“You put the camera on both of them and you let them play,” says Matthew Lopez, director of Red, White and Royal Blue. “In that play, magic happens.”
We’re talking about capturing the chemistry between his leads, Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine, the “Netflix summer dudes” that form the core of this summer’s big-screen adaptation of the runaway 2019 bestselling novel by Casey McQuiston that’s landing on Amazon Prime on August 11.
There’s a lot riding on Perez and Galitzine to sell the juicy and puckish premise of the book, in which Alex, the wisecracking son of the president of the United States (Zakhar Perez), goes from playfully despising to playfully hooking up with to playfully falling in love with a capital-P Prince of Wales (played by Galitzine).
Lopez, an acclaimed playwright known for a sweeping six-and-a-half-hour Broadway epic (who also wrote the film’s screenplay with Ted Malawer), says that the chemistry between his leads was so apparent that sometimes he “felt like the schoolmarm trying to get their attention.” Their casual rapport, like the film’s R rating for “language, some sexual content, and partial nudity,” has come as a welcome surprise to the book’s rabid fans, who’ve spent the summer scouring GQ videos and film clips online for evidence of their charm.
Hanging out with GQ on Zoom, Lopez dug into how he discovered that chemistry, the classic romcoms that he returned to for inspiration, and what it’s like releasing a movie during a industry-wide strike.
Lopez: It was the characters, Alex especially. [As a queer Puerto Rican], I never encountered a character like Alex Claremont-Diaz before, and I’d never read a romantic comedy like this before. It was a new kind of fairy tale. And I am sent a lot of things to read. My agent sent it to me thinking I would want to turn it into a musical and I instantly saw the movie. I was very shameless and harassed [Red, White and Royal Blue producers] Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter and told them that I was gonna make this film. Eventually they agreed.
I could feel that this book had the potential to be one of those great romcoms if done right. First and last, a successful romcom has two leads that we believe and root for and care about. It begins and ends with the characters and the actors playing them.
When you think about When Harry Met Sally or Moonstruck, those two characters are so idiosyncratic. In a weird way, actually, Bringing Up Baby is a version of Red White and Royal Blue, which I know is a crazy thing to say. You’ve got Katherine Hepburn, which is the Alex Claremont-Diaz role, a larger-than-life torpedo of a human being. And you’ve got Cary Grant, who plays this buttoned-up stuffed shirt who follows the rules and is always the good boy whose life is upended by this crazy person. The filmmakers in those movies leave the actors on camera together. You’re not cutting back and forth. You put the camera on both of them and you let them play. In that play, magic happens. That spoke to me as a theater artist making his first movie. That means longer takes. That means your actors are learning longer stretches of dialogue more confidently. I brought in Nicholas and Taylor early and we spend weeks rehearsing so when we got on set they could play it like a play. It was my job with Steve Goldblatt, my director of photography, to make sure that it didn’t look like a play.
I still haven’t figured out how to use WhatsApp, so no. But it’s not surprising that playwrights have an ability to look at storytelling in a different way. There are tremendous game-changing filmmakers whose work I revere who have never set foot inside a theater as a practitioner, but there’s something about training with bodies in space that you’re forced to learn in theater that can age you up as a filmmaker and allow you to understand scenes in a granular way.
Working with Robbie Taylor Hunt—who’s my amazing intimacy coordinator—and working very carefully and in a very focused way with Taylor and Nick over the course of several days, we found our way in. I needed to make sure that the audience understood what specifically was happening, physically, between these two young men’s bodies while simultaneously communicating what is happening inside their minds and what is happening to them emotionally.
So when it came to how to frame the more intimate moments in that scene, I needed to sell it on their faces. I knew that I couldn’t rely on wide shots because the wider you go, the more you’re asking your actors to simply perform a sex act. The closer and the tighter you get, you give your actors an opportunity to act. Anyone who has any experience with this kind of lovemaking knows exactly what is happening at any given moment in that scene, and those who don’t can probably guess. For me it was really important that it felt very accurate without needing to be entirely graphic, because if we don’t understand what’s happening to them emotionally, there’s no point for this scene to be in the movie.
Believe it or not, I’m not on Twitter, so I have no idea what goes on there.
Obviously, I hope they love it. I might not be a BookToker, but I’m someone who passionately loves this book. I love the book so much that I went and made a movie about it. And I knew the best way to do fan service on this film is to make a good film. Everything else is less important to me than delivering. When I saw the first assembly of the film in August last year, which of course was a third longer than the movie ended up being, I knew instantly that if it doesn’t feed directly into our understanding of Alex and Henry and their journey together, it doesn’t belong in the film. It’s about Alex and Henry, full stop, nothing else. There’s less than 20 seconds, I think, in the film in which one of them does not appear. Their screen time is pretty total.
I talked to Casey McQuiston about this the other day, and my hope is that people will see this movie as a very loving adaptation of a beloved novel that is made by someone who loves the book, but also something that stands on its own independently. There is Red, White and Royal Blue the book and there’s Red, White and Royal Blue the movie. There’s a lot of overlap between the two, but they are actually two distinct things.
I will say the studio asked us in post-production for everybody to put together their favorite bloopers. But this is an irritatingly disciplined cast. You’d be shocked at how few bloopers there are.
I will be honest with you, we just got lucky. We did a chemistry read with them, and it was on Zoom, too, and I’ve seen wonderful actors not gel, and lucky for us, they got on so well. It was there from the first moment they got on Zoom together. They were, as the Brits would say, always taking the piss out of each other. It’s dumb luck to find two actors who are perfect for their roles and who just instantaneously click. There was a part of them that, in the strategic part of their actor brains, knew that they needed to get along to make it work, but knowing you need to do something and actually doing it are two different things. They had an ability from the get-go to trust one another and support one another. When you see them give interviews, when you see them on set, there’s a rhythm they fall into, and whether they tapped into my rhythm or I tapped into theirs, there ended up being a symbiotic relationship between the three of us on set.
Around the time we were making this movie, there was a lot of news about the real British royal family. I knew if people were thinking about the Windsors while watching this movie, I would have failed. At the time the movie was made, there was a queen. So I thought, what better way to differentiate than to present a king? And who better to portray this bullying, homophobic, chain-smoking, whiskey-swilling, deeply fictional king of England than Steven Fry? I loved asking Steven Fry to play a homophobe. Steven Fry and his majesty are actually good friends, and it didn’t stop Steven at all. It was very clear this is not the actual king of England. When I looked at some of the ways that I set the scene up, I was like holy shit, he’s an English, upper-class Don Corleone. Greatest thing I’ve ever done in my career, casting him in this movie.
On one hand, I don’t know because I’ve never released a movie before, so it looks pretty normal for me. I have nothing to compare it to.
It’s unfortunate that the actors are not able to speak for themselves about their work and it’s unfortunate that they don’t have an opportunity to celebrate the work that they’ve done. That said, they have more important things to do right now than celebrate their work in one movie. The strikes are deeply essential for both my union and for SAG-AFTRA. I feel in some ways, as a DGA member, I know I have a responsibility to stay on promoting the film. I want to be able to speak for the work these actors have done, but I also am worried about the industry and what its future is at a time when so many artists of color and queer artists are starting to be given opportunities to make films. This is the time in which we actually need Hollywood to be strong and robust, and it hasn’t been for too many people for too long. I hate that Hollywood seems to be going through this upheaval at a time when so many types of filmmakers and storytellers are being given their first shot. But I think that by the end of this, the Hollywood they inherit will be a better and a fairer one.