“Heart, humor, and spectacle.”
Those are the three words that hang above the door of the writers room for The Flash, showrunner Greg Berlanti’s hit CW superhero series. While it pertains to an action-packed series in which stars in spandex routinely save the world, as a mission statement, the three words could just as easily apply to what Berlanti has done with Love, Simon, the revolutionary gay teen coming-of-age rom-com that hits theaters this weekend.
Love, Simon, which is based on Becky Albertalli’s young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, marks a crowning achievement of sorts in a career marked by firsts.
As prolific as Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, albeit with a smaller profile, Berlanti has had a superhero’s drive himself in pushing through landmark scenes and characters featuring previously taboo content: the first passionate gay kiss in a teen soap drama on Dawson’s Creek, a same-sex marriage on Brothers & Sisters, an abortion storyline on Everwood, the first transgender character in primetime on Dirty Sexy Money, and, now, a host of richly complicated gay characters and storylines across his suite of comic-book series (The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow).
When it opens at nearly 2,500 theaters on Friday, Love, Simon will mark the first time a studio has debuted a gay teenage romance in wide release. It’s only fitting that Berlanti be the one to bring it to us.
“When I went to my first meeting with Fox, I almost didn’t believe they were making it,” the 45-year-old director tells The Daily Beast. “I couldn’t believe there would be a gay teen at the center of this kind of story.”
The film is narrated by 17-year-old protagonist, Simon Spier, played by Jurassic World star Nick Robinson. “For the most part my life is totally normal,” he says in the opening voiceover. “Except I have one huge-ass secret.” Simon is gay.
When a classmate posts an anonymous open letter on a school gossip website saying he is gay and closeted, Simon sees it is an opportunity. He creates a fake email account and begins messaging with the anonymous poster. At first, they’re confiding their secrets. Soon, they fall in love.
But when a bitter classmate outs Simon without warning, his world crashes down around him—his pen pal disappears—as he deals with his secret coming out before he was ready to share it.
“Every time I would try to pitch the movie to people, like when I was trying to hire crew or get people on board, there were no movies I could compare it to directly,” Berlanti says. “The comparable movies never had gay characters.”
Think the charm of Ferris Bueller, the identity crisis of Cady Herron, the from-afar crush of Samantha Baker, and the big-swing grand gestures of a The Fault in Our Stars or Say Anything. But gay! “You think back to the ’80s movies that you marked your life by and lasted with you,” Berlanti says. Love, Simon is aiming for a spot in that canon.
There have, of course, been nuanced, beautifully made narratives about the gay experience, especially in the last two years, with films like Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, Beach Rats, Blue Is the Warmest Color, and more.
But this is not an arthouse film to be sought out, or Queer as Folk episodes you have to pirate online, giving your parents’ desktop computer a virus. It’s meant for the kind of young audience who will applaud, and cheer, and squeal, and root for Simon—which they did at a recent advanced screening, as if they were watching a summer blockbuster or a superhero flick.
“We didn’t make this movie to play just in 200 theaters, which the first film I did with gay subject matter [The Broken Hearts Club] did,” Berlanti says. “We made it to play in 2,500.”
“There are a lot of places all across the country that don’t necessarily think the way we do, as we see in politics every day,” he continues. “I think for a kid in maybe a more conservative small town who could be the one who could really use a movie like this playing one mile, two miles from their house, as opposed to have to drive an hour and a half to a more urban center.”
Berlanti points out that Fox didn’t just test the film in Los Angeles and the usual markets. They also tested it smack dab in the middle of Kansas. The building next door was a church supply shop, he laughs while recalling. And yet the screening scored higher than it did in L.A. The crowd even cheered for the gay kiss at the end. (“I’m not spoiling to say they kiss at the end,” Berlanti says. “It’s a romantic comedy. They kiss at the end!”)
Berlanti jokes that this is so much a passion project for him that he would have worked craft services if he didn’t get the job. He’s getting to make the movie that he wishes could have existed when he was a young, closeted teen—though obviously culture, where it was back then, was such that it never could have.
“I definitely decided at some point that there was no way I could come out when I was in high school,” he says. “Now kids are coming out younger and younger, and that’s incredibly admirable. But I didn’t have that courage. Nor did the world look the way that it looks now.”
The part of Simon’s story that resonated deeply with him were the small, almost undetectable moments in which Simon is trying to simply blend in. It’s something he had committed himself to doing when he was younger, out of a desire to hide.
There’s a character in Love, Simon that was created just for the film: a flamboyant, unapologetically gay classmate of Simon’s named Ethan, played by Clark Moore. Berlanti wanted to portray a kid who was authentically himself, and show what it was like for Simon to see him, be around him, and grapple with complicated feelings about how Ethan had a strength that he didn’t have. (“Hopefully someday someone will do the movie about Ethan,” Berlanti says.)
“When I got to college, I was a theater major but still in the closet,” he says. “I was always mesmerized by kids who could just be themselves.”
So much of his upbringing actually echoes Simon’s. He grew up in New York with liberal parents. Internalizing his work’s own penchant for spectacle, he came out to his parents the night Muhammad Ali lit the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games. It was a process, but by the time Broken Hearts Club was released four years later, they threw him a premiere party at a New York City gay bar.
