Netflix's surprise rom-com hit, To All the Boys I've Loved Before, may be our latest summer obsession, but for Jenny Han, author of the best-selling trilogy, the experience of revisiting the characters and world she introduced to readers four years ago has been unforgettable.
"I keep saying surreal because it is so surreal. From the moment I stepped onto set and saw other people running around and I heard one of the crew members say something about Peter Kavinsky's mom, things like that make me think, Oh my gosh! It's weird that people know about the story," Han tells ET, chuckling at the memory. "My typical reader is a young woman or a teenager or an adult woman, and it's been very surreal having that opened up to a bigger audience."
While Han, who makes a cameo as a middle school dance chaperone early on in the film, didn't write the screenplay (that duty was given to screenwriter Sofia Alvarez), she knew there were certain elements she wanted in the movie adaptation. To communicate that, Han offered notes on certain scenes in Alvarez's script, shared mood boards for Lara Jean's room and personal style (a priority for Han) and discussed character motivations with director Susan Johnson and the film's producers.
"My biggest mission throughout this whole movie-making process was to feel like I was representing what my readers wanted to see. I know the characters really well and I know the readers really well. I've spent a long time getting to chat with them and understanding what they love about the books, and I wanted to make sure that the movie in some way embodies that spirit," she says. "I knew it wasn't going to be a direct translation, because books and movies are two very different mediums, so I wasn't concerned about specific scenes, but I wanted the feel to be there. I had said repeatedly to the fans that if you love the movie, I'll be really happy. But if you don't, understand that the best movie is going to always be the one in your head."
The story centers on Lara Jean Song Covey (played brilliantly by Lana Condor), a half-Korean, half-Caucasian teenage girl whose love life gets turned upside down when the love letters she secretly wrote to her crushes mysteriously get mailed out. Unlike in the movie, where Lara Jean's Korean heritage is mentioned only in passing through food, it is a much bigger part of her identity in the books; Han addressed the differences.
"It was never going to be exactly what the book is and I think there is a lot of things you can do a lot with in a book, especially with a character like her, who is very internal and lives a lot of her life in her head and in her daydreams, that is harder to see visually in a movie. As an author and as somebody who was on set, there were moments where I was like, 'Hey, can we make sure there's a rice cooker in the kitchen?'" she shares. "In the opening scene, originally she was lying in bed with her feet against the wall and she was wearing sneakers and I was like, 'Can we take off her shoes?' Little things like that that, I think, make it feel authentic and realistic."
When it came to the casting of Condor as Lara Jean, Noah Centineo as dreamboat Peter Kavinsky and Israel Broussard as "Bon Iver wannabe" Josh Sanderson, Han says she didn't take part in any "fan casting" before the movie was made -- like YA authors sometimes do. Speaking specifically to landing the perfect Lara Jean, Han knew it had to be a fresh face no one was familiar with before.
"Because of the fact that there are so few Asian American female teenage actresses, my feeling was it was always going to be somebody who was relatively unknown, because we haven't had the opportunity to see an Asian American young actress be the lead in anything. That's usually the benchmark that Hollywood uses when they are casting; they want someone who is greenlightable or has an existing fanbase or has been the lead of something before," she says. "I knew that wasn't going to be the case because there just are so few visible young Asian American women [in Hollywood]."
As Han explains it, she had her eye on Condor for a while through her role as Jubilee in 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse: "My hope was that she would be able to gain more visibility so that I could keep pushing that as a possibility." It worked out. "She's a really a good actress. If you meet her, she is super confident and she's worldly and she's quite sophisticated. The character of Lara Jean is more innocent and young; she's a young 16. Lana really portrays her beautifully in showing that youthful charm and her optimism and her brightness."
It became an emotional experience for Han when she visited set and saw Condor film the dream-like opening sequence, where Lara Jean -- in a daydream about what her love life could be -- strolls through a field of grass in a bright red gown as she walks toward her crush, Josh. "The first time I saw Lana, and I was watching on the monitors, and I was watching her have her hero shot -- the opening scene in the movie -- I actually got tears in my eyes because I felt so emotional about it," Han recalls. "It's so emotional hearing them say the words 'hero shot' about her because I never had that experience before of seeing a young Asian American girl be the hero of a movie."
"From the moment I met Lana, I said to her, 'All I want for you to is to keep working and to really build a career for yourself out of this and not have it be a one-off time that you get to be the lead of a romantic comedy.' All I want for her is to have more and more opportunities because I think she is so gifted and has such a lovely spirit," she adds.
Han also marveled over one specific scene with Centineo at the end of the movie -- the moment where Lara Jean professes that she likes Peter "and not in a fake way" -- as being the moment that cemented the 22-year-old actor as transforming into the Peter Kavinsky she created on paper.
"Noah has a real sweetness and vulnerability to him as a person and I love that he really let that shine in the movie. There are so many moments in the movie where he is so soft. In particular, I remember the first time I saw the final cut of the final scene of the two of them on the lacrosse field and he has his back to her and she's telling him how she feels about him but he looks so scared," Han says. "You can see how much he feels for her in that moment and how much he likes her and how nervous he is. That's so much of Noah's own tenderness in the role."
With chatter surrounding the To All the Boys novels resurfacing again, Han said she isn't actively seeking to revisit the characters for a fourth book or spinoff. As she explains it, she's content with the way she left things between Lara Jean and Peter. A follow-up movie, however, is very much something Han and the creative team are keen on.
"The final book leaves them in a good place, which was a hard ending to write because I always like to end on a note that's hopeful but also leaves room for many possibilities," she says. "In a movie, people might want more of a neat ending where everything's super clear where it's headed and I always like endings that are a little open-ended. I like to allow the reader to let their mind wander and imagine what could be next."