Anna Todd published her first book, After, in 2014. It was touted as a coming-of-age romance that began life on Wattpad as One Direction fan fiction. The story became a worldwide bestseller, and a book and film deal soon followed. This weekend, After arrives in theaters, looking to win the hearts of new and returning fans alike.
Director Jenny Gage and author Anna Todd each sat down to discuss the journey to bring the book to life. After stars Josephine Langford, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, and Selma Blair.
First, Anna Todd shared the experience of seeing her story play out for a feature film.
A couple of years ago, everyone was talking about this new book called After by a new author named Anna Todd. And now here you are and they’ve turned it into a movie.
Anna Todd: Yeah.
How are you feeling about it?
AT: I’m excited. I’m so ready for it to finally be out. I feel like we’ve been working on it for so long that I’m just ready for it to be out. Counting down the days, literally. And now it will be out in the world this week, so I’m happy.
What was it like when you got the call that someone wanted to turn your book into a movie?
AT: The first call was before the book publishing deal went through. So at that point I was like, “What? Why? I don’t understand.” Then once I had a couple more authors that were friends, I started realizing that everyone around me had options. I didn’t want to get too excited that it would happen, so I just kind of put it on the back burner. As a reader, as much as I was excited for the film, I was much more excited for the book, to be honest. I would much rather have a book than the movie.
For you as a writer, how did you decide what details to really be firm about and what to let go of?
AT: I mostly just took what the fans liked the most. The lake scene, the wedding. There’s beats in the books that I knew had to be there. There’s some characters I knew had to be there for the fans but just couldn’t be because of timing. Zed, for example, I love Zed and he’s a huge part of the book, but when you’re watching for an hour and forty-five minutes, you can’t just have her start with Noah, leave Noah, be with Hardin, then be with Zed, then back to Hardin. Those are things that, unless you really explain it or think about the film as a small piece, it was harder to let those things go or Christian Vance, that was easier, because hopefully we’ll have sequels, but I didn’t realize how many different plot lines my book had until we tried to fit it all into an hour and forty-five minutes.
AT: I was there every single day. I was on set every day from start to finish, sixteen hour days. I loved being there, though. It was fun being able to, if dialogue wasn’t working, to be handed a computer and fix it, and write the page. Especially now, seeing the film, so much of what I wrote came into the film, so I’m really happy about that and proud of that. Then, costumes and things that, technically, I shouldn’t have had any say over, but I got to say if I didn’t like this outfit we should change it to this, or this maroon color is too purple, we have to redo it. Tessa’s hair should be like this. Those things were kind of fun, when you’re able to collaborate. And when you’re writing a story, it’s just you. So this was fun to get a bunch of different cooks and all try to make the same thing.
What was it like for you the first day you walked on the set and saw your vision come to life?
AT: I think the first whoa moment was the pre-production office, when I went there and just realized it was this huge room in this huge warehouse where there vans parked outside and buses and trailers and all these things with After Productions on it. All of these people want to have jobs right now because of this. Especially, we had so many women working. We had a female director, we have all these female producers, all these female crew members that… I had a lady that has worked in filmmaking for twenty years and has never been on a set that had so many female crew. Even if you have a female director or producer, it’s usually the camera people are not usually female. It was all so, not overwhelming, but exciting. I feel like exciting is too lame a word for what I felt, but it’s the closest thing I can think of.
What a great time to be in the industry with so many women getting to fill big parts of these productions.
AT: It’s really exciting. We all can do better. I didn’t realize before we started making this, I had heard and had read articles of people talking about the lack of representation and stuff, but then when you’re actually doing this you realize it is a huge problem. We all need to do better. We’re doing our little part, but it’s definitely we have a long way to go.
What are some ways you think people can contribute to making it better?
AT: Hiring females, not only directors, though. Even if you have male directors, hire female producers, female screenwriters, female script supervisors, female DPs, like all of these things that people just focus on the headline of “We have a female director!” Yeah, but then you have a bunch of men telling her what to do all day. So it’s not really the same thing as actual inclusiveness. And diversity is a huge problem. We did change a lot of the appearances from the book, which I had a template of, I couldn’t really change because they were already based on real people. But we changed the genders of some of the characters, we changed the race of a lot of the characters. And I’m really happy. I’m proud of that, that we tried to do our part in that. We’re telling a story at a college campus. It would be unrealistic and not doing justice to anyone if we had everybody be just a bunch of white, blonde people.
You first published the book in 2014. So it’s been five years now. What are some of the things you’ve heard from readers that have really connected with them?
