It’s Pride Weekend and there’s the perfect film that’s just landed on Netflix, Alex Strangelove. Craig Johnson brings us a semi-autobiographical tale about a teenager, Alex (Daniel Doheny) who knows what he wants. He has a girlfriend, Claire, there’s class president, he loves making YouTube videos with Claire, but there’s one problem, he hasn’t had sex with her yet. Enter Elliot, the thoroughly delightful and charming Antonio Marziale who is gay and thinks he knows Alex’s “problem” and his sexual identity.
What makes this film so delightful and warm is Alex Strangelove isn’t bullied, it’s not a teen film about that, it’s about identity and discovering who we are. Johnson and I caught up recently to talk about the charming film and how changes in society helped shape Alex Strangelove Read our chat below about Johnson found a home for his film on Netflix and how he crafted this great coming out story based on his own experience.
This was a journey that began over ten years ago. Talk about what inspired the story of Alex Strangelove.
There’s a lot of autobiography in the movie, not all of it is true, but much of it is drawn from my own life. I had an incremental coming out process that took me well into my twenties before I realized it. Along the way, there were all these pitstops. I identified as bisexual and then transitioned into full gay. I had girlfriends along the way many of whom I was very authentically in love with. When I finally came into my own and looked back on my rollercoaster of sexual confusion, I thought there was a story here. Especially if you took my journey of discovery and condensed it into one kid’s senior year of high school and placed it in the traditional high school movie genre then it could be something really fun. The idea of making it a classic teen sex comedy felt like something I hadn’t seen before.
That’s exactly what it was like, everyone’s coming out story is different so this felt unique.
Luckily I had enough embarrassing sex stories to make it a teen sex comedy and cringe-worthy.
What was the movie making process?
Once the idea sparked with me, I wrote the script really quickly and it just flowed out of me, but it took ten years to get it off the ground. I used that to my advantage. What I’d do was rewrite it over the years especially as the culture was changing in high school. Gay marriage became legalized and the sea changed the attitudes of young people towards sex and sexual identity where kids were becoming more open. You can come out in high school, not only as gay or lesbian, but bi-sexual or trans or gender queer or pansexual, there are multiple identities and I found that fascinating. I would rewrite the script to keep it relevant to the times, but I liked what it did to Alex’s story. I liked that this kid was so confused because there are so many options now. It’s not that he’s going to get beaten up if he comes out, the conflict he has is internal. “I can be whoever I want and I can date a girl or I can date a girl. What am I into?”
I have to ask did you have a B52’s moment that we see in the movie and he’s lipsynching?
Thank you. It was a total throwback. It was in the very first draft. I always viewed Elliot as a character who came out comfortably so he’s digging a bit into his gay history so he’s learning about Keith Haring and he’s learning about the B52’s who were a pioneering, punky, new wave band. I looked at Elliot as someone who was going to introduce Alex a little bit to queer culture to some degree.
How did you find your perfect cast?
It was an incredibly daunting casting process. It was the most exciting process too. When you’re casting the first three leads in your movie, you’re picking from a list of famous people. I knew we were going to be auditioning for the lead role. We had two casting directors, one in New York and one in LA and I said, “Bring me, everybody. Bring me all your kids from across the country.” I didn’t care if they’d never been in anything, we ended up seeing a few hundred kids until we narrowed it down and then we did chemistry reads with them and did a speed dating thing with them. Daniel Doheny who had probably done other movie was from Vancouver. He had a lot of comedic chops and great comedic timing. As a kid, for me, he walked the balance beam between being a straight and gay kid. I believed him as both identities which was really important to me.
I loved the outfits we see in the film. I love what we see on Alex, Claire and all the kids.
I’m so glad you brought that up. David Robinson is my costume designer and he is such a character. He only wears kilts or matching kilt outfits. One day, he’ll wear all purple and just color coordinate everything so from that, I knew he’d make bold choices.
I told that with the movie taking place in the real world, we can make things sparkle and pop and to give the kids some attitude. These kids have a sense of fashion. Elliot does. Claire, I thought certainly is interested in fashion and has an indie, alternative style with a bit of a 60’s throwback. David went to town with the kids and made them so unique with great style.
Netflix is the perfect home for Alex Strangelove. Talk about the creative freedom you had with making that the home for the film.
This goes back to the journey. When we showed the script around, we were never outwardly rejected because of content. The struggle was there were no roles for movie stars so people couldn’t find a way to finance it so they encouraged me to rewrite it and beef up a parent role, “We’ll cast Meryl Streep and we’re off to the races.” I did some rewrites but finally said that this was about the kids and that it would alter the DNA of the script too much to try to create an adult role that doesn’t naturally fit.
I had resolved to not making it. I couldn’t justify financing it either on some level. Netflix is invented and their business model is such that they don’t have an opening weekend box office number that they’re trying to hit. So, if you keep your budget under a certain level, they don’t require movie stars. They read the script and said they loved it. They said to cast whoever I wanted and to go and make a great movie. They were true to their word and they let me make the film exactly how I wanted. There was zero creative interference and I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the experience.
Talk to a teenager, they don’t even call it TV, they refer to watching TV as “watching Netflix.”
What’s it like being an LGBT director now with this great stream of films coming out such as Moonlight, God’s Own Country, Call Me By Your Name?
It feels fertile. You brought up those films and A Fantastic Woman, BPM, there are all these films presenting so many different perspectives on a queer experience. What’s so exciting for me is to take it to the next level. I’ve always liked to walk the line between an indie and pop culture sensibility. I love big popcorn movies. I love the idea that you can have queer characters in these movies without batting an eyelid. I’d like to see that direction go further. I’d love to see a huge action movie where James Bond comes home and kisses his boyfriend, goes out to save the world and nobody cares.
I don’t know that we’re there yet, but I feel we’ll see more and more of them. I feel we’ll continue to see them in niche smaller films but in big films. Love, Simon really set the table for us. That movie whets the appetite for us. I feel people want to see more movies with queer teenagers. We essentially shot Alex Strangelove at the same time as that movie.