Interview: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — “(500) Days of Summer”, “The Spectacular Now” (Part 4)

March 14th, 2013 by

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have written scripts that have made the Black List a remarkable 5 times, broke in with the hit indie film (500) Days of Summer, and have become go-to guys for adapting novels having written screenplays for The Spectacular Now (to be released this summer) and The Fault in Our Stars (pre-production), and writing high profile projects Where‘d You Go, Bernadette and Rules of Civility. We are most fortunate to have them as our ‘guests’ all this week.

Today in Part 4, Scott and Michael round out background on their new movie The Spectacular Now and discuss two new projects “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”

Scott M:  Speaking of set-ups and payoffs [in The Spectacular Now], let me jump to another one. The last line in the script I read – “Your forgot your coat” — evoked memories of one of my favorite movies, “The Apartment,” and the last line there, “Shut up and deal.” Is that still in the movie, where he shows up at the campus with the coat?

Michael:  Scott and I both love “The Apartment.” That’s another movie that was a touchstone for us and our friendship and our collaboration. That movie is just perfect.

Scott M:  I agree.

Michael:  Unfortunately that last line from the script is not in the movie anymore.

Scott M:  Really?

Michael:  It’s funny, what you have to sacrifice to get a movie made. The baby steps of a career are really interesting, because first, you want to get a job, get hired for anything. Then you want to start to get hired for things you care about more. Then you want to get hired to write something that is definitely going to get made. And so on and so forth‑‑there’s kind of these little…you’re in the next club. The sacrifice needed to get the movie made‑‑we’re like, “We will do anything to get this movie made,” and unfortunately, sometimes things you really love have to be thrown overboard. I’m sure there are other writers, I don’t know, who throw fits or whatever, but at the end of the day, for us, really, the most important thing is getting the movie made.

When Jim Ponsoldt came onboard, he just got it right from the start. He understood the movie we were trying to make. He related to not just Sutter but other characters and their choices. He wanted to shoot in Athens, Georgia, his hometown, because he knew it well. He grew up there. He had experienced this there. Athens, despite being a college town, definitely has an Anytown, USA feel to it in some ways. It really could be any number of suburbs anywhere.

The good thing is, doing this independently, because he knew Athens so well, it really allowed us to stretch our limited budget. That to me was the biggest victory of shooting in the director’s hometown.

All this is a very long way of saying, it’s very hard to justify a character wearing a coat to a party in August. When we were shooting it was supposed to be, say, April, but man, it is hot in Georgia, and nobody would be wearing a coat. We tried it with Shailene wearing a coat, and it just didn’t make any sense.

It was the site of an old Civil War battle, actually, a swimming hole where there was a minor Civil War skirmish. It’s really, really a beautiful location. But it just didn’t make any sense. She has it tied around her waist, and Miles offers to hold it. But still, at the very end, when he says, “You forgot your coat,” it just doesn’t connect.

So not to spoil it, unless you want me to spoil it, but we went with a slightly different modified ending that is different but I think works and is ultimately satisfying.

I will say, if I could add one more thing, either ending is different than the book. The book ends on Amy leaves town. Sutter goes to drink with those barflies. He gets wasted, and the last page of the book is him wandering the side of a road drunk, and he’s taking about the broken glass on the side of the road. It is bleak. I don’t know if he’s about to die, or going to die soon. There’s no hope. We thought, “We don’t want to give this a ‘happier ever after’ entirely. This is still a kid with some problems.” But we wanted some hope in there. I think we did that on the page, and then I think ultimately we did that in the ending we actually have. People will walk out, hopefully, and talk about whether or not this will work out. But it’s certainly more hopeful than the very bleak ending of the book.

Scott N: I watched “The Graduate” with my dad at a really young age and it had the most intensely profound influence on me in a million different ways. I’ve noticed, when it comes to endings especially, I’m always just trying to do the last shot of “The Graduate”. This is the one where Benjamin and Elaine have “escaped” from her wedding and they board the bus and they’re giddy with excitement and happiness and love. And the bus keeps moving and we stay with them a few more beats, just long enough to watch their faces change from that exuberance to something else – fear? regret? anxiety? remorse? It changes for me every time I watch it.

And that ambiguity is, for me, the difference between a happy ending and a hopeful one. Happy endings aren’t real. Even the happiest ending is only happy because the story stopped there. But hopeful endings are a beautiful thing. That’s what I always aspire to. Does Tom figure out his shit or doesn’t he? Is Sutter going to deserve Aimee or take her down with him?

Scott M:  Well, at least the original ending you wrote is in script form, so there’s that. Moving on, “The Spectacular Now” debuted at the recent 2012 Sundance Film Festival, got picked up for domestic distribution. What was that experience like out there?