AT: The biggest thing that I love to hear the most is just that they’ve read more now. I have this kind of weird niche place in publishing. Not necessarily in the US, but more in Europe and South America, where if you ask my readers if they’re readers, they say no, but they read After and all the classic books and After, and if I tweet about Colleen Umer, they’ll read Colleen’s books. So they are readers, but they don’t realize they’re readers. I love having parents and aunts and teachers say, “My kid’s reading now when before they would never have read a book.”
AT: It’s 50% terrifying, because I definitely shouldn’t be a role model! But then for things like body positivity, or confidence, or just owning my stuff, I feel really lucky and grateful to have that. I wish I had somebody like me to look up to. When I was looking for relatability in my favorite authors, there was always a wall. Literally, if I tweeted, nobody’s responding. They’re not reading it. If I was to tell someone, “Oh, you made me feel less alone or you made me feel beautiful,” it goes into the void. So for me, it’s terrifying, but also nice that I can give twenty seconds to say thank you to somebody who spends their entire day and night loving my books and promoting me and giving me the life that I have now.
The book and now the movie deal with a lot of things that have kind of been taboo topics for girls. Body positivity, female sexuality, things like that. Why is it so important for you to tell those stories?
AT: Just because no one is. And it’s so weird. We were talking earlier about how in the film, everyone keeps talking about the condom. And in the book, every time they have protected sex. There’s one time they don’t and it’s a huge deal and it’s not in the first book. And it’s weird because I never realized that I hadn’t seen a condom without it being a funny comedy scene where they’re making a joke about it in a sexual scene. And that’s really kind of scary that three seconds of a condom is just deleted and treated like it doesn’t happen because it’s not sexy. I love to talk about things that are controversial and things that are taboo.
A lot of teenagers are going to see this. What is something you hope they’ll gain from watching it?
AT: I like to tiptoe on the line of not wanting to send a message. Otherwise, I think I limit my creativity and I’m afraid of what message I’m sending. But I hope with this that they feel 1) less alone, especially if we get sequels, when we get into more of the addiction topics. But for the first one, I hope they’re entertained, that they understand consent, and the boys that are watching with the girls remember that consent is important and condoms are cool. Whether Hollywood says it or not. And I just want them, whether your first love was twenty years ago or will be in three years, I want you to feel that universal longing and excitement for falling in love.
How did you first get involved with After?
Why did you choose to go from a documentary to a narrative?
JG: With the documentary, I worked with my partner Tom Betterton and we almost made it like a narrative film. I mean, it’s a documentary, but the way it was styled. So from that documentary into a narrative film felt like a natural progression. I really wanted to dive even deeper into young people’s stories.
In addition to the theme of sexual awakening, what are some things you really wanted to make sure to bring into this film as it relates to young womanhood?
JG: One of the struggles that Tessa has that was relatable, at least relatable to me, was sort of who you think you should be and who you want to be. That’s one of Tessa’s big struggles is that, and I think that’s very relatable as a young person. I also think the relationship between Tessa and her mother and leaving the nest, whether it’s to go to college or to go live out on your own feels very authentic and something that young people struggle with all the time. And your friends. I really love the relationship of Tessa and Steph in the movie and how she’s intimidated by her, a little scared by her, but also very attracted to her and wants to be her friend and opens herself up to be her friend.
What are some ways you feel you relate to Tessa?
JG: I feel like I relate to a lot of Tessa in her struggles. In terms of growing up, finding out who your friends are; who you can rely on; first love, how messy it can be; her relationship with her mother. I mean, I had a different relationship with my mother than Tessa and Carol, but, you know, the mother/daughter relationship is a bond that’s so strong and so important in a woman’s life and I love telling that story.
You got to work with Selma Blair, and Peter Gallagher, and Jennifer Beals. You’ve got some great veteran actors. What was it like bringing them into your cast?
JG: That was incredible because on the one hand, I had all these talented up-and-coming actors, and on the other hand I had all these talented, more seasoned actors who have been my heroes for a long time. Peter Gallagher has been in some of my favorite films from Robert Altman. Jennifer Beals, you know? Flashdance is burned in my head forever. I love that movie so much. And then Selma Blair for so many movies. Legally Blonde, Cruel Intentions, everything. Every sort of girlfriend movie you want to watch with your best friend. Each one of those actors were so open to my direction and telling the story the way I envisioned it. So it was incredible to have that kind of ying yang of a group of actors.
What were some of your early conversations like with your screenwriter, cinematographer, some of the people working on your crafts team?
