As a fan of movies, you may have been asked “Do you know the secret to THE CRYING GAME?,” “Who ya gonna call?,” or “How many times have you seen DIRTY DANCING?”
Right now, moviegoers are asking, “Did you cry your eyes out watching THE FAULT IN OUR STARS?” (Likely answer: Yes).
The WGAE Write On Blog caught up with Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter, who co-wrote the film adaptation of John Green’s beloved YA novel.
In our interview, Michael and Scott discuss how they became a writing team, what their writing process is like and how they built a successful partnership even though they live and work on opposite coasts.
How did you two become a writing team?
Michael: We met in 1999 at Tribeca Productions. While still an undergrad at Syracuse University I went looking for a summer internship. Scott had recently started working there after graduating from Penn. The first conversation we ever had was about how much we loved RUSHMORE. He hired me as an intern and we quickly became friends. And our conversation about RUSHMORE pretty much set the tone for our relationship. Upon graduation I returned to Tribeca, as an assistant for Robert De Niro. By that point Scott was Director of Development. We’d spend our lunch breaks together, talking about movies we’d seen, scripts we’d read and life in general. Eventually we shared our own ideas. And then one day we decided to try writing together. First we outlined the idea – sometimes in person but usually over email and phone calls. When it came time to write we simply divided up scenes and then emailed them back and forth. It’s the same process we use today, now living on opposite coasts. Nothing ever happened with the first screenplay we wrote together but our friends liked it and their response gave us the confidence to keep writing.
What career lessons did you learn from working at Tribeca Productions and how have those experiences shaped your move into screenwriting?
Scott: Looking back now, those four years were invaluable for a whole boatload of reasons. First off, when I started working in development, I naively believed that only the best writers and the strongest material had any chance whatsoever of selling. I realized a week into the job – that’s totally false! Lots of okay writers manage to sell their okay scripts. Which meant we didn’t have to write the greatest script of all time. We just had to be okay. Which I thought we could do. Secondly, a lot of screenwriters have an antagonistic view towards the development process and development executives. But having worked on the other side, I know we’re all on the same team and we want the same things (most of the time, anyway). Not to mention, the fact that I gave notes for many years before receiving them, I can often read between the lines in ways that other writers who haven’t seen that side of the process cannot. So, yeah, I think we’ve benefited tremendously from having worked in that capacity.
When did writing become a full time career for both of you?
Michael: In New York we had our day jobs and writing together was a side project. Then Scott moved to London and then LA. We were always writing but we probably didn’t take it seriously until he was in LA. Even then it was a few years before we got our first job, which was a movie pitch we sold to FOX. We still kept our day jobs. In fact we had them through production of (500) DAYS OF SUMMER – I was working part-time for De Niro and Scott was writing coverage for various producers and studios. Our attitude was one of practicality: just in case this all goes away let’s keep our safety nets in place. I think we finally shed the other gigs around 2009.
What’s the writing process between you two like with Michael in New York and Scott in Los Angeles?
Michael: We never write a word until we’ve extensively outlined the entire movie. There’s no rigid format to the outline – merely a list of scenes with as much detail as we can get in there. We’ll email and talk as we go over the outline again and again, filling in blanks and solving problems. Usually Scott wants to start writing and I have to apply the brakes. Eventually we get to a place where we’ve addressed as many issues as we can in the outline phase. Then we divide up a small batch of scenes – enough to cover a day or two of writing. As those batches are completed we will email them back and forth. We’ve never written in the same room. We know we’d get nothing accomplished that way!
What is your individual writing process? Do you need to be in a private room? Do you listen to music while you work? Do you edit as you go or knock out a first draft?
Scott: We both go to coffee shops and tea rooms but that might be where the similarities end. I am never not listening to music when I write. I like distractions, busyness, a lot going on around me while I’m working. Weber also manages to move forward if something isn’t working whereas I’ll get stuck on a scene or a line or a word. I’ll go back to the beginning and edit and tweak and I can’t move forward until I feel like everything up to that point is as good as we can make it. And then, once the first draft is completed, I’ll wind up going through it all again, realizing that what I thought was perfect was extremely flawed and start changing things all over again. At a certain point I literally have to close the document and take it off my desktop or I will start changing things. It’s a character flaw (one of many!)
