Feature image photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images
Since I was a literal child, “screenwriter” and “has a lot of crushes” have been core parts of my identity. And so what a joy to talk to the screenwriters of Hulu’s Crush, Kirsten King and Casey Rackham! Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to watch it last weekend and read Analyssa’s review and her interviews with Auli’i Cravalho and Rowan Blanchard. When a movie is this gay AND this good we promote the hell out of it!
I hope you enjoy this long, spoiler-filled chat where we discuss astrology, creating queer utopia on-screen, and what it takes to get a queer movie from an idea to Hulu. Oh and the fact that Casey went to zoo school??
Drew: So first of all, for context, what are both of your sun signs and what were you both like in high school?
Kirsten: I’m an Aries. And in high school I would say I was like the funny friend that didn’t get to sleep with anyone until senior year. That was my vibe.
Casey: I’m a Capricon. And it never even crossed my mind to sleep with someone in high school.
Drew: (laughs) I relate to both of those things you just said.
Drew: Other than not thinking of sleeping with people, what else were you like?
Casey: I didn’t want to be there. I was definitely a try-hard because I wanted to get good grades so I could get into college. And then once I got to college I was like thank God I don’t have to do that anymore. Definitely if I could go back to high school, I’d be like, okay you can chill out, it’s okay.
Kirsten: You have to tell Drew you went to zoo school.
Casey: Yeah I went to zoo school. I went to school at the LA Zoo.
Casey: There’s a school in the secondary parking lot of the LA Zoo. Sometimes I drive by there when I’m driving to Griffith Park and I’m like hiiiii.
Drew: Did you— Sorry, this is going to totally derail this interview. Did you— Was the zoo involved in the school?
Casey: Yeah the zoo was involved. I wasn’t working with animals until I was a senior but then I got the coolest assignment — I was placed in the nursery so I got to work with the babies and the elderly animals. My best friend got the rhinos and they smelled really bad.
Drew: Oh my God so you got to like go to prom with a baby chimpanzee.
Casey: Yes, the chimpanzee was my date.
Casey: But no we had prom in Hollywood but Winter Formal was definitely at the zoo.
Kirsten: Whenever you talk about high school I’m like, how are you burying this lede? You went to zoo school. You have to include that.
Casey: I probably was traumatized.
Drew: Wow, okay. Maybe we’ll come back to that because I need to process. I do want to know how the two of you met and started working on this script.
Kirsten: We met at Buzzfeed in 2015. We formed a queer writing group from there because we both knew we wanted to get into screenwriting. We were on the editorial team. And we just started meeting in our queer little writing group. Casey and I had a lot of overlap in the type of movies we love. And then we drank some martinis and decided to write one together.
Casey: It happened really quickly. The night we decided to do it, we started brainstorming and went through all the different things we did in high school. You know, she was having sex, I wasn’t having sex, but we both were on the track team.
Drew: (laughs) Incredible. And what year was that?
Casey: 2018 we started writing.
Drew: I want you to walk me through what it takes to get a queer script made. So I’d love to know from that initial martini-fueled night to first draft to pitching to production what the process was like. I think a lot of people don’t realize the journey it takes before it gets to Hulu.
Casey: I mean, a four year journey—
Kirsten: Which is so short for features, honestly. We started writing it because this is what we wish high school was like for us and this movie is what we wish we had in high school. We didn’t really think it would get made, because of the types of movies that get prioritized. I was going on a lot of generals then and I remember on every general talking about queer ideas and hearing back from execs like: oh well we have this other gay thing, it’s so great you’ll love it it’s about two men during World War I.
Casey: I didn’t have representation yet and I wasn’t really going on generals so I had total confidence.
Drew: (laughs) That’s a good combination!
Casey: That’s not usually the dynamic between Kirsten and I! I’m very much the Capricorn, she’s very much the Aries.
Kirsten: It was a project where we both just wanted to write it. It was truly coming from a place of passion. When we were first thinking of selling the movie, we joked that we’d just go on the street and be like, wanna buy a movie? Five dollars! We just wanted it to get made. We didn’t care if we were going to make any money whatsoever on it. And then we sent it to my manager who is a producer on the project, Katie Newman, and she loved it, and Katie became Casey’s manager as well. She was really enthusiastic.
