So as I have linked to a few times previously, I sometimes write DVD reviews for a website, http://www.dvdfile.com. I was anticipating my next review, The Spectacular Now to come in the mail any day now. I finally asked my editor what the deal was. Unfortunately, as it turns out, the website was shut down unexpectedly. I still don’t know all the details. It wasn’t my website, so really, it’s none of my business. I’d still like to know.
Anyway, I am lucky enough to have a long time friend who is good friends with one of the screenwriters, Michael H. Weber. We were able to talk, and Michael, along with his writing partner Scott Neustadter took about half an hour out of their day in the middle of December to talk with me about the film, their previous work, 500 Days of Summer and also their next project, The Fault in Our Stars. Since I no longer have any place to put the review, I’ve included the full interview below.
Don’t worry, I have another idea for my next project. I don’t know how likely it is that it will get off the ground, but it’s something I am looking into. And of course, I will still blog here! Hopefully more often than normal. I know, I always say that.
I shortened The Spectacular Now to TSN while I was transcribing, and I did the same for The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS). So that is what the shorthand is for. Here you go:
Eric: Michael, I know a little about you having gone to Syracuse with Tyler and Matt. Scott, you went to Penn, correct?
Scott: I did, yes.
Eric: How did you two meet and get involved in writing?
Scott: We met in 99 or so. I had just graduated college and went to work for Tribeca productions in New York. One of my powers was hiring interns and Michael was one of the candidates we hired that summer.
Michael: All of our friends including Tyler went on spring break and I couldn’t afford to go, so I went looking for an internship in March of 99 and we met that summer.
Eric: With The Spectacular Now specifically, who read the book? How do you collaborate on a project like this?
Scott: The book was actually sent to us. We had just wrapped 500 Days of Summer. The same people we made that movie with sent us the spectacular now thinking, hey let’s get the band back together. It initially started out as a studio movie, and a lot of people came and went from searchlight over the years. They gave it back to us and we made it independently.
Eric: That jumps into something else I wanted to ask you about, how involved are you as screenwriters from writing the script, to selling it, are you on set each day, how does that work?
Michael: Every project is a little different. We got our start on the other side. Scott on development and me interning there and later floating there. We know a little about the life cycle of a script when it leaves the writers hands so we try to stay as involved as possible hopefully not being a bother to the people we are working with but we like to know what’s going on and there’s a lot of strategy as to where you take a project and once it’s there how it navigates internally. Look it’s a really difficult thing to get any movie made. I don’t think any 2 movies have the same story about how they go script to screen. Scott was on set every day for 500 days of summer. I was on set the whole time for spectacular now. We were executive producers for spectacular now. So it’s nice that instead of asking to be included in everything there was an expectation that we would be included in everything. Hopefully we will get to produce some of our work in the future.
Eric: Did you produce Fault in Our Stars (the next film they wrote) as well?
Michael: No we did not.
Eric: Was that a completely different production company?
Weber: Yes a whole new mix of people. Every project is different. In the case of TFIOS, we didn’t control the book. It was something we fought to get. Whenever possible we love to be more involved.
Eric: Is it easier when it’s a smaller budget to be included most of the time?
Scott: Not necessarily. It depends on the collaborators and the process in which we enter the fray. We’ve been in projects before where we bring materials to people and in that case we have a little more control and authority and in other cases we have people call us and say we have something for you to think about if it’s a book, if it’s a rewrite, a script that needs some work on, in those situations more often than not, they have their producers, their directors and their cast and they come to us to work on the script in which case we can put our foot down and say “only if” but we just enjoy being collaborative more than putting our foot down and making demands.
Eric: How long did it take to take the book to script? How long was the process for spec now TSN?
Michael: It’s hard to remember. We wrote it in 2008, 2009. But rarely does anything take us more than a month. We tend to be pretty fast.
Scott: We don’t tend to take on material until we have a handle on it. And then we feel like we can execute it pretty quickly. If it was something we really loved and had no idea how to do, we probably would say “We love this thank you for thinking of us, but we probably aren’t the right people” or maybe it’s just a book we love and say “this should probably stay a book because who the heck knows.”
Eric: How close to the book did you stay?
