On Writing To All the Boys I've Loved Before
This week on On Story, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before writer Sofia Alvarez discusses the process of adapting the New York Times bestselling young adult novel into a hit romantic comedy for Netflix.
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
To All the Boys I've Loved Before writer,
- I think if I wasn't a writer,
I would be a psychologist,
'cause those are the two things I find most interesting.
I sort of love just
listening to people talk about life and their problems.
I can't help but find that,
just life, I guess, in general
really evocative and inspiring.
[Narrator] In this episode,
To All the Boys I've Loved Before writer, Sofia Alvarez,
discusses the process
of adapting the bestselling young adult novel
into a hit romantic comedy.
[Lara Jean] My letters are my most secret possessions.
I write them when I have a crush so intense,
I don't know what else to do.
There are five total.
Peter, the most popular guy in school,
Kenny from camp,
Lucas from Homecoming,
John Ambrose from Model UN,
and Josh, but he's my sister's boyfriend.
- What are you doing?
Nobody else knows about them.
- How did this come to you?
- So I feel like it's not a very fun story.
My agent sent me the book and said,
"They wanna make this movie.
"They're looking for a writer.
"Will you read it?
And if you read it and like it, will you pitch for it?"
So I read it, I loved it, I thought it was great.
So I went in and pitched it and got the job,
and then wrote it.
- That's how you do it.
- Pretty straightforward.
- What was your unique take on it?
- So, I remember in my very first conversation
with the producers,
before I even went in to go pitch it,
they pretty specifically said,
"We don't want this to be a movie
about a girl who's in love with her sister's boyfriend."
And if you read the book,
that's a really big part of it.
And so, while you can't take that out completely,
I had to think about,
okay, if it's not a story about that,
what is it a story about?
And so then, something that I thought
was a really interesting thing to dig into,
particularly for this age group, but kind of for everyone,
is this fear of vulnerability
and this idea that you might
believe the idea of who someone is
based on your perception of them
without thinking about the person
they're actually showing you.
So if you think about Lara Jean's relationship with Peter,
but also Lara Jean's relationship with herself,
I think there are these ideas of this is who this person is
or this is who I am.
But then, when you're actually thinking about
the actions that person is taking
or the part of you they're showing themselves
or what you're doing,
it might look a lot different
than your initial perception.
- There aren't these hugely visual moments on the page,
it's all the dialogue that's moving everything.
And is that what you feel was your biggest
influence as a playwright coming into it?
- Yeah, dialogue has always been the thing
that's come most naturally to me
and the thing I have to work at the least,
and it's really how I come to understand
who the characters are
is just by sort of letting them talk to one another.
And something that I had a lot of fun with
in To All the Boys .
And I think particularly in the diner scene
where Peter and Lara Jean are talking to one another,
and they're talking about their parents for the first time.
I really loved that the director and the producers
let that scene breathe
and let it be as long as it is
and let there be as much dialogue in it as there is.
And almost let certain scenes of this movie
behave theatrically in the way that
there are some longer scenes than you would expect them to be
because I think you really get inside
the hearts and minds of the characters that way.
- I remember, especially when I was a teen,
watching movies and television shows,
and I felt like they would show a couple coming together,
and then there would be a montage of music
and that's how you knew they were bonding and getting along,
and I always felt like
that's the part I wanna be here for.
I wanna hear what are they saying to each other?
How do people talk to each other?
- That's the good stuff.
Why do they like one another?
And I totally agree with you,
that's the stuff that I'm really interesting in.
- Did you know that, um...
my dad left us?
That was a while ago, right?
- Two summers ago.
He's got a new wife and kid now.
- I'm so sorry. - No, no, it's fine.
I don't usually talk about it.
I just felt like, maybe you'd understand 'cause your mom.
Not that it is anywhere near the same thing.
- No, it's totally fine.
I completely understand.
it's hard, huh?
- It's whatever.
- Well we don't have to talk about it
but it's not whatever.
- That is something that I sense in the interplay
with your characters on the page
is that you've really studied people
and the things that,
the things that they're saying and the things that they mean.
- Yeah, well I'm so happy to hear you say that.
I think if I wasn't a writer, I would be a psychologist
'cause those are the two things I find most interesting
and I sort of love just
listening to people talk about life and their problems
and I don't approach it from a place of, you know,
this is me studying,
or this is me watching you,
but I can't help but find that,
just life, I guess, in general,
really evocative and inspiring
and sometimes I would say to my husband,
if he'd be like, "What are you doing today?"