JG: I talked a lot about the look, feel, and tone of the film. I felt it was very important that it have a special look. That the cinematography, the production design, the casting, the costume design all felt very current. In our office before filming, we just filled the walls with xeroxes of references and inspiration and mood boards. That’s something I’m very proud of. I feel that in this genre, it’s an elevated look to the film and I feel that was something that was very important to me as a director and my team, everyone brought 100% to the table.
What was it that drew you to directing in the first place?
JG: I started out as a photographer, and there’s an element of directing in that for sure. There’s an element of casting, production design, costume design. All of those elements were there. And to me it felt like a very natural progression to go into filmmaking as a director. It’s just on a much larger scale. And I love working with people. I love the crew that I had. I felt so supported by them.
What are some ways you feel like you’ve grown as a director and as a person through this production?
JG: One thing about making a film, everybody’s right. It’s such hard work. It’s such crazy hours, it’s such long days. And I learned to be able to manage my time, manage what I’m able to do, really push myself when I needed to, and reserve energy when I needed to as well. I learned that I love working with actors. I love collaborating with my supporting crew. My cinematographer, my production designer, my costume designer. And I love telling stories. I think that’s the most important thing about being a director, male or female, is to get your story out. Your vision.
Was there a scene in After that, while you were filming it you thought, this is really coming together well?
JG: It’s definitely the lake. It’s interesting because the lake scene works for me on a number of levels. Story-wise, it’s the first time that Tessa says yes to Hardin and opens herself up to exploring her feelings for him. Visually, I think it’s one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie. Performance-wise I think that Josephine and Hero did such an incredible job in their body movements, performing without speaking much in that scene. Especially when they’re up on the dock. And the funny thing is when we were shooting that scene, I knew from the beginning that was such an important scene to me and I knew the actors felt the same way. It started raining about a half hour into filming, and then rained for six hours straight. And we only had a couple hours to actually shoot that scene. That’s the great thing about filmmaking. It almost helped that scene that it had to be shot so quickly. We shot it until there was no more light in the sky.
With Josephine and Hero both, as up-and-coming actors, what is some advice you gave them?
JG: I don’t know if it would be advice, but we talked a lot about being vulnerable as an actor and really diving into emotions. When to give a lot, when to give a little. The great thing about both Hero and Josephine was they always wanted to talk about their character and their motivation. And we spent a lot of time when we weren’t filming, talking about, “Would Tessa do this?” “Would Hardin do that?” In a way I just feel lucky that they were just so present and willing to dive into their characters the way they were.
At what point did you read the novel?
JG: I read the script and then I read the novel. I feel like I read the novel the way the fans read the novel. So quickly. I was just consumed reading it. I read it over a weekend, and then I went in and started pitching for it sort of at the same time… It’s a fun story and it’s a story that dives into a young woman’s obsessions and her passion and is unapologetic about that. And that’s rare, and I think that’s what compelled me.
Why do you think it’s important to tell this story today?
JG: Because I think that often teenage girls are made to think their desires are not okay. There’s a lot of pressure for girls to act a certain way. And here was this young woman going to college and falling for this guy and giving into those passions and feelings. In the book what I loved was there was so much that we heard in her head, where she’s really struggling with it. I think that’s nice to know that it’s not easy for everyone to follow their passions.
This is going to have a very female-dominated audience, of course. But what would you hope that men can take away from the story?
JG: One of the things I think Hero was able to do with Hardin’s character is tap into that vulnerability. And you really see in his performance that he wants to connect with Tessa but he can’t. I really see the coming of age story as both Hardin’s and Tessa’s. I love that by the end he’s really opening himself up almost more than Tessa is to him. He’s telling her about his past and I think that’s something great for young men to see. That’s a wonderful quality in a human being.
What’s something you haven’t been asked yet that you have been waiting for someone to ask?
JG: I’d want to say that along with Hero and Josephine being such incredible actors, they were also supported by such incredible actors. The supporting cast and the young upcoming actors, Inanna Sarkis, Shane McGie, Khadija Red Thunder, all of them, the long list, Dylan Arnold, Pia Mia, I just think that was also an added layer for everyone to work off of and be creative and talk about characters. Everyone always asks did we hang out on the weekend. I always talk about how Hero would come over and play Fortnight with my boys because he’s closer to their age than my age and they love that. And not only that, but Hero and the rest of the cast would invite my kids, who are a lot younger than them to go play paintball or laser tag. When we were there it was really like the cast and Tom and I were like a big family.
After is distributed by Aviron and is now in theaters.