Krystal Sutherland’s 2016 debut novel Our Chemical Hearts attracted a loyal following for its penetrating and thoughtful portrait of an idealistic young man and a shattered young woman grappling their way toward adulthood.
That fan base includes one of Hollywood’s hottest young actresses, Lili Reinhart, also known as girl-next-door Betty Cooper on the hit television series Riverdale, who immediately embraced Sutherland’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the sometimes chaotic, often messy and always intense emotional lives of teens.
Reinhart’s instincts told her the book had the potential to become a compelling and relatable film that would cross boundaries of age and experience.
“I loved that it was not what you expect when talking about a teen love story,” Reinhart says. “It seemed a lot deeper than many other young adult romances out there. It’s more raw and grounded in grief. Most teen movies concentrate on drinking and experimenting and losing your virginity. This is the internal struggle of these two young people feeling overwhelming emotions as their worlds are changing.”
The film is about seventeen-year-old Henry Page (Austin Abrams) has never been in love. He fancies himself a romantic, but the kind of once-in-a-lifetime love he’s been hoping for just has not happened yet.
Then, on the first day of senior year, he meets transfer student Grace Town (Lili Reinhart) and it seems all that is about to change.
When Grace and Henry are chosen to co-edit the school paper, he is immediately drawn to the mysterious newcomer.
As he learns the heartbreaking secret that has changed her life, he finds himself falling in love with her — or at least the person he thinks she is.
Chemical Hearts screens worldwide on Amazon Prime Video on August 21st, 2020.
Instead of waiting to be offered the part of Grace Town, the story’s troubled high schooler, she decided to take the project into her own hands, ultimately becoming an executive producer of the film. “I loved helping to build something from the ground up,” she says.
“Being an executive producer meant I was incredibly involved from the very beginning to make sure that this project came together in the best way that it could.”
Reinhart was an admirer of writer-director Richard Tanne’s feature film debut, Southside with You, which imagines the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. It premiered in Dramatic Competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and was purchased by Miramax and Roadside Attractions.
When she reached out to him about directing Chemical Hearts, she discovered that the story of two teenagers learning to let their vulnerabilities shine through their fear struck a chord with him as well.
“When Rich and I met, we really clicked,” Reinhart recalls. “It was very cool to realise we had the same vision for the movie. We both wanted the movie to have the depth and tone that the book has.”
Tanne started work on the screenplay the same day he met Reinhart, despite not having secured the film rights yet. “It immediately appealed to me because it was a story about the first great love of your life, which was also the first great heartbreak of your life,” he explains.
“Chemical Hearts is about the pain and beauty of being young and feeling adult emotions for the first time. It’s a story about learning that when you fall apart, it’s up to you, and no one else, to put yourself back together.
“In retrospect,” he continues, “it seems ill-advised to have completed a script when Lili and I had not yet optioned the rights — and didn’t even know if we could. But my urge to tackle the project was so compelling I was willing to take a gamble.”
It was not until after he had finished the screenplay that it dawned on Tanne how much the story echoed his own high school experiences during a time when he was struggling to learn to accept and even love himself. “Like Henry, I was the editor-in-chief of my school newspaper,” he remembers.
“Like him, I was infatuated with a girl who seemed interested in me but was always just out of reach. Like both Henry and Grace, I experienced a wild spectrum of emotions I had never felt before, and in the end it changed me. Without knowing it, Krystal’s story enabled me to tell my own story.”
Producer Alex Saks and executive producer Jamin O’Brien joined the team as preproduction began. For them, the team of Reinhart and Tanne, in addition to the strength of the story, was a huge draw. “I was really excited at the prospect of working with Lili,” says Saks. “I’ve been a fan for a while. It’s a very dramatic, compelling character and she knocked it out of the park.”
Adds O’Brien: “Richard is exciting to work with because he depends very much on instinct and his instincts are great. He’s very much engaged with everybody from actors to cinematography to wardrobe and production design. He doesn’t want to compromise on his vision, but at the same time he is open to other people’s ideas.
Creating the innovative score:
Composer Stephen James Taylor is known for creating musical scores that blend pop, classical, jazz, world music and experimental sounds.
His unique approach is often defined by the use of a larger palette of notes than those allowed on conventional instruments. “Stephen also scored my first feature, Southside with You, and became a close friend during that process,” says Tanne.
“I wanted to work with him again because he is an outside-the-box thinker who never stops at the obvious choice. He is always reaching deeper, feeling around under the surface for what’s impactful, substantive and real.”
The two talked about merging a high school garage band aesthetic, which represented the grounded daytime world, with something cosmic, transcendent and mythic representing the figurative underworld that Grace helps Henry discover — a world of pain and grief, but also one of
emotional maturity and compassion.
“Stephen has a vast collection of unusual and customised musical instruments including electric guitars, synth pads, marimbas, and a one-of-a-kind electric string instrument called a Transcendello with which he was able to create unusual music that reflects the movie’s many dueling moods — night vs. day, grounded vs. expressionistic, and melancholy vs. euphoria.”
Written and Directed by Richard Tanne
Based on the book “Our Chemical Hearts” by Krystal Sutherland
Produced by Alex Saks, Richard Tanne
Executive Producer Lili Reinhart
Starring Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Kara Young, Coral Peña, C.J. Hoff