The Queerty Interview

Director Craig Johnson on how ‘Alex Strangelove’ reflects his own coming out story

In the era of Love, Simon, Call Me by Your Name, and Moonlight, it’s safe to say the queer coming of age story has found a mainstream audience. They latest addition to this genre is the Netflix Original movie, Alex Strangelove.

Daniel Doheny stars as Alex Truelove (yes, that’s his real name), a high school senior whose mind is filled with college admissions, his viral video series, and his adoring girlfriend (Madeline Weinstein). But when she suggests they finally have sex, he finds himself filled with an unusual anxiety. It all starts to become clear when he meets a slightly older gay kid (Antonio Marziale) at a party and the two develop a connection.

A follow up to Skeleton Twins, the movie has been a decade in the making for writer/director Craig Johnson. With what he admits is a largely autobiographical story, he created a tribute to the teen sex rom-con that paints the coming out process in a raunchier, more realistic light. If Love, Simon introduces Americans to the sweet kid next door, Alex Strangelove is cool kid down the street who knows someone that can buy alcohol.

Queerty caught up with Johnson following the Netflix premiere. As he basked in the glow of critical praise and positive reactions from young adult fans, he reflected on his queer cinematic influences, the long process of creating the movie, and how he hopes to make future movies queerer.

What’s it been like seeing the audience reaction since it’s premiered?
It’s been overwhelming. This is the first time I’ve done a Netflix original, so I didn’t really know what to anticipate. There were even people who watched at midnight on Friday of the release, and by Saturday, people were sending me screengrabs on Twitter of teenagers reacting. I had something like 200 more Instagram followers, all teenagers. The actors had thousands, and this is within 12 hours of it being on Netflix.

There have been some pretty great queer coming of age movies lately. Did you set out to do something different from those?
Well, I wrote the first draft of this movie ten years ago. So it’s been in the works for a while. And I think Love, Simon was shooting at the same time we were. I think it’s more a case of the time being right and the culture sort of being ready for these movies. Even the social progression of the last three, four years with gay marriage has created an environment that I think is open to all these stories. It’s just the time is right, I think. Even though I thought ten years ago that teenagers wouldn’t groove on this story, it took culture shifting for the world to be ready.

Related: Love, Simon director Greg Berlanti made the teen rom-com the world’s been waiting for

Was it important for you to show a realistic depiction of a teen coming out story, with things like sex, toxic masculinity, and casual homophobia?
I mean, the short answer is yes. In terms of the life of a teenager, a teenager lives in an R-rated world, and they also live in a world that isn’t monitored and isn’t politically correct. So I wanted to pull all of that into this movie, but also make sure it’s still fun and that we did it while tipping our hats to the genre, the classic high school movie genre, even more specifically, the high school sex comedy. I was always focused on wanting to make it a fun and entertaining ride but also couching it in a social context with everything you mentioned.
What would you say were some of the challenges of depicting teen sexuality for a younger, more outspoken generation, especially since you wrote it 10 years ago?
Well, it’s a largely autobiographical story for me. My coming out process was incremental and led me all the way into my 20s. Once I finally came out, I looked back on some of my stuff along the way. I identified as bisexual for a long time. Eventually, I did identify as gay. But obviously, bisexual is a very legitimate identity. I thought, if you took this kind of rollercoaster of sexual confusion that I was on and jammed it into this kid’s senior year of high school, I thought it could make for a kind of fun, poignant movie. In terms of storytelling and sex adventures, I kind of just stayed close to my autobiography. Because it’s a coming out story, it kind of ends with the character figuring out who he was. With a lot of the sex adventures, I saw comedic potential with a closeted kid really trying to make it work with girls. And I think that’s a universal teenage anxiety. All teenagers are nervous about having sex for the first time and losing their virginity and performance anxiety. And if you add in the fact that the kid is in the closet, that adds a whole new layer of complications.

Related: The explicit sex scenes that were almost in Call Me By Your Name

Did you have any queer films to look to when you were growing up or when you were getting into filmmaking?
Very few when I was growing up, and I was so hungry for them. I’m old, I’m a teenager of the ‘90s, and it was hard to find literally any depiction of queer teenagers. I remember renting a French film when I was in high school called Wild Reeds by the director, André Téchiné, which was sort of about a love triangle in the French countryside in the 1960s between two teenage boys and a girl. I was a movie geek, even in high school, and I remember reading a review, and it wasn’t gonna play in my small town of Washington state. So I was waiting for it to come out on video, so that I could steal away to the basement, having rented it secretly, and watching it. I was that hungry for depictions. When I got into college, I discovered Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki and some of these queer directors from the queer new wave that kinda took place in indie film of the early ‘90s. Then I started to realize there were voices out there, going back to films like Derek Jarman and stuff like that. So, I figured it out eventually, but when I was a teenager, there was not much.
Did you have a lot of freedom to kind of explore what you wanted to?
One hundred percent freedom, that was the great thing. It was so hard to get the movie made, not so much because of content, but because there were no roles for movie stars. But Netflix basically said they loved the script, that I could cast whoever I want, and just go forth and conquer. So, we were completely unconstrained. It was one of the most creative experiences I ever had. They embraced that it was a little raunchy, a little dirty. I think they liked that element of it, which I think makes it stand apart from some of the other kind of coming of age stories or coming out stories.
What was it like working with this young cast of up-and-comers?
It was a dream. I felt kinda like a cool older brother on set. They were all great actors, but they were actually cool people. Some were in their early 20s, although some were teenagers, and they all ended up liking each other. We would hang out and go to movies on the weekends. It felt like summer camp, and I was kind of like a cool counselor, and there were all these great campers.
Following Skeleton Twins and now Alex Strangelove, do you see yourself creating more queer characters and queer stories?
Absolutely, and I want to see the expansion of what a queer story is. I want to see an expansion happen in cinema. I want to see big budget studio action films have queer leads. Let’s see a superhero who’s gay. Let’s see a gay James Bond. And that said, I also think there’s such a thing as just queer sensibility sometimes in movies. I don’t know that every film I do will have overt queer characters. I’ve done movies in the past that don’t. But I feel like everything I do will have some degree of a queer sensibility.

Alex Strangelove is now streaming on Netflix.

Watch the trailer below: