Scott Neustadter worked in development at Robert De Niro's New York-based Tribeca Productions, where he eventually met writing partner Michael H. Weber (Neustadter and Weber's first screenplay, written during this period, has gone unproduced). Jobs at CBS and Dreamworks followed, as well as freelance work as a script reader, before Neustadter took inspiration from bad breakups and returned to writing with Weber. The result was (500) Days of Summer, a well-received spin on the romantic comedy that went on to star Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel under the direction of Marc Webb. Neustadter and Weber also took a crack at The Pink Panther 2, on which they share a credit with Steve Martin, before adapting Tim Tharp's YA novel The Spectacular Now. When Neustadter came to town to promote The Spectacular Now, we spoke at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: I was shocked to learn in my research that you and your screenwriting partner Michael H. Weber never write in the same room. I thought that was really interesting.
Scott Neustadter: Or in the same city most of the time.
Groucho: Right. Does that mean you see each other more at premieres and press days than you do when you’re working together?
Scott Neustadter: Probably not. I think that when we’re lucky enough to have people wanting to meet us, he comes to California, and we go to our meetings and we hang out, but no work gets done when he’s in in town. So we only actually do any of the writing stuff when he’s in New York, I’m in L.A. and that’s sort of how it’s always been. Even when I lived in New York it was Upper West Side, Lower East Side, e-mailing back and forth—never writing together.
G: Now I know part of the process involves dividing up scenes and then kind of swapping—
G: Rewriting and getting feedback. Is there, in your division of labor...something you guys have sort of agreed upon that you’re better at or that he’s better at—that you’re more likely to take a certain kind of scene?
SN: Well, I have a bit more of an editorial background just from doing development for awhile. And so basically—and I’m also crazy--let’s be honest. So what happens is we divide up the scenes; we send them back and forth. I can send him completely rewritten scenes. If he sends me his scenes and I want to, I can use the documents and actually write. He’s not allowed to. He can e-mail me his thoughts on my scenes but he’s not allowed to change anything.
SN: And so—that just comes from me being a crazy person. But also it just—you want this to sort of have one voice at the end of the day. And so, with my kind of editorial background and whatever else, I’m kind of like keeper of the document—and make sure that it’s all seamless. You know, if two of us were working on it, we would get very confused and it would be a problem.
G: Sure. Absolutely.
SN: So that’s how we’ve always done it since we met in 2000.
G: Now here you were adapting a property: a novel. Did you set out with a particular strategy in mind for adapting this material?
SN: We probably spent a lot of time talking about it in the beginning—how to take a first-person-narration story where you realize about halfway through how unreliable the narrator is—how to do that in a movie without doing too much voice-over. And doing all of that stuff. So I think we kind of mapped it out, and then once we had the outline down that we felt comfortable with, then we just sort of went and did it. There’s a little bit of voice-over in the beginning and a little bit at the end, but other than that, hopefully, you understand it. You’re in his head, but it isn