The next project coming out from you two is an adaptation of John Green’s FAULT IN OUR STARS, a hit YA book, whose audience is very devoted to the text. What are the challenges to adapting a book where so many readers have such strong attachments to the entire book?
Michael: Our job is to produce a script that honors the spirit of the book but is also a fully realized story to anyone not familiar with the source material. The last thing we’d want is for the author or the fans of the book to be disappointed in the movie. That said, there are always changes to be made. In the case of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS we had to condense a few parts of the book, especially the ending. And there were some moments that needed to be more cinematic. So far the response has been great. And John Green has publicly stated that our beginning and ending are better than his. We came to the book the same as everyone else – we read it and immediately fell in love with it. So John’s approval means a lot to us.
The characters in FAULT IN OUR STARS, SPECTAULAR NOW and your other screenplays are all young and have personal issues not normally seen in romantic comedies, such as cancer or alcoholism or what may be called abnormal social behaviors. What draws you to these kind of characters in love stories?
Michael: Their stories are an emotional journey that comes from a real place. As we’re outlining and writing, the question Scott and I continually ask is, “What would really happen?” It’s the tool we rely on more than anything else. We never think, “What would be the funniest moment here?” or “How can we make this into a set piece or a trailer moment?” I think this way of thinking comes from the movies we grew up on; Cameron Crowe and John Hughes are two of our heroes. They told stories about young people that were honest and heartfelt and they never talked down to their audience. And so now we gravitate towards material in that spirit.
Has there been a scene (or scenes) from one of your scripts that you watch on the big screen and been surprised by your personal reaction to it?
Scott: Definitely the best thing we’ve ever done in my opinion is the Reality/Expectations sequence from (500) DAYS. When Fox Searchlight optioned the script, they had almost no notes. No one said “can they end up together?” or “can you re-structure it in a more conventional way?” or anything like that. But Peter Rice, who ran the division at the time, said to us there was one thing he felt was missing which was some way to trick the audience into believing the couple might get back together at the end. Otherwise, what are we rooting for? Amazing note. And from that came the moment when they’re trapped on the train heading to an out-of-town wedding, the scene in which they “reconnect,” remembering the time when their relationship did in fact work, and ultimately reality/expectations wherein all hope is officially and irrevocably lost. I wrote that scene at the kitchen table in the house where I grew up and I knew, as I was writing it, this was going to be awesome. (A huge rarity, trust me.) I also had absolutely no idea how Marc was going to pull it off! When I saw that on screen for the first time, I completely lost my shit. And honestly it still gets me every time.
Having been labeled Hollywood’s go-to writing team for adaptations by the Wall Street Journal, how do you compare working on screen adaptations to writing original screenplays?
Michael: That’s nice praise but I can name dozens of writers whose adaptations we greatly admire. For us we simply want to keep working on movies we’d go see. Hopefully a mix of originals and adaptations. We enjoy writing both. The only difference for us is that it seems as if it’s gotten a lot harder to get the originals made.
So what books, movies, television shows are high on your radar right now?
Michael: We could spend hours answering this question! We both love Mad Men and Game of Thrones. I recently devoured David Benioff’s City of Thieves, which Brian Koppleman recommended to me. I couldn’t put it down – Benioff is an incredible writer. Is there anything he can’t do? Scott is a huge fan of British TV; Luther and Orphan Black and many others. My apartment is half library. I try to read everything published by NYRB; one book after the next they knock it out of the park. I also love Europa, Melville House and Graywolf. The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah is a recent Graywolf novel that I loved. It broke my heart a dozen different ways.
If you could write a scene for any fictional character from television or film history, who would it be?
Scott: That’s a great question. I don’t know if there are specific characters we’d love to write for. There are certainly a ton of performers – Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Gene Hackman, Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole. And there’s one persona – the late 60s/early 70s Woody Allen. Virgil Starkwell in TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, Fielding Mellish in BANANAS, Miles Monroe in SLEEPER, Boris Gruschenko in LOVE AND DEATH, Alvy Singer from ANNIE HALL etc. Such a specific, unique voice that only he could write and only he could perform. But, man, it would be fun to try!
Michael: Neither of us know how to answer this question. I wouldn’t dare to presume I could put new words in the mouths of Lloyd Dobler or Ferris Bueller or Marty McFly. I love these characters but I shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near them!