How She Got There: Susan Johnson, Filmmaker of 'To All the Boys I've Loved Before'

We all love a captivating romantic comedy. Whether you're currently navigating singledom, in a long distance relationship or you're in the awkward pre-DTR limbo with your situationship, rom-coms are an evergreen genre because they're so relatable to nearly everyone. Beyond bringing our favorite young adult novel to life, To All the Boys I've Loved Before brings long-overdue and healthy representation for Asian Americans in the romantic genre (and most other genres for that matter). 

Let's face it though: If you haven't watched To All the Boys I've Loved Before starring Lana Condor, you clearly need to update your binge-watching queue or your ex finally revoked your Netflix privileges. Rude, but this is the necessary wake up call you need to get your own Netflix account (because it's a vital, albeit small, first step to adulting). If, for whatever reason, you need more motivation to see this film, which will destroy any lingering realistic expectations you had for your future significant other, we spoke to TATBILB's filmmaker, Susan Johnson. 

Beyond talking about what inspired her to take direct this film and the magic behind ~those~ innately magical moments, Johnson talked about how she got started as a filmmaker and how we can support women creators. 

Her Campus: What inspired you to direct To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before?

Susan Johnson: I just thought it was a joyful book and a joyful script. It made me happy, and I could relate to Lara Jean’s journey. I’m the middle of three girls, first of all, I have three sisters. And I am also Lara Jean a little bit in that I to prefer to hang out on my couch and watch movies, instead of going out and, you know, participating in the world. So both of those things really resonated with me in reading the script and exploring how to change Lara Jean’s life and my own. You know, you always have to find a common love and in anything you're trying to do. And those were the things that worked for me.

HC: Absolutely, I think Lara Jean’s character, both on screen and in the book, is a very relatable one that anyone can find something about themselves in her.

SJ: For sure, or want to be. Or find why they want to be like her.

HC: Definitely. What were some of the challenges you underwent while filming this movie?

SJ: One was making sure we were staying true to the fact that the sisters are Asian American, and we want to stay true to that in the book. Jenny specifically wasn't going to make the movie and unless we stayed true to the ethnicity of the girls, which I love, love love that about Jenny. I don't think she should ever make anything that’s changed to suit the market. And so it was challenging to cast the film because the three of them are Korean-American sisters. We had to borrow from other Asian cultures in order to cast the film. So, you know, we're sort of sometimes getting a little bit of feedback about that specifically, but I'm hopeful that people can embrace the fact that we've come this far with an Asian American cast and [people will] support the film for us doing our best with regards to ethnicity. And the other thing that was tricky was just that the fan base is so strong and so vocal. It's fantastic to come into a project that has that much support, but it also can be daunting.

So I tried to do as much research as I could before we started shooting with what fans we're talking about, what scenes they loved, which scenes they hope to see in the movie, and then I shut it all out when we started shooting. I just had to go with my own vision, based on how I had informed myself and go with my gut. So that’s what I did. And hopefully, they like it.

HC: Well, I loved it. I know my opinion doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, but I think going with your intuition is really all that matters, especially in this industry. And like you said with the casting hopefully that will help you know Hollywood and entertainment industries to push even further to include more representation.

SJ: I hope so. I think that's how that's how romantic comedy is changing. You know, we have miles, and miles, and miles to go. Being inclusive is the only way to go, and that is with regard to race and gender and everything. Like, love stories are love stories, so let's see more of them, and let's be more inclusive.

HC: Absolutely. And speaking of gender, since women only make up about 8% of directors and top grossing films as of last year, do you have any advice for how women can get into underrepresented industries?

SJ: I don't. All I can say is to put your head down and do the work and shut out the noise, and just believe in yourself. You know, that number hasn't changed since I've been making films, and I've been doing this since I was 18 as an assistant. I don't see things changing. I think I just read yesterday that two of the 50 movies coming out this summer are directed by women. The only the only change will come in fans embracing films directed by women and that's online, it's on digital, it's in theaters, it's in books, it's in museums. Support for women and demand to see products created by women is what's going to move the bar. So it's really up to the fans, and I consider myself a fan.

I try to make sure to see every film that comes out that's directed by a woman because I want to be a part of this support system and part of the success. And that's not to say that I won't see — you know this is a very mixed crew, for instance, this movie was written by a woman, and directed by a woman, and the novel was by a woman, but it sort of ended there and I think it's always good to have both those voices represented in any movie. So you don't have to make a movie that's only a female crew. But we still have to be demanding to see female artists flourish in order to move the bar.

HC: Definitely. And even if it's subtly or very directly supportive, like you were saying, you see movies with female directors and female cast, and I think that's just as supportive as you know, vocalizing opinions.

SJ: Yep, yep. Buy the tickets. Go watch the movie. It's all recorded, even on Netflix. It's all recorded. They know what you're watching.

HC: Yeah, definitely. And then I know there's no such thing as a typical day in your career but what does your job as a filmmaker entail?

SJ: When I’m filming or just a regular day?

HC: Anything. It’s up to you what you want to share.

SJ: You know, I'm constantly researching. When I'm not working, I'm constantly researching. I'm researching stories. I'm researching crew. I'm researching actors. I'm just constantly setting—I'm sort of obsessive about it. You know, I really love my craft, and I am inspired every day by something different. And so being open to inspiration, I think is really important. And then when I'm filming, you know, it's a collaboration. I'm not a big fan of the film by credit, I think it's ridiculous. You write, shoot, direct, score and act in your movies, like there are a few people that can pull it off but the most part it's a collaborative art form. So figuring out how to get along with people and hear their voices and trust them and think about the best idea wins, until you're actually shooting the movie. I think those are all really important skills to have.

