Michael Fimognari on ‘To All the Boys 3’ and Great High-School Cinema

The director of To All the Boys: Always and Forever reflects on his work on the Netflix trilogy.

Noah Centineo as Peter Kavinsky and Lana Condor as Lara Jean Covey To All the Boys: Always and Forever. Katie Yu / Netflix

When he finished shooting the first installment of a new trilogy called To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which are based on the best-selling novels of Jenny Han, cinematographer Michael Fimognari knew that he had been part of something special. Two years later, Fimognari, who served as both the director and cinematographer of the series’ last two films, is preparing to say goodbye to his most successful project to date.

Premiering February 12 on Netflix (NFLX), the third and final film, To All the Boys: Always and Forever, follows Lara Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor) as she prepares for the end of high school and the start of adulthood. After a pair of life-changing trips and a heartbreaking college rejection alter her plans for the future, Lara Jean must reimagine what life with her family, her friends and her boyfriend, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), will look like after graduation.

In an exclusive Zoom interview with Observer, Fimognari talks about the experience of shooting parts of the final film in Seoul and New York, the overwhelming fan support that the film series has received over the years, and the one scene that will always stick with him the most.

Observer: You’ve been with this trilogy from the start, but how did you first get involved with this project? What was it about the trilogy that made you so eager to jump and stay on board?

Michael Fimognari: It came to me through a producer I had worked with for a long time, Matthew Caplan, and we had done another young-adult story [together] that was very different tonally called Before I Fall, and I was the cinematographer on that.

I have always had a connection, as most of us do, to high-school stories [that are] well-told. Those are some of the most memorable experiences of our lives, when we’re first dealing with love, friction with friends, and those bonds that start to form and break up and [that we] maybe take with us as we move on. I truly have a soft spot for the cinema that’s done that well, like John Hughes films, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. These are all really well-told stories about life and high school.

Michael Fimognari on the set of To All the Boys: Always and Forever with Lana Condor as Lara Jean Covey. Katie Yu / Netflix

I just think what Jenny [Han] wrote in her books is very much about the same themes of finding love, searching for people you connect with and dealing with all of the anxieties that come with making your own choices. In that way, I’m following the stories that connect with me regardless of genre, so that was an easy choice for me.

It’s hard enough to direct one good sequel, let alone two like you have done with this series. How did you approach your direction of this film? Did you ever feel a sense of pressure to deliver after the success of the first one?

I look at all three books and all three films as one story. So, each film is just an act within that larger, Lara-Jean journey. The first being the wish fulfillment, the fairytale ending, the happily-ever-after fantasy of finding romance, where many rom-coms end. You kind of find the one, you make it and you walk off into the sunset, and that’s great. We like that conclusion.

What Jenny’s books do so well is that they allow that relationship to evolve and still be fun and enjoy the world, but also deal with what happens after happily ever after. And that’s the second [movie], which is more about how the past influences the present. [Lara Jean is] still dealing with a letter that was left behind and [all the characters are] also talking about things that they’ve left behind. There’s a time capsule, there’s a treehouse from their childhood—it’s all about before, but [how] that’s affecting them now. It’s the past relationship between Jen and Peter that [Lara Jean and Peter] have to get past. What makes that important is getting through that phase of a relationship is how you get to the deeper relationship that Peter and Lara Jean are experiencing in the third film.

Lana Condor as Lara-Jean Covey, John Corbett as Dr Dan Covey, Janel Parrish as Margot Covey, Anna Cathcart as Kitty Covey, Sarayu Blue as Trina Rothschild, in To All the Boys: Always and Forever. Juhan Noh / Netflix

In the third film, I looked at it like how the future impacts the present. Now, we’re talking about life and relationship goals, how we project that out and into one year, five years, 10 years, 50 years. That’s a different fantasy than the one that Lara Jean had in the first film when she was almost just thinking [that] her life was a romance novel. She’s still fantasizing, but now it’s about more tangible life achievements. There’s a maturity through the entire story that makes the third film new because Lara Jean is our narrator and she kind of carries us through the experience. We can see her anxiety about the future but also see that her maturity is what’s giving her strength to confront the relationship and the hopes that she has for herself as a writer.

The cinema of that reflects that maturity. One of the choices that I made was that we’re dealing with a different kind of fantasy when we go into the fantasy experiences. There’s a little more focus on her as a young adult and less on her as a wide-eyed book reader who wouldn’t come out of her room, [which was] the way we introduced her in the first.

To All the Boys has developed quite the fanbase over the years, and they’re very keen on noticing the little details. What does it mean to have that kind of support and how are you feeling as you approach the release date?

