'To All The Boys I've Loved Before' Interview: Director Susan Johnson Discusses Bringing Jenny Han's World to Life

When it comes to book-to-movie adaptations, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is near the top of my list. For when you talk about a movie being faithful to the source material, you’re talking about the film having the same beating heart that made the book so special to so many people.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is the modern teenage rom-com that this generation needs. In a society where social media and technology can mask what’s important, To All The Boys reminded me of the teen rom-coms I grew up watching in the early 2000s. Films like 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That, The Princess Diaries and A Cinderella Storywhere they taught me life lessons about growing up and gave me an outlet to escape.
There’s been a lack of those kinds of films that reach out to an adolescent audience. But with To All The Boys, and the soon to follow Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, we can only hope that this marks the resurgence of these kinds of films that can serve as guidance for teens or nostalgia for adults.
We had a chance to chat with To All The Boys director Susan Johnson about the adaptation of the beloved Jenny Han book, where she discussed why this is the right time for this film, the collaboration process with Han, staying true to the book, important relationships, and more!

Fangirlish: What can you tell us about All the Boys I’ve Loved Before?

Susan Johnson: I can tell you what I responded to which is a girl [inaudible] once her secrets are revealed she sort of tries to figure out how to find her feet again. It’s sort of about facing your fears and knowing that you’re worthy of love like everybody else on the planet. And she just is figuring that out at a very young age through a series of unfortunate events. It’s sweet rom com. It’s lovely and it’s a really beautiful book and we had a great time shooting it.

Fangirlish: What made you think this was the right moment for this adaptation?

Johnson: I think there’s so much negative in the world and so much bullying and so much focus on judging others online and that this is a simpler sort of hopeful & optimistic story that I think younger people will respond to because of the ages of actors that I think people that are even a little older age group will get cuz they’ll sort of feel nostalgic for their high school years. I certainly did. My 15 year old self was very happy that I made this movie. So, I just think it’s time to be hopeful and walk away feeling empowered instead of negative. It’s tough world out there.

Fangirlish: It is. Sometimes you just need a good rom com like this to escape.

Johnson: You do. You just need a good rom com. For sure. And I grew up on them in the 80’s so I was…that was a big deal for me.

Fangirlish: So would you say watching those rom coms inspired you and that’s why you’re making this movie?

Johnson: One hundred percent. John Hughes inspired me quite a bit because those kids were sort of my age. So I was watching actors my age go through this and that meant a lot to me. So I’m hoping that we sort of hit that mark this year. I mean, with this movie, maybe in a couple years people will have that same feeling.

Fangirlish: What was it like bringing this adaptation to life? Like, being on set? Working with the cast and everything? Can you describe that atmosphere?

Johnson: I will tell you, it was a little intimidating because (author) Jenny (Han) has so many fans and they’re so vocal online so I try to, at some point & right before we started shooting, we all just would put a moratorium on looking online. So you wanna make the fans proud of the movie and you want them to feel like their vision was also served. But then at some point you have to make decisions so that part was tricky. But I had a fantastic assistant on this movie who would follow social media and find out for us like who’s responding to what? Like people would go daily, “Oh, I hope they shoot this scene,” or “I hope this scene made it into the movie,” and so forth. That was pretty invaluable to have. Sort of a filtered version of, “Like, let’s make sure we don’t miss this prop. Let’s make sure we don’t miss this piece of the storyline.” And that’s sort of an unusual way to do any movie. And then on-set, it was great. We did a lot of chemistry reads in LA, for at least 3 reads for Lana, Josh, and Peter. And then also for the girls, the sisters, we also had to have some sort of semblance, somewhere they resemble each other. So we spent a lot of time putting the group together. Once i saw Lana and Joy in the room, in LA and on-set, we were in really good shape. And they were all like best friends while shooting in Vancouver, which was always helpful.

Fangirlish: One of the things that’s really great about the book is you mention the strong sisterhood between the three, why was that so important for you to bring to the screen?

