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How the Writers of Crush Turned Their High School Experiences Into the Queer Rom-Com They Needed

9 minute read

In a lot of ways, Crush, a love story starring Rowan Blanchard and Auli’I Cravalho, is like every other teen rom-com—and that’s part of what makes it exceptional.

In an era of increasingly discriminatory and violent anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and rhetoric, Crush, out today on Hulu, offers viewers a blissful hour and a half of smart, sweet, queer escapism. It follows Paige (Blanchard), an awkward lesbian artist attending the somewhat utopian Miller High, who’s tasked with distilling her “happiest moment” into a painting for a college program application. Paige decides her longtime crush on popular track team co-captain Gabby (Isabella Ferreira) is the ideal inspiration, and an ultimatum from the school principal forcing her to join the team provides the perfect opportunity to get to know Gabby for real. But the coach pairs Paige with Gabby’s sister AJ (Cravalho) as a training partner instead. And all at once, Paige finds herself working with AJ to unmask a mysterious artist who’s been spray-painting school property, trying to figure out how to run more than five feet without falling on her face, and maybe just learning what love feels like.

If it all sounds a bit convoluted, that’s because it is—it’s a teen rom-com, after all. It’s supposed to be a little over the top. And for screenwriters Casey Rackham and Kirsten King, sticking to some of the tropes of the genre was part of the point. “We wanted a rom-com where they all just happen to be extremely queer,” Rackham says.

Read More: The Best Teen Rom-Coms

More LGBTQ+ stories are being told on screen than ever before, and many of them center around the fraught experience of coming out, an important but limited view of everything it means to be queer. In writing Crush, the first-time screenwriters and former BuzzFeed colleagues hoped to offer another slice of the experience—their film is designed to be comfort food for queer people, envisioned through the lens of the genre they both love.

TIME spoke with the Los Angeles-based screenwriters about writing the rom-com they needed as high schoolers, the value of streaming, and what queer storytellers in Hollywood owe one another.

What was your path to writing this story together like?

Casey Rackham: We met at BuzzFeed, and then we started a queer writers group together. We were both obsessed with rom-coms, and then there was that fateful moment, like in a movie, where we make eye contact and are like, “Wait… should we?”

Kirsten King: It was 2018, we had just watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, we were constantly rewatching 10 Things I Hate About You, Love & Basketball, some of those early-2000s, late-’90s rom-coms. And we were asking, Why don’t we have this for queer people? We have been projecting our romances onto straight people’s stories for our entire lives. We started outlining [Crush] that night. We said, This may never sell, but this may heal some part of our high school selves that needed this. It’s so exciting that people responded to it, because it came from such a place of passion.

Are there any moments from your own lives that inspired moments in the film?

Rackham: Neither one of us can paint. We’re both actively bad at it. But we both were on track!

King: When we were first talking about this story, we set up a big whiteboard, drank a martini, and asked, What commonalities do we have in our high school experience? And we found track, and being queer. Casey has a queer sister, I had twin best friends on the track team when I was in high school, and I grew up with a single mom. So there’s little pieces of both of us in all the characters’ stories.

I couldn’t help thinking about my high-school self, and what watching this movie would’ve meant to me. And I know both of you, and director Sammi Cohen, have discussed that, too. What does it feel like to have written a film so many people needed as kids, knowing it’s still necessary today, in the era of “Don’t Say Gay” bills?

King: There’s so much anti-LGBTQ legislation right now. And Miller High is such a different place than many high schools in the United States. For a big portion of our population, that’s not the reality. So this script was such a place of joy, where being queer was celebrated and you could be the most popular girl in school. The plotline is not centered around coming out, or the trauma that might come with that.

Rackham: Right. On one hand, I saw Love, Simon with my mom. And I loved Love, Simon. But I also have seen and understand the critique that it was made for straight people. I wished my mom could watch something that wasn’t centered around a coming-out story, that shows we’re okay. Kirsten and I have gotten messages from people saying, “It’s been tough for me where I live. I’m so excited to watch this.” And that truly means the world to us. Based on all the legislation we’re seeing, we unfortunately have so far to go.

King: And we wanted it to be on a streamer, because if we’re being honest, it’s so hard if you’re living in a conservative area with your parents, to buy a ticket to a queer movie. This way, someone can watch it in their bedroom and imagine this life where they’re comfortable and accepted. That’s really powerful.

The movie also includes a lot of lovely relationships, aside from the romantic ones. Paige’s relationship with her almost-too-supportive mom, Angie, is so fun. In one scene, AJ and Gabby have an honest, difficult conversation about balancing their love for one another with the pressure they feel to be in competition. It all feels very grounded.

Rackham: Kirsten and I both have sisters, and I love writing about sisters. We both love that scene between AJ and Gabby. It’s actually the first scene where Paige isn’t really involved, and it’s so real and raw, and something every pair of sisters have gone through, no matter their sexuality or circumstances.

King: The dynamic between Paige and Angie—and oh my God, I can’t think of a better person to play Paige’s mom than Megan Mullally, just a gay icon—was really important to me. I grew up with just my mom in my house, and was with her through all of these things, including breast cancer, and she was such a pillar of our household. That’s what I think of when I think of home. My mom didn’t have me by a sperm donor [like Paige’s mom]. But it was nice to imagine a single woman making that choice for herself. In our generation, that’s a conversation a lot of people are having—whether having children alone is something they want. Redefining that picture of family was really cool.

Which movies in the teen rom-com canon were you most inspired by?

King: We talked a lot about Bend It Like Beckham, Love & Basketball, and any sort of sports romance. I want Crush to be someone’s comfort watch, that movie they can rewatch to escape when everything’s going to sh-t. Weaving a story that makes people laugh and cry—it’s hard! And that’s why we went through, like, 70 drafts of this script. Rom-coms deserve more justice in our cultural canon.

Rackham: We wrote some Easter eggs into the movie, and our director and production also added some. When AJ first bumps into Paige, she’s holding The Taming of the Shrew, which was the basis of 10 Things I Hate About You. And during the track meet, a lot of the signs say the names of rom-com directors. That was Sammi’s genius mind.

Do you have any advice for aspiring queer screenwriters and filmmakers?

Rackham: We got to have a queer person direct our film, which was the baseline of what we wanted. And it’s a long process. You need to pick the people who are still going to care about [the project] down the line.

King: You have the meetings where you walk in and the exec says, Oh, so sorry, we already have one other gay [film on our slate]. And you’re like, Oh okay, it’s a war film about two men, but sure, I totally see that. So you get those disheartening moments. We found producers that understood and advocated for our vision. But getting reps is so hard, and getting your script read is so hard. Our writers group has been working together for about five years, and we share resources. In this industry, there’s a default of safeguarding your resources, but especially as queer people, we need to share, we need to make introductions. We had this film made, but we still need more films centering trans people, we need films centering people of color. There’s still a lot of work to do and nuance to add to queer cinema. I hope to be in a place where I can help people someday.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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