Greg Berlanti takes inspiration from John Hughes’ best

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Greg Berlanti

Love, Simon
Opens Friday 16

It has been a long road towards LGBTQ equality and we’re not anywhere near the finish line, but at least mainstream cinema is taking huge strides in the right direction. Love, Simon, a teenage dramedy in the vein of John Hughes classics (minus the objectionable bits), features a gay lead and nothing catastrophic happens to him, outside growing pains.

Love, Simon is the second film in a month — following the noteworthy Every Day — in which a teen movie deals with gender fluidity and sexual orientation matter-of-factly. Add Call Me by Your Name and, to a lesser degree, Lady Bird, and you have a full-blown trend.

This one is about a closeted teen — the titular Simon (Nick Robinson) — reluctant to come out, since family and friends have a fixed idea of who he is. But Simon is pushed outside his comfort zone by an anonymous classmate who’s also gay and posting about his struggles online.

Then Simon’s life is turned upside down when a less benevolent individual discovers his secret and blackmails him into helping him hook up with the pretty new student at school.

It’s a classic screwball set-up with a modern twist.

Based on the young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (catchy title), Love, Simon is unassuming but  good. Audiences don’t realize they’re emotionally involved until it’s too late. Director Greg Berlanti puts his years behind teen-oriented shows (Dawson’s Creek, Everwood) to good use and keeps things wholesome and positive.

In spite of practically running the entire CW lineup (he’s the executive producer of Supergirl, Arrow, Riverdale, Legends of Tomorrow and The Flash, with a couple more in the works), Berlanti appears easygoing and relaxed.

I had spoke to Berlanti in Vancouver, where most of his shows are shot.

Did you have to research today’s high schools, even though you had a book to work from?

I went to a bunch of high schools while location scouting. The thing about young people is that their looks and what’s popular change every couple of years, but their hearts and minds don’t.

Considering recent events, it can be argued high school life has gotten a lot darker. How hard was it to hit the right tone for Love, Simon?

If you cast the right people and the tone of the script is right, all that remains is execution. For me, the most successful romantic comedies feel heightened, but you’re still able to connect emotionally and block everything that’s happening outside. If you compare and contrast with real-world issues constantly, you can get lost in a rabbit hole.

How did directing Love, Simon feel different from your previous films (Life as We Know It, The Broken Hearts Club)?

I always wanted to be part of a high school film that reminded me of the ones I grew up with. The book felt reminiscent of that. The fact it had a gay character front and center made me feel, from the outset, so much responsibility. But also gratitude for the opportunity to relive elements of my own experience. It brought me full circle.

John Hughes has been mentioned as a reference. Is that something you’re comfortable with? I have my share of problems with his work.

As a lot of people do. Plenty of subject matters and things in his movies were offensive. But those films stayed with me in a different way: the dialogue Hughes wrote for teenagers, the way they were shot, the music, and all those aspects that gave them an iconography and made the small moments of high school feel larger than life.

Do you agree with the perception that the portrayal of gay characters on screen has become more upbeat?

In our case, with the budget that we had, we needed everyone to want to come. That impacts the rating, the tone and the subject matter. Because Love, Simon fits more with romantic comedies and coming-of-age movies, there’s inherently a lighter, more upbeat tone to it.

A mayor plot point in Love, Simon is the threat of being outed. It’s hard to imagine a more serious invasion of privacy.

It is. Speaking as a gay person, when people ask me about this in term of their careers, I remember Harvey Milk’s motto: “Every gay person has to come out”. It’s their obligation. But I also feel the timing is theirs to choose. When that gets stolen from you in any capacity, it’s really painful and traumatizing. There are things unique to the LGBTQ experience — one of them is having to hide things. There’s a lot of pain and loneliness and you can see it in the character of Simon. But the liberation from that is something everyone can identify with.

You produce a number of TV shows currently on air. How did you find the time to do a movie?

I have a lot of amazing people working with me that don’t get enough credit. Once every couple of years comes a passion project that’s important enough for me to put at the forefront. It’s what fuels all the other stuff.