'To All the Boys I've Loved Before' Director Reveals the Cute Story Behind the Lock-Screen Pic (Exclusive)

Director Susan Johnson reveals secrets to ET behind Netflix's surprising hit teen romance starring Lana Condor and Noah Centineo.

Warning: Spoilers ahead from the film adaptation of To All the Boys I've Loved Before, as well as minor spoilers from the first and second books of the trilogy. For scoop on what a potential film sequel would explore, read what director Susan Johnson and author Jenny Han had to say. For more on Han's thoughts on the adaptation of her books, read our interview

If you've been living under a rock lately, then you've been missing out one of the most charming romantic comedies in recent memory, Netflix's surprise teen hit, To All the Boys I've Loved Before.

Based on the best-selling YA novels by author Jenny Han, the movie spins into focus when introvert Lara Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor), a 16-year-old half-Korean, half-Caucasian teenage girl, discovers the love letters she's written to boys she secretly had crushes on -- five in all -- were mysteriously mailed out. Panicked, Lara Jean reluctantly signs into a fake relationship with one of her love letter recipients, lacrosse jock Peter Kavinsky (The Fosters' Noah Centineo), who starts off as a fake boyfriend unfamiliar with Sixteen Candles and turns into a caring, thoughtful beau who ventures across the city just to buy Lara Jean's favorite Korean yogurt drink. They're basically 2018's Sam Baker and Jake Ryan. (Bonus points if you got that '80s reference.)

It's no wonder fans have been Googling anything and everything about the movie and its lovable cast, less than a week after it premiered on Netflix. Director Susan Johnson, who made her directorial debut with 2017's Carrie Pilby, can't quite believe the whirlwind response to the film -- much less the fact that many have been watching it over and over again. "One girl sent me a note saying she’s watched it 15 times since Friday. I’m like, I don’t even think I’ve ever seen a movie 15 times," Johnson tells ET. "I wanted to create something that felt classic, but you can’t force that to happen. I just think we’ve hit a chord with people at the right time and that’s a really amazing thing to watch."

From Lara Jean and Peter's iconic kiss on the high school track to their steamy hot tub scene to the adorable lock-screen photo of them asleep on the couch, To All the Boys is filled with sweet, endearing moments to melt the iciest of hearts. And if that isn't your thing (really though, give it a shot, you'll be surprised), the stunning cinematography and indie soundtrack is unbelievable too. So how did To All the Boys become our latest summer obsession? Johnson jumped on the phone with ET to share never-before-revealed secrets behind Lara Jean and Peter's hottest moments, the crucial storyline from the book that got cut for the movie, the surprisingly cute story behind Condor and Centineo's lock-screen photo and why Centineo -- who also stars in Netflix's upcoming Sierra Burgess Is a Loser -- has earned the title of the Internet's new boyfriend.

ET: It must be an exciting time now that the movie is out there and people seem to be taken with it…

Susan Johnson: It’s a dream come true.

What have you taken away from the passionate response to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before?

Two things. I think everyone has really good taste in what they read and they’re responding to Jenny’s writing. (Laughs.) It shows that people need to escape too, they need a story that’s about love and family, and not angst and bullying -- something sort of uplifting. And cute boys!

Much like Set It Up, those who have latched on to the movie have been watching it over and over and over again. Were you set on creating a movie that people would want to revisit and rewatch?

That’s the most shocking part of it. I’m getting emails and texts and Twitter and Instagrams from people who have literally watched it five times. One girl sent me a note saying she’s watched it 15 times since Friday. I’m like, I don’t even think I’ve ever seen a movie 15 times. I wanted to create something that felt classic, but you can’t force that to happen. All you can do is your work and know what your influences were and hope for the best. That people are saying that about the movie is really amazing and really inspiring to me as a filmmaker. I just think we’ve hit a chord with people at the right time and that’s a really amazing thing to watch.

Noah Centineo and Lana Condor in 'To All the Boys.' - Netflix

Why do you think that’s the case? Is it a combination of multiple factors coming together, like lightning in a bottle?

I don’t know. When I was 15 or the age of the characters in the movie, I would routinely see movies that I loved a couple of times at least. When I was a kid, Star Wars was coming out. I would go see a screening, I would get out and stand in line out in the hot sun to see the next show and go right back in. I think we hit a moment but I also think it all starts with Jenny. These books have such a strong following and those fans really got us to where we are today. They were very vocal about it and they were very vocal before the film had come out, not in a threatening way but like, It better be good. They were embracing the film version for the most part and they’re so vocal that they’re helping to spread the word. It is lightning in a bottle. I don’t know what would have happened if we had released this six months ago or six months from now. 

One thing that struck me is how visually striking the movie is, and how it is so unique in its look for a teen rom-com. What was the inspiration behind the look? What conversations did you have with the director of photography, Michael Fimognari?