We were thinking it might end up more as a sample but the response we got from other people was very supportive in terms of selling it. We had meetings with producers just trying to suss out who understood what we were trying to do. We quickly met with Depth of Field and they’d done The Farewell and a bunch of great high school movies and then met with Maya and Natasha’s company. That was surreal. We were both sweating in Casey’s car before that for so long being like air out the pits, air out the pits.
Casey: That was Day 1 of us confusing people and making everyone think that we’re dating each other. We had this really bad habit of sitting on couches too close together and then my arm would naturally go over her shoulder and we’d sit in the same cross-legged position. None of it was good.
Casey: Also a quick thing before that because I know you’d talked about the writing process, it took us about six months to get a first draft down. Kirsten and I did this thing where she would take a scene and then I’d write the next scene but I’d also go over the scene she had written and then she’d do the same thing. We each touched every scene so many times. Our voices really melded together as one. At this point we can’t remember who wrote what at all.
Kirsten: We just really wanted to feel like a cohesive voice. And then we got some notes from our manager and implemented those and got notes from producers once producers were involved and implemented those. Then we started taking it out. We had an almost at a different studio that didn’t end up working because they wanted something that was different from what we were doing. They wanted something that was a little darker and a little more centered in a coming out story. That was something Casey and I were really adamant about not doing. I think those absolutely hold a place in the culture and there’s a reason movies like that exist but we just wanted this to be a romcom. So finding Hulu and finding American High, two groups of people who really wanted this joyous romcom to exist, was so nice. But yeah it took four years of a lot of meetings that were almosts, deals that were almosts, and a lot of rewriting and reworking. I think we had 75 drafts of the script. We were labeling it like Draft 75 and people were like, um just label it the date. This is too much.
Drew: (laughs) You’re like NO I want it marked down how many times we’ve done this.
Kirsten: (laughs) Yeah! And then after we found American High then we found a director. We met with a couple directors and again with Sammi from our first meeting with them, they just started crying about the script. I don’t know how you felt Casey, but I immediately felt this was the one.
Casey: Kirsten was like my writing made someone cry!
Kirsten: My ego. That’s how you get me.
Casey: And Sammi had a really good deck powerpoint and I was like yes this is the one.
Drew: Appealing to both sides!
Kirsten: (laughs) Yeah.
Drew: Throughout the 75 drafts, what was the biggest evolution?
Casey: Goddamn Gabbi.
Casey: Gabbi went through so many different iterations because at one point she was more of a villain. But we eventually wanted to showcase that nothing is wrong with Gabbi — it just wasn’t there for her and Paige. The chemistry was just off. I feel like we’ve all been there where we’ve dated someone and they’re great but maybe not for us. But that is much harder to write because when it’s a movie the question becomes what’s wrong with Gabbi. We really love where that ended up because Isabella is just the best Gabbi ever and she’s so wonderful and endearing.
Kirsten: And then also figuring out Paige’s motivation. Before we had Gabbi as this sort of classic 90s mean girl and it just wasn’t working for us, but as Casey said it’s really hard to not write someone in very obvious tropes. Adding nuance to her was super important.
Casey: Our ending scene also changed a lot. Not the heart of it — the big speech was basically always the same — more just the setting of it. And at the stakeout we used to have an empty pool where AJ and Paige have a moment and AJ is skateboarding. Auli’i did learn skateboarding for the film.
Kirsten: And got her nose pierced. She was truly going for it.
Drew: Yeah like, Oh I guess I HAVE to for the role, whoops.
Drew: There are so many queer kids at this school. There’s no homophobia. We get flashbacks where these kids are kids kids and see them express queerness then. That was all very exciting to me. Was that always the plan? Paige was always out I presume, but were both sisters also always out?
Casey: 100%. My sister and I are both queer and I love that dynamic. And we just always wanted them to be out. It is different. When we were on set, the moment that made me sob was watching young Paige tell young Dylan that she’s queer, because my God I have not seen someone that young express that and it be so normal with Dylan just saying, “I like girls too.”