And it's a day that I'm working, I'd be like,
"Well, I'm having coffee with a friend."
But truly, for my job,
every coffee I have with a friend,
we're talking about life and problems
and love and expectations and sadness.
It's all helpful to me in what I'm doing.
- First, talk about how you got your start as a writer.
- Yeah, so both of my parents are writers,
so it was sort of baked into my childhood.
And both of my parents
had my siblings and I kind of young,
especially by today's standards.
I was the third and they had me when they were 27,
so I saw them becoming professionals
as we were growing up.
So it wasn't this sort of thing where I was born
and they were both established in their careers.
They were hustling the whole time that we were growing up
and so I think I always had this idea
that you could be a writer, it was an available career path
but that it was going to be hard.
And so I never had the sense that,
okay, if it's not happening for you right away,
it's never gonna happen.
- What sort of writers were your parents?
Were they playwrights?
- My dad was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun,
for the whole time I was growing up.
We used to spend a lot of time in the newsroom
and my mom was a science writer the whole time I was growing up
and she worked for Hopkins.
And then she wrote a book
about the war between animal rights and animal research
and then she wrote a book where she interviewed
every prominent transgender person in America but in 2001.
So they're both a little bit all over the map,
but a lot of discussions happening in our house.
- And it also sounds like you learned from the beginning
that writing isn't,
to not necessarily view it as a career
where you break in and you do this.
It's a way of life.
- Yeah, but interestingly,
it took me a really long time to be comfortable enough,
or I guess it's not comfortable,
I think it's confident enough to,
when someone asks you what you do,
to say, "I'm a writer,"
which I think is kind of true across the board for all of us
where it's kind of a hard bridge to cross
and even when I was
at Julliard and nannying and people would ask me,
I think I would say, "Well I'm in grad school."
And it wasn't until
I was fully making my living being a writer
that I felt comfortable saying, "I'm a writer."
But looking back,
I think that's a little bit unfair to my younger self.
And when I teach, something I tell my students,
if it's what you're doing, that's what you are.
You don't need to be being paid for it,
for it to be part of you
but I do think that's a hard lesson to learn.
- I'm curious about the changes that you made and why
but also, were there things that you struggled with?
- Well, all adaptations are different.
And for a book like this that has such a loyal fan base,
you don't wanna make too many changes
because you don't want them to not get what they paid for
in coming to see the movie adaptation
of this book that you love.
So I think with these kind of adaptations,
you have to have a really soft hand
in terms of the changes you do make,
in ways that make it feel more cinematic
but without taking away
from those moments that everyone loves
and is looking for and is hoping for.
And so I think the thing we talked about
a little bit earlier,
this idea that we were going to back away
from her relationship with Josh
was one of the challenges,
in that a lot of the conflict in the book comes from that
and so we had to find a way,
if it's not about, "I'm in love with this guy
but he's my sister's boyfriend."
And more about that person was a source of comfort to me
and someone I felt at home and myself with
and this person who is a new sort of scarier option
is someone I have to become comfortable with
and let my walls down with,
then what is the major source of conflict
at that sort of end moment when it's all colliding,
if it's not this love triangle.
And so there's a scene
close to the end of the movie
where Margot, the sister, is home
and the two boys both come to Lara Jean's house
and it's the, I guess what you would call the fight scene.
And in the book, Lara Jean has kissed Josh,
the sister's ex-boyfriend,
and so the sister gets really mad
because her little sister just kissed her boyfriend
but we were trying to not go down that road,
and so how all of these threads connect and making it
both a transgression on Lara Jean's part
but not one that can't be easily untied
'cause you don't now wanna go into
a huge fight with the sister in the third act.
Those were things that I think we got there
but it had to be sort of like a delicate dance
around all of those different angles.
- Can we just go inside and talk about this?
- She asked you to leave, buddy.
- Josh, I'm fine, go back inside.
- No, it's all right. - No, no, no, no, no, no.
Are you serious right now?
What, this isn't about Gen and me at all.
This is about you and Josh.
Are you kidding me?
This is the reason that you broke up with me.
You're still in love with this Bon Iver wannabe?
- If Lara Jean broke up with you,
it's probably because she's coming to the
life altering revelation
that she's too good for you.
- You're in love with Josh?
- Margot, no.
- What classic conventions of romantic comedies
did you work to stay away from and not wanna repeat
and which did you sort of know you had to follow?