For this movie, we did sit down and come up with a color palette that was very specific, we came up with the framing that was very specific -- just ways that we thought we could elevate a teen comedy that would maybe bring in an audience that wasn’t thinking that this movie wasn’t set for them. I think we’ve achieved that. Part of the reason different ages are responding is because it looks like a movie that is maybe multiple times the budget. It looks glossy and pretty, and that helps us tell the story.

The cast was a standout in the movie and rom-coms can crash and burn if the chemistry between the two leads isn’t palpable or isn’t quite there. When did you know you found your Lara Jean in Lana Condor and your Peter Kavinsky in Noah Centineo?

We used a casting director named Tamara-Lee Notcutt. She saw 300 people I would say, and then narrowed it down to the tapes that she would send me -- I was already doing prep in Vancouver when we started casting the movie. Then we would narrow it down to 10 people and then we would put everybody in rooms and have them do second readings with me, and then we did chemistry reads. We did a three-part process to casting. I knew I wanted Lana the minute she walked in the door; she was Lara Jean. Everything about her just worked. Her comedic timing was great, she is so beautiful, so interesting and has a great life story; I knew she would fit right into it.

And Noah, I auditioned by himself first and then pulled him back in for chemistry reads. He was 30 minutes late to his audition because he was given the wrong address. (Laughs.) So he came in all disheveled and full of that energy that he has on screen. I hadn’t seen anyone that charming, but humble, at the same time. When I put him with Lana, it was immediate sparks. I’ve heard [Lana’s] story about them sitting outside the casting session before they came in; I think it’s very, very funny that she turned him down to read [their lines]. They were magical in the room. And Israel [Broussard], the same thing. It’s tough to play the boy next door [Josh Sanderson] who’s in love with sisters. I wanted to have some depth in that and I loved the way he played it.

It’s kind of funny because Noah has been officially crowned the Internet’s new boyfriend. He’s everyone’s obsession online right now.

(Laughs.) I know! He is Jake Ryan [the main love interest in Sixteen Candles]. He is the new Jake Ryan.

Is that both comical and gratifying to know that you at least got the casting of Peter right?

Very much so. It’s so exciting. I literally took him aside the day we wrapped, or maybe it was the day after we wrapped, and said, “You have no idea what you’re walking into here but the performance you just gave us for 21 days is so spectacular. You’ll get to do whatever you want to do. Be choosy and decide.” I think he has all the potential in the world. I really do think he can have any career that he wants. He’s amazing.

Lana Condor, Anna Cathcart and Noah Centineo in 'All the Boys.' - Netflix

Going back to the character of Lara Jean for a minute: She’s half-Korean, half-white, and her Korean heritage plays a bigger role in the books. Lana is Vietnamese. How much discussion was there in specifically seeking out a Korean American actress for the role, or was the focus more on finding the best person for the part?

It was focused on finding the best person. We had to let go of the specific ethnicity of Asian American early on. It’s hard enough to test three Asian American leads, but to have them be sisters and figure out their age differences. We saw some girls who were younger than Anna [Cathcart] for Kitty and I felt like that dialogue would not play. Once Anna read it, she was 12 at the time, there was a difference to the rhythm. Then you have to go, OK, she isn’t Korean but she is Asian -- where does that fit in? Same with Janel [Parrish, who plays oldest Covey sister Margot]. She had a grasp on the material; she and Lana got along great. I thought she was caring and sweet and had a good relationship with her sister. I knew that those three would play well together. In reading the books, I’m not Asian American, and I wanted to have a movie where everyone could relate to the character. It’s not about Lara Jean being Asian American, just that she is, and that Jenny stuck to that and we all stuck to that is great -- and that’s how it should be. Nothing should be white-washed ever, but if it’s part of the story of what she’s struggling with or why she’s having a hard time, like the Crazy Rich Asians story, those are real cultural issues within a single culture. We didn’t have that burden to carry on this movie, which maybe makes it a little more relatable to a wider audience.

Were there specific scenes that you filmed that you had to cut in the final product?

Yes, we had to cut the Halloween scene in prep. It was in the script originally. We ran into issues with the Spider-Man costume [Peter wears]. That scene is so beautiful in the book and so important to their relationship, so I was bummed to lose that. I think it’s OK without it, but there were some little things we had to set aside. I wish we could’ve done more baking in the movie, but more baking would’ve been less time with Peter and Lara Jean, so there was no way around that. You try and find the balance.

There were a few tweaks to iconic moments from the book, such as the kiss on the track after Peter confronts Lara Jean about her love letter and their kiss on the lacrosse field at the end of the movie. And some big developments were moved up from future books to fit into this movie. What was the thinking behind those specific changes?

The track scene was just a matter of how to shoot it. We tested it with her jumping onto Peter and it wasn’t visually working with our visual style for the movie, so that was a slight change and hopefully it was just as funny. With regard to the ending, that was something I wanted to put in. I loved the idea of them ending in the field. I put in a fantasy sequence [at the beginning of the movie] and I liked the full circle of being out in the grass. The kiss itself, I wanted to leave viewers with an idea of where we could go with a second film and the second book. The ending is a little different -- she does go to Peter at the end of book one, but it’s not as romantic as a kiss. Hopefully, that’ll leave people wanting more.

