‘First Love’ Director A.J. Edwards and Star Hero Fiennes Tiffin on Capturing Young Love With Poetic Vision

When conceiving his new film, “First Love,” director A.J. Edwards wanted to tell a different kind of young romance. Teenage attraction tends to belong in the YA genre, where candy-colored films celebrate doomed trysts that are meant to convey something about growing up. Some are not so bad, but Edwards shames most of them with this lyrical film that treats the subject with rich maturity.  It’s also a welcome revelation for actor Hero Fiennes Tiffin, who has built up quite the fan following because of his leading role in the “After” movies. He’s not a heartthrob in this film but a young man suddenly feeling the rush of profound attraction. He plays Jim, who falls for Ann (Sydney Park), a fellow student at his high school who clicks with him on an emotional and intellectual level. Their journey runs in parallel to that of Jim’s parents, Kay (Diane Kruger) and Glenn (Jeffrey Donovan), who were once college sweethearts and are now facing economic uncertainty in the wake of the 2008 recession. 

Instead of a recycled plot, Edwards seeks to evoke the very sensation and fears of entering a serious relationship at a young age in already trembling times. It’s an onscreen relationship that develops organically, shot in an eloquent rhythm. Since his directorial debut, “The Better Angels,” about Abraham Lincoln’s childhood, Edwards has established himself as a filmmaker of rich textures. Tiffin brings a measured force to the role, giving Jim the sincerity of undergoing powerful emotions during one of life’s formative stages. How he and Ann make it through, or if they even can, is an answer that has to be mined through moments of devotion and doubt. Edwards and Tiffin spoke with Entertainment Voice about the making of “First Love.”

A.J., this is a love story that is about so much more than just the central romance. Where did the inspiration come from?

A.J. Edwards: It’s a timeless, universal story, very old. But I can’t think of a lot of films that have explored it this way. Few approach the subject intelligently and sincerely, or make the contrasts we make between parents and children having both experienced this same emotional rite of passage. I just thought that made it different and unique. I remember reading years ago an article in the New Yorker about love in the 2010s. I remember going through it all and it had all these different aspects of what love means today, if it lasts and how people preserve it. I remember holding on to it and going back to it. All the different opinions were very inspiring. 

It is unique in how it incorporates the whole experience of the Great Recession and the microcosm of lives being impacted by the economic crisis. 

A.J. Edwards: The recession aspect I’m glad speaks to you cosmically, or however you want to put it. I wanted it to feel as if the whole world was cracking, which it felt like it was for many back then. I hadn’t really seen a recession story told like this. It’s usually about Wall Street fat cats or it’s a kind of “Nomadland” story where someone is living in a van. I hadn’t really seen one that was about the middle man or the more common stories that get under-told. 

Hero, you’re best known for your role in the “After” movies. “First Love” is a very different kind of teen romance. What made you decide to take on this role?

Hero Fiennes Tiffin: I was filming a movie that hasn’t been released yet called “The Loneliest Boy in the World,” which is the farthest you can get from my character. I was in Wales, in my hotel room, about to read the script, thinking this was just another romance. I’m already in a big franchise that’s a romance, so I didn’t want to do another one. My agent just said “read the script.” So I did and really, really loved it. At first I wanted to put it on hold to get some other projects out of the way, but as soon as I met A.J., I wanted to get started right away. Because of “After” I tend to think there must be some agenda for wanting me in a movie, but when I met A.J. he said, “you’re my first choice, I saw you in the ‘After’ movies and I know you can play Jim very well.” That gave me the confidence to take it on.

How would you say being in “After” prepared you for this film?

Hero Fiennes Tiffin: I think in just forcing me to expand my comfort zone in every sense. It was my first lead role and it forced me to be away from home for months and get comfortable with that. It also prepared me for doing intimate scenes, romance and getting in touch with my more vulnerable self. I had to learn to evoke those feelings when you’re at a certain age and experience first love and it feels like it’s the end all, be all of everything. But ultimately the fan base and how supportive they are gives me the confidence to keep working. They’re so supportive and it allows me to make films like this.

A.J., everyone in this film perfectly captures the sense of common lives but with an eloquent touch to the performances. In doing the casting, what was the criteria for selecting these faces?