Scott: Pretty close. The movie version veers a little different than both the script and the novel in a lot of ways. We found in casting that it changed some things around and even in editing process that some things were extraneous and we could cut them. The script started out pretty faithful to the book and then the toughest thing is how to capture that first person narrative without doing a ton of voiceover and hacking it up that way. We wanted to create the feel of the novel without really over doing it in screenplay form.
Michael: We were really lucky that Tim Tharp, the author, was so supportive in that regard. He wanted the best possible movie more than anything else. It’s nice when it feels so collaborative from top to bottom like that.
Eric: You kept him involved throughout as well?
Michael: He read drafts if he wanted. We wanted him to feel good about it. Not just what we were doing but that he knew about the process. He visited sets in Georgia for a few days but it wasn’t where we were running micro ideas by him.
Eric: Filming was done in GA but the story takes place in Oklahoma City. I read the director felt the best place to film was Athens. Did you have a problem with that? Does it change your story at all? Does it take away from what you’ve done?
Michael: This is a collaborative medium. The fact that James (James Ponsoldt, the director) felt such a close personal connection to it, that he was so passionate about shooting in Athens was great. He understood the material really well. The story we were telling could take place just about anywhere. The book was set in OK. The movie was set in GA. It’s been nice that people from all over have related to the characters and the emotions and that’s the stuff that we feel can take place anywhere.
Eric: The reviews have been fantastic. But you were nominated for half dozen awards that I saw, but, and I hope this isn’t a sore subject, you haven’t won any yet. Do you fall into the typical line of its great to be nominated? I know you won a bunch for 500 days, but is it upsetting that you haven’t won for TSN?
Michael: It’s a super subjective thing when you give an award for art. Being mentioned in the conversation is always super cool. It just means that we get to do this again. That’s the only thing we ever think about. I don’t have a trophy case. I’m never upset when someone else wins. I think our favorite movies of the year aren’t going to win anything. That’s just how it always goes. It’s just really cool to be in that conversation. That means we did something that touched a nerve that people liked and people saw. We’ve written a lot of things that may never get made so we have to be very grateful that this one even exists.
Scott: I think we get way more excited when people we work with get nominated than we get disappointed when we don’t. It’s nice that Shailene’s (Shailene Woodley) getting some attention for her part. All that makes us feel great.
Eric: I’m glad you mentioned Shailene. You must be really excited then that she was brought back for TFIOS.
Michael: We weren’t on set that for that one very much. Just a little bit. But it was great to work with Shailene again. If it were up to us we would work with her 10 more times.
Scott: She’s really great.
Eric: That takes me back to casting. On this one you said you were executive producers. So that means you were involved in casting correct?
Scott: Correct, we had a hand in hiring James as well. We were involved in that from the very beginning. It was a very unique situation. Like Michael said, we make suggestions and give our opinions but for the most part we are just the writers. It’s like whatever you say, sure in one ear and out the other. But in this case, we had a little more voice and we certainly raised it. We are certainly proud of it because we feel like we had a hand in it from the start.
Eric. The names in this cast other than Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bob Odenkirk I didn’t really recognize, but the movies they had been in were pretty big. You must have been excited to have actors who were in big budget movies in the past.
Scott: Everyone was doing it for the love. I think everyone knew we weren’t doing a big budget movie that wasn’t going to make a ton of money. They knew no one was getting their full freight salary so they did it for the love of the film. We were just very focused on who’s right for the part as opposed to who’s going to get it made. We had a lot of opportunities to make this for the last 5 years but we didn’t want to make it until we had the right group of people. As I’m sure you know you can get a certain performer who will get you your money if they have international value, and your movie will get made a lot quicker, and not to name names, but a lot of people aren’t right for certain roles. You certainly don’t want to cast a 30 year old as a 17 year old. We had a lot of a situations where we could have gotten this made a lot sooner but we wanted to do it the right way so it was great for us to get it to come together the way it did.
Eric: So it took a lot longer, but you’re very happy with the end result.
Michael: oh yeah. It’s so hard to get anything made. So the fact that it got made and audiences and critics are responding to it so favorably it’s really been a great 5 year ride for us.
Eric: Was there anything that you wrote in the script that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film that you were particularly proud of and sad to see go, or something that you were surprised DID make it into the film?