Johnson: Because I’m the middle of three girls. I am a middle sister and I totally understood Laura Jeans logic for everything that she did. She, Jenny got her thought process. I don’t know if Jenny is a middle child. Jenny got the thought process correct for what she was going through and she just sort of reminded me of myself in so many ways. I grew up with both parents so I think that’s a part of her journey that we wanted to really help the audience understand that that helped shape her decisions, who she is, and how she responds. And that her family is her rock. I liked that part of the story. Instead of family angst we had a splotch of love.

Fangirlish: Can you talk about that collaboration process with Jenny (Han)? Like, how did that work? Did you go to her during certain times and you wanted to make sure or check about a scene or a character?

Johnson: Before we started shooting, Jenny and I found each other online, actually. So, we had a couple conversations and prep once I was already Vancouver. And I wanted to make sure that she’d read the script and then part of the development because I did not want develop the script. I came in after that. So, I was really pleased to hear that she had been part of the process all along. I also feel a need to have the novelist sign off. This is my third, maybe fourth, movie isn’t a book. and then she came out to set and we were able to put her in the movie. A little surprise scene. But she came out to set and I knew that if we had a problem we could go to her and ask her opinion. And there were a couple scenes that we wanted shot, the two of us, a specific way and it was good to make sure that that way was how she saw it as well. So that worked really well.

Fangirlish: What do you want audiences to take away from this film?

Johnson: I want them to walk feeling like they  can live their best life. That they can face their fears and survive it. And I think figuring out who your friends are early on is a really important thing and that’s [inaudible]. You wanna know who’s responding to you and who you respond to and why that is. I think that part of the process is super universal. I think everyone will sort of walk out thinking, “Oh, maybe I should call that guy? Last year, ten years ago, next week. Whenever that is. And just not be afraid to sort of reach out.

Fangirlish: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of having a female director leading a film where we have leading female who happens to be a woman of color?

Johnson: The female directing journey is a whole other conversation but it was nice to have a female lead. I just had just finished another young adult movie right before I started this one. Which also had a female lead about the same age group and it was so nice because there’s no…there’s a lot of conversations about who the characters are because those guys are so closer in age to that character. It’s a great touchstone to be able to have conversations off set about who the character is and if things aren’t quite how that actor thinks they should be, I always love to open the door and let them be open. So I sort of approached it with the first several takes of a theme, for instance, what I had envisioned. And I always ask them if they want to make changes for themselves. and then the producers usually make changes for themselves. So you sort of have three different version of the movie, or sometimes it’s 2 cuz the actors and directors are usually pretty in sync. And that happened on this movie quite a bit and that was good. It always opens up other ideas.

Fangirlish: Obviously when it comes to adaptations, you can’t really keep everything in, and sometimes fans really want that. Keeping the essence of the book is important, but what was important for you to maintain or specifically have from the books in the movie?

Johnson: One of the things I think was a long journey for Jenny was holding onto the Asian American leads for the film. I think other companies might’ve developed it and lost that so I wanted to make sure we were really honoring the fact that we were doing something different that people hadn’t seen since Joyluck Club basically. And then past that, because it’s not a story about being Asian American, I wanted to sort of drop it so that it’s about family and friendship and love and first love and crushes and true love and all of that. And ethnicity doesn’t play into it because it should be a universal world. And romantic comedies still have a long way to go to be inclusive and I’m hoping with this movie, people can see that diversity is great. That’s what the world is. That’s what it reflects at this point.

Fangirlish: What was your favorite thing with playing with Lara Jean and Peter’s dynamic?

Johnson: My favorite thing about their dynamic was that they have such a good relationship off screen. And I wanted them to have that, secrets, and experiences and going out to dinner, whatever that is. I just felt like it was gonna help our story. Sometimes you wanna keep actors apart because you don’t want them to become too familiar. And in this case it lead to the magic that is the two of them on screen. That’s very real. They’re very amazing together. So that was a blessing.

Fangirlish: What was it like working with the entire cast?

Johnson: Everybody was great, especially the sisters. And sometimes the sisters were so close that I felt bad having to walk in and interrupt them. They’d be in full on conversations about family and life and I was like, “Sorry to bother you. We do have to shoot the scene now.” So that was really fun. I loved working with Noah and Israel. I think they’re both really amazingly talented and two different sides of what’s happening in Laura Jean’s life. So that was really a fun challenge. And then just shooting with in Vancouver was great. I never been there before. So I was happy to be up in Canada shooting and sort of away from the glare of the LA spotlight or New York.

