Lee Loechler tells PEOPLE he worked with an illustrator for six months before pulling off the massive surprise with family and friends
A pair of high school sweethearts are destined to live happily ever after, especially following the magic that went into their fairytale proposal last month.
But when it came time for filmmaker Lee Loechler to plan a proposal to his girlfriend Dr. Sthuthi David, he never expected his gesture to be so grandeur.
“A few years back, a friend of mine told me he was planning to propose to his then-girlfriend, and I suggested he should Forrest Gump himself into her favorite movie, and then have his on-screen character ‘toss’ the ring to his real-life self,” Loechler, 29, tells PEOPLE. “I don’t know where that idea came from, but it felt fun and magical, and it played into my skill set as a filmmaker.”
“He didn’t think it was right for him, so I filed it away for later use,” he continues. “When things started getting serious with Sthuthi, I started thinking about how I might propose. I still thought that idea had potential, but her favorite movie was animated, and my experience was all in live-action.”
Still, that didn’t stop Loechler from making his idea come to fruition in an unbelievable proposal on Dec. 30 at the local Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts, which has quickly become a viral sensation on Instagram and YouTube.
“I will never forget the way she looked at me,” Loechler recalls. “You could tell it had meant the world to her. It was the greatest feeling in the world, and I will remember it till the day I die.”
In the six months leading up to the big day, Loechler worked with Australian illustrator and character designer Kayla Coombs to create animated versions of himself and David, 28, and then insert them into her favorite movie, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
“I had cold emailed her, just a standard inquiry about doing a Disney-style portrait. I worried that if I wrote everything out in a cold email, she’d think I was bats—,” Loechler says, joking. “On a Skype call in April, I unveiled the true extent of the vision.”
“Not only was she undaunted, but I remember her loving the idea and encouraging me not to compromise on the vision. She was a true collaborator from the get-go, and just an all-around warm and lovely person,” he adds. “It was one of those ‘bingo’ moments.”
Together, the duo worked to tailor the iconic kissing scene between Princess Aurora and Prince Philip so that the characters more closely represented the real-life couple and would react on the screen when it came time for Loechler to pop the question.
In addition to putting the animation together with Coombs, Loechler says he edited an email blast from the theater with their permission, changing the advertised movie for that evening to Sleeping Beauty.
“I sent the doctored email to her mom, and asked her to send it to Sthuthi along with the message: ‘I saw the Coolidge is screening your favorite movie, so I got tickets for the whole family, and one for Lee if he can come,'” he explains. “It was a proud moment when she called me a few days later and invited me to her own surprise proposal… She didn’t suspect a thing!”
The filmmaker later invited their friends and family, but strategically hid them in the back row and managed to have the lighting dark in the theater so David wouldn’t see. In the spaces between them, Loechler had seat-fillers come — mostly parents with their “Disney-age” children — which he arranged through a post on Boston subreddit.
“It would have been a dead giveaway if she had walked in to find everyone in the audience was friends and family,” he explains. “To my surprise, [the post] generated hundreds of responses. A few parents asked if their daughters could wear princess dresses, which was the easiest ‘yes’ in the history of time.”
Then the big day finally arrived.
Sitting in the front row of their local independent theater last week, David looked stunned to see Aurora’s signature blonde locks and skin tone suddenly change to a darker hue, seemingly resembling her own.
She appeared even more confused after the royal couple shared a kiss when the camera flashed back to Phillip, who now looked just like her own boyfriend.
“I think that, like many people, Disney animated films were what we were both raised on. Sthuthi grew up in India, and until she moved to the U.S. when she was 8, Disney movies were a key source of American culture. She has a level of attachment to the movie that can only be forged by hundreds of viewings at a formative young age,” Loechler explains of David’s reaction.
“You can see that manifest on her face when, for a second, she thinks there is something wrong with the film. How could they ruin a movie so important to her? It makes it that much better when you see the realization begin to creep across her face moments later,” he adds.
But David’s jaw really dropped when Philip held out a box with a diamond ring on screen, only to close it and toss it into the audience, where Loechler was waiting to catch it.
While the filmmaker got down on one knee in the theater, the animated versions of the couple looked down from the screen in anticipation, even joking at one point about how long Loechler was taking with the proposal.
“I was absolutely losing my mind!” Loechler admits. “When you watch the hidden camera footage from earlier parts of the movie, you can see me fidgeting endlessly and mouthing to myself the words I was planning to say.”
Though the audience immediately began snapping photos and recording the sweet moment when Loechler got down on one knee, David didn’t notice she knew the people behind her until she turned around to their smiling faces and applause.
But the surprises for David didn’t end there.
The filmmaker also hilariously included a second version of the proposal on screen, in the event that David said no. The clip featured dwarves from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs crying, which brought a huge smile to David’s face.
And though it was raining outdoors, Loechler managed to bring some sunshine there, surprising his new fiancée by arranging for the theater to write “Congratulations Sthuthi & Lee” on their display board in lights.
A celebration at the restaurant across the street followed, with lots of champagne and a congratulatory cake from their parents that read “We love you Lee and Sthuthi!”
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With an engagement straight out of a fairytale, it’s no surprise that Loechler and David plan to have some Disney elements at their wedding, which he believes would likely take place in Boston, where they met and grew up.
“We’re still in the nascent stages of planning,” he says, before joking, “That said, if Disney wants to chalk it up as marketing dollars and hook us up with an Aulani honeymoon, we are for sure not above selling out!”