Richard Tanne on Creating the Perfect Mood for Chemical Hearts [Exclusive Interview]

Richard Tanne

Richard Tanne knows how to set the mood and tone for his dramatic movies.

Once he boarded Chemical Hearts, he knew immediately on how to set the tone in this coming of age teenage story.

The film stars Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Kara Young, Coral Pena, and C.J. Hoff.

Here’s the synopsis:

Seventeen-year-old Henry Page (Abrams) has never been in love. He fancies himself a romantic, but the kind of once-in-a-lifetime love he’s been hoping for just hasn’t happened yet. Then, on the first day of senior year, he meets transfer student Grace Town (Reinhart), and it seems all that is about to change. When Grace and Henry are chosen to co-edit the school paper, he is immediately drawn to the mysterious newcomer. As he learns the heartbreaking secret that has changed her life, he finds himself falling in love with her—or at least the person he thinks she is.

LRM Online exclusively spoke with director Richard Tanne on this project last month.

Chemical Hearts currently streams on Amazon Prime video today.

Read the interview below.

Richard Tanne: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us and cover the movie. Really appreciate it.

Gig Patta: Not a problem. I have to admit it. I’ve watched this movie twice so far.

Richard Tanne: No, really?

Gig Patta: I did once at once in June and another time I last night. So that’s twice.

Richard Tanne: Wow, man. Thank you so much.

Gig Patta: What initiated for you to board this project? What sparked that you wanted to do Chemical Hearts?

Richard Tanne: When I was reading the book, I felt pulled into the feelings that I had when I was a teenager. I felt them in a more vivid way than the occasional memory or reminiscence with a friend. It felt in a sustained way. I started thinking about things I hadn’t thought about in a long time. In particular, it pulled me back into an aspect of being young that still lives with me. It was a darkness, a theme of a teenager. The anguish and the pain that can sometimes go along with crossing that threshold from being an adolescent into an adult. There’s the feeling of adult emotions for the first time.

I thought if I could capture a little bit of that feeling by bringing on to the screen, it would satisfy whatever desire I have to make a movie about what it’s like to be in high school.

Adapting books to screen is very hard work. Could you talk about your adaptation process? Did you have to cut anything from the book to the movie?

There was so much that was cut. But, it wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t done deliberately. I have to give so much credit to the author Crystal Sutherland for the book. I only read the book once before beginning the script for the adaptation. And I would go back here and there to refer to certain lines and particular moments. The mood, the emotion, and the tonality of the book left such an impression on me. Armed with my own experiences, the book conjured up for me with my memories that I could go-ahead to start writing. To this day, I haven’t read the book more than once.

All credit goes to Krystal Sutherland that was built in her book. The access that she gives to Grace and Henry. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be on adapting ahead of time. You have this sort of invisible collaborator with you. It was coupled with the fact that I had this compulsive desire to tell the story, write the script, and finished the script. It happened pretty quickly.

In retrospect, it was probably pretty stupid of me because I didn’t have the rights to the book at the time. Lili [Reinhart] had sent over the project. She wanted to play the role of Grace. There was a meeting with her to discuss what I would do if I was writing and directing. It was a meeting to see if we were on the same page.

So I was inspired by our conversation about her in the role of Grace, that I started writing it that night. We didn’t even have the rights to the book yet. By the grace of God, or say by the grace of Krystal Sutherland, she ultimately read the script and granted us the rights to make the movie. It all happened very quickly.

Everything seemed to be falling into place in terms of meeting with Lili, sharing the same vision, writing the script relatively quickly, getting the author to sign off on it, and then to make it with Amazon.

Gig Patta: You mentioned Lili. I do also have to commend Austin Abrams did a terrific job in this film. Could you talk about why they were perfect for the roles? And why do we like using 20-something people to play teenagers?

Richard Tanne: [Laughs] I had no idea how old they were when I met both of them. They certainly pass as teenagers. That being said, Austin was somebody that I had in mind from the start. I was so overjoyed when he sent me an audition tape. He’s somebody that I probably would’ve prepared to offer a role to. In particular, it was based on this one movie he did call Brad’s Status, which was written and directed by Mike White and co-starred Ben Stiller. He was amazing in that film. Amazingly real and raw, there was no vantage he did for performance. That’s what it has to be with Henry. It had to remind you of a kid that you went to high school, who wasn’t particularly popular. But, still, that who probably had a lot going on inside, but couldn’t always express it. It wasn’t necessarily be reaching for attention.

