High Five: Interview with Five Feet Apart Director Justin Baldoni

Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse in FIVE FEET APART.
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How would you start a romance with someone if you weren’t allowed within six feet of each other? That’s the premise of CBS Films’ romantic drama Five Feet Apart, in theaters March 15. Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson star as two teenagers hospitalized with cystic fibrosis, who can’t get close without risking contamination.

The movie is directed by Justin Baldoni, best known to the public for playing romantic interest Rafael Solano on CW’s hit television show “Jane the Virgin.” Baldoni spoke to Boxoffice about the real-life inspiration for Five Feet Apart, shooting “winter” scenes in 100-degree weather, and the challenges of being a first-time feature-film director.

How did you come across this project?

About seven years ago, I started making a documentary series called “My Last Days,” where I traveled the country and told the stories of amazing individuals who were dying of a terminal illness but living incredible lives. That little show went on to become one of the most watched documentary series online ever, and I later sold it to the CW, so now it’s an existing television event every year.

What came out of the first year it aired on TV was I met a young woman named Claire Wineland who had cystic fibrosis. She became one of my dear friends and like a little sister to me. It was in a conversation with Claire, when I was talking to her about dating other people with cystic fibrosis, that she told me two people with cystic fibrosis have to stay six feet apart or they could contaminate each other—or in the worst case, kill each other.

I just [knew] this could be a beautiful film. Romeo and Juliet was one of the first plays I remember seeing, and I was just obsessed with the love story. Instead of the Capulets and the Montagues, what if it was the illness that kept these two kids—who so badly wanted to be together—apart? The acknowledgment of mortality and all of these things I had spent my whole career trying to find ways to talk about, I found in this one story.

Could I tell a story with two young people in a young-adult movie without [showing] physical touch? As a filmmaker, that was my challenge and what I set out to achieve. I really wanted to make a film in this age where almost every teenage love story has a sex scene. We’re so obsessed with the physical. Can we find intimacy again, without physical touch, on screen?

Claire later became a consultant for the film and really helped me tell the story in a sincere way, through the lens of the people who are actually living with cystic fibrosis. She passed away just before I could show it to her, after a successful lung transplant with complications. I dedicated the film to her. Her energy is all over this film.

What surprised you most about directing a feature film for the first time?

I’ve spent the last 15 years directing, but I’d always had a boss. Whether it be a music video or a commercial or even a documentary, there’d always been somebody to report to. So really having to dig deep to trust myself and my intuition. I remember finding myself on set at one point just completely alone. “Wait a second, the only person that can mess this up right now is me.” [Laughs]

Directing anything is difficult, but I had no idea how hard it would really be, let alone to direct a story that you [feel so strongly about]. You don’t make a movie like this just to make it; you make a movie like this to hopefully affect people and touch people, to remind people about the beauty that is life. That means what goes into it has to be the same appreciation. As the director, you put the most into it of anybody. A lot of other people are not as invested, so it’s a really tricky thing. I had to learn how to get everybody invested in the same way that I am. Because for me, directing is a collaboration. I’m not a tell-everybody-what-to-do kind of director.

What are your favorite stories or funniest moments on set?

There’s an emotional climactic point in the film, where my lead actress gets handed a notebook. Inside the notebook are supposed to be some very important sketches. We were hitting hour 13 on one of our last days of shooting; it might have been the final day. My lead actress has been emotionally spent all day long, crying. I’m starting [the shot] on the notebook and tilting up to her face, and she’s supposed to have this huge reaction. She opens the notebook and starts laughing because the prop department put the dummy notebook in, which had nothing inside! [Laughs]

Here’s another funny story, which at the time wasn’t very funny. We shot this movie in New Orleans, and it’s a winter movie. My actors were melting. Any scene that was outside, we had to put them in winter coats and multiple layers—but under those coats we had ice vests, because it was literally 100 degrees at night. Those ice vests melted in 15 minutes. My poor actors are acting cold and give deep emotional performances while overheating.

What were your cinematic inspirations here?

I didn’t watch The Fault in Our Stars within the last six months of shooting this movie for a reason. I knew it would be compared a lot to it because of the premise, but I really wanted to make a very grounded film. In fact, The Pursuit of Happyness was one of my cinematic inspirations for this movie. It touched me on such a deep level; there was such a rawness and grittiness and realness to that movie.

I had a similar aspiration or goal for the style of this film. Fault was a bit more shiny, the shots were a little more set up. We brought a rawness—have the imperfections be what makes the movie perfect. From top to bottom, I didn’t want anything in this movie to come off perfect. I wanted this to feel as grounded in reality as possible. Once when the dolly broke, I said, “Great! Let’s throw the camera on my shoulder instead.”

What’s your best Cole Sprouse story?

I was on “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” as a guest actor! [Cole and his twin brother, Dylan Sprouse, became child stars as the title characters on the 2000s Disney Channel sitcom.] I played a Spanish fencing instructor named Diego.

Cole was the only actor I met for this role. I just knew that he had so much to give, that he was blowing up; he looked like the character and in many ways acted like the characters. Cystic fibrosis patients have this very mature outlook on life, because they spend so much time in the hospital with doctors. These doctors and nurses become their friends, so they become friends with adults. In a very similar way, Cole grew up with adult friends, being a child star working with directors and producers and PAs.

SIDEBAR

Justin Baldoni

AT THE MOVIES

MOVIEGOING MEMORY

When that first Jurassic Park came out, it was one of those cultural moments. I remember seeing the world that Spielberg had created, with the reinvention of dinosaurs. As a young boy, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. It was a little bit of a conversation between [my dad] and my mom, whether to take a nine-year-old to go see it. I remember sitting down in the theater, that music started playing, I looked over at my dad and he looked over at me. I’ll cry just thinking about it! It was just super special.

AT THE CONCESSION STAND

I always go with a large popcorn and butter. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. It just makes you feel like you’re “at the movies.” If it’s a popcorn flick, you’ve got to get the large popcorn. Even though I always know I’m going to pay for that decision later.