A.J. Edwards: Diane Kruger was a part of the film from the beginning. She was the first person I sent the script to. I knew I wanted her for it. I wanted her face to pull us into the story. Jeffrey Donovan was actually recommended by my parents. They liked him and had seen him in a role. He can intelligently fill in the role of this every man. He’s a great actor too with stage roots in Shakespeare. In making this kind of film it is nerve-wracking. Casting the younger roles is strangely difficult for me. When choosing 18-25 it’s very difficult because everyone looks like the same kind of young person everyone seems to be looking for. I wanted someone that could remind you of River Phoenix or Timothy Hutton, young DiCaprio. That’s a rare bird right there. I was so grateful when we stumbled on Hero and he accepted it.

There is also something subversive about this movie in how it defies the usual image of teenagers we get in YA romances. For example, we don’t get stories anymore about young people deciding to take the leap into marriage or seriously discussing issues of commitment. Did you have in mind that kind of defiance of the norm?

A.J. Edwards: You’re right that the narrative path of these characters is subversive. I had never thought of that until an editor friend of mine actually brought that up. She said, “it’s funny how what they’re choosing to do is very conservative and old fashioned.” But that’s the subversive thing to do now. You have Ann’s mother speaking to her in one ear and Jim’s friends speaking to him in his ear, not in a bad way but suggesting what today is considered common sense. The idea they give is well, you need to get on the carousel of romance and try a number of partners, have as many experiences as you can. You can only go to Europe so many times, why get married now? But these things do make sense, the young couple just has to weigh them and make their decisions. You deal with it every day in life but movies never touch on it.

Hero, has making “First Love” changed some of your perceptions as a young actor on the rise about settling down?

Hero Fiennes Tiffin: I’m not as decisive as Jim (laughs). I could never be that decisive on anything that quickly. But I think every road you take with a character you end up with a little element of them that stays with yourself. Jim is so lovely and patient and aware. I think he’s aware he still has much to learn and has two ears and one mouth for a reason. What’s so beautiful about him is that when he feels something’s right he’s ready to go quite clearly. I could definitely learn from him when it comes to being more decisive.

This is a movie with a very free-flowing feel, almost akin to poetry. What was the experience of acting in a film that is focused yet free of typical narrative constraints?

Hero Fiennes Tiffin: A.J. can really talk more about the magic tricks. But there was something special about working with a small crew where we were allowed not to worry about any continuity. I could change lines as I wanted and be in different parts of the room for each take if I wanted. A.J.’s background is as an editor. That allows him to know how to piece it together. The lack of strict rules allowed for such a natural, authentic, raw, improvisational performance. A.J. knows what he needs to tie it together and make it feel like you’re doing a piece with no camera.

A.J., your work tends to be immersive and lyrical, such as your debut “The Better Angels.” Share about your technique as a director.

A.J. Edwards: This one differs in that it gives more space and authority to the actors. I wanted to let them wrestle with the script the way they wanted to without cutting too much around. I wanted it to be completely performance-centered rather than the performance complimenting the visual style. I wanted the cinematography and music to be completely transparent and give a window into the performance. 

Going back to the main themes of the story, do you consider yourself a romantic?

A.J. Edwards: I suppose I do consider myself a romantic, whatever that means today. You’re right that being romantic means being an outlier these days. The romantic genre has been lacking a lot these days. After “The Notebook” and before streaming, there’s this weird desert of a lack of romantic dramas. It’s strange because when you consider the history of cinema, some of the greatest films ever made are romantic dramas. It’s weird that when you hit the 2000s it’s a film that disappears and it becomes difficult to get casting or find financing. Of course you’ve got films like James Grays’ “Two Lovers,” but that won’t make the sparks fly with a date (laughs). It’s a hard film to make but I hope people continue to try. 

And finally Hero, you have another “After” film coming out soon, “After Ever Happy.” What can fans expect from you in the latest entry?

Hero Fiennes Tiffin: You know what, it pains me to say it, but we are coming to an end with the film series. I think the way we’re going, for people who know the books, if you think there’s anything in the original novels that hasn’t been in the movies, you can probably expect it to be in this one. There are a larger number of books than there are film versions, so I hope we’ve picked the right moments to show. Listen if you’ve stayed with us this long for the journey then you can’t leave us now. 

First Love” releases June 17 in select theaters and on VOD.