Sierra Burgess Is a Loser reinterprets the classic mistaken-identity tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, but through the lens of teens in the 21st century, when Instagram updates, text-flirting and selfies are more valuable than actual face time.
In Netflix's latest teen rom-com (though Sierra Burgess is more of a coming-of-age drama), Stranger Things phenomShannon Purser plays the titular heroine, a socially awkward band geek who finds herself falling for Jamey (To All the Boys I've Loved Before star Noah Centineo), a star quarterback from the rival high school who believes he's actually wooing Veronica (Kristine Froseth), a popular cheerleader. Through texts, phone calls, Facetime and later, actual dates, Sierra's catfishing ruse creates an unexpected friendship with Veronica that may be far more poignant than the blossoming romance between Sierra and Jamey.
“The movie, in some ways, goes by the book, leaning into the high school tropes of the jock, the cheerleader, the band nerd, and in other ways, it flips them on its head,” director Ian Samuels tells ET. And he acknowledges that Sierra threatens her standing as a redeemable character, especially during one crucial climactic moment at a football game that unravels everything. “Sierra does some pretty awful things. She’s kind of a good person but everybody has the capacity to do some really mean things, maybe even meaner than the mean girl does. All of that keeps the movie satisfying because it fulfills certain expectations but it also keeps you on your toes.”
With Sierra Burgess out for everyone to stream, ET jumped on the phone with Samuels for a candid conversation about the secrets behind the film's most pivotal scenes, what changed the most from the original screenplay (hint: a lot), why there was a completely different ending to the movie and why Sierra almost became an irredeemable character.
ET: Sierra Burgess Is a Loser has a distinct look that’s unique to the typical coming-of-age teen drama that we’ve seen in the past. What were you going for with the different visual feel?
Ian Samuels: We were making this movie on a tight budget and on a very accelerated schedule, so part of that dictated what we could accomplish in terms of look. But I always wanted to lean into the teen movies that I connected with growing up, which were the romantic ‘80s John Hughes movies and they had a certain kind of feel to them: sort a YA book cover, muted colors, pastels and the glowing lights. I wanted to convey that feeling especially because the script is a fairy tale. It’s a heightened reality. We were conscious of playing this a little bit more as a drama, to lean into the heart of what the characters were going through, because it is extreme for them.
Chemistry among the cast is always key in these types of movies, whether it be with romantic leads, adversarial leads or leads who play best friends. What were you going for when casting the four main characters?
I was looking for a sense of earnestness from the actors that could play into the heart of the movie. I knew that performance was going to be the key to do that and there was a conscious choice at some point not to look at comedic actors. Shannon is such a great dramatic actress; she’s funny but she’s not a broad comedian. Even Veronica, she’s written to embody a certain kind of role, but Kristine Froseth so unconventionally embodies this trope in the same way that Shannon does the same. And then Noah, I’m so excited to see him blow up right now. He actually came in for a supporting role and we thought that there was something special about him that also felt earnest. He was a surprise and I’m so happy we cast him.
We were having a really hard time finding Jamey. When you’re casting, you have a character description [and] a lot of the Jameys that were coming in just felt… I don’t know, there was maybe something too on the nose about what we were seeing, in terms of the jock-y football player. But we really wanted Jamey to be likable. You have to fall in love with him to believe in this relationship. Our casting director, Tamara[-Lee Notcutt], had Noah come in for one of the supporting roles [Spence, Veronica’s douche-y college boyfriend] and he was so charming in the room. The funny thing about Noah that everyone should know is that who he is on camera is exactly who he is in person. That endearing charisma and sense of humor just came across in the audition. When he left, we immediately talked about bringing him back in for Jamey so he came back in right away and read for Jamey, and we were all so excited about casting him.
Was Shannon someone you always had in mind for Sierra?
