It’s so difficult to find a normal teen drama film that doesn’t involve sparkly vampires, facing off against 23 three other people in a battle royale, having super powers, or any sort of thing that doesn’t happen in real life. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it’s nice to get a real down to earth movie once in a while. And that’s that the new coming of age film The Spectacular Now brings to its audiences. A fantastic realistic film that everyone can see and relate to.
(500) Days of Summer screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber talk to us about the writing process, the challenges of writing an adaptation, the R-rating, and why James Ponsoldt was the perfect director for this film. Hit the jump for more.
MovieViral: So you guys seem to have a deep understanding of the idea of teens, what makes you guys the go-to guys for stories that a mulch-dimensional?
Michael H. Weber: We are really immature. It all starts there.
Scott Neustadter: You never really think about it that way. Things are just – the stories we enjoy telling. Regardless of the age or the era, everything that we have ever done has been a coming of age story. We’ve written coming of age stories about older people, we’ve written coming of age stories about 16th century Verona. So yeah it’s the stories that we love, the ones that we relate to, and what we are not trying to do is make it of “the now” so much, that it feels like that. like how you feel that you have to put it on Facebook and all the things the kids are doing. It sorta takes you out of it, it becomes less current, because that stuff is getting replaced in 5 seconds. But the things that are everlasting are the way you feel, the way you interact with your friends, and obviously young love i think is the same regardless all the time. That is sort of the things we gravitate towards and choose to focus on, and it’s very nice to hear other people like what we do.
Weber: We were just taking about, we see fewer movies now. And for us, its let’s go right the movie we go see. And we became friends because we had the same heroes: Cameron Crowe, John Hughes, Woody Allen, and just certain storytellers that told stories just about people and relationsips, and it sorta came from a real place, and made these movies intensely personal and yet everyone can relate to them. For us we never write thinking “oh we need a set piece here,” or “we need a trailer moment,” we don’t necessary use them. For us it’s more what would really happen, that is probably the tool we rely on more than any other as we are writing.
Was this a difficult novel to adapt?
Neustadter: It was challenging. All adaptations have their own kind of challenges. This one at least we loved the vibe of it, and the story, and the characters. So we weren’t reinventing the wheel so much, because it is a first person story, and you’re in his head the whole time, and you start to realize half way through that he’s not the most reliable guy telling the story. Then all this stuff gets filtered through where he doesn’t see himself the way that everyone else sees himself. He thinks he’s the coolest guy, and there’s all these cracks in there that start to develop where “neh you know a lot of people see you different than that,” and the challenge for us was how do you do it without a heavy handed voiceover throughout or any of that stuff and how do you capture that in a visual way so that you know the rug gets pulled out from under him about midway through, and then he has to readjust his entire world view. That was exciting for us.
Weber: The other challenge was the ending of the book, without ruining anything, is really bleak. And for us we didn’t necessarily want it to end with them at the alter or have that kind of two attractive people walk off into the sunset. But the idea that there is some hope. And all our favorite movies you walk out of the theater wondering “what happens next,” and some people feel this way, and some people feel that way. So it’s a little bit of what we were trying to capture with our ending.
How do you guys feel about getting the R-rating, because we see mutants stabbing people and it gets PG-13, but with this film it’s so relatable, that it ends up getting rated R?
Neustadter: One of the big things in the rating system is drinking alcohol and we knew there was no way of avoiding that. So this was always going to be an R, and that actually was a little bit of a freeing device for us, because then you don’t have to count your f-words. If there is two f-words, it’s one too many. Kids talk a certain way, and if you got to go PG-13 with it, I think kids are going to go “that doesn’t sound like us, that is not our experience, you can’t do that.” And when we were kids and there was no PG-13, thats who we are. A lot of these movies are rated-r, and you don’t even think about it. The Breakfast Club is Rated-R, and you don’t even think about it. And I think that it was a benefit for us, knowing that we were going to have the R regardless, enabled us to be as accurate and realistic in the portrayals as we could be. So we kind of embraced that. It’s what made it so much more difficult to get made and also I feel like the target audience isn’t technically allowed to go see it, it’s a tricky thing, but I feel that in the end, that is the movies that they love.
Weber: There seems to be a wave going on with a lot of these coming of age movies that are not relying on the metaphor of being a vampire or some of the wacky hijinks of sex with a baked good. The fact that Perks of a Wallflower did really well, and we are about to shoot The Faults In Our Stars next month, we are hoping that in the wave of these will lead into the discussion of what you are talking about. I’ve noticed an increase of essays and people writing about: we need to think about the rating system here. It might not necessarily mean a movie like ours becomes PG-13, it could just mean that a certain amount of violence would need an adjustment. Because you’re right there is an interesting scale of what’s going on right now that you could blow a lot of things up and end up getting PG-13, but if you are honest about matters of the heart, adolescence, and coming of age, that seems to skew towards more R.
