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How ‘Purple Hearts’ Director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum Made a Romance About Political Opposites

The filmmaker talks to TheWrap about capturing the ”red/blue divide“ in the movie that currently sits atop Netflix’s Top 10 films list

“Dead to Me” and “Sneakerella” director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum resonated with many of the themes in the complex story of Netflix’s romantic drama “Purple Hearts,” but when the project first came to her, it had a radically different point of view.

“The script came to me four years ago, and it was a bit different. It was really featuring Luke. He was the lead and we felt like it should be a little bit more like through the female gaze,” she said, adding that she and writers Liz Garcia and Kyle Jarrow subsequently restructured and reoriented the movie to what it is now.

The film opens on Cassandra “Cassie” Salazar (Sofia Carson), an aspiring musician who has no problem voicing her liberal views, even when she meets Luke Morrow (Nicholas Galitzine) at the bar where she works and plays gigs one night shortly before his deployment in the Marines. Cassie’s old friend Frankie Mubuthia (Chosen Jacobs) introduces Cassie to Luke, who first tries to apologize to her on behalf of a comment one of their buddies makes, but then ends up challenging her opinions with his own more conservative ones. 

“The reason I was attracted to the movie from the get go was because of the fact that it’s about the red/blue divide,” Rosenbaum said. “In a palatable, fun context about romance, it was really interesting to watch two people from very, very different points of view learn to function together because they have to.”

Cassie has diabetes, and she is running low on her insulin, which the insurance won’t fully cover until a few days later when her prescription fills. Her mother, who emigrated from Colombia, tries to help her with cash, but even that isn’t enough to pay for the medicine, so Cassie goes to Frankie and suggests they get married because married military spouses get better health benefits and an extra monthly stipend. Luke overhears, warning them that the military police, of which his dad is a part, could sniff out a fake union with major consequences.

Delving into an issue like healthcare was important for Rosenbaum.

“I’m very passionate about healthcare. I feel like every human being deserves it, especially in a first world nation like America. And so it felt wild to pursue that storyline,” Rosenbaum said. “I researched a lot about the crisis, especially with diabetes, where the [costs on] drugs are so high and where people are dying from not having the proper access to their medication on a daily basis. So I really wanted to include that storyline.”

Frankie has an entirely different reason for declining Cassie’s offer: he is serious about another girl, Riley (Breana Raquel). Luke joined the army to straighten up and get an edge in the battle with his drug addiction, but he still owes his former dealer John-O thousands of dollars. He approaches Cassie and offers to go through with her plan and get married, but he doesn’t fill her in on the details.

“Frankie’s really the conscience and the heart and soul of the movie. The character of Frankie was written as Cassie’s contemporary and he was supposed to be like 29 but Jacobs was 19 when we cast him,” Rosenbaum said. “We had to rewrite it so that she was [his] babysitter, but I thought that that really worked because it made them have like a brother-sister relationship.”

Rosenbaum and her team got permission from the Pentagon to film Galitzine with actual Marines. When Luke and Frankie deploy to Iraq, Cassie witnesses the difficulty military families face, and it fuels her music. 

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“It’s just nice to have audiences see how these characters learn to bend a little bit and actually grow from access to the opposite side of the aisle,” Rosenbaum said. “I think Cassie is quite liberal. Her songs ultimately are enriched by something that she had originally poo-poo’d in observing sacrifices [made] in the military. And it enriches her songs and she strikes a note with a larger part of America, because I think she’s opened her mind.”

Sofia Carson wrote several original songs for the film. Co-songwriter Justin Tranter worked with Carson to analyze the script and figure out where to place certain songs. The music synchronizes with many emotional moments for Cassie, Luke and Frankie. 

“We felt like Cassie hadn’t really found her voice in the beginning. Even though she’s outspoken, it’s a lot harder to sing your feelings and to write your feelings and put it out there, and it was something that she was just sort of surviving doing covers and satisfying like, the manager of Billy’s [Breakwater where she works]. So the beginning starts out with covers.”

While the guys are away, Cassie plays “Come Back Home” for them on FaceTime, and right as Luke gets injured, it takes off on Spotify. Inspired by her experience sending the men off to Iraq, “Come Back Home” hits the highs and lows of sending a loved one off to duty as well as the hope at their return. This first single puts Cassie and her band, The Loyal, on the map. 

“We knew that we wanted a song as she’s about to walk in the shoes of the military and see her husband off to deployment amidst all these families that are having to do this daily in America,” Rosenbaum said. “We wanted something that would kind of stretch her experiences a little bit. Though she lived in that town her whole life, she’d never been on base before.”

Luke gets severely injured in Iraq right as “Come Back Home” climbs the charts on Spotify, and Cassie and Luke take their fake marriage to the next level by moving in together, which causes more butting of heads. But eventually the pair softens toward one another.

“We knew we needed a ‘hate you love you’ song because that’s the dynamic of the relationship and that could be at the real peak of their conflict,” Rosenbaum said. “For Luke, he had never really had much understanding or appreciation of the arts. He’s very much like a nine to five, kind of honorable guy with a strong level of confidence in that capacity. And so for him to have like a front-row seat to the creative process, I thought was really provocative and it was the main reason I was interested in making the movie. And it’s nice to model for audiences because I think we can all learn to listen a little bit more and compromise more.”

“Blue Side of the Sky” comes to completion in a more intimate concert setting in the bar where Cassie waitresses. The song, which Cassie works on at the beginning of the film, symbolizes both her and Luke’s struggles.

”That one is about her and Luke not really having access to the blue side of the sky, because it really is systemic in this country,” Rosenbaum said. “[Cassie’s] first generation, her mom is from Colombia and really struggling financially. Luke’s third generation military but because he got himself into a bind with his addiction and he also is really having trouble scrambling to get to the blue side of the sky.“

Rosenbaum revealed that the blue sky theme also went into how she shot many of the scenes with Luke and Cassie. The color red also took on a certain meaning of danger, and sunshine punctuates critical moments in the movie. 

“Visually we always have them behind chainlink and never kind of put our characters against anything like blue or beautiful even though they’re by the beach. We carefully kind of restricted their access to that. And [we] were thrilled when it would be overcast days.

Carson performed “I Didn’t Know” in front of an actual audience with permission to film for “Purple Hearts.” Rosenbaum compared capturing the concert footage to documentary filmmaking – down to the point where “you can’t mess up.” 

“We wanted the tone to feel romantic but also naturalistic so we went with a very specifically handheld look, so that it felt a bit like slice of life as we were watching them as if the camera was a character,” she said. “‘I Didn’t Know’ is her revelation. It’s sung at the Hollywood Bowl, and that is her confession to understanding that she’s better with him, even though it’s hard.”

As of its first week on Netflix, “Purple Hearts” surpassed “The Gray Man” in the number one slot in the streamer’s Top 10 most popular movies. Rosenbaum said she was stunned in a follow-up email to TheWrap.

“I hope that the audiences who watch it recognize that we intentionally created two complex, passionate and flawed characters from opposite walks of life who have been bred to dislike and distrust each other. They learn to listen and to appreciate each other’s differences, they learn to compromise, they learn to love. This is admittedly a bit of a fantasy, and clearly cynics can poke holes in this sort of idealism, but I find that the world is so divided and angry right now that, at least in our fiction, it is a privilege to model kindness and love. As filmmakers we have the ability to put stories of hope and forgiveness out there, and in this story everyone deserves forgiveness, room to learn and grow, and be given a second chance.”

“Purple Hearts” is now streaming on Netflix.

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