FIVE FEET APART: A Conversation with Director Justin Baldoni

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Since launching his television career in 2004, Justin Baldoni has appeared in numerous shows and films but rose to fame playing Rafael Solano on Jane the Virgin in 2014. Since then, he’s begun to pursue directing and creating stories designed to make the world a better place. His new film, Five Feet Apart, tells the story of a pair of teenagers with life-threatening illnesses who fall in love — but must keep a safe distance to preserve their health.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Baldoni to discuss how the film came to be, the perils of prescriptive versus descriptive storytelling, and what he hopes audiences do immediately after watching his film.

John Bucher: Tell me about how this film got started.

Justin Baldoni: About seven years ago I just felt like I wasn’t living a purposeful, meaningful life and I decided to leave acting to try to make a difference. So I started a documentary series called My Last Days where I traveled the country and started telling the stories of amazing individuals who were choosing hope and joy in the face of tremendous obstacles — those obstacles being terminal and chronic illness.

I thought that if I could get people to ask that question — What are we here to do? What are we doing with our one life? — and they could see themselves in these individuals who didn’t have much time left and who are still choosing to live, then maybe the show could be the medicine. It could be the antibiotic for procrastination and not living the life that they wanted to life.

I met a young woman named Claire who had cystic fibrosis in season two of the show, and she and I became very close. It was my first experience meeting anybody with that disease. I had never heard of it before and she was the one that told me that two people with CF can’t touch as they could contaminate each other. And that was when I had the idea for this movie, because I just felt like automatically what a beautiful love story that could be with all the different themes that we could portray with two characters that were forbidden to touch.

John Bucher: It seems as down to earth as the story is, it’s also a larger metaphor for a lot in our society. Do you see any symbolism in the story?

Justin Baldoni: Of course, the whole movie is a metaphor and we touch on a lot of different themes in the film. One big theme here is the idea that I believe that we are living in a culture that confuses sex and intimacy and love. Young people are trained to be numb to sexual themes and we live in this hyper-sexualized world where kids are exposed to things at eight years old that we were never exposed to. Young girls and boys are pressured to do things and dive into things far earlier than any of us ever were.

I was really interested in telling a story that unravels that and showed two young people who were forbidden to touch but still loved each other and had intimacy in ways that have never been shown in a young adult movie. Because I believe that. I don’t believe that physical touch and love are exclusive. If you ask most people in healthy marriages and relationships intimacy is not just derived from human touch. Emotional intimacy is what keeps people together.

I believe that there is an entire generation of people that also believe that. So having the two lead characters being forbidden to touch gave us a beautiful backdrop to tell a family-friendly story with metaphors and spiritual ideas in a very commercial movie.

John Bucher: Can you talk about how you approach directing these characters — Will and Stella? Will enters Stella’s world and this relationship then builds. It’s not an easy thing to create something that feels real, that’s organic to these two people, from the moment they meet to the point where they do fall in love. I assume that Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson didn’t know each other beforehand. How do you as a director try to organically create that in the story?

Justin Baldoni: I think a lot of my job is just trusting my intuition in the casting process and choosing individuals that I feel like will be a chemistry match both off screen and on. And I think from that foundation you can build anything. From then it’s all about creating a safe space to experiment and to try things and to make silly choices and off choices.

In this case, this was a romance that wasn’t immediate. In my personal life, my marriage started off in a difficult way and my insecurities triggered hers. It caused us to have very deep and uncomfortable conversations early on, and I was also exploring that. We have this myth in America if a relationship doesn’t start off happy that means it’s not meant to be and I think that couldn’t be more wrong. Some of the most fruitful relationships that I have in my life started off bumpy.

We often trigger each other’s insecurities. Our idiosyncrasies don’t always work well with others, and that’s how Will and Stella start off. Will is a risk-taker and Stella is so desperate for control because nothing is in control in her life. The story is about them coming together, so they both teach each other the balance of the way that they should be living and give each other meaning — which is also something I believe happens in relationships. They weren’t looking for each other. They felt they were holding their own waves, but when they found each other, they found something new.

John Bucher: This is clearly a story about trying to find meaning, and one thing that I really appreciated about it is you’re not trying to be prescriptive — saying, well, this is the meaning of life. You’re very descriptive in how we approach looking for that meaning.

Justin Baldoni: I think that all comes from my faith. I was raised in the Baha’i tradition, and for me, faith can be described as an abundance of deeds and a fewness of words. I don’t do well with prescription. I’m making a movie for a generation that rebels against all rules. This Gen Z, this YouTube Generation, doesn’t want to be preached to. They want to be shown, and it all comes down to making a good story. Making a story that reminds us of our shared humanity. Making a story that is imperfect, where you see yourself in these characters, where you can relate to these characters regardless of whether you have a chronic illness or not.

That comes from grounding this in reality, and I think that if you can ground something in reality and you can get people in the first five minutes, then they’ll stick with you. So long as you don’t prescribe something and teach and say, oh, this is how you should be doing it. Then I think you can actually subversively get a lot of messages across.

I also think that we’re so sick and tired of a culture of being prescribed things by people who don’t live them. And that’s one of the issues that a lot of churches have and a lot of religious groups have — they’re being prescribed things by leaders who are not in turn living those qualities and attributes and prescriptions. And for me it’s just all about how can we get these themes across in a way that can inspire people. Because that’s what we need right now. We don’t need to be taught something. We need to be inspired.

John Bucher: If you could guarantee that one thing happened to the viewer when they walked away from the theater, what would that be?

Justin Baldoni: If I could ask for one thing from the viewer it would be, when they leave the theater they pick up the phone and they call someone they love and they tell them they love them. That’s it.

John Bucher: That’s beautiful.

Five Feet Apart is currently in theaters.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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