Kirsten: We were standing there on set and it felt so surreal. In my high school there was one kid who was out and everybody called him brave. It was so not normalized. I mean, I didn’t come out until college. But we wanted to imagine this world that does exist in some places — we read a study that in LA upwards of 49% of teens identify as queers — and have it on a streamer where other people can see a high school where you’re not being made fun of because of your sexuality I think that is really powerful. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family that was not okay with me being queer at all so it would have meant a lot for me to see this. I was watching The L Word and thought it was hot but it wasn’t normalized in this way.
Casey: When you talk about a variety of queer people at this school, I just think about my own life. Like at my high school there was also only one out queer person and yes I had a crush on her. I didn’t know I was queer yet I just thought I liked to daydream about her. But that is no longer my reality. The most unrealistic thing about seeing a queer person on TV is that they’re friends with all straight people. I surround myself with queer people. So it is really nice to see more than one queer person at this school.
Drew: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is there are trans teens on TV shows and also there are states where it’s now illegal to be a trans teen. It’s just so different from our experience in high school. I know for me I didn’t know about transness at all, there were a couple out gay kids but they weren’t really supposed to talk about it, and I wasn’t seeing it on TV all the time. I can’t even imagine how surreal it must be to have these opposing extremes in life and on-screen. But I do think there’s a lot of value in seeing this possibility and imagined world?
Casey: It’s tough what you’re saying. Sometimes I feel like we’re so in this world where we’re queer and we’re normal, where we get to be weird and make poor decisions and make great decisions and just be people. And then all of a sudden you’re brought back to the real world where that is not the case for a lot of people in this country. There’s so much good and bad at the same time. It is nice to have this and to see this and to be like we can be happy too.
Kirsten: It is jarring though. Especially the past four years this script has been our life so to be living in a script where those laws aren’t happening and then to go on Twitter and see some of the most aggressive anti-queer legislation we’ve seen in a very long time. It’s jarring. And that’s why I say there’s still value in coming out stories, there’s still value in work that critiques institutions that attack queer people. It’s just this was our way of combating it in a very different, joyful way.
And this film only scratches the surface of what we need. We need more nuanced queer films, we need more trans films, we need more queer films by people of color. We’re so lucky this film was written and directed by queer people but it’s written and directed by white people. I would love to see more people of color at the helm. This movie is really just a small part of what we want to happen. I hope this does well and signals to invest in more queer stories from a wide variety of people with nuance. People are getting attacked daily. People’s lives are in danger.
Drew: It is interesting when you have a script set in a world like this, the characters are allowed both their queerness and their full humanity because their conflicts aren’t coming from their queerness. Coming out stories and transition stories are dramatically compelling, but do you know what else is dramatically compelling? Falling in love with someone and then falling in love with her sister! The same things that happen in any other romcom!
Casey: (laughs) We’re messy too!
Kirsten: I feel like all of the drama in my queer friends’ lives revolves around who they may or may not fuck. And then we save the talk about our dads for our therapists. I’m not usually inviting my friends over so we can talk about our trauma and our coming out stories.
Casey: Yeah we save that for first dates!
Kirsten: (laughs) True, honestly.
Drew: When writing was there a conscious effort to adapt your teen experiences and your perspectives for present-day teens? Like was the goal to make a specifically Gen Z movie that takes place in an imagined 2022?
Casey: I think Kirsten and I tried as hard as we could to just make it classic and universal, because you don’t want to be too much of a try-hard like my high school self. And we wanted to be authentic to ourselves. But I think with setting, we owe a lot to our entire production team. And our actors, they helped us connect with Gen Z. But I also think we’re going to get a lot of people our age who are watching who are going to be living through it like God I wish.
Kirsten: We didn’t want to be too much like, “Hello, fellow teens.”
Kirsten: Obviously we’re older. There were elements we did tweak. Like I kept trying to get Rihanna references in there and Rihanna hasn’t put out music in six years. And like the Phoebe Bridgers line changed a lot. Originally we were going more Lilith Fair.
Casey: Indigo Girls was in there at one point. And then we were like okay we should update it.
