” Johnson tells EW.
Read on for EW’s chat with Johnson about the 10 years it took to make the film.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I remember you were saying in the past when you were making films like True Adolescents and The Skeleton Twins, they put you through the wringer with the financing stage. How was that process this time around with Alex Strangelove?
CRAIG JOHNSON: Each film is still a challenge. I think anytime you try to make something that is a little bit off the beaten path, it becomes challenging to get it financed — and Alex was no different. And it was challenging for different reasons. This one was hard not because of the subject matter, but the cast was entirely kids. When we were first shopping it around, the traditional studios would say, “We love this. However, could you beef up one of these teacher roles or parent roles so we can cast a movie star, and then we’ll finance it?”
Honest to God, I tried different versions of it, but those versions just didn’t hold water. This story is really about the high school kids, and there just are not a lot of young actors who can play a 17-year-old who then also draw in financing. So it really came down to Netflix with their model of original films. The financing is not based on any opening weekend, so they were like, “We love this. Cast whoever you want” — which we did!
How long did it take you from when you first started on this story to now?
Ten years, actually. I had the original idea in 2008 and wrote a draft very quickly, and then would just develop it over the years. Very early on we realized it would be tough to get financed because of the lack of adults in it, so I always kept it close to my chest and would revisit it once or twice a year. I would update as well to reflect the changing high school social landscapes. In the last three or four years, I’d say, high school life has gotten way more open-minded about sexuality, and very progressive. Only about a year and a half ago, I did a final rewrite on it that integrated a sense of high school is very open to sexual experimentation, whether it’s gay or straight or bi or genderqueer or poly. All of this is part of the conversation in high school. Alex Strangelove, I wanted it to reflect that. It would make his struggle more of a personal struggle rather than a struggle with an unforgiving high school or a culture that’s not ready for a kid to come out. It was just the time being right for it. The financiers took a little while to catch up to the culture and realize, “Here’s where we are. This movie makes sense now.”
What was the kernel of the story that first got you writing about it?
It’s very personal. I describe Alex as the sexual confusion of my teens and my 20s crammed into one kid’s senior year of high school. I went to a concert in 2008 for the pop star Mika, and I was on the older end of the people at the concert, I realized — even 10 years ago. And I was shocked at how many out-of-the-closet gay teenagers I saw holding hands and milling about in groups and being really open. I just thought, “Wow! High school is a different place than it was when I was there.” And I thought, “I wonder how that might’ve changed my journey of coming out,” which was very incremental and it took me well into my 20s to figure it out. And it just kind of hit me: I love the idea of a kid struggling with his sexuality in high school, but in a context where it’s okay to come out but you still are faced with all the personal, internal confusion — especially like having a girlfriend, who you’re very much in love with on many levels — and how that all factors into it. And then I drew from my deep love of high school movies. I grew up in the ’80s and was a big John Hughes guy, and I thought if you cast this even in a high school sex-comedy genre, it could make for a really entertaining movie, as well as a really moving movie.
What do you think it is about that era of John Hughes that’s still relevant to the coming-of-age experience in storytelling?
I think it was the first movie to treat teenagers as fully fleshed-out, nuanced humans who have fears and anxieties and desires and struggles. If you go back and watch them, even though they’re high school hijinks and things like that, the performances in those movies like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, even Ferris Bueller have subtly to them and have shading to them. They feel like real kids. They feel like you went to school with Molly Ringwald, and they were the first movies to really do that.
When you were writing this, when did it become clear that Claire’s story was just as important as Alex’s?
It honestly, was the germ of the whole story because I was searching for what the conflict was in a story about a kid struggling with his sexuality, and it was just very clear it would be about his true love for his girlfriend. That came from a very personal place. I’ve had girls in my life when I was younger who I was very invested in emotionally, who I was in love with in very legitimate ways. If it weren’t for that pesky sex thing, hey, it might’ve all worked out differently. I just thought that conflict, if treated sincerely, could sustain a story about high school kids.
It was not something I’d seen before — a kid struggling with his sexuality — and I had certainly not seen the girl’s story also fleshed out. It was so important to me to make sure that we saw Claire’s struggle and we saw the anxiety this was causing her and the heartbreak it caused her because, lemme tell you, us closeted gay boys would be nothing if it weren’t for our high school girlfriends and those girls who looked out for us at the time.
Let’s talk about your two leads, Daniel and Madeline. What were your first impressions of them?
Thankfully, Netflix allowed us to cast whoever we thought was best for the role, so we just did a sweeping net throughout the entire country and Canada, and saw thousands of guys for Alex. Daniel is a sweet kid from Vancouver, B.C. He just had everything we were looking for. He had sort of a naiveté to him, but also a real intelligence. He had a sweetness and good nature to him that reminded me a little bit of how I was when I was a teenager. And also he was a kid who plausibly walked that line, who was believable as a straight kid and believable as a gay kid, which is the conflict in the movie, that struggle.