Michael: There are always some surprises in a positive way. They turn out better than you expected them. Then there are always some things that didn’t come out right when you shot them. Or in the case of TSN things we couldn’t afford to shoot. There’s a small scene at a motel where a bunch of kids are having a party and at the party Sutter (main character) winds up in a hot tub with an ex-girlfriend talking about life and relationships. It would have been a really cool scene but we never even shot it because it was way out of our budget. We did repurpose a couple of the ideas from that scene elsewhere but that’s getting a movie made. A screenplay is a map to a movie. It’s not the movie itself. The experience was great because we were working with people who believed in the movie the way we did. In that situation you find really creative answers to these challenges.
Eric: The character of Sutter. Was it difficult taking from the book, writing for a teenage character who deals in typical teenage stuff; losing a girl and dealing with heartbreak? But also with his alcoholism and the relationship with his father. Is it hard to write characters that can be believable as teenagers and adults?
Scott: It starts with the book. We try to capture the voice of this guy that we found very unique and interesting and different. That’s what attracted us to it in the first place. First and foremost we wanted to capture Tim’s version of things. And then we each had our own personal things that we like to add and mess around with a little. When Miles (Miles Teller) came on board he had such a swagger that you can’t really write. You kind of have to wind him up and let him go and see what happens. I think all those things came together and we ended up with the finished product. Certainly not a character you see all the time and we didn’t really know it was going to work. But it’s cool that it seems like it has.
Eric: Do you go to Sundance?
Michael: We were at Sundance both times. For TSN and 500 days of Summer. It’s fun. It’s exciting to be there when an audience sees it the first time. Later than night when reviews start trickling in and people start buzzing. We’ve enjoyed it both times.
Scott. And they were very different experiences. With 500 days we went knowing we had distribution. Fox Searchlight was putting it in theaters. We knew that was going to happen. The question was how excited were they going to be to put some money behind it based on reaction. And reaction was great. We were really excited. For this, we didn’t have distribution. So we went there in a little bit of panic. If it doesn’t go well, then probably no one ever sees this movie and the last couple years of your life have been almost completely wasted. So we were really excited to go the way it went but they were 2 very different Sundance experiences that ended up in the same place. I’m not sure I ever want to go back. Just do those two times and say wow, it could not have gone better.
Eric: When you were on set, even without distribution, did you have a feeling it would be picked up, that people were going to like it, or was it just so up in the air you really had no idea how it was going to go?
Michael: Honestly you’re not thinking that way. The hours on set are long and grueling. Everyone’s tired and trying to do their best work. You’re really thinking about micro issues. Next days scene, or how do we condense this or how do we change this or improve this. I think if you’re worried about that when you’re in the trenches working on these scenes you’re not thinking about what you should be thinking about.
Scott: But you’re probably thinking about it in the editing room. Once it’s finished, once you’re putting it together, once you’re watching it, you’re definitely thinking, “Is anyone going to like this? Did we do anything right?” It’s always terrifying. But Michael is right, when you’re shooting it, you need to get that shot, make sure it looks right, the actor can feel and convey what you need him to and that’s a whole other ball game.
Eric: When you were editing, obviously you were happy with the end result, but were you happy that your vision had been properly realized?
Michael: We weren’t in the editing room. We saw multiple cuts over weeks and months in the fall of 2012. Early on you see a cut that has too much in there and there’s a lot of levels you play with and you realize this part needs to be funnier or this part drags a little bit or we need a laugh over here or is there a better take of this? You play with the levels.
Scott: Editing is about refinement for sure. The drafts change the cuts change, and everything progresses and hopefully progresses in the right way.
Michael: Just that I hope people watch it. I hope people know about it. And check it out. Like it or hate it. It’s very cool to us that it’s out there. We kind of went into it as an attempt to bring back the movies we grew up with. Characters we relate to. Characters who were not werewolves or vampires or any of that kind of hijinx. Our 5 year plan was to convince the world there is an audience for this kind of thing still because they don’t make them anymore. If people check this out maybe we will get to make a few more of them. We want them back in the world.
Eric whats next?
Scott: TFIOS is out 6/6. Fingers crossed This summer we will be shooting Rosaline. A universal movie we wrote a few years ago. A comedic retelling of Romeo and Juliet from the point of view of Romeos ex. The girl before Juliet. Cameras rolling very soon.