How Five' Feet Apart' Director Justin Baldoni Channeled Love for Late Friend Into Directorial Debut

Baldoni wants audiences to find hope in Five Feet Apart and in his friend Claire Wineland's story

Justin Baldoni
Photo: Alfonso Bresciani

Jane the Virgin star Justin Baldoni admits that he “has no idea” how he convinced Hollywood to let him make his directorial debut Five Feet Apart —a romantic drama starring Haley Lu Richardson and Riverdale‘s Cole Sprouse.

“If this movie being made were a math equation, it wouldn’t add up,” he tells PEOPLE.

That’s not technically true because Baldoni, best known for his work in front of the camera as reformed rich playboy Raphael on Jane the Virgin, was in the right place at the right time — with the right idea and genuine passion for the project.

Genuine inspiration

Before Jane the Virgin, Baldoni, 35, worked on an inspirational docu-series called My Last Days, in which individuals living with terminal illnesses are interviewed about their lives. Through that, he met a special young woman named Claire Wineland, whose story inspired Five Feet Apart.

“I wanted so much to tell stories of people who were sick and dying in order to hopefully help inspire people to live better lives,” he says. “And through that I can point and reference every positive thing that’s happened in my life back to that decision to leave the glamour behind and to just focus on making impact.”

Baldoni says he can trace his film’s origin to a conversation he had with Wineland.

“She told me about the six-foot rule [featured in the film]. I had a meeting with CBS Films as an actor to be in one of their movies and the day after Claire told me this, I called Mark Ross, the executive I was meeting with and said, ‘I have this idea that I just need to pitch you.’ And he said, ‘Come on in.’ So I came in, I pitched in the movie, showed him a little bit of Claire’s story.”

And then?

“We both cried,” recalls Baldoni. “They gave me the green light to get a script written.”

Justin Baldoni and Claire Wineland
Justin Baldoni with Five Feet Apart inspiration and late friend Claire Wineland. SoulPancake/YouTube

He continues: “There’s no rhyme or reason to how it happened. And that’s why I look at it and I say, well, there’s something bigger about it. There’s something special. It’s not just let’s go make a Hollywood teen movie. This is something that I really believe can help a lot of people that can help us remind us how beautiful life is. And that can be a light in a very, very dark time. And at its core, this movie is about hope. It is educational. Most people have never heard of cystic fibrosis and how can you cure an illness until you know what it is?”

Finding his dream cast

Baldoni’s lead actors, Sprouse and Richardson, were both his first choice for the roles of Will and Stella.

“Cole was brought up to me by Cathy Schulman, my producer, and so I watched an episode of Riverdale. And then I watched his interviews,” he recalls. “And I knew he was Will. And he was the only actor I met with because it wasn’t even who he was on Riverdale, it was who he was [as a person]. And the fact that he had left school to study archaeology and left fame behind, and that he’s a photographer, there were so many parallels between him and Will.”

Richardson he knew through Jane the Virgin cast member Brett Dier. Richardson and Dier have been dating since 2014 and became engaged last year.

“Hayley has this ability to lift you up and make you feel happiness and joy,” he says.

Baldoni directing Five Feet Apart stars Haley Lu Richardson and Cole Sprouse. Alfonso Bresciani

Paying proper tribute to Claire

Baldoni took his responsibility of telling Wineland’s and the entire CF [cystic fibrosis] community’s stories to heart.

“It was a huge undertaking for me, there’s never been a real story told about CF,” he says. “That was one of the things that was really important to Claire. Claire was a huge advocate for people with CF and she used her brilliance to educate people about what her disease was. But more than anything she was so much about helping people realize that just because you’re sick, that doesn’t become your identity.”

He continues: “She was so much about making your life a beautiful piece of art, which really for me was what this movie is and how can I honor her and all of the other tens of thousands of people living with cystic fibrosis in America and around the world and giving them a chance to have their story told and to be represented on the screen.”

Wineland was able to attend a table read with the cast and crew, after which she gave a heartfelt speech.

“She was so grateful that finally she was going to have representation,” Baldoni says. “And she always felt like her story was worthy of being told.”

How much of the film and filming did Wineland see?

“She got to hear it at the table read and then we Skyped, we’d FaceTime a few times and then she got the call for lung transplant.” (Wineland died one week after her transplant last September.)

But Baldoni wants audiences to find hope in Five Feet Apart and in Wineland’s story.

“I want people to feel something else and reconnect with their hearts,” he says. “And that’s a scary thing because we live in a time when this kind of movie and this kind of sentiment is kind of looked down on in a way. … As a filmmaker, I’m going to have to separate my identity, my happiness from whether or not people love [Claire] or like this movie.”

So far, Baldoni feels that people “are reacting in a way that I hoped they would,” he says. “And feeling very connected to the characters or seeing themselves in a part of the journey and or wanting to call somebody that they love.”

Five Feet Apart is now playing in theaters.

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