Drew: Gabbi and AJ are both somewhat femme but AJ is maybe a little more of a tomboy. And it was interesting to me that Paige’s crush journey is going from having a crush on someone who fits traditional standards of beauty to someone who fits gay standards of beauty. Not to take away from Gabbi’s queerness, obviously. But I was curious if that was intentional and in the script.
Casey: I don’t think we thought about that specifically, but that is the journey that happens for a lot of people.
Kirsten: I mean, I’d say AJ was originally written as even more masc than Auli’i. I do think with Gabbi, we were thinking of our first crushes and how sometimes you do go, that’s the hottest, femmest girl I’ve ever seen in my life. And then your taste evolves. Auli’i is so wonderful in the role and I feel like Sammi really worked with her to create the character. There was a real collaboration between Sammi and the actors with how they wanted to present and how they felt comfortable presenting.
Drew: Maybe I’m disconnected from the super queer Gen Z youth, but I do feel like AJ looks like a tomboy at this stage of life. Like who knows where AJ is going to get to in her 20s, but at this point it’s like yes this teen is feeling more comfortable in this aesthetic and in this way of moving through the world. Who knows where that will take her.
Casey: I know, I’d love to see where they all get to in college.
Drew: What a journey we’re all on!
Drew: Oh my God I need to share that when Paige is told that her crush isn’t CalArts worthy, I had this immediate flashback to my NYU film application. We had to write a “personal narrative” — not the essay but something that could be more descriptive — and I wrote about my first love. I cared about it so much. And then I met with an advisor and they were like, you should pick a new topic.
Drew: They told me it wasn’t original! I was so mad and so offended, but then I did write about something else and got in so maybe the advisor was right. But I was like Paige, I think your crush is CalArts worthy! And I love that in the end that’s validated for her — just a deeper, more vulnerable crush.
Casey: I’m sorry when you’re a teen and you have a crush it is the most important thing in the entire world!
Kirsten: The first draft of my college essay was about my boyfriend and my college advisor was like, uhh doesn’t your mom have cancer? You should write about that…
Kirsten: And I was like fine okay I guess that will get me into school easier. But we did just want Paige to get into a more emotional place with her art.
Drew: It made me think of when people were criticizing Olivia Rodrigo for only writing about this relationship and it’s like what do you think a teenager is going to be writing music about??
Kirsten: All I did was sit in my room and cry to Imogen Heap. That’s what I did. That was the life.
Drew: What were your high school loves like? I know Kirsten was having sex and Casey wasn’t but beyond that.
Kirsten: I also had a big crush. I don’t want to reveal her name because she follows me on Instagram. But I had a crush on a girl who was on the track team with me. And I remember one time after track practice she asked me to give her a piggyback ride and I gave her a piggyback ride and it was like this the best day of my life. And then I also had a boyfriend my senior year. I was very enthralled with him but I’d also be like, wouldn’t it be funny if you dared me to kiss a girl at a party? Wouldn’t it be hilarious? Wouldn’t you love that? I was very much at that stage of my bisexuality.
Casey: I dated no one. I had a lot of crushes. And yeah I also had a crush on a girl who was on my track team. We recently reconnected after 13 years and I told her I had a crush on her which was so good to finally say. Oh and now she’s on my gay kickball team.
Drew: Wow. That’s the dream.
Drew: Wait, what did she say when you told her?
Casey: It was so nice! She was really sweet. It just felt so good to say. Something that’s different for queer people is that first crush is such a pivotal part of your identity and coming out story. It’s a big deal. It’s a realization. I have no intention of going around and telling guys I had crushes on in middle school and high school. Those aren’t important to me.
Kirsten: It comes with shame too. You have so much shame around having these feelings so being able to verbalize them as an adult and release that shame you had in high school is so nice. Maybe I will tell that person I had a crush.
Casey: Except also I had no shame in high school because I did not admit to myself it was a crush. I realized I was queer two weeks after college. I missed four years of great experiences.
Drew: Same. I realized almost a year after college.
Casey: Literally the day I realized it, every queer thing I’d ever done and ever thought went through my brain and I was like, oh.
Drew: It’s so interesting that when this movie is on Hulu and so many people have access to it and it stars Moana and another Disney star — obviously they’re more than that but people have this gateway to these performers — how different the stories will be. As we talked about, I don’t think it will be all sunshine and rainbows, but I think the next generation of queer people are going to have such different narratives. Which is also exciting from a film perspective.
