Richard Tanne on showing the dark side of being young in ‘Chemical Hearts’

Lili Reinhart as Grace Town in 'Chemical Hearts'
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

High school is typically displayed in a way that shines a light on how free and fun being young can be. Although that is true, there also is a side to being young that isn’t as carefree and simple, it’s complicateda dark side if you will. That more complex version of being young is exactly what writer/director Richard Tanne wanted to showcase in his latest film, “Chemical Hearts,” based on the book by Krystal Sutherland, “Our Chemical Hearts.”

The film stars Lili Reinhart as Grace, a “troubled” teen with a past that seems to haunt her present both mentally and physically and Austin Abrams as Henry, a hopeless romantic who seems to believe more in fairytale love than the reality of a harsh world. When the two meet while working on the school paper together, they learn not just about love but more about life itself and just how intricate the world of emotions can be.

Tanne had a connection to the film not just on a personal level but on his own chemical level if you will, and sat down with Metro to discuss more on what went into making “Chemical Hearts.”

What was it about this story that inspired you to want to write the screenplay for the film and then write and direct as well? 

That’s a really good question. I had a strange kind of superficial connection to the book because Henry was the editor-in-chief for the school paper, Grace was co-editor and I was the editor-in-chief of my high school paper and the contours or the dynamic of the relationship between themthe sort of push-pull highly emotional rollercoasterI also had a similar kind of first love or infatuation turned heartbreak in high school. [It] mirrored not details, but the contours of what they went through. But, I wasn’t even thinking about that while I was reading the book. It was really only after my adaptation that it occurred to me how many superficial similarities there were. What pulled me in when I was reading the book was how it was unafraid to embrace the dark side of being young. The anguish that we all, no matter what our life situations are or our environment is, go through, crossing the threshold of being an adolescent into an adult. Feeling adult emotions for the first time, and just how painful it can be and beautiful and hopeful, but it didn’t shy away from that. I thought if I can just bottle up a little bit of that melancholy, a little bit of that pain and anguish in service of these two characters journeyit sort of follows the two of them together but tells two separate stories in oneif I could bottle up a little bit of that, then this would be a story to tell. 

Austin Abrams as Henry Page and Lili Reinhart as Grace TownCourtesy of Amazon Studios

What was that process like of adapting the book to a screenplay? 

I would say that it was a very unusual process because I read the book, I went and had a meeting with Lili about how I would want to make this movie, and she was very much understanding and on the same page. Then, before I even had the rights to the book, I started writing the script. I read the book once and I just kind of started writing more from impressions and feelings and tonalities that it conjured up in me, I would sometimes go back and reference specific lines of dialogue or search around for something that I could use to help me, but it was really compulsive. I just sat down and started writing and it was a quick process. It was probably stupid in retrospect to do it that way, because we didn’t even know if we had the rights to make it so, luckily, I was able to get the script to Krystal [Sutherland] and she liked it enough to grant us the rights to make the movie. So, there was no conversation prior to my writing the script, but we started keeping in touch from that point forward. She loved the script and gave me her blessing to tell the story the way that I needed too. Right off the bat, I identified that the book and the movie are two separate pieces of art and have to stand on their own two feet. Really, she came to the set, but she totally gave me my freedom to do what I needed to do with the film. 

Was Lili Reinhart someone you had in mind right away, and what were you looking for when casting Henry? 

Well, Lili was the one who sent me the book. She was interested in the project, and had seen my first movie and thought I might relate to the material. So, she already had the role of Grace in mind and it was very easy for me to picture her in the book. I didn’t know her work from “Riverdale” too well but I had seen her in this little indie called “Miss Stevens”, which I thought she was phenomenal in, and I had seen the first episode of “Riverdale” and I remember watching and saying she’s going to be a big deal, she is just fantastic. Then, you see that there’s an element of authenticity with her, and I thought that would serve the role of Grace really well. As far as Henry, I was actually thinking about Austin. I had seen him in this movie, “Brad’s Status,” and the guy is just incapable of a false moment and has just a real honesty and vulnerability. What I didn’t know at the time before casting was just how dedicated he is and just the way he throws himself into his parts. They were the perfect combination. The two of them actually had worked together on a short film years prior and liked each other and had a history, so it really worked out well. 

This film has a lot of emotional moments, as a director, what do you try to do to help bring the actors into a space where they can release those emotions for the film? 

I think there are two key things: One is just keeping the set pretty intimate—cell phones were not allowed anywhere near the camera or the live set. People had to go outside set or the shooting zone to talk or text and especially during emotional scenes, we would limit the number of crew to be the bare minimum. But beyond that, I think it’s more personal and having a more personal relationship with the actors and making sure that they as themselves, forget the characters, feel comfortable and trust you and know you support them and believe in them. I’m not trying to manipulate either of them to get to a specific emotional target, I trust that they can get where they need to get on their own and I’m just there to hold their hands and whisper words of encouragement to them between takes. I actually think a lot of it is about being a pal and a buddy. 

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Why is it important that audiences see the dark side of being young, and overall what do you hope audiences take away from the film after watching? 

I can only speak from my own experiences, but high school felt like a place where you couldn’t always talk about these kinds of thingsdepression, mental health, death, suicide, there were things that were a little bit taboo. I’m 35, and it’s been 17 years since I was in Henry and Grace’s position but I think it’s universal. You’re in this construct and institution every day but there is this construct that prevents you from being able to express yourself and you’re kind of still under the thumb of authority figures. You’re figuring out who you are and who you believe in and what you want in life under all of these circumstances, but inside you’re feeling so much and you’re almost overwhelmed by emotionthat’s not the case for everyone but that was my experience. As far as what it means for people, I don’t look at it as a romance, I’m happy if people interpret it as that. I personally see at it as a story of two people who learn to take care of themselves. I wanted to make something that is as moody, and irritable and annoying and frustrating and complicated and sloppy and cathartic as being young is. 

“Chemical Hearts” releases on Amazon Prime August 21st

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