Only a queer director could have made a teen comedy this sweet.
Vince Marcello has made a career doing just that. Marcello had his breakout penning the script for the sleeper hits Teen Beach Movie and Teen Beach Movie 2, two musical comedies that helped make Garrett Clayton into a star. Three years later, he landed his biggest gig to date: the teen romantic comedy The Kissing Booth. The Netflix film, based on the novel by Beth Reekles about a high schooler, her straight guy bestie, and her crush/bestie’s older brother, became an unexpected smash hit for the streaming service.
Now Marcello and his cast return for The Kissing Booth 2. The film picks up with all-American girl Elle (Joey King) and her bestie Lee (Joel Courtney) entering their senior year, and facing the inevitable question of college. Should Elle fulfill her lifelong dream of heading to Berkley with Lee? Or should she follow her boyfriend Noah (Jacob Elordi) to Harvard? Life also takes a difficult turn when Noah begins hanging out with a beautiful coed (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) and the handsome new student Marco (Taylor Zakhar Perez) takes a liking to Elle. Elle also has to put her own problems on hold when her friend Ollie (Judd Krok), comes to her for help about his attraction…to men.
We caught up with Marcello to chat about developing the sequel, its queer characters and subplot, and bringing honesty to a teen fantasy. The Kissing Booth 2 arrives on Netflix July 24.
So what was it that drew you back to these characters?
It’s funny. Once the first film was completed and testing very highly, we all assumed it was going to do well. Everyone started turning their minds to a sequel. I was open to the idea, but I didn’t feel like I absolutely needed to come back. As time went on and the success grew, I started to see more opportunities to extend the story. The fanbase—as I watched and listened to what people were curious about and wanted to know about, that got motivated me creatively. It’s unusual to have a chance to create additional chapters of this kind of story.
Yes it is.
That’s when I started to say hmm, where to from here? Beth and I talked about it.
How much say did you have in the direction the sequel would go?
Beth had written a sequel that had not yet been published. It was a draft-manuscript. She ended up jumping to another project for Random House. I had read it, and some of the basic elements of the story—the long-distance relationship, fears of being faithful, even the Thanksgiving scene—those basic elements [were there]. But it was a manuscript in process. So I took it and had a conversation with Beth. I wanted to flesh it out and create a fuller story for all the characters. She was completely supportive of it. As is always with Beth, she is enormously supportive and collaborative. I presented outlines to her early on, and she was delighted. There was one thing I said I would never do: I never wanted Elle and Lee to end up together.
She said, “I can’t believe you said that. That was the one thing about any adaptation.” This was in my heart. In John Hughes’ movies…it’s pretty much the one was right there in front of you the whole time approach. This is completely making a left turn on that. It also reflects male-female relationships in high school much more than when I was in school. So that’s what initially attracted me to the story: that sense of friendship as we must grow up, and we must relinquish some of the closeness we had.
Well, and the film is very aware of that. Not all high school comedies do that. The movie also adds some queer characters and cast. I want to give a shout out to Maisie Richardson-Sellers, a beautiful and charismatic actress.
Was that your idea—to introduce some queerness?
There’s a subtle wink to it in the first film. In the first film [Ollie] was written to be a very up-tight, button-down, anal-retentive, slightly Republican character. I wrote him that way, partially because the era where I grew up—the Reagan era—that kind of hung in the air. There’s also a moment in the first movie where he’s standing at the kissing booth, and this big jock walks by and winks at him. Later at the prom, they’re dancing together. So it was a very toe-in-the-water thing.
Not that I was timid about it. But we were trying to tell Elle’s story. I didn’t want a whole subplot to overpower that.
Well and the movie just presents it—there’s no comment on it.
Well, and for this one we found on the web all this affection for these one-string characters that I just put in the vein of John Hughes—Joan Cusack in the neck brace.
All those great little characters are delightful, and resonate as much as the principles. So I wanted to get even closer to that. This gets to the heart of something in my work: it’s about self-acceptance. It’s about sending love into the world. It’s about nobody telling me who to love. It’s what powers the romantic elements in my stories. So I wanted to reintroduce the character, and I wanted to make one of the characters who is overtly heterosexual closeted. You draw these things from your life. In high school, some of these obnoxiously bullying type-guys, 10 years later in a bar…
They grew up to be the bartenders in West Hollywood.