I was a huge fan of Shannon’s from Stranger Things, and it didn’t occur to me [to cast her] when I first read the script because the role of Sierra was closer to Cyrano de Bergerac. She was written with a larger nose and I was looking for a comedic actress initially. Something wasn’t landing for us and we couldn’t find that special Molly Ringwald thing that we were looking for and then Shannon came up. She generally embodied a vibe for Sierra that wasn’t too superficial. As someone who is trying to find herself and who’s beautiful but unconventional, and maybe that kind of person in high school might be considered a loser in some ways but she doesn’t think of herself as a loser. And the truth is, she’s not. There was something magic about her.
Did you have Shannon and Noah do chemistry reads?
I could tell that Noah was going to have a playfulness that he could get [that out of her]. It’s sort of hard not to smile around Noah. A lot of the phone stuff -- it is scripted -- they had the freedom to not be beholden to every word and to bring some of their own instincts. I made sure that Noah was always on the other line, so that Shannon had someone to interact with and so did he, so you can capture that sense of chemistry through the phone that only you could do when someone’s on the other end of it.
'Sierra Burgess Is A Loser:' Noah Centineo on His 'True Connection' With Shannon Purser
Speaking of Sierra and Jamey, a lot of their relationship is built on text conversations, phone calls, Facetime. How challenging was it to create a love story between those two characters without them actually sharing ample screen time together?
There’s so much interesting behavior that goes into communicating with someone through the phone, whether you’re talking or texting, it’s much more complicated than it looks. On the page, a lot of these conversations were really quick, but when we shot them, the scenes were a lot longer. What’s interesting about texting is it’s not about what you text, but it’s about coming up with something to say or censoring yourself or reacting to what you just received. It’s so calculated and I wanted to capture all of that behavior because that was what was so interesting. I talked to Shannon and Noah about how they text, what they do with their fingers and how they compose a text.
What kind of direction did you give them in those moments?
My approach was to try to personalize it with the actors as much as possible. I knew the emotion that we needed to convey for the story in the scene, but I always tried to talk to the actors about experiences they had. If somehow it felt emotionally abstract for them, then I would talk to Shannon about a particular person: “Think about who you have a crush on right now, and they’re texting you.”
How did Jamey’s shirtless selfie scene come together?
I remember when [Noah] did his [shirtless] selfie, I encouraged him to think, How do you cover for yourself when you think the other person thinks you made a huge mistake? And I would just let the cameras roll and we would see, the longer Shannon wouldn’t respond, the more uncomfortable Noah would get. I think the direction I gave him was, “I want you to start try to cover for yourself if it’s taking too long and find a way to tell her you were just kidding.” In the script, it was just “JK,” and then Noah gets to feel out his own rhythm and when he felt like it was actually taking too long and go through all those beats. Some of that was improvised; I think he writes “hahahahaha” and then I told him to delete it. And there was the anxiety over the ellipsis that I wanted to show.
Can you pinpoint the first moment you knew Shannon and Noah had chemistry?
The last scene [between Sierra and Jamey] we shot the first week. You could see there. If I’m looking at the monitor and I’m getting emotional, then I know there’s something real there. I also felt it during the phone conversation when Shannon’s under the covers and she’s so in the moment, in this dreamy pink glow and so giddy. You just feel the chemistry is there.
Shannon Purser on 'Strangest Thing' She's Done to Get a Guy's Attention (Exclusive)
Was the first kiss switcheroo between Jamey and Sierra a logistical nightmare to film?
It was tricky. We didn’t have time to shoot from that many angles so we had to be careful about what coverage that we got so that you could tell that story. That’s one of my favorite scenes and it was written a couple of different ways. One version of it was at a planetarium. Another version it was at the beach. We landed on something a little more understated in the parking lot.
What was the toughest scene to get right?
That parking lot scene was big. The other one was the Skype scene. It’s funny, but it’s also the moment that Sierra and Veronica really start to form a friendship. I liked how they could become friends through the ruse and Veronica could get excited about what they were pulling off and bond with Sierra, so there was another layer to that scene that was hard but fun to get.
