How Greg Berlanti Made The Movie Queer Kids (And Adults) Have Been Waiting For

The director on 'Love, Simon,' his own closeted adolescence, and the importance of more LGBTQ+ representation in film

It's hard to imagine anyone other than Greg Berlanti at the tender helm of Love, Simon, the first mainstream gay coming-of-age film ever.

Anyone who's familiar with Berlanti's pioneering work on television — he wrote primetime television's first passionate gay kiss on Dawson's Creek and has since introduced a band of extraordinary complex, sex-positive gay superheroes across his roster of comic-book shows (Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and DC's Legends of Tomorrow) — knows that he has a knack for making history. With Love, Simon Berlanti has once again left his indelible mark on pop culture, invoking the spirit of John Hughes to create the endearing coming-of-age romantic comedy queer kids, and adults, have been waiting their whole lives for.

Based on Becky Albertalli's bestselling YA book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, the film follows 17-year-old Simon (Nick Robinson), a not-so-openly gay high schooler who develops a romantic (and anonymous) email correspondence with a fellow closeted student known solely as Blue. But when someone gets ahold of their intimate emails, Simon finds himself being blackmailed: He either plays along, or he gets outed to the entire school.

For Berlanti, Simon's story of being a closeted teen in a small town struck an emotional chord. Below, he tells MTV News about his own relationship to the novel, his visceral reaction to the script, and why he feels a personal responsibility to tell more LGBTQ+ stories.

MTV News: What was it about Becky Albertalli's book that made you want to direct the feature film adaptation?

Greg Berlanti: By the time I read it, it was a film script already. But then I went back and re-read the book, and what the film script that I got and what the book has, and hopefully what the film has, is a real emotional core. And a real truthfulness and authenticity to it that's really hard to get sometimes with a high school story or a young person's story — but it's the most essential ingredient. I felt like it was our job to honor that and make it even more pronounced in the film.

MTV News: Could you see yourself in Simon Spier's story at all?

Berlanti: As we developed the script, I shared a lot of my own personal experiences of being a closeted kid in a small town with a pretty well-adjusted family and a pretty well-adjusted person but still struggling with the closet, so I did see myself in him.

Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox

Love, Simon

Simon (Nick Robinson) with his sister Nora (Talitha Bateman), mom Emily (Jennifer Garner), and dad Jack (Josh Duhamel) in Love, Simon

MTV News: For so many people, the immediate response to this film has been "I wish I had this movie growing up." Were you aware of that reaction while making the film?

Berlanti: I had a real visceral reaction to the script when I read it, and I thought, Is it just the story? Is it how well-written it is? Is it that I'm gay or was closeted when I was a kid? And then as we were making it, I became really cognizant that there's something that you just connect with in a different way when it really represents you. You don't have to do as much math in your head of switching the genders of the characters to get through it psychologically — you can just connect.

MTV News: Eighteen years ago, you were instrumental in shepherding the first romantic gay kiss onto primetime television on Dawson's Creek, and now you're helming the first gay teen rom-com from a major studio. As one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, do you feel a responsibility to tell these stories?

Berlanti: I think so. It's incredibly rewarding, but it's also that most of my success has come from doing stuff that's really honest and truthful for me. It becomes your responsibility then when you get to that position to say, "What can I do to put something there that wasn't there before?" I don't think about it much when I'm doing it because I'm focusing more on the art of the thing and wanting to make it the best that it can possibly be.

I wish that there weren't many firsts left, but there still are, and representation in movies is where representation in TV was when we were making those shows and doing some of those firsts, but that was 18 years ago. Major studio films have to catch up.

MTV News: What was your reaction when you saw the first cut of the film?

Berlanti: I was emotional. I would go and watch cut scenes while we were shooting just to see if there was anything we could augment along the way, and every time I would sit down — it was an experience I'd never had before — I would drift out of director mode and drift into audience mode. It was this visceral thing where I could tell that just the fact that there were two members of the same gender featured in this love story but with a mainstream gloss to it, I didn't realize how vital it was for me to get that. I would then have to reorient myself back into director mode and be hyper-critical of the thing. By the time we put it all together and I experienced it, I tried to remember what that feeling was like, thinking you can never experience that again.

Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox

Love, Simon

Nick (Jorge Lendeborg), Simon (Robinson), Abby (Alexandra Shipp), and Leah (Katherine Langford) walk the halls at school

MTV News: Can we talk about the "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" musical sequence? Because that was amazing. Was that your addition?

Berlanti: It was. It was my idea. I really wanted to show the audience something about Simon's notion of what it would be like to be free, so he had an emotional goal in mind. He spends so much of the movie hiding and being evasive, and I wanted the audience to feel that exuberance inside of him earlier in the movie — and then to feel it again at the end but earned in a different way. The fantasy version is obviously what's in his head. Plus, any excuse to get a Whitney Houston musical number into anything is a good one.

MTV News: I read that you've been trying to cast Nick Robinson in one of your projects since you saw his performance in Kings of Summer. What was it about Nick that made him your first choice for Simon?

Berlanti: He was on a very short list, but he was the first person on my very short list that I met with that I really connected with and understood the character and understood what we were going for. A movie like this and the breadth of emotion of it is only as wide as that actor's talents. He, to me, has such a breadth of ability for a young person, and he makes you emote for him. You feel for him, and you're on his journey. That was the most essential ingredient to Simon — he's taking us through this whole world, and he's hiding from the world, but we still have to care for him every step of the way. There's just something about Nick that pulls you in. He escorts the audience through the movie more than even I can directorially. He always had that quality in spades.

20th Century Fox

Twentieth Century Fox special screening and performance of LOVE, SIMON, Los Angeles, CA, USA - 13 March 2018

Berlanti and Robinson at a special screening of Love, Simon in Los Angeles

MTV News: He can do sad, puppy-dog eyes really well, too.

Berlanti: He does that! He's also got a brand of humor that's really sly and not over the top or kitschy. He's got great timing, and he isn't afraid to just go for it. To find that whole collection of things in one person is rare.

MTV News: You also reunited with Keiynan Lonsdale from The Flash in this movie. He's so charming as Bram. What was it like to work with him outside of the Arrowverse?

Berlanti: When you're working as a showrunner you're not directing them day-to-day, so in some ways I got to know him better in working with him on the film. I'd always had great respect and admiration for him, but we got to hang out more and get to know each other better. Keiynan's heart really shows through on the screen. He's a very sweet, very tender person and still strong. It was wonderful to see him. There were times when he came down and it would just put me at ease to see a familiar face.

For more on Love, Simon, watch Berlanti and the cast talk about the making of the film with MTV News in the video below.

Love, Simon is in theaters now.