- So I love romantic comedies
as it's probably obvious.
I grew up on them and When Harry Met Sally
is still my favorite movie.
I could recite the whole thing from start to finish.
Um, and so I don't think
that I was actively, in the writing of this movie,
thinking about it, that specifically, where I was like,
"This is something I'm going to attack
and this is something I'm going to retreat from."
I think it's more that the genre of romantic comedies
is in my bones from having watched so many of them.
To All the Boys just from the plot of the book
already has its own romantic comedy convention baked in
which is the pretending to date
but not actually being together and then falling in love
with the person you're pretending to date.
So that was the one that was obviously,
we were playing with.
And so I don't think I was thinking,
what other ones do I wanna add.
Or what other ones do I wanna not have.
- Was there anything from the book that you had to let go of
for this adaptation?
- There's this really sweet date
that Peter and Lara Jean go on, to go antiquing,
and then they go get these chocolate-covered donuts
and then in the ski trip,
in the book, it's those chocolate-covered donuts
he brings her to prove that he likes her.
And so there was just no room
for the antiquing date in the movie
but I wanted to maintain what I thought was really important
which is the idea that he brings her
something that she likes
and since I knew I wanted to include
the Korean yogurt smoothie earlier in the movie,
I thought, well you could just swap out
the chocolate-covered donut for the Korean yogurt smoothie
which we've already seen them talk about.
So that was sort of a way
where you had to lose the antiquing date
but you still got to maintain
the thing that was really important story-wise
which is that he goes out of his way
to get her something that she likes.
- You know, for someone who has such good grades,
you can be so dense sometimes.
- Yeah, I wanted to sit next to you, Lara Jean.
I even packed the snacks.
I asked Kitty where to find those yogurt drinks
you like so much.
- The Korean grocery store is all the way across town.
- I know.
So if I went all the way across town
to get you something that you like,
then that means?
- You must really like yogurt?
- You are impossible.
- One of the many very special things about this movie
is that she is,
she and her sisters are half Korean, half white
and it's a significant part of who they are
and their mother,
but it's also not what the movie's been about.
I'm curious what was your approach to that.
- I think I really relied on the book there
but I think also, there's something about,
I mean, they are from two different cultures, that's true,
but also they're both American teenagers.
So they're really not from two different cultures
in that sense,
and so I think that,
with movies about minority communities,
you don't always want it to be
that the headline is that you're the other,
you just want it to be,
this is a romantic comedy
that happens to have a young Asian lead
but it's a romantic comedy.
It's not a romantic comedy about a young Asian lead.
And so I think that's just really important to me,
in general, when we're talking about
movies with leads of a different ethnicity.
I know when my dad was screenwriting,
he would get a lot of people who were like,
"Talk about the Hispanic experience."
And he would be like, "How about this?"
And he'd pitch me something
that was not the experience of our family.
And I'd be like,
"Well why are you pitching that because you think it fits this
"label that someone wants as opposed to saying,
"'Well it's actually like this in my house
which is not that different.'"
- What to you is the big difference
in writing for YA, a YA audience,
and older audiences?
- Well I actually don't think there is much of a difference
maybe apart from language, if I'm being honest
because I wrote this,
To All the Boys 1
was the first YA project that I did
but I also did this musical for really young audiences,
for elementary school audiences,
Amos and Boris last year.
And I think with both of those,
if you as the adult writer
are not emotionally connected to the story that's being told
and the things people are saying,
then your audience isn't going to be either
no matter what age they are.
So I think the biggest mistake a writer can make
when writing for YA audiences is to write down to them.
I think they,
audiences of all ages are smarter
than we give them credit for
and they will be right there with you
if you are being truthful to the scenario at hand.
And when I was thinking about To All the Boys,
and you asked earlier about my personal connection to it,
I had to go into this book
even if the situations I was writing about
were different than my own situation,
dating in high school,
but I had to give these characters
the truth of my experience in different ways that I could,
so that I could feel like I was writing
from an emotionally honest place.
And I was wagering that
if I felt like it represented me,
other people would feel like it represented them as well.
And so I think if you're writing from a place
where you're saying,
"Well this, I've never been there but who knows?
Maybe someone else has."
Or "I don't know what it's like to be in this scenario."
You have to find the part of yourself
that connects in whatever way
and then write from there
and that's helped me in writing for all ages.
- Were there any scenes or moments
that you pulled from your own experiences?
- I wouldn't call it specific scenes or moments.