That was hard to find when we were auditioning kids. Kids would come in and they would read. [I would think,] “All right, I’m not sure I believe this is a gay kid.” There’s all different kinds of gay people and straight people, masculine and feminine across the board, but it was important for me to find a kid who really plausibly walked that line, and Daniel really did.
And then Madeline we found in New York. She was in an extraordinary movie called Beach Rats. She’s the girlfriend in that movie, and her character, which is really funny, is involved in the same struggle, dealing with a boyfriend who may be closeted, and yet the movies could not be more different and the characters could not be more different. In fact, when I first auditioned Maddy, I did not recognize her from Beach Rats — and I had seen it. I immediately saw in her this fierceness, this strength, as well as a vulnerability that made me say, “She’s our Claire.”
In preparation for filming, was there anything you wanted to do to acclimate these two together and form that chemistry?
Yeah. When we were down to our final choices, we did what’s called a chemistry read where I brought potential Alexes to come in and meet potential Claires. That is so helpful when you’re auditioning actors, to get them in a room together, especially if there’s any kind of love-story element because chemistry is very real, and I don’t think as a director you can invent chemistry. I think you can only tease out chemistry that’s already there between the actors. Immediately, Madeline and Daniel just had an easygoing chemistry. It felt like they were good friends, they just liked each other, you could tell, and it’s just intuitive. You see it in the room, and it doesn’t take long. Within 30 to 40 seconds, it was like, “Okay. It’s here between these two.” So I’m sold.
I saw that Ben Stiller was an executive producer on this film. How did he get involved with the project?
I had the producer Nicky Weinstock involved from an early stage, and he, a little while back, went to go run Ben Stiller’s company [Red Hour Productions], and he thought that Ben might dig the script. So he showed it to him and Ben ended up loving it and said, “I would love to come on as a producer for this and do it alongside Nicky Weinstock.” And we were just thrilled to have him onboard, and he lent his very smart eye to the script, and he came on to set and just has been an incredible champion for the film, and we were really lucky to have him.
When Stiller became involved, did that help propel the project forward?
It did, absolutely. It never hurts to have Ben Stiller involved with your project. It legitimized things in a certain way. I think it also legitimized the comedic pedigree of it. This is gonna have some humor to it that is Ben Stiller-approved, for lack of a better word.
I’ve really enjoyed your past work and you’ve had some experience balancing that comedic aspect with serious subject matter. How did you approach this material?
The heart and soul with this project started with the relationship. So really the emotional stuff and the dramatic stuff, it always had a comedic sensibility to it. But I would say it wasn’t until the later draft that we realized we could really have fun with some of the comedy. I’m a big fan of movies like Superbad, and I just love it when things go a little raunchy and a little crazy. You have to get the balance right, but if you do it, everything just feels more of a piece and the experience feels more like life, which has funny hijinks in it but it also has heartbreak in it.
So for example, there was a sequence involving a psychotropic toad, and I thought that this scene, which is at a party, could use that fun little adventure that his friend Dell [Daniel Zolghadri] is going on to counterbalance Alex hanging out in a casual way and getting to know this new kid Elliott.
I grew up in Rhode Island, and at the time in high school, I didn’t have access to LGBTQ films or arthouse theaters. What does it mean for you that people, especially the core audience of Alex Strangelove, can just log on to their Netflix accounts and watch a movie like this?
I think Netflix is the perfect place for Alex Strangelove because of that, because you can be a closeted kid in rural Wyoming and access it, where you might not have gone to it were it playing in the theater. I also think it’s great for potentially closeted kids and queer kids to see themselves reflected in it, but I also would love to invite straight dudes to the party. I think there’s enough in the movie where [we should] be all-inclusive here. And I think there might be that kid and his buddies who would actually enjoy the movie but might be wary of seeing it in the theater, but they can fire it up in relative safety in their homes, and I can see them really getting a kick out of it and telling their friends. “Hey, you gotta check out this movie. Yeah, it’s a little gay, but it’s really funny and good!” That’s my impression of a straight guy.
I mean, it sounds authentic to me.
I just like the idea of inviting all comers to the party: straight kids, gay kids, anyone in between. And it’s not just for kids; I think there’s enough in it that people of all ages will get a kick out of it.
Directors of LGBTQ films have found it difficult at times to convince industry executives that people will come out to watch queer stories. How do you see the evolution of how easy or difficult it is to make LGBTQ films these days?
I would say it always helps if the film is good. And good films start with characters that are compelling, and drama. That’s the most important thing. Then you inject the scenes that you want to talk about — LGBT themes, LGBT characters — but that shouldn’t be, I think, what you lead with. You gotta make sure just your storytelling is there. I just believe the cream rises and they will find their audiences. We’ve seen just a wave of that in the past couple years with Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. They’re all great movies. Yeah, they have LGBTQ characters, but first and foremost they’re great movies. And I think society has just become more open to LGBT people — not everywhere, but a lot of places. They’re not gonna shy away from those characters and those themes in movies, but only if the movie is of a certain quality.