How Red, White & Royal Blue Builds a Warm, Escapist Rom-Com

6 minute read

There’s a scene early in Red, White & Royal Blue—the campy rom-com out on Prime Video on Friday—starring a $75,000 wedding cake. Prince Philip of England is marrying Martha, a noblewoman, and all eight tiers of the buttercream behemoth are fit for the occasion. That is, until Philip’s younger brother, Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine), and the First Son of the American president, Alex (Taylor Zakhar Perez), go careening into it.

Henry and Alex are rivals of sorts: The former once slighted the latter at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and Alex has held a grudge, or maybe something slightly more, ever since. In this alternative  history, Alex’s mother (Uma Thurman) became the first female U.S. president in 2016.

After the cake incident, which becomes a global publicity scandal, Henry and Alex are forced to spend more time together to refurbish their images. Soon though, the former nemeses find themselves craving more time together. It’s a true enemies to friends to lovers trope that has been billed as a contemporary fairy tale. And the film, based on the 2019 novel of the same name by Casey McQuiston, joins a growing genre of coming-of-age queer love stories—like Heartstopper and the forthcoming Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe movie—that toe a tightrope between accurately portraying realistic issues, from bullying to heteronormative constraints, and showing audiences what the best possible outcome could be.

These stories, though they take their characters’ problems seriously, are simultaneously warm and enveloping when it matters most. Red, White & Royal Blue director Matthew López struck that delicate balance by letting the world building—the setting, production design, and costume design—be escapist while grounding the film in naturalistic performances. The movie mirrors the cake scene: fantastical and frosting-sweet, until real-world problems come crashing. In Red, White & Royal Blue, the characters have to navigate the rigid demands of the monarchy and how their relationship might damage a re-election bid until they get to the happy-ever-after. 

“I never wanted my actors to ever lose sight of the fact that for these characters, they don't know they're in a romantic comedy,” López says from his house in upstate New York. “They don't know they're in a fairy tale. They think that this is the real world. And for them, that means the stakes are high.”

Bringing a beloved queer romance to screen 

McQuiston’s debut novel was critically lauded and quickly built a fervent fan base, hitting the New York Times Bestseller list the month after it came out. Last month, ahead of its Prime Video release, it became a bestseller on Amazon as well.

López knew the film adaptation had to be a maximalist fairy tale—and just how to craft that. Growing up, the director, who is gay, says he felt at odds with the world around him. He couldn’t access reality and instead immersed himself in books. Reading put him in his own fairy tale.

“Fairy tales only ever seem to exist in faraway lands, in tucked away little shires, way out in outer space,” López says. “Fairy tales don't actually exist in the real world, and I had a lot of trouble acclimating to the real world. So I was forced to live a life that was seemingly fantastical, by that definition of fantasy: that it doesn't reflect the real world.”

Director Matthew López, right, works with leads Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine.Rob Youngson—Prime Video

Red, White & Royal Blue is López’s film directorial debut. In 2020, he became the first Latine writer to win the Tony Award for Best Play, for The Inheritance, which reimagines E.M. Forster’s Howards End into a portrait of New York’s gay community. This year, he was nominated for co-writing the book of the musical adaptation of Some Like It Hot, which imbues the 1959 movie with a powerful trans storyline.

For the longest time, queer people couldn’t participate in the world around them, López says. “So we started to just make our own stories. And our own stories reflected our uniqueness and they reflected sometimes our loneliness and it reflected our solitude, but it also reflected our very unique way of seeing the world. In many ways, it may have unburdened us from the need to engage with the real world.”

Creating the tender beating heart of Red, White & Royal Blue 

Red, White & Royal Blue’s attention to detail allows it to commit to the fantasy. Intimacy coordinator Robbie Taylor Hunt was brought on during pre-production to break down the script, flag any intimate content, and talk to the director and actors about their boundaries and how to make scenes feel comfortable. (In the past, intimacy coordinators were often brought on last-minute, “almost like firefighting,” Hunt says, but joining early let him do his best work.)

The movie is unequivocally sexy. Here it walks another fine line, this one between lustful attraction and a tender, blossoming love—especially important in queer content, which hasn’t historically seen much of the latter. In the main sex scene, set in a Parisian hotel, López aimed to fuse the physical and the emotional.

“As a queer intimacy coordinator, I think we've been slightly starved for loving, quite simple, unproblematic, happy moments of sex,” says Hunt from a hotel room in Prague. But here, “we see two characters come together and the joining of people who really care about each other having quite caring sex where they're checking in, and it's sweet, and there's connection, and it's meaningful, and there's detail and depth to it.”

Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) sneaks Alex (Taylor Zakhar Perez) into London's Victoria and Albert Museum after hours.Jonathan Prime—Prime Video

Hunt’s careful work, from breathing exercises to modesty garments, created space for the rare young gay sex scene that is both sensual and affectionate, not rough or sensationalized. Royal etiquette advisor William Hanson played a related role in the production: His painstaking effort helped build a world that feels more natural to audiences.

The royal wedding cake scene, for instance, involves a milieu of high-society extras milling around and interacting with the film’s royal family. Hanson worked with each of them to ensure that people weren’t dipping too low in a curtsy, pulling out their skirts like a ballet dancer, or bowing Japanese-style from the waist, rather than British-style from the neck. 

“You don't want anything that would distract negatively from the story and the message of the film,” Hanson says. “So people can focus on really what this story is saying and the importance of a film like this without thinking, ‘Oh, hang on, the toast is completely the wrong shape.’”

Before he was his husband, Hanson’s then-boyfriend had read and loved Red, White & Royal Blue. When Hanson first saw the finished film, he teared up at Alex and Henry jamming, carefree, at karaoke in Austin, Alex’s hometown—a scene he hadn’t even been involved in making. 

“Like, I think, a lot of people that worked on the film, and of my generation and other generations, it would have been lovely if this film existed 15 years ago,” Hanson says. “So I had this huge swell of pride.”

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