Interview: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — “(500) Days of Summer”, “The Spectacular Now” (Part 6)March 16th, 2013 by Scott
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 6, Scott and Michael provide more insight into their approach to the screenwriting craft.
Scott M: How about theme? What’s your take on that and how important is theme to your writing?
Michael: Yeah. We do talk about character, but we don’t ask those questions a lot. I think we both have really good understanding of character, but when it comes to theme, we talk about theme a lot. We will say, all the time, what is this movie about? What are we trying to say? We in fact had a phone call yesterday with Maria Semple, the author of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” to ask her a thematic question.
There are two big themes in the book, and we asked her, “When you were writing the book, what were your feelings on how and when those two themes connected, when they crossed paths?” Just hearing her riff helped us.
We spent a lot of time talking about theme, and not just in the macro sense before we start, when we’re outlining. The character motivation has to service the big ideas. So we go back to “What is this about?” all the time.
Scott M: It sounds like theme becomes a touchstone for basically for writing every scene.
Michael: It’s funny. We just always scratch our heads, and we always wonder, like a joke between us, “Are we over thinking this?” We ask ourselves that question all the time. We see a lot of movies that have tangents or fat, for lack of a better word, that don’t connect, or the wacky character on the side who doesn’t have anything to do with the plot, or is not even sure they are…We really want all the pieces to connect. I bet you we probably do over think it at times. But we want everything to connect and to make sense and to have a purpose. So I’ll be working towards what you’re trying to do and say. Getting all those pieces to fit is usually the hardest thing. I know we’re speaking really generally here, but when we pause in the writing‑‑we’ll have divided up a certain number of scenes and be a certain part of the way through it, but sometimes there’s a hiccup.
It’s oftentimes, “Wait a second. Do we need these next couple of scenes, or I’m realizing now we actually already accomplished this in an earlier thing.” A lot of that stuff goes back to the theme, because it’s, “OK, we’ve already serviced that part of it in relation to the theme over here.” We think about it with every scene, with every turn of the story and character beat. We really do.
Scott N: I heard a story once about Jeffrey Katzenberg that he used to make his animation writers put the theme of the movie at the top of every single page of the screenplay so they wouldn’t forget. I used to think that was madness but so often you do wind up falling in love with a character or a line or dialogue or a scene that has virtually nothing to do with the point of your story. Having one eye on the theme at all times informs the legitimacy or de-legitimacy of those tangents.
Scott M: How about this one: What do you love most about writing?
Michael: I really like, when I’m alone, and when I’ve figured out something’s not working, and then I figure out a way to make it work. Or I’m trying to figure out an idea for something and then you come up with something new that you hadn’t thought of, which is a new way. Then suddenly, other pieces click in a way that leads you to believe you’re onto something here. Those moments that propel you forward creatively are the best moments. You never know when those moments are coming. They can come on a good day. They can come on a bad day. I mean, they can turn a bad day into a good day. But those moments, if I’m sitting in a coffee shop by myself and pulling my hair out and then suddenly there’s an idea. Or I have a way, and some things are there that just, or I fix something, or suddenly something works. Those little moments, those tiny, tiny triumphs are the best ones.
Scott M: Like epiphanies, right?
Michael: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes it’s like a new idea, sometimes it’s, I had to fix something, sometimes you just fix it. Any of those moments of clarity can, in any way, are just, ooh. I could always use more of those.
Scott N: I was talking about this with someone the other day. I love writing but what I really love is having written. I don’t like anything I write. Twice in my life – reality/expectations and the bench scene in (500) – I finished a scene, read what I wrote, and went “yup, that’s it. That’s as good as I can do.” Every other time I’m disappointed. In my head the scene is bananas amazing but in execution I think it’s just meh. But then someone else will read it and they’ll laugh or be moved hopefully, or just be pretty psyched about it and I can take a little satisfaction in having exceeded someone else’s expectations of me. Cause I know I’ll never be able to exceed my own.
Scott M: OK, what’s your single best excuse not to write?
Michael: Oh, that’s a great question. [pauses] I feel really the single best excuse not to write, I will say, I beat myself up if I don’t write. Honestly five minutes after any excuse I poke a hole in it myself and I just feel bad that I’m not writing. Then begins that downward spiral of, like, you’re not feeling good about yourself and then you force yourself to start doing work as a way to feel better.
Scott N: My immediate role models – my parents and grandparents – all had jobs to go to, offices, business cards, that sort of thing. So I grew up thinking that’s what “work” was. And until I was 25, that’s what I did too. But now I have none of that. I don’t have office hours, I don’t have a boss, it’s so anathema to my way of thinking. So I wake up and I write. (More often than not, I wake up and I delete. But sometimes I write.) There are no excuses. I mean I also do the NY Times Crossword, surf the internet, watch Colbert, return emails, play with my baby – everything OTHER than write. But eventually I write. To me, it’s such a privilege to be able to do this for a living, I feel like I have to earn it.
Michael: Since we’re two people, though, it’s helpful. I think we push each other. So having a partnership, it pushes both of us forward in that way. Scott, he is relentless in getting a scene to be just right. I admire that quality in him, and he is just dogged. I think he is the hardest‑working person I know, so I try to be the second‑hardest‑working person I know.
Scott M: One last question. What advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about learning the craft and trying to break into the business?
Michael: I love this question, because most days, I still feel like an aspiring screenwriter.
Scott N: I agree.
Michael: Just write every day, and then write some more. I try to even be competitive about it. What I mean is, I know that when I’m not writing, someone else is. Only so many things are going to get read, and even fewer will get bought, and way fewer will get made. If you can make writing more important than even a few more things in your life‑‑if it’s the fourth‑most important thing, make it the second. That’s not to say you’re going to see results overnight, but in six months, you will.
Scott N: And I would say in addition to that two things: first, read. Get your hands on as many scripts as you can – good, bad, sold, unsold, the genre you’re interested in, the genre you’re not, anything and everything – read. The good scripts will teach you what works and the bad scripts will teach you what doesn’t but they’re equally valuable lessons to learn when you go off to to tackle it yourself. And read William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade while you’re at it which, if nothing else, is great for your confidence.
Obviously there’s no one way to do it and you will hopefully develop your own distinct style the more you write. But know that you’re initial audience (people doing coverage or, if you’re lucky, production execs) are looking for every reason in the book NOT to have to read the rest of your script. So the second piece of advice is: don’t fucking give them that reason! They have six more scripts to read that weekend and it’s already Sunday night and Game of Thrones is starting and they have to be up in a couple hours if they’re ever going to get to the gym this week – they don’t want to read your damn script.
Unless, of course… it’s awesome. In which case, your script is the highlight of THEIR week as well. Managers, agents, executives, they want nothing more than to read something amazing. But remember their patience is thin. Yours isn’t the only script in the pile nor is it ever going to be something they’d rather do than the fifteen other things they could be doing with their time. So if you’re smart, you’ll make sure at the very least your first 20 pages kick serious ass. Hook that first reader, get them reading because they’re INTERESTED, because they actually want to – and then it’s off to the races.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
For Part 3, go here.
For Part 4, go here.
For Part 5, 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.