Neustader: The ants in that World War Z trailer, is so intense and crazy, and that’s PG-13. I was like “I need to wear a diaper.”
Real life is scary.
Neustader: Real life is scary.
How did the casting affect the script? Did you have to do any tweaking within dialogue?
Weber: Sutter has this ability to walk into a room and sort of be that guy. Look, there were a handful of lines that Miles [Teller] and Shailene [Woodley] wanted to talk about, and it’s great. We’ve been lucky so far to work with directors who want us around and keep us in the process. [The] Spectacular [Now] was also the first movie we were producers on, so we were expected to be involved. This is a collaborative medium, and you hope everyone wants to make the same movie, and so far, we’ve been lucky with that as well. When Miles and Shailene had concerns, that was a discussion. Look they were teenagers a lot more recently than we were. They are living in these characters – for a while – they know, they would speak from a point of view of having been in sort of the skin of the character. And that always happens, you want actors to bring that level of commitment where they understand the character, and it’s great, and the movie ends up better than you hoped.
Neustader: One of the reasons why it took as long to get made is because if you are a little off, all this falls apart. This was a really difficult characters to portray. If you think that Sutter is an asshole in the beginning, we’re done. He’s got to have that little bit of sweetness, that one little thing that makes you root for this guy with such baggage, and Miles is like the perfect person for that. In the novels, she’s considered nerdy with a little bit of a naive unsophisticated girl, and Shailene was like “that’s not how I want to do this. I think I am the smartest person in this entire town. I don’t have a boyfriend simply because I haven’t put myself out there. I don’t like to do the same things that a typical high school girl likes to do, which makes me weird. But I’m not,” and I love that about her. There is a confidence that probably isn’t in the book or in the character or screenplay that she brings to it and so much more big and important.
What was it like to put on the producer’s hat? Does it change the way you think in terms of approaching the script?
Weber: We weren’t producers initially. This film was a project with Fox Studios’ Searchlight. As it went in independent, and we were championing the project along with Tom McNulty and the people at 21 Laps, where we became producers. Our responsibility as first and foremost is to write the best script, the challenges that come in in terms of budget, casting, all that stuff, we’ll address that later.
Neustader: If you’re lucky enough to get to that point, they’re going to make the thing, and they say to you “well we have half the money we thought we were going to have, so this scene in space, we are not going to do that one.” Then you start to pare back and think “I really love this exchange between these two characters, but I can’t afford this location anymore, is there some way in a scene that we already do have,” and that’s when things go in there. But Weber’s right you don’t start off thinking of any compromises to the best version of the story. Certainly we don’t.
What’s it like to keep this project alive in your head? Because you said it went from studio to studio.
Neustader: It was a long shot. It started out as a guarantee that Fox Searchlight was making this with us and Marc Web, and in a couple weeks. They wanted to get the band back together. And it didn’t happen. This was a real serious Sisyphean undertaking, we’re never going to make this movie.
Weber: But we also learned from that moment too. Never believe that it’s going to be happening unless you see cameras rolling.
Neustader: [That’s] Actually in indie films, even when cameras are rolling, you might run out of money on day 2.
What for the money to get into the bank.
Neustader: So for us we had really good passionate people with us. We were left at the alter twice actually, another director too. But the producers went to us and said “doesn’t matter, we’re making it, we’re making this movie, all systems go.”
Weber: Well also we were a little pushy too, hopefully in a good way. But we care about these projects, we want to write the movies we go see. Some of the projects that have always been lingering in people’s hands, and we felt they’d be the right person for it. And just asking questions and pushing for it wherever we can, whether it’s through our representatives or producers or anyone. Because it seems like “no” is the default answer to most things in this business. Getting to those yes(es) is so hard, but when you start to get them, and you build that momentum, you just want to keep pushing. We got close to a couple times on this one, but it wasn’t until really last spring when Shailene was involved, and then James [Ponsoldt], and Miles, just all those yeses that got us here.
What makes James the perfect director for this film?
Neustader: The worry after seeing Smashed was obviously was “he’s going to say ‘why would I want to do that, there’s a lot of similarities, there’s a lot of drinking, I don’t want to do another thing about drinking,” But we loved Smashed to much that we were like “if he wants to meet, we’ll meet, we’re already meeting with a lot of people.” And we sat down with him and we never spoke about drinking one time. Didn’t even come close to it. It was just teen movies. It was just about James being “that was me younger.” So knowing that he could do an amazing drama, knowing he related to this character in a very specific way, and knowing that he was going to make a movie that wasn’t about alcoholism, or a message movie, or an after school special, but one where wanted to do what we wanted to do, which was bring back these kind of teen dramas that have kind of disappeared, it was a no brainer. He was the guy.
Weber: And even then, it was always going to be a leap of faith. We’ve been really lucky not only to be included, but the movies turned out [to be] we are really proud of. But you never know. You put all these people in the kitchen and just hope.
The Spectacular Now opens in limited theaters on August 2nd, and expands nationally on August 23rd.