Casey: Truly. And I think it’s going to be exciting to see all these different realities. I mean, there are just so many queer experiences.
Kirsten: Again, hopefully more places will want to invest in more queer stories. We’ve been tagged in some stuff that’s like we have Heartstopper and Crush coming! But we shouldn’t just have a few things to look forward to. There should be things slotted into everyday life. It should be way more prevalent in the culture.
Drew: I want to talk about astrology. Because your script does something that I do in all my writing and more people should do which is clarifies the sun signs of the characters. Paige is a Pisces and the twins are Geminis. Did you decide that before writing? Or did you go back and decide?
Casey: It was in the middle during one of the drafts.
Kirsten: We wrote their whole charts.
Casey: I can see someone out there being like AJ doesn’t feel like a Gemini and I’m like okay well let’s talk about her moon and rising. We have those too.
Drew: Can we get the exclusive??
Casey: We have it written down somewhere…
Kirsten: I remember that Stacy is a Leo.
Casey: I definitely remember that AJ and Gabbi have Libra in their chart.
Kirsten: We have to find that paper. We’d gotten notes from the producers to do character backgrounds to define them more and Casey and I were like okay so we need to do their full natal charts. That’s how we’ll figure out who they are as people. There’s no other way.
Drew: I love the idea of producers being like can you write up backstory and then you just hand over natal charts.
Drew: It led me to do research about how twins can have the same charts but have different personalities. I’m sure you both have done the research on that and I’m glad your movie gave me the excuse to finally learn.
Kirsten: I don’t know if we did enough twin astrology research so you might be ahead of us.
Drew: The idea is when two people are around each other with such similar charts in the same environment, different parts of the chart come out. So maybe Gabbi is more sun-forward and AJ is more moon-forward because there wasn’t room for so much Gemini energy.
Casey: I also think it’s like when astrology meme accounts do a Venn Diagram for a Gemini and and different Geminis exemplify different traits.
Kirsten: My best friends in high school were twins and that was some of the motivation for Gabbi and AJ. I swear I didn’t have a crush on them. They think I did now.
Kirsten: They were so different even though they had this intense bond where they knew everything about each other before one would say it. But they were very different people so I’m glad that lines up with twin astrology.
Drew: Kirsten, you were talking about how you want to have more queer voices in media and I think that’s great, but I also think queer creators’ individual voices are so varied, so I’m curious for both of you what aspects of Crush do you feel are really core to you as writers and what do you still want to explore in future project?
Kirsten: I love to play around in different genres like I’m working on a period piece that’s revisionist history. And I think Crush is a kind of revisionist history in a way. I do like to play in that space of what could be, what could’ve been, and hopefully it will be what is someday. That is very core to me. And then also as a writer I hope to get to a point where I can help other people get to tell their stories because some stories aren’t mine to tell. That’s a line as a writer you have to figure out — how to include the people you want to include but make sure you’re telling an authentic story.
Casey: I describe my writing as 90% comedy, 10% punching your heart. I also think the feeling I want to evoke is the hand holding skateboard scene with Paige and AJ. How cute are they! I just want people to laugh and smile and maybe have a little tear in their eye.
Drew: Is there anything in other projects that you want to do that you didn’t get to do here? Kirsten, you brought up other genres.
Kirsten: Yeah I’d love to see queer people in genre stuff. Not in a subtle way. I want queer people centered in genre stuff. I would love some queer horror comedies. I’m really interested in playing in those different spaces. Normalizing queerness in a way. And I’m a messy bisexual. I hope I get to put some messy bisexuality in TV and film. I hope we’re getting past the point where queer people can’t be problematic.
Casey: Yeah I’ve got a time travel script, I’ve got an action comedy, I’ve got a romcom, and someone had me asked me if the romcom is queer and I’m like oh duh everything is queer. All the things but they have queerness in them completely. I loved doing this young high school romance but I cannot wait to do a queer romcom where they’re in their 30s.
I think Kirsten would agree, we just want everything. We want everyone to do everything queer.