I was a sensitive kid. Austin was somebody who had that sensitivity and that vulnerability. There wasn’t a false note in his audition, in his chemistry read with Lili, and to be on set.

It carries over with Lili too. She’s very demanding of herself in a role by putting everything into it. Also, she’s very demanding of the people around her. That’s great. That’s the kind of accountability that you want. In working with these two actors, they’re people who help themselves to the absolute highest standard. That’s what I’m looking for.

They had worked together on a short film years ago and liked each other. It counts for a lot when you’re working with actors on a set. They really enjoyed spending time together and they had an innate chemistry. It was such a great thing to work with them.

Gig Patta: I appreciate the emotions that they displayed on the film. Not to mention, Lili walking with a cane and limp throughout the entire film. That was something.

Richard Tanne: Yeah. I reached out to an organization called RespectAbility, which connects the entertainment industry with physically disabled people to help promote authenticity and casting. They paired us with a woman named Andrea Jennings, who had a similar car accident and injury with the character in the movie. She was so helpful in providing us with details and information. Lili took all that described and rehearsed it to give her best. It succeeded in making things feel realistic.

Gig Patta: Could you talk about the song that you use multiple times through the movie? How did you manage to choose that song?

Richard Tanne: That’s a song that my fiance introduced to me. BeachHouse and several of the artists on the soundtrack were that my fiancé introduced to me. For some reason, Perfume Genius was one of his songs in the movie. We even used his new songs in the trailers and ads. That song by BeachHouse organically became the song I was listening to while I was writing the script. It was a song that I had on my iTunes in rotation. In that moment in time while you’re writing, you realize, “Holy shit! This is the song that I need to use.” Fortunately, we got the rights to use it.

Gig Patta: That is a pretty fortunate. I also noticed that you used Stan Brakhage’s short films like Study in Color and Black and White. With these colors, it was used to display the chemical reactions for Chemical Hearts during the narration scenes. Could you talk about using that director’s films?

Richard Tanne: Well, it’s interesting. Stan Brakhage was a filmmaker that I was introduced to in my first year of film school. It was probably watching Dog Star Man. His images never left my mind. I said to myself, “Oh, I’m going to use this work in my films one day.” I liked the texture and the pop nature of his work. There was this quality of beautiful imperfection in what he was doing to me. That’s the film.

I had used clips from Studying in Color and Black and White of his film. Also some parts of Stellar. I had written chemical ideas introduced into the script, but I assumed to either shoot them practically, or in postproduction, hire a visual effects company to create an interlude. Instead, I used Stan Brakhage clips as a placeholder.

The closer we got to having to shoot our own or team up with a visual effects company, the film clips were working as it was beautiful in its place. With the aesthetic of the movie, it felt almost as a broken and tactile and imperfect as the characters themselves. Yet, it is still stunningly beautiful on their own handcrafted way.

Gig Patta: I agree with you. Now, this is your second feature film. You directed Southside With You, which was like a Barack Obama romance story. What did you learn from the first film that you brought into a movie like this?

Richard Tanne: Probably, I learned to drink less coffee on set and get more sleep before a day of shoot. [Laughs] In terms of filmmaking, I had a 13 or 14 day schedule with the Southside With You. There was a 25 day schedule on this project. I made a pact with myself and my DP, Albert Salas that we were going to use those extra days. It was a bigger, more complicated production in general, but we did have a little bit more time. I wanted to put the extra time into the visuals. In particularly for the lighting, that’s something that I didn’t think about too much on Southside because it shot with exterior, natural light.

We wanted to create a timeless feeling with the movie looked in a way that people of all ages can relate to it. So we shot on film using a lot of high contrast lightings. We wanted things to be dark, creating pools of light for characters to walk in and out of. Then the disparity between the daytime aesthetic, which is the perfect ordinary suburban world. In contrast to the nighttime aesthetic, which is more mysterious, underground in a world of pain and tragedy. It’s that adult feeling. I would say just an emphasis on the pictorial.

Gig Patta: One more question before I let you go. Have you tried kintsukuroi yourself?

Richard Tanne: Not outside of this film. [Laughs] When we were making the movie, I got to put my stamp on some of the pottery.

Gig Patta: We live for our life experiences. You got that checked off your box. Thank you very much Rich for speaking with me. I appreciate it.

Richard Tanne: Thank you, Gig. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Chemical Hearts currently streams on Amazon Prime video today.

Source: LRM Online Exclusive, Amazon Prime

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