Henry (Austin Abrams) and Grace (Lili Reinhart) are two well-read high school students who work at the school paper, and yet struggle to express themselves. Henry is a mumbler, and Grace is withholding a great deal of emotional pain, aside from the cane that she walks with. But writer/director Richard Tanne lets them talk like regular awkward, sensitive teens through scenes that are longer than your usual teen fare, giving them a cinematic treatment more akin to Tanne’s favorites, Richard Linklater or Eric Rohmer. “Chemical Hearts” reaches out to the teens in its audience with blunt words about how such an intense life chapter is like living in limbo, but it’s the lived-in performances, and walk-and-talk scene structure, that confirm their authenticity and sincerity.
Tanne adapted these scenes from Krystal Sutherland’s novel of the same name, the first time he’s adapted a previous source. In 2018, his debut “Southside with You” presented a gorgeous if not calming revisiting to the Obamas’ first date, its imagination built from the freeness of letting two compelling people gently bare their souls.
RogerEbert.com spoke with Tanne about what he’s been up to since the release of 2018’s “Southside with You,” his own high school experience with the film’s darker subject matter, getting the rights to use the work of Stan Brakhage for interludes, and more.
Before I knew about this movie, I was always wondering what you had been working on. So what was life like for you after “Southside with You” came out?
I didn’t just get to go and make my next movie right away. Prior to making “Southside,” I had been writing an original project at Pixar. I was there for about eight months, and then “Southside” got officially green lit, and I left for a months to go make the movie and edit. And then leading up to Sundance and during it and after, I was back at the studio working again. I was there for two years total, but after “Southside” came out it was another six to eight months.
And then this came along, and up until this point I had never adapted before, it was only working on original ideas. Obviously “Southside” was inspired by real events and real moments in their lives, and biographical details. I always wanted to tell a story set in high school, make my high school movie. And make a movie abut my feelings and impressions of high school. The fundamental bones of the novel and the characters really grabbed me.
I didn’t love my teenage years, for me it was a darker time. I wanted to tell that side of it, and this felt like the right vehicle to do that.
What kind of teenager were you?
I was a lot like Henry, and a lot like Grace. It’s weird, I didn’t really connect those dots until after I finished writing the script, but superficially there were a lot of similarities. For example, they’re both editors for the high school newspaper, and are driven to be writers. I was too. And their dynamic as well, falling for someone who doesn’t quite have the same feelings for you, all of those similarities were based in my high school experience.
I think I was as sensitive as Henry was, but I was not able to articulate that back then. I felt things deeply and wanted to feel things deeply. In the case of Grace, I thought about the bigger picture, and I was a little bit nihilistic for a 16 or 17 year old. I definitely had my mind take a walk on the darker side of things, and there weren’t a lot of people you could share that with. When you did find someone that you could share that with, in the case of Grace and Henry, there’s a real connection. I wasn’t like a very popular guy but I also wasn’t considered some sort of fringe character. I was like, sort of like Henry, just sort of a misfit flying under the radar.
You mention the darker things and being able to talk about that, and it’s cathartic to see a movie talk so openly about death and suicide and sadness. I think about the part where Grace says, “My last thought was ‘shit.’” It sounds like a ridiculous idea, but it’s true. But what was important to you to getting those ideas out there, especially to a teenage audience?
You know, I could draw a line directly from this movie to the imaginings of my 17-year-old self. When I was a senior in high school, there were two classmates of mine who committed suicide. It sort of rocked the town, and it jolted the very notion of having a fun, carefree senior year, although people did sort of march on as normal. I was very troubled by it and disturbed by it, and to this day it hasn’t left my consciousness. And of course, I’m still imbuing my work with echoes of that stuff.
But, what was fascinating to me was that the first boy who committed suicide was a year younger. As a reaction to that suicide, I made a short film. It was sort of the first real short film that I ever made. I really put a lot into it, it meant a lot to me. And in sort of a reaction to the way that the suicide had spun out to this town lore, and now instead of mourning and grieving and talking about what happened it was sort of turned into a joke. It was sort of turned into a gothic joke, and people would go drink around the tree where he hung himself, and litter and all this stuff.
I was in a TV production class and I edited the short film in that class. And one of my classmates, whose opinion I respected a lot, he was very well versed in editing and TV production, I’d ask him if he’d come take a look at it. And so we screened the short film together, and he gave me some thoughts and some notes and said he liked it very much. It was a good totally pedestrian exchange between us. Not two months later, that same classmate then committed suicide by hanging himself. And I’ve never been able to get over the contrast of the ordinary way that we interacted when we were watching this short film about one of our classmates, about suicide, and just how he seemed totally at ease in talking about it. But inside, his emotions must have been roiling, to know that two months later he hung himself in the same manner the first classmate did.
We have no idea what is going on inside people’s minds, and inside their hearts. Least of all when we are young, and all of these emotions are new and feel constrictive talking about it. That’s just haunted me ever since. I wanted to kind of find the mundane horror and pain in being young.
Did telling this story then provide … not a sense of closure … but any kind of peace with these thoughts?
No, I don’t know that such a thing is even possible. For me, I don’t know if that’s possible. But I’m not sitting here thinking I’m incapable of blinding myself everyday from the truth of mortality and the truth of cruelty and fairness in life and the cosmos, and everything that happened. It’s just wrong, and it shouldn’t happen, but of course if you sit and think about it every day, then you’re really capable of going about and living your life. But every once in a while, something comes along, it might be an event, a tragedy, or in the case of “Chemical Hearts,” it’s reading Krystal’s book, and it stirs up those feelings again. But this was an opportunity to try and translate that in mood and image, and in emotion, hopefully.