There are a couple in the sequel that that's true for,
but in the first one, I'm trying to think.
I think it was more about
a feeling of what it was like to date in high school.
I remember thinking,
especially being a young woman
that there's this idea
that you're the one who can get hurt
and you don't necessarily think about the ways
the boys are being hurt too,
if you're thinking about heterosexual
high school relationships,
because I think all the stories we're told
from the time we're young
are that the boys,
especially boys like Peter Kavinsky,
who are like, have had a girlfriend
and are super popular and the king of the school,
are sort of bulletproof.
There's nothing you could do as this outsider like Lara Jean
that might make them feel vulnerable or afraid
or they're not living up to a certain expectation.
And so I think one of the things
that I was trying to attack in the adaptation is,
and I talked about this a little bit earlier
with thinking about the idea of the person
as opposed to what they're actually showing you.
Is she thinks that she's the only one
who's capable of getting hurt in this scenario
and one of the things she has to learn throughout the movie
is that he has a fear of being vulnerable too.
And I think that's something
that I pulled from my own experience
of dating in high school
whereas I wasn't giving the boys in my life enough credit
for being on the same page as me in that.
- Every guy gets a little bit obsessed with their first,
bow-chick-a-wow-wow. - No.
- You know?
Okay, let's look at the facts, shall we?
The whole fake relationship was his idea.
You came up with the no kissing rule
and you're the one who keeps trying to break up with him
and you're also the one who's currently carb-loading
with a gay man while he's probably
waiting for you in the hot tub.
So I'd say if there's anyone who stupidly fell for somebody
who doesn't like them back,
it's not you, it's Kavinsky.
- Do you think he's waiting for me in the hot tub?
- Hell, yeah.
- I feel like that's also a big difference though with YA
and say writing adults
is that lack of perspective,
you just don't have it yet.
- In everything I try to write,
I love to approach all the characters
from a place of good intentions
'cause I think things get a lot messier
in a way that's harder to untie
when everyone has good intentions,
and then you have to come to a place of understanding,
knowing that everyone was trying their best
as opposed to I wanted to hurt you,
and so I hurt you for some Machiavellian reason.
For example in To All the Boys,
in the book,
the younger sister sends out the letters
from a place of spite or wanting to hurt her older sister.
And in the movie,
I really wanted her to send out the letters
from a place of trying to help her older sister,
A, because we have less real estate in the movie
than in the book to show
all the ways in which these sisters love each other,
so I just wanted to keep it warm throughout.
I have a secret too.
I sent the letters.
- I'm gonna kill you.
- No! No!
- Die! - She's a kid!
- You were so lonely and I could tell Peter liked you
and I knew you wouldn't do anything about it.
- So you just sent all five of them?
- I thought five chances at a boyfriend was better odds!
I miss having him over for dinner.
- Give me the unicorn.
Look, her logic was off.
But her heart was in the right place.
- Her face is gonna be in the wrong place.
- There are good intentions behind every action
for all of the characters, including Gen.
There's that scene in the bathroom at the end
where Lara Jean has to come to understand
that though she thought she was,
couldn't have been further from someone
Gen was thinking about,
actually all of her actions
were really affecting this girl
who she thought didn't care about her a bit.
And that was really important to me too
that the relationships between the women
were as complicated and intense
as the relationships between,
as the romantic relationships in the book.
- You know, it's bad enough if a guy were to do this,
but the fact that a girl did?
I mean, that's despicable.
- Yeah, like I said, I didn't do it.
You know what, I'm really glad that someone did though
'cause finally everyone is gonna see who you really are.
- What are you talking about?
- Peter, he is not as confident as he pretends to be.
I am not as tough as I pretend to be.
And you, Lara Jean Covey,
you are not as innocent as you pretend to be
'cause you kissed the boy that I liked.
- Gen, you guys were broken up.
- No no no, before.
Before we even dated.
- Are you talking about middle school?
- You knew that I liked him and you kissed him anyway.
- It was Spin the Bottle, you psycho,
and it was tongueless.
- Okay, well it wasn't tongueless to me.
- So in writing To All the Boys I've Loved Before,
what was the most difficult part
and the most rewarding part of adapting it?
- I think the part I like the most
is reading a story,
and then thinking about that question,
"What's my way in?"
I think that's really fun,
thinking about how you are like
not just the protagonist in the story
but all of the characters in the story.
That's something that I just find really enjoyable
and one of the reasons I really like doing adaptations.
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