Nov 13, 2023

Red, White & Royal Blue director on the value of showing great sex

Director Matthew López made his Red, White & Royal Blue decisions for a reason. (Supplied)

In early 2020, playwright and director Matthew López was given a copy of Casey McQuiston’s best-selling queer novel Red, White & Royal Blue.

Considering López’s Tony-Award-winning work as the writer of Broadway sensation The Inheritance, his agent assumed he might be interested in turning the romance into a musical.

“I read it and I said to him: ‘Well, sure, maybe a musical, but let’s talk about the movie‘,” López tells PinkNews. He blitzed through all 400 plus pages in just two days. “By page 50, I knew I wanted to make the movie.”

Published in 2019, Red, White & Royal Blue, focuses on British prince Henry (Cinderella’s Nicholas Galitzine) and Alex Claremont-Diaz (The Kissing Booth 2‘s Taylor Zakhar Perez), the son of the first female president of the US (played by Uma Thurman).

Henry and Alex begin the story as enemies, but after a tipsy scuffle leaves them on the floor and covered in wedding cake, they’re forced to begin a faux friendship to prevent an international incident. During the cover-up, they fall in love.

“There are levels of passion for things, and this hit a 10 for me,” López exclaims. He’s sitting on a plush sofa in the room of a hotel in central London, sipping from a china teacup, looking somewhat like he came from the pages of Red, White & Royal Blue himself.

As he sped through McQuiston’s book, it was the character of Alex who immediately struck a chord. Alex is biracial, he’s born in Texas, his mother’s home state, but his father Oscar is of Mexican descent. “I’m a queer Puerto Rican, and I think if I had had access to Alex Claremont-Diaz as a younger man, I might have had an easier path in life,” López says.

Alex was his in, but then he was won over by the goodness of it all. “I fell in love with the book for the same reasons that everybody falls in love with the book, it’s no different,” he says.

In the four years since its publication, the novel has acquired a queer cult following. Both Alex and Henry have their own fan sites, detailing the minutest details of their fictitious lives.

Alex sleeps in the same White House bedroom that Barack Obama’s daughter, Sasha, occupied in real life, and he has undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, one fan entry says.

Henry likes to eat ice cream late at night, and his pet is a certified therapy dog, reads another.

The Red, White & Royal Blue fandom is a dedicated one, to say the least.

A successful book-to-film adaptation is tricky in the best of circumstances, let alone when the novel in question has a fan base as fervent as this one.

Plus, while López knows his way around a stage – his seven-hour long masterpiece The Inheritance was dubbed “the most important American play of the century” by The Telegraph – Red, White & Royal Blue is his film debut.

Fans have followed its production with a magnifying glass, analysing every detail, and panicking about whether Perez and Galitzine could emulate Henry and Alex’s chemistry. They needn’t worry – the pair do a fine job of it.

Due to the ongoing Hollywood strike, neither actor is able to promote or discuss the film, but López describes Galitzine as more “robust, less fragile” than Henry, while Perez is quieter, “a lot less rambunctious” than his character. But it all still worked.

“I couldn’t have asked for better or more different actors than the ones that I got,” López raves.

“I felt Henry was this very fragile thing, and I placed him inside Nick’s hands, and Nick cared for him throughout the process. Taylor really turned himself into a human cannonball in order to become Alex.”

There were several elements of the book that simply had to make it to the film version. The wedding cake scene – the catalyst for the entire story – being the first.

For the scene, López and the film’s production designer Miren Marañón threw “big, glopping piles” of cake in the two actors’ faces, and they landed perfectly. “They ended up spending about three hours on the floor covered in icing, but the actual splatter itself, we got it in one take,” López reveals.

Another facet that makes McQuiston’s book what it is, is the amount of sex. From the tennis clubhouse at Wimbledon to the tack room at Henry’s polo game, nowhere is off-limits for this hot-blooded duo.

In López’s version, it’s refreshing to see how the film preserves the horniness. Red, White & Royal Blue is like Heartstopper or Love, Simon with a bare-bummed, penis-joke-laden twist.

“I don’t think you can tell the story of Alex and Henry without talking about their very enjoyable sex life,” he says.

Because of the nudity and sex scenes, the film was given an “R” rating, meaning those under age 17 need to be accompanied by an adult to watch it in the US.

The rating surprised López, with the director recently telling People: “I do question whether, if it had been a man and a woman, we’d still have gotten an R.”

However, the sex isn’t just thrown in for the sake of it, each has a purpose and nuance. López likes to think of the scenes as songs in a musical. “It needs to progress the story, it needs to progress your understanding of the character. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t belong,” he explains.

The two lead stars worked with an intimacy co-ordinator to ensure the scenes were done carefully and safely, but were also realistic. “We need to actually believe that Alex and Henry have really great, connected sex,” López says. “That, as a queer man, was really important to me to convey.”

While fans will be thrilled to see that heady physical attraction between the two play out, they appear less impressed about some character choices in the adaptation. June, Alex’s sister, is a favourite among the fandom, while senator Rafael Luna is – spoiler alert – pivotal to how Alex and Henry come out to the world.

López has cut June out completely, and merged the character with Alex’s pal Nora (played by Love, Victor star Rachel Hilson). Rafael has been replaced with a new character.

After it became clear that June wasn’t going to be in the adaption, the film’s social media pages were targeted with a “justice for June” hashtag. Fans were upset, but the reasoning behind the decisions, López says, is simple.

“When you’re writing a book, you can do whatever you want with the characters, you have no actors to talk to, you have no mouths to feed in certain ways,” he explains. “When it came to the character of June and the character of Nora, I knew implicitly that if I had both of them in the movie, I would have two young women with half a meal. I decided to give a full meal to one young woman.”

As for the book’s several subplots, López believes they would have been too “unwieldy” for a two-hour film, and he needed to focus on “bringing danger in a very streamlined way”.

Could he have opted to make a TV series, instead? In short, his answer is no.

“For whatever sacrifices you have to make in adapting it for a feature film, an extended eight-episode thing would stretch it out too much,” he says. “You’d lose a lot of the magic.”

Whatever fans make of his choices, López’s primary concern was keeping that magic. After all, he’s a Red, White & Royal Blue super fan first, and a film director second.

Red, White & Royal Blue drops on Prime Video on Friday (11 August).

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