What changes were made from the original screen when you were bringing it to the big screen?
In terms of the script, [screenwriter] Lindsey [Beer] wrote this great big studio romantic comedy and then we were making it a fraction of the cost, so we ended up streamlining it as much as possible to make it on a smaller scale. That was a challenge to figure out. There was a whole sequence inside the dance. There was a whole moment when Sierra gets up in front of the school. All of the grander studio romantic comedy moments, we had to really pare down. Even the football game, which was a challenge to pull off, was scripted a little differently. There was a stage where we simplified the script as much as we could, but I think the benefit of that is you get a specific tone and an intimacy with the characters that you might not have had had it been more a traditional studio movie.
What was the original ending supposed to be?
The climax wasn't necessarily at the football game, it was at the dance and then we shifted the focus to end on the dance. It was more of a public reveal, closer to something like Easy A. I think there's a strength there, that it's more about this group of friends and maybe it's more realistic, that everybody has these social dynamics and it doesn't necessarily have to be in front of the whole school to make it feel so emotionally dire.
What was the thinking behind having the climactic moment of the movie be Sierra publicly posting Veronica’s DM breakup with Spence on Instagram, instead of having it be something else?
Sierra always did something to shame Veronica and there was a version in the script where she posted multiple things. She posted about Veronica’s family, her mother. But this is a really delicate plot point because we didn’t want Sierra to do something that felt like how far could she go? How far is too mean? Especially since this wasn’t played as such a broad comedy. Like, how could you redeem yourself? My instinct too was to have it be one simple thing that was more personal to the relationship dynamics and that would’ve been Veronica and Spence, and Sierra calling her out. And the other thing it did was there needed a way for Jamey to see Veronica with Spence, so it fulfilled that need also.
'Sierra Burgess' Star Noah Centineo Says On-Screen Kiss With Shannon Purser Was an '11' (Exclusive)
At least with the way Jamey is constructed, there is no reason not to fall in love with him: He has a younger brother who’s deaf, he knows ASL, he is the star quarterback, he has dorky friends, he’s charming and he does his homework. Was there ever a conversation about roughening up his edges a little bit?
We were joking about too, that he was too perfect. The other concern was that would he seem too aloof the whole time. Sierra’s doing something that’s pretty reprehensible. How much that you buy that Jamey doesn’t catch on? I think one thing we tried to do is to not make him a typical football player cliché in terms of the production design of his room, making it feel really real. His home life feels very grounded with his brother; they play video games. He’s not a super alpha male character, which was something we consciously avoided. The effort there was to keep him grounded, although he is a really nice guy in an endearing way.
Why was it important to have Jamey and Sierra end up together at the end of the movie?
I was adamant from the beginning that the real love story that makes this story unique is between Sierra and Veronica, and that’s why we end the movie with the two of them. We pushed that more from where the script originally was to make that more of a point. This movie relies heavily on the genre and there are certain expectations an audience has watching a movie of Sierra.
There’s a version of Sierra that’s less conventional in a plot structure, but because this movie was ticking more conventional plot beats while also being subversive in subtle ways. The expectation at the end is the girl ends up with the guy. It was something that we had talked about. I wonder if she didn’t end up with Jamey if people would feel unsatisfied by the end because the reaction from the trailer is, “I hope they end up together, but I don’t see it could work.” I think we pull off a way that makes it work. And then other people say, “I hope she ends up with Veronica.” I feel like we do satisfy a version of that too. There is a magic seeing Sierra with Jamey in the end in a heightened cinematic way. There’s something nostalgic, teen rom-com about that visual that I was excited to see.
The screenwriter, Lindsey Beer, has been angling for a sequel on social media. Do you think there's more story to tell?
I haven't thought about it but I do love the characters so much. We had such a fun time working with each other and I know everybody would love to recreate that.