Is there a large sense that you wanted to make this for teens, who were having those thoughts and uncertainties?
I don’t know. Yeah, sure. I feel like if I had seen this when I was 15, 16, I think I would have connected with it. I think I would have felt like it was an honest depiction, certain aspects would have been elevated. But I think it was coming from the right place, from an authentic place, from a place of striving for truth, and I would have appreciated that, I think. I can’t say that was the mission statement. But certainly the mission statement was, “This is a movie about young people, and it’s about these things and let’s do our best to make it feel authentic. Each moment, each scene.”
And also this was important for me—I never wanted to talk down to young people with this movie. I think sometimes, teen movies fall into a trap … not all of them, we could talk about “Better Luck Tomorrow” or “Rushmore” or “Elephant,” these are teen movies, “Say Anything.” But I think a lot of movies in the genre, they do sometimes pander or condescend. And I just want young people to feel like we’re either meeting them at their level, or maybe reach a little bit higher than their arts or their movies or their TV demanded them.
That authenticity comes in the filmmaking, how you’re giving this audience a walk-and-talk movie. There’s got to be a connection with your previous movie. Was that why you wanted to make “Chemical Hearts”?
If I went back and watched my first movie again, I would probably be thinking, “Less dialogue, man. A little bit less with your writer self, a little more with your director self.” So this time, I did try to imbue the imagery with a little bit more complexity and I was really lucky to collaborate with Albert Salas, who was the DP, and we wanted to create a timeless-looking movie that anyone could from teenage years at any point could relate to, even though the story takes place in the present. I think what drove the way it looked was … first of all it was shot on 35mm, and I wanted that because it’s sort of how I see my adolescence and my childhood, watching movies from when I was teenager. But also the idea that you get that beautiful imperfection when you’re shooting and processing on film, and I wanted it to have that lived-in texture, flawed quality. I think that’s the movie, that’s the characters, that’s Grace and Henry and their flaws. I think the walk-and-talk part of it is probably unconscious, it’s probably just how I end up structuring movies or scenes.
It’s funny you bring that up, because it does get me into trouble, not on something like this, which is still fairly low budget and I have a lot of creative freedom. But on certain bigger projects I’ve tried to get going, I have really had to police myself, and move away from that a bit. But it is, in a way, a bread-and-butter fallback for me. One of the reasons that I love it, and one of the reasons that I’ve Eric Rohmer, Richard Linklater, is because I find that once you get past that three, two-and-a-half-minute mark, which is what a sort of long scene would feel like in a regular movie, if it just keeps going, and the acting is good and it looks good and you’re interested in what they’re saying, that before you know it you’re sort of forget about it, and the movie lulls you.
I’m not saying this about “Chemical Hearts,” I’m saying this about a movie like “My Dinner with Andre,” or a movie like “Elephant.” It’s sort of just, you get lulled into the minutiae of what’s happening on screen. I think that with a teen movie like this, the awkwardness and the pregnant pauses and the tension, the sexual tension or the sights and sounds of suburbia, these are all just important details that can really help you immerse yourself a bit. And I think that the walk-and-talk, with longer drawn out takes and scenes, I think that can immerse you. A lot of our marketing and promotion is being done on social media and TikTok, so whether or not that audience responds to that type of filmmaking, your guess is as good as mine. But to your point, I had no choice but to do it that way, because that’s just sort fo how I saw it.
Speaking of fast moving images beyond comprehension–I’ve got to give you credit for putting Stan Brakhage in a teen movie.
Yeah, he was somebody I was introduced to in in my first year of film school. I think it was “Dog Star Man”; the images never left the brain. I wanted the interludes [in “Chemical Hearts”] themselves to have a texture and a tactile nature, just like the film we were shooting on. He used to draw and paint on the celluloid itself, he put objects on it and was scratching. Luckily, I put it in as a placeholder saying, “This is what I would want,” and then right before we were going to talk to a visual effects house about doing something like it, I thought, “Why not just see if maybe the estate, his lovely widow would be open to us licensing it?” And I had a great conversation with Mrs. Brakhage, and she was eventually persuaded with the approach of the movie, and we were grateful for that.
Do you remember what might have sold her on “Chemical Hearts” in particular?
I think it was the idea that I wasn’t manipulating his footage to be something else. And also, it was isolated. He was on his own in three select places in the movie. And that the use would be open to interpretation, much the way that Stan’s work was. He always had very clear reasons for why he was doing things a certain way, and he was a huge proponent of everybody having their own interpretation of things. We are appropriating it, but we are keeping it in its form, in its correct form. And she also liked the themes that the movie was dealing with, and I suppose just the way I was talking about the experience of being young and how I wanted to transplant it.
At the beginning you told me about the Pixar project, can you tell me anything about that?
Well, I don’t think it’s happening anymore, I don’t know for sure.
I’m sorry to hear that.
It’s okay, it’s okay. It was an amazing experience, I spent a couple years working on it. It wasn’t something for me to direct, I was there to work on it as a screenwriter, and it was for another director. I hope for him that he gets to one day realize his vision, because it’s a really special project. But yeah, I did have to move on from there.
But I have as far as what’s next, I’ve got a couple of original scripts that I am attached to direct. They’re both bigger films than what I’ve done, in terms of scope. One of them is very much in line with “Southside” and “Chemical Hearts,” but in addition to having a little romance it also takes on a couple of other genres. But also, the other one that I have that I’m working on right now is a total 180 from anything that I’ve done, and it would be like, you probably wouldn’t recognize it. I don’t think there’s even a single walk-and-talk scene in it.
Available tomorrow on Amazon Prime.