If you're a painter, you don't have to please anybody but yourself. If you’re recording artists, you get to go into a studio and do your own thing. If you're a filmmaker, it's a different deal. Sometimes you've got to use other peoples’ stories. You always have a career with people that want you to respect and listen to, and feel encouraged to do their best work because that will just help you do your best work. A film is an experiment with sociology as much as anything. So, that's my day when I'm working. It's getting along and listening to and understanding and being inspired by the people.

HC: Absolutely. It's like a culmination of different roles too. It's not really just one set job.

SJ: That's true. Sometimes you’re the den mom. Sometimes you’re the carpool person. You’re sometimes the mathematician. Sometimes the photographer. Sometimes the ear to cry on when people think they're not getting a scene — which they're getting — and it’s beautiful, but that's kind of fun part of the process.

HC: Definitely. And then what was your first entry-level job in the industry and how did you get it?

SJ: My very first was a big movie that came through the college I was going to at my first university, University of Arizona. A studio film came through and shot on campus. And I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker from very early on, but I wasn't seeing female directors anywhere, and I didn't know how I would make it happen. And I didn't really have family in the industry for one. I have an uncle that was a producer, but we didn't live in the same state. We didn't grow up together, really. So, I knew it could be done, I just didn’t know how it could be done. So anyway, this film came through my university, and I knocked on the door and got a job as an assistant in casting extras. I didn't even really know what casting was. I was so green and I loved it so much I would go 17 hours every day on set. And finally, I went to my professors and said, ‘Can I take my final exams late? This is what I want to do with my life I love this —  I’ve joined the circus. This is it.’ And they all let me, which was great.

And as I was on the second part of that movie, I applied to the University of Southern California knowing that that would be my future. I got in, fortunately, and then transferred to UFC and got myself into Hollywood and worked from the ground up after school. Just keep doing the work. My first job, once I was out of school, was at an agency working as an agent's assistant, and that's a great way to learn to learn sort of the business side of filmmaking. Then I left from that to work for producers and directors here and in London, which was the creative side of filmmaking. That was super exciting for me.

HC: Absolutely. That's, that's amazing that you got to learn both in and out of college. And then what words of wisdom do you live by to keep yourself motivated when you're working on a project?

SJ: That’s a good question. I prefer to shoot movies where I can think on my feet; I don't like to rehearse every moment. I think who you and the actors are on a specific day, in a specific scene, informs what that scene will be. So, I think it's really important to stay present and focused but open to new ideas. You know, an idea can come to somebody in the middle of the night that will inform a scene on the next day, so I think being rigid is the devil in this scenario. You have to really be open and fluid and patient, and those are all qualities that I think are important for a healthy film set and a healthy shoot. I think you see it on screen. If the director is frustrated or the actors are frustrated or they're not getting along, sometimes there's magic there. But more often than not the cast and the director have to trust each other so, so intensely, and we certainly did on this movie. We really connected.

HC: Absolutely. And I think you can kind of see the fluidity especially in those opening scenes where you're just developing character arcs and learning who these characters really are. And then what's one experience that you've learned from along the way?

SJ: I've come to understand that men and women don't think alike, so there will never be a moment where suddenly men think like women and women think like men. You have to trust that the genders represent themselves and that they can work together and against each other, and it's much better when they're working together. You know, we're sort of ingrained to maybe fall into stereotypes of what the female-male relationships should be in the workplace, and we have to do everything we can to break through that and work with each other as equals. It was a big surprise to me that once I started directing that there were still male-female issues on a set, and there's just no place for it when you’re working. You have to be on equal ground and respect each other, and sometimes that's really difficult. Differing opinions between men and women. I think that's tricky. And also something that we sort of strive to work on every single day in our personal lives and on set.

HC:  What advice would you give to a 20-something student who wants to go into filmmaking or the entertainment industry in general?

SJ: I think it's a such a magical time for anyone. I wish I had the opportunities that everybody has right here, right now, in this moment. You can take your cell phone, walk out the door and make a movie. When I was growing up, you had to hire cameras and find money for film stock and process the film. It was just extraordinarily expensive. Now, you can tell a story sitting in your bedroom with your computer on, and that's super powerful. So, have faith in your story and have faith in what you think are the stories you should tell. The only other thing I would say is to be careful not to judge others. We're sort of in this world where we're judging everybody all the time, every day, constantly online. I think people are sort of losing sight of the idea that individuals have their own artistic vision.

As much as you want to share your artistic vision with the world, respect the artistic journey of other people and that they made the decisions they made for how they see things. You know, you can't really judge other peoples’ hearts, and I'm hoping that we can be a little kinder to each other in that part of the process. It's tough right now for 20-somethings. I don't envy that. I don't envy the living out loud part of social media.  I just think there's so much opportunity, and there's so much opportunity for product and there are so many opportunities to tell different and diverse stories, inclusive stories. So, just get out there and just do the work and just start today. Go take your phone out the door and tell a story right now, and work your way through.

HC: Definitely. It’s just about starting that narrative and getting it out there for people to see.

SJ: Write that book. Whatever that is. Paint that painting. Definitely record that song. All of it.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before is now streaming on Netflix.