Michael:  Oh, it was great. It was really cool. It’s funny. “Summer” took four years to get made, and then another year to be released, and then from writing to release was five years on “Summer,” and it’s going to end up being about five years on this one. We’ve gotten used to this process of, you live with something for so long, and then it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to everyone else. You hear what people think, and the fact that the response has been so positive…

A quick tangent‑‑when this was almost a Fox Searchlight movie, many years ago, I believe about the spring of 2009, we went on a research trip to Oklahoma City. That’s where the book is set. He’s outside of Oklahoma City, and that whole area. We did a three‑ or four‑day trip to…actually, we started in Oklahoma City, but we went all around Oklahoma, just to get a sense of Oklahoma, but also, does this movie have to be shot in Oklahoma?

The people of Oklahoma were great, and it was really cool. I had never been there. It was great to discover, we can make this movie anywhere, and hopefully it will connect. High school kids are high school kids.” And we were in the library of a high school and I turned to the student librarian, I said to her, “Hey, just out of curiosity, what’s your favorite high school movie of all time?” And she thought about it and she thought about it, and she said, “Harry Potter.” And we said, “Thank you.” It was exactly the answer I wanted to hear, because we’re not making them like they used to anymore.

I felt bad for her and other teenagers that they’re not making things like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Say Anything” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “American Graffiti” and all these movies I loved growing up.

I thought, “We’re doing this movie for everyone, but especially for her, because you don’t need to have all that other stuff. You can just show what it’s like to be a teenager.”

Scott N: Which is not to say there isn’t a place for the Harry Potters and Twilights of the world. When we were kids we had fantastic escapist movies about young people as well. What’s different now is that there’s ONLY those movies. A lot of it has to do with the ratings system and a lot of it has to do with television – but a fair amount probably also has to do with the cinema powers-that-be under-valuing the intellect and sensitivity of young viewers. We believed there was an audience, young and old, who would respond to a realistic, sensitive, heartfelt portrayal of teenagers. And I guess we’ll soon see if we were right.

Scott M:   Like “The Spectacular Now,” you’re involved with a couple other projects based on novels: “The Fault in Our Stars” and it was recently announced you are doing an adaptation for “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” What are some of the unique challenges of writing screenplay adaptations?

Michael:  Those two in particular present a different kind of challenge. What we really liked about “The Spectacular Now”‑‑it wasn’t a bestseller. It wasn’t that widely known. It should be. But it’s not. “The Fault in Our Stars” I believe is at 54 or 55 weeks on “The New York Times” bestseller list. It trends on Twitter all the time. There is a responsibility with that one. Don’t screw this up. We feel it, and we care about that book as much as the fans do. The book is so wonderful.

In some ways it was the easiest job we ever had, because the book is so good, it really just came down to having to take a few things out, having to condense the ending a little bit. I wonder if I should be spoiling any of these things, so maybe not. Rest assured that we tried to use as much of it, because it was just so good.

Scott N: He’s right. All book adaptations come with their own unique set of challenges. Except this one. John did all the hard work and it was up to us to shape it and make sure the visual experience would enhance and not detract from the reading experience.

The hardest part, by far, was actually getting the job in the first place. It was a high profile book that a lot of screenwriting people were going for. We spent days trying to come up with something that would distinguish our version from anyone else’s version, things like, since Hazel is telling us this story, we can see the world through HER eyes – meaning maybe we don’t see her walking around with an oxygen tank and a cannula in her nose. And then later, during moments when things were really getting to her, those truths would reveal themselves at opportune times cinematically blah blah blah. Wyck Godfrey, the producer, said – and I’m paraphrasing, “go fuck yourself.” He wanted the POSTER to be Hazel with the oxygen tank and the cannula in her nose. And we were like wow, they’re really going for it. This is fantastic! So we doubled down and said hire us and you will get exactly the feeling you get from the book and here’s how. Thankfully, it worked.

Michael: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” turned up on a lot of top 10 lists, and people are really responding to that as well. We’re trying to preserve all the parts that people love, but also understanding the obligation to make this movie an experience that can stand on its own, even if you don’t know the book is always a bit of a balancing act.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” is particularly challenging because it’s an epistolary novel. It’s told entirely through emails, letters. There’s a TED talk. There’s actually a transcript of a TED talk. We’re in the middle of writing that now, but it’s been a lot of fun to find creative ways to have all these different voices thematically, when it’s done so differently on the page in the book. I’ve been really enjoying working on that one.

Scott N: We’ve adapted books in which we’ve used one scene from the book. We’ve adapted books in which we’ve used zero scenes from the book. And we’ve adapted books in which we used as much as humanly possible from the book. What’s super cool about “Bernadette” is that we couldn’t use all of it even if we wanted to. Many of the book’s pleasures are about the experience of reading. So the trick is figuring out what the cinematic versions are of those pleasures. It’ll be interesting if we can pull it off.

Tomorrow in Part 5, Scott and Michael talk about what making the Black List means and get into some tips about the craft of screenwriting.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

By the way, it looks like Scott and Michael have yet another project in the works as Nancy Meyers has committed to direct an untitled project written originally by the duo for Sony.

Please stop by comments to thank Michael and Scott for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.

Scott and Michael are repped by CAA and Kaplan/Perrone.

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