Similarly, Simon’s parents (played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) are big-hearted, liberal, and accepting. He has no reason to doubt his friends and community would embrace him if he came out. But he still can’t bring himself to do it. He wants more time with things being the same before taking the step that will suddenly make everything different.
“That’s what we tried to circle around to make the movie distinct for now,” Berlanti says. “That it’s not as it was years ago. The world could tell you it’s going to be accepting. But there’s certainly enough signifiers, whether it’s the news or the fact that we’ve only been allowed to be married for like a minute in all of human history, and not every place. Or millions of other reasons that show you that kids absorb all that and they feel less than.”
Still, that we’re having this conversation at all is proof of how far culture has come when it comes to these issues. And much of that progress is very much owed to Berlanti himself.
Berlanti was just 28 when he was tapped to be showrunner of Dawson’s Creek. He was coming off the warm notices for Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy, about a group of gay friends in West Hollywood pitched to a universal audience, but was self-conscious about being young and in such a major position. As he told The Hollywood Reporter, on Sunday nights he would have standing calls with his father, a businessman, for coaching on managerial actions like hiring and firing people.
It was early on in his Dawson’s Creek tenure that he went into battle. It was important to him that if they were going to feature a gay storyline with a main character, Kerr Smith’s Jack, that he be allowed the breadth of romantic experience, and that included kissing. He was prepared to quit after there was pushback—which he also was during the fight over an abortion storyline years later when he was doing Everwood on The WB—but he won out.
“I had to fight for the kiss on Dawson’s,” he says. “But it changed within four or five years after that.” By the time he was working on Brothers & Sisters for ABC, he assumed that the instinct would be to cut away during a love scene between Kevin (Matthew Rhys) and his eventual husband Scotty (Luke MacFarlane). But that wasn’t the case; things had changed that much, that quickly.
There are boundary-pushing storylines and gay characters on nearly all of the series that Berlanti currently has on TV under his production company, including The CW’s Riverdale and his suite of comic-book series. (Who would even have dared to imagine gay superheroes kissing on TV just 10 years ago?)
He maintains that he still has to fight for nearly every taboo storyline, nontraditional casting decision, or boundary-pushing story arc. After doing this for nearly two decades, is he surprised that he still has to fight to include what are ultimately very human, everyday issues and lifestyles in his storytelling?
“I think if I was surprised by it I’d be more discouraged,” he says. “But I’m really encouraged. If you’re opening the door just a little bit, someone else is going to barrel right through it.”
And as the person who’s been opening those doors, he’s well-aware of the scrutiny that comes with it.
Especially when there’s a gay story that is being told in popular culture, there is a harsh criticism, typically from the community itself, about how authentic, or representative, or responsible it is. That’s been the case, at least in a small respect, with Love, Simon. But it’s also something he’s faced throughout his entire career.
“I know some people, probably gay people, are like, ‘No, that’s not my experience,’ or, ‘It’s not gay enough,’” he says. “And I’m sure that there are going to be movies that are going to come after it that, not limited by the nature of a studio, are going to be as gay as they want to be, or as specific as they want to be. But I wish there were more comparisons that could have been made. So it was personal to me in that way, trying to put something out that wasn’t there before.”
He’s not defensive about this as much as he is pragmatic.
“When we were making Dawson’s or making Broken Hearts Club, I had all the same contingents of people coming out saying nasty things,” he says. “Not a large group. But it could be a loud group at times. And I would just say, well this is what’s in my heart, and this is what I see. I can’t make your story. I have to make my story. If I do that, and do what’s true to me, then hopefully there’s aspects of it that are universal.”
That’s a mantra that has served him well over the years, not just in how he tackles gay content, but also the humanity of all the stories he tells. Last year, he had 11 shows on air under his production company, everything from crime thrillers (Blindspot) to teen soaps (Riverdale) to superhero series (Supergirl). Yet there’s something that happens in pop culture whenever a creator makes content in line with their identity, that it can become the only part of their identity.
Berlanti is an out gay showrunner, in a very public marriage to soccer star Robbie Rogers. When you are gay and create content with gay characters, you become the gay showrunner. Does Berlanti think that’s his Hollywood identity? And if so, does that matter?
“People always want to categorize you because it makes it easier for them, to put people in a box,” he says. “I’ve had to write my way or direct my way out of those boxes so many times. I was the teen soap guy, and then I was the family drama guy. While I was the family drama guy I would apply for superhero jobs, and they’d be like, ‘Do you even know anything about superheroes?’ And then when I was doing superheroes and applying for Love, Simon, they’re like, ‘We remember your early work. But are you interested in doing something emotional and heartfelt again? I thought you were having a great time doing superheroes.’”
He lets out a big, deprecating laugh and takes a beat to think about what he just said. “That’s my way of saying that now I’m the old guy. I remember when I would walk into a writer’s room and I was the youngest person in the room by far. Somehow overnight I became the oldest person.” Heart, humor, and spectacle resurface all at once. “But I probably would call myself the one thing I know I am through all these things: the lucky guy.”