Many people have picked up on smaller moments from the movie that reveal endearing character quirks. Was there any specific instruction given to Noah when it came to tinier moments, like him moving the popcorn off the couch before the pillow fight with Kitty or him splashing the water in the hot tub scene?

No, it’s just charming Noah. Noah’s just super present when he’s working and he’s very tuned into everything. For instance, the moving the popcorn was totally Noah. I didn’t ask him to do it. Kitty didn’t place it there every time, but she did that time and he was clever enough to figure out how to move it while throwing a pillow and leaning over, and I thought that was brilliant so we kept that take. The spin in the back pocket was also Noah. He did it in the rehearsal and I was like, “That is beautiful, we’re going to change the shot around!” He’s a natural flirt so he knew what he was doing. The hot tub, it’s just their chemistry. There’s a little of Noah there and a little of Peter there.

And Lara Jean’s memorable facial expressions. You can really make an entire movie out of just her reactions. Were those a surprise too?

I saw that in the room when we were doing chemistry reads and Lana did her first read, I couldn’t stop watching her face. The other day, I had to pull stills of the movie and I was watching the scene with Chris on the bus -- she literally goes through five different emotions within a minute and a half of film, all on her face. She’s another one of those actors who can have any career she wants to have because she’s super talented but has really good timing.

Noah Centineo and Israel Broussard in 'To All the Boys.' - Awesomeness Films

One popular rom-com convention is the fake relationship, which drives much of this story. But by the end of the film, Peter professes that he’s in love with Lara Jean. Was there a scene that you circled for each character as being the moment they began to develop real feelings for each other?

I did and we did a specific calendar, not just for where we were in the calendar year for each scene, but to help me put together where they would be in their relationship emotionally. My favorite scene in the movie is, and will always be, the scene in the diner after the party because that’s when both of them, at the same moment, realizes there’s something between them and then Lara Jean puts that wall right back up. It’s a defense mechanism; it’s unintentional. She’s just like, “Oh, we’re just pretending,” in that moment, which really hurts Peter, which you can see in that scene. I love that coming after the energy of a party and ending with, “Oh, back to reality.”

The film dials in on Sixteen Candles. Were there other classic rom-com movies or moments that you wanted to pay homage to or subtly reference?

I am a big John Hughes fan, just because I grew up at a time where those movies were being made with actors who were close to my age at the time. Those were influential, not just in their comedy but in their casting and their pacing and in the topical storylines. Breakfast Club you could release today and not make a single change and it could feel completely current. At the end of the movie, that scene on the football field is a little bit of Judd Nelson giving a fist pump on the field, having that moment of achieving something.

In the first book, Josh plays a bigger role in the love triangle between him, Lara Jean and Peter. Why was that avoided in the movie?

It wasn’t avoided but it was certainly cut down in post. We had shot a little bit more than was there and we shot a resolution to that storyline, but at the end of the day, if we wanted to keep the momentum going for the chemistry that was taking over the film between Peter and Lara Jean, other things had to get cut down a little bit. I do feel like the character of Josh sort of got the short end of the stick a little bit, but there’s room to tell part of his story in the next movie even though he’s not so much in the second book. There needs to be some resolution with that, but I’m Team Josh too because I love how he is played in the film. It was a conscious decision on the part of Sofia [Alvarez], the writer, and Jenny and the others who developed the script because when I got it, there wasn’t too much more of Josh in that story so I was a little surprised too.

The lock-screen photo that appears near the end of 'To All the Boys.' - Netflix

Some who saw the movie have been wondering about the origins of the lock-screen photo of Peter and Lara Jean sleeping on the couch, which we see briefly after Margot successfully gets their hot tub video taken off Instagram. Was there a scene that was cut from the movie that would explain where that photo came from?

I can tell you. I don’t think this will blow any magic in telling you what happened with that. That was actually one of our crew members who took that photo. The two of them were in the green room on set at the high school location, in the area where we put the actors. They actually were sleeping on the couch in that room like that, so we just stood over them and took that picture and it’s so friggin’ cute. So yeah, we just borrowed it from our crew member. (Laughs.) There wasn’t [a scene]. I could make something up but I actually think it’s cute that they hang out like that.

Why is To All the Boys the movie we needed right now?

Romantic comedies do really well when times are tough. You want to escape and times are pretty tough right now. It’s a pretty crazy world every day in the news, and it doesn’t matter what generation you’re from. We’re bombarded 24/7 with negativity and the beauty and joy and hopefulness of Jenny’s writing is such a welcomed change that it caught people by surprise. I think people who don’t watch romantic comedies or movies set in high school are shocked that they are staying with it and then watching it again. I keep getting letters from people, like, “I’m an adult; I’m not supposed to be in this market group. I don’t understand but I watched it three times!” I can’t take credit for everything. I don’t know why that is but I’m super excited by it.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before is available to stream on Netflix.


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