Interview: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — “(500) Days of Summer”, “The Spectacular Now” (Part 5)

March 15th, 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 5, Scott and Michael talk about what making the Black List means and get into some tips about the craft of screenwriting.

Scott M:  At this point, you two are basically Black List veterans. You’ve got “Suck the Marrow” in 2005, “(500) Days of Summer,” 2006, “Under Age,” 2008, “The Spectacular Now,” 2009, “The Fault In Our Stars,” 2012. What does it mean to you when a script of yours appears on The Black List?

Michael:  It’s a really nice honor. The Black List, it seems to have really grown in importance over the years, and influence, and you read in the trades all the time, “This Black List script’s got a director,” “This Black List script just got made.” So it really seems to have become an important part of the business.

Scott and I do not write things, for the most part, that are the easiest sells. “The Fault in Our Stars” might be a hit book, but it’s about kids with terminal cancer. “500 Days,” it went out on spec and no one wanted it. It was a while before Fox Searchlight finally came in and optioned it, but then it was even a while before they decided to make it.

“The Black List” isn’t about just the commercial viability of a script. It’s just here to recognize, “Here are some great scripts.” That’s really cool because Scott and I tend to write things that are harder to sell or are certainly harder to get made or might not have the traditional marketing hook that other things do.

To have this recognition it’s a nice honor, but I think it’s also helpful, too, for people like us who write things that are occasionally less traditional.

Scott N: Lots of people see movies but not a lot of people read scripts and not enough scripts become movies. So, for me, the Black List is a really great way to get our stuff out there when it wouldn’t necessarily find an audience on its own. I’m also extremely neurotic and have low self-esteem so to receive any positive feedback at all is a life saver.

Michael: For me, I don’t live in LA. I’ve even seen when my aunt knows what “The Black List” is. She lives in Florida and says congratulations. When my girlfriend says congratulations, they are not in the business. They are not in LA.

It’s interesting to see how the influence has grown beyond just people in Los Angeles, which is nice. For me, because I’m not in LA, The Black List is a nice way each year for me to find out about a lot of the scripts that I should read.

Usually, the day after The Black List, I would start bothering my managers, “Hey, could you get me a copy. I want to read this. I want to read that. This sounds really good.”

It’s actually helpful to me in that regard, too, because I’m a reader and a fan first.

Scott N: Unlike Weber, great scripts don’t inspire me, they terrify me. When I read something good, it sets me back for weeks. I wish someone would create a “Mauve List” or something – the least liked scripts in Hollywood – so I can read terrible ones and be inspired that way.

Scott M:  Some craft questions for you. How much time do you spend in prep writing? Do you have a specific process for research, plotting, character development, brainstorming, outline, and so on?

Michael:  We don’t have a set format for the outline. It’s not as if the outline is the same every time. It’s just that it’s a document for us. We’ve been lucky. We’ve never had to turn in an outline. It’s just a map for us. How do we get into the scene? How do we get out of the scene? Are there any important points, moments, ideas, or jokes that we have to hit in the scene?

It’s somewhat informal, and yet it’s crucial for us. In fact, it probably wouldn’t even make sense if anyone other than the two of us looked at most of our outline, because we’ve been doing this for a while now. We almost have our own little secondhand language with a lot of things.

Then we will oftentimes spend as much time outlining as we do writing.

Scott N: God I hate that shit.

Michael: I think it’s why we write quickly, is because we spend so much time on the outline. It’s so much easier to diagnose problems in an outline.

You have the viewpoint to see everything from an outline, and you can’t always see when you’re simply writing. You don’t find yourself‑‑that expression a lot of writers use‑‑in the weeds. You don’t really find that happening as much with the more extensive an outline you have.

Because if you’ve already done the heavy lifting in the outline, the writing becomes a little bit paint by numbers. Put blue over here, put red over here. It’s worked so far.

Scott N: I would say – despite always having a proper outline before starting to write – I almost always find snags along the way that require us to step back and re-think things. Definitely don’t expect the writing to be surprise-free just because you think you have the road map perfected before you start.

Michael: Now, the cool thing about being two people, we’ll divide scenes up, so, if you take those four and I’ll take these four and then we’ll email back and forth.

But if there’s a scene that both of us really want to write, oh, I wanted to do that, you wanted to do that, then we know we’re onto something. Then if we’re both excited to write it, that’s a good sign, or one of us might write it, they’ll be like, “I’m going to send you a couple of jokes to include in that, even though you’re writing it.”

The flip side, and this is really helpful, if there’s a scene that neither one of us wants to write, then it’s like, stop the presses. You go, wait a second, if neither of us wants to write it, who the hell is going to want to read it, let alone watch it? There’s no way to do it without that scene? Or why is this not interesting to either of us? Having that barometer has helped us a lot of over the years.

Scott M:  Michael, you’re in New York and Scott, you’re in Venice, California and you have this pattern where you don’t write in the same room, you divide up scenes, you email. That process clearly has worked for you over the years. Why?

Michael:  When we’re together, we’re generally playing cards, talking about sports, TV shows, anything under the sun except work. I’ll come out to LA quite a bit for meetings to get jobs. Sometimes it takes both of us being in the room to put something over the top. They often like both of us there if they’re giving us notes. All that’s great‑‑I like LA, I have really good friends there‑‑but New York’s always been home to me, and even when we’re together in LA we don’t get work done. Usually it’ll be, I’m leaving, and we’ll even start to divide up scenes on the plane. “All right, I’m going to work on these four on the plane, you work on those.” It’s just always been that way.

Scott N: The other aspect of our process that he’s not mentioning is a severe difference in personality. He’s pretty easy going and laid back whereas I’m a raving psychopath. For example, I’m allowed to fuck with his scenes directly – and I tend to – but if he even touches a word in one of my scenes, hellfire will rain down! Instead, he sends me his thoughts in a separate email and I make whatever changes myself. There’s a few reasons for this beyond my neuroses, the most important of which is that this way, in the end, the script will always feel like one voice despite being written by two people in two different time zones. Which is crucial.

Scott M:  How do you go about developing characters?

Michael:  We talk a lot. We ask all our questions. It’s simple stuff, really. What does this character want? Why do I care? What’s the point of this character? Does this character change? Has either one of us ever experienced what this character’s going through? It’s really a lot of questions like that. But we rarely even need to break out those questions.

Scott N: Or I’m just writing about myself and my friends.

Michael: A lot of it, I think, just seems to be instinctual with us. We’ve never attempted to write an action movie. The character stuff tends to be our favorite thing. It’s like our bread and butter, that figuring out who these characters are. If we don’t understand and relate or just have a way in, it’s usually not something we’re interested in.

We’ll talk a lot about something before we start working on it, or even, before if it’s a job we’re chasing to get, and that spark is tied so closely to our feel for the characters.

Tomorrow in the final installment of the interview, Michael and Scott provide more insight into their approach to the screenwriting craft.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

For Part 2, go here.

For Part 3, go here.

For Part 4, go here.

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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