Fangirlish: How did you what you learned from previous experiences directing to All the Boys I’ve Loved Before?

Johnson: I guess just kind of what I was saying earlier about POV, just letting everybody in the cast have a point of view. I try not to give them my point of view before I see what there’s is. I think that’s really critical, like, “These guys have thought about this. They’ve memorized it. They’ve researched it.” And I can’t put that much research into every single character and they do for their own character. So they know more about that character than I do by the starting shoot. And I think that’s an invaluable lesson to really learn, to listen to the actor, first and foremost, and to get out of the way until there’s some guiding to be done. And if you’re on the same page you know it immediately. So if you’re on the same page you really trust each other. They trust me not to send them down a dark alley. And it helps me end up with a movie that everybody loves.

Fangirlish: Are there any specific moments from filming that stand out to you in your memories?

Johnson: Yes, and they’ll kill me for this story that I just think is so funny. There’s a scene towards the end of the movie, between Lana and Noah, and maybe not towards the end….hmmm, how can we say this so we’re not blowing anything. Anyway, it’s an intimate scene where they’re having a conversation and every time we would break, we would cut to set up for another shot, they would sit and eat cheeseburgers. And then come right back together. To me that was hysterical. This is some intimate conversation you guys are having and, “Oh, can I have another cheeseburger? Ok, thanks.” They were just like that with each other, which was really fun. And as soon as the cameras are back it seems romantic and as soon as the cameras would go off it was very platonic and very funny. Like sister/brother almost. So, that was really really fun. And then shooting the scene where Peter finds Laura Jean on the track and tells her it’s never gonna happen because he’s received this letter, that was really fun. And worth a lot of conversation because that’s such a big scene for the book and for the audience. So that was fun too.

Fangirlish: What would you say what was the biggest challenge you faced on this movie?

Johnson: The biggest challenge was just number of days. We had a fairly short schedule. So that was a little hard. It’s a smaller movie so just the schedule. It’s pretty sort. That was our biggest challenge. We had a lot of locations and a lot of moving pieces. So that’s always a challenge, unless you have tons of money.

Fangirlish: What would you say is the most rewarding part of working on this movie?

Johnson: The most rewarding part was watching my first assembly. I work with the same editor, Bartel all the time. We sat and we watched the first assembly. You see the first assembly a week after you finish shooting. And then we work together for like 3 weeks more in our…we have a [inaudible] week schedule basically which is all boring. But about 4 weeks into it we were feeling really good about the movie and we sat down to watch it with my assistant and editing assistant and a couple of friends in LA. And just turned up the lights at the end and everybody was in tears and smiling and we had 60 year olds in the room and 15 year olds in the room and men and women and straight and gay…it was a good mix of people. At that point I knew we had something because we were so early in the process and people were responding really strongly so that was, that’s always super rewarding. If it’s the opposite you wanna go live under rock. The end result is the reward.

Fangirlish: The movie was fantastic. You captured the essence of the book. When people say they want a faithful adaptation, you just want to make sure that it has the heart of it and it completely did.

Johnson: Thank you so much. That means the world to me, really.

Fangirlish: So knowing that there are two other books in this series, if you were to get the go ahead, would you be interested in directing the other two?

Johnson: Oh yes. Definitely. I love everything about it. Yeah. I think I’m hopeful that the audience responds in a way that enables us to explore the next two books. We used a tiny bit of the second book in this first one but there’s a lot of room to grow. And Jenny, I don’t think had finished the third book when this started developing, so there’s a lot of material there. I think that if we can keep our cast together, that would be really awesome.

Fangirlish: Why should people see To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before?

Johnson: To escape. To escape for 90 minutes. To just have a good time and forget about the world for a minute. I hope that they walk away feeling joy. I think her journey is so sweet and so earnest and I think that’s what we’ll hopefully leave people with at the end.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before hits Netflix this Friday, Aug. 17.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.