I’m so fortunate and grateful that they care as much as they do. It’s pretty great because we—myself, the actors, the whole team—care deeply about the details ourselves, whether that’s the performance or the props or the set dressing. So, having them care as much as they do is really satisfying. You asked earlier about the expectations that come with something like this, and we have those expectations too. We hold ourselves to that standard and hope that we’re giving them that experience they want as well.

I love it. I love the fans, I love how excited they get, and I feel like it’s sort of bittersweet for me. I’m excited about February 12, but I’ve been thinking about To All the Boys almost every day since 2017 and I don’t know what’s gonna happen when I don’t have to do that anymore. (Laughs.)

You got the chance to shoot not only in Vancouver and New York but also in Seoul. Can you talk a little bit about that experience and the creative decision to film in those vastly different metropolitan cities?

Seoul was special. What was unique, in general, is that our first two films were entirely shot in Vancouver and we built a family there. Most of the crew of the first film, and obviously all of the cast from the first film, were all part of the second and the third, so we’ve all kind of grown up together. It feels like a family when we’re on-set, especially when we’re in our familiar places like the Covey house or the high school. It feels like our home, our high school.

So, the new aspect was taking a lot of those family members with us as we traveled and I know one of the heartbreaks right now, among the many heartbreaks in the world right now, is that people can’t travel. I know everyone’s sort of yearning to get back to see family or just to see something new.

I think that you need your characters to hit [rock] bottom and find a way out of it to get better, and they do.

I think that one of the parts of this story that’s critical to Lara Jean’s growth is [that] she travels. She goes to Seoul and reconnects with her heritage, the memory of her mother and some of the places that her mother had experienced. Then, she also goes to New York and something happens to her there that’s unexpected and she can’t ignore the change that she’s experienced. There are very important experiences in Lara Jean’s journey that are about new places.

We started the production in New York, we went to Vancouver as sort of our home base for the Portland [part of the] story, and we ended the production in Seoul. It’s one of the very special experiences about the film, being able to do all of that with the cast and the crew.

What has it been like to see Lana and Noah come into their own in the last few years? What do you think really sold their connection and the familial connections that we have seen in the trilogy?

I think we knew when we shot the first film that Lana and Noah were special and they were also special together. At the time, we were obviously just trying to make the best movie we could to honor Jenny’s book, and you don’t know that anything is going to blow up the way that it does. But I’m so happy and proud of them. They deserve [the success], but they haven’t changed. When we went back to make the second and third films, they showed up and did a great job, just like always.

Because we all knew each other so well and the cast had already formed those bonds, it was just like having a family reunion with Madeleine [Arthur] and Emilija [Baranac], Trezzo [Mahoro], John Corbett, and Anna [Cathcart]. Anna walks into a room and she just makes everything better. She’s just funny and sweet. And we welcomed in new characters like Sarayu [Blue], who’s terrific. The family has just expanded.

Even in the challenges of film production—there’s always something on fire or the thunderstorm that wasn’t supposed to happen—there’s something about dealing with that world that is still enjoyable. I think that’s part of the reason why the family stays together.

Do you have a favorite on-screen memory from any of the three movies?

I’d always be teased a little bit for enjoying the dark moments more than the happy ones. (Laughs.) So, one of my favorites is the aquarium break-up scene in P.S. I Still Love You.

The reason is because I view the trilogy as one entity, as one Lara Jean journey—from the girl who was secretly writing these love letters that no one should ever read, to the girl who’s going to make big life choices about herself. That’s a pretty big journey to have in two years. And the aquarium break-up scene is the midpoint of that three-act, bigger picture. Just like you would expect, as a second-act low point, it’s pretty low.

It’s also tragic in that they both love and want to be with each other, but they haven’t figured out how to communicate yet. She offers the necklace that he got her, and he doesn’t know how to say no, so he walks over to help her take it off, and neither of them stop it. All they have to do is say “I don’t want this. I just want you,” but they haven’t learned how to say that yet.

Then, they step away from each other, and the distance [feels like] forever. It’s one of those feelings in life where you’re right next to somebody, and you feel like you’re a mile away from them. I find that heartbreaking and special. It’s the place you have to go before you can build them back up into something stronger and [that is] able to make bigger life choices in the third movie. It’s also the scene that made me want to direct the [second] film. I think that you need your characters to hit [rock] bottom and find a way out of it to get better, and they do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

To All the Boys: Always and Forever will be available to stream on Netflix starting February 12.

Michael Fimognari on ‘To All the Boys 3’ and Great High-School Cinema