When Atlanta author Becky Albertalli published her debut YA novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, in 2015, she never dreamed it would become a feature film. The story of a closeted gay high school senior (who lives in metro Atlanta) coming to terms with his sexuality and a major crush won awards and gained a cult fandom. Then 20th Century Fox and Temple Hill Productions decided to adapt the book into a movie with a John Hughes mentality—and a dash of 1990s romantic comedy grand gestures. The result is one of the first mainstream gay rom-coms, directed by Greg Berlanti (Arrow, Riverdale, The Flash) and starring a strong cast of Nick Robinson as Simon and Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel as his parents. Despite a title change to Love, Simon, the movie is still the tender and funny coming-of-age story Albertalli wrote three years ago. We spoke to her about watching her story turn into a major motion picture.
What was the most surprising thing about adapting the book into a movie?
One thing that was really cool is how passionate everybody was about this project. You have this idea that Hollywood is all about making money and is very impersonal. But Love, Simon is such a passion project for director Greg Berlanti. Everyone on set—the medics, craft services, extras, producers, even the Fox executives—all these people who are at the top of their game professionally were going all in for this project. And that was palpable on set.
What was it like collaborating on the script?
I had very little feedback on the first draft other than a lot of squealing and saying, “I love it. I’m obsessed with it.” [Simon and his friends spend some time at Waffle House], and my one [Atlanta-centric] note to my sweet California-based screenwriters was, “You can’t order that at Waffle House.” But I found out later that Waffle House actually made sure the writers knew exactly what was on their menu. When Waffle House followed me on Twitter—that’s when I felt like I had made it. They even made me a custom nametag.
What was the most memorable scene for you?
I was on set the day they were filming the scene between Simon and his mom [when she talks to him one-on-one after he comes out]. I was on set with a reporter, the producers, some of the Fox executives, and every single person was sobbing at every take. It’s so emotional for so many different reasons.
What has your experience been watching the film?
I’ve seen it seven times, with an audience for six of those. The reactions I’ve seen have been unreal. One I saw with a theater full of teenagers from my old high school [Riverwood International Charter School in Sandy Springs]. The screaming, squealing, clapping, cheering, sniffling in that theater—I’ve never seen anything like that.
The book was already quite successful, but now it has a new, bigger audience. How has that felt?
It’s strange. Simon was always a word-of-mouth book. When it came out in 2015, I don’t know that anybody thought that Simon could be mainstream. Publisher Harper Collins loved it in-house, but it wasn’t a lead title. Nobody is more surprised than me that it’s a film. It’s the little book that could.
Overtime it grew to amass a cult fanbase. People own multiple copies and editions in languages they don’t know. There’s fan fiction and fan art. It’s been really special. To have it suddenly transition to a new audience is very exciting. I don’t necessarily position myself at the center of that. [The movie] is more Greg’s baby. I’m just along for the ride. But it’s been strange, exciting, weird to see it take on this new life, to be talked about on mainstream shows like Jimmy Fallon.
Why is Simon’s story so important to see on film?
One of the things that Love, Simon is doing that hasn’t been done before is it’s a gay teen rom-com with a mainstream wide release and the backing of a studio that previous gay rom-coms have not had. I’m really excited by that. Greg Berlanti and everyone making this were very aware of that. That in and of itself is very subversive because they’re very deliberately making this movie to join the canon of John Hughes and the 1990s rom-coms I grew up on. But this movie is meant to reach a group of people who have not seen themselves in that kind of film before. This is just Simon’s story; he doesn’t represent everyone in the gay community. He couldn’t because there are so many stories to be told.
How do you hope the film will impact the LGBTQ community?
I hope this convinces other studios to take a chance on more movies like this: adaptations of books by members of the community, original screenplays, intersectional projects, a broader range of experiences. There’s room for so many stories. I hope this becomes an impetus for that.
One little wish I had for this movie with it being mainstream and available in a lot more cities than other recent movies in this [queer] space is maybe you have a kid somewhere who’s not out to their friends but is able to go see [the film], feel seen, and have the protection of it being mainstream. Everyone from their school is seeing it, so it’s not a big deal [if they go see it, too]. They can participate in that without it being a statement [about their sexuality] they may not be ready to make.
There are a lot of little Atlanta-specific Easter eggs scattered throughout the film (which was also filmed here in Atlanta). How much involvement did you have in that?
I did help with Simon’s bedroom [which features art from local artists like R. Land]. I doodled on the chalkboard and planted the books. But I love the art department of this film so much. A lot of the Atlanta nods are things the art department either pulled from the books, or a lot of the people from that department are from Atlanta and because [the film is] set in Atlanta they were able to celebrate it: Simon has that Varsity hat on his bulletin board, there’s a Criminal Records sign.
Your next book, Leah on the Offbeat, comes out April 24 and follows Simon’s best friend in the film. How do the film and books complement each other?
The actor who plays Leah, Katherine Langford, knows Leah so well. She plays the character as if she’s read the new book. She understands that character so well. There are certain plot changes between the film and book, but Leah on the Offbeat works well with the film.