And it wasn’t just one. And the reality of that is still present in some places. So that’s where it came from; it was very organic to the piece. When I wrote it, I didn’t want it to just be a moment about Ollie accepting [himself]. It wasn’t just about his coming out. What I really wanted it to do was—there were no characters represented like that in the movies when I was a kid.
I think back to my 8-year-old self. I’d have been over the moon. So I wanted everyone who watched this movie…to see themselves up in that booth. In the first test screening people began applauding and cheering. And I realized it’s not the coming out. It’s the joyful response of everyone around them supporting them.
One of the best compliments I ever got from an actor I was working with. He said, “[sexuality] and race, you present it. You do it respectfully. You don’t put a magnifying glass on it. You let them be people in a story.” That almost made me cry.
Can I confess something to you? I had a feeling that I sensed a queer lens because Elle and Lee are best friends. Do you think a straight director could understand their relationship without it having romantic overtones? Is that unique to the queer lens?
It’s an interesting thing. Beth, who wrote the book as a 15-year-old, is so influenced by the canon of movies. I asked her “Have you seen Sixteen Candles? Yep?” I told her we should take this book and turn it into this generation’s John Hughes comedy, make it a nostalgic love letter to sunkissed Los Angeles. So there are a lot of tropes common in this genre, but a lot that is current. One of that is the guy/girlfriend thing. I’m very proud of that aspect.
Like I say, my best friend was a girl [in high school]. We’re still incredibly close. Many of the episodes that happened—specific events—were lifted from our hijinks. So for me it’s an incredibly nostalgic experience. The dynamic of a straight boy/girl relationship—there are people on the internet who theorize that Lee must be gay or that Lee is in love with her. I think that’s great. Anytime you get someone to theorize about what happens beyond the screen, you carry the movie beyond the parameters of the screen.
Fan theories like that are so funny too. I remember when people thought Will and Grace would end up a couple. It seems engrained in the culture that if a man and a woman have a friendship, they have to be in love.
That does still exist. And of course, with the fluidity that exists now, that also colors that. That creates even more speculation.
You mention that you wanted to channel John Hughes. No wonder you hired Molly Ringwald, who is delightful here. You’re a director that specializes in young adult stories. Why do you connect with them?
I guess for me, my background in theatre is very dramatic: Tennesee Williams to My Fair Lady type fare. In terms of cinema, I was dropped in at an interesting time. I have a strong background in musical theatre. Those types of pieces were just starting to come back with people like Baz Lurhman and Rob Marshall…was the moment I came into the marketplace as a storyteller in cinema. Though Kissing Booth isn’t a musical, there are clearly aspects of it that play like a musical. So a lot of it was just timing.
The other half is my good fortune to grow up at a time where it was not as accepted as it is now, but within an environment where I was able to come out where it was not a painful experience. It was a joyful release. So I think there’s this thing in me where I want to create wish fulfillment for a young adult audience. But even bigger than that—one of the cornerstones of what I believe—if you make it in the right way, you will touch those [young] people, but you will touch much older. The reach of Kissing Booth is one of the things I’m most proud of. It wasn’t just the under 25. It was the 35-45, the 45-55, and even over 65. I’ve had 75-year-old people ask me “Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?”
It really touched me. If I can get a 15-year-old and a 75-year-old to watch a movie like this, and they both feel that the story was a joyful one, I feel like I’ve done something that mattered.
So will you visit Elle and company later on down the line?
The fans will tell us. Would I take up the challenge? I’ll have to deal with that when it comes. I’m not averse to the idea. I’ve become very affectionate with the characters and the cast. They’re all very, very good friends. The family we have, I would pack my bags and leave tomorrow to work with them again. Because of that, I would seriously consider it.
Netflix, if you’re listening…
Last question. What can we expect from you in the future?
I have a television project that I’m very excited about, a very unusual interesting and dramatic series. I have a musical of note that I can’t get into the details of, but is a possibility.
As a feature?
Yes. My company Picture Loom, which produced the Kissing Booth movies, is building out our slate of material to adult rom-coms, teen rom-coms, musicals, or smart comedies with a big heart. Like a Mrs. Doubtfire, who’s making those now? In the television space, we would cross over into the more dramatic. I have a bunch on the burners.
Give the gay characters their own spin-off!
It’s not outside the realm of possibility.
The Kissing Booth 2 lands on Netflix July 24.