On Story

S10 E4 | FULL EPISODE

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.

AIRED: May 02, 2020 | 0:26:47
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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,

Sofia Alvarez.

- 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.

[paper crumples]

[typing]

[typewriter ding]

[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.

[typewriter ding]

[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?

- Nothing.

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.

It was...

[laughing]

- That's how you do it.

- Pretty straightforward.

[laughing]

- 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?

- Yeah.

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.

Yeah, it's,

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.

[typewriter ding]

- 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.

[typewriter ding]

- 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.

[door slams]

- 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.

- What?

- 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,

they're not,

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.'"

[typewriter ding]

- 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,

you know,

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.

- But.

I have a secret too.

I sent the letters.

[guitar strum]

- 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.

[door slamming]

- 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.

[typewriter ding]

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On Writing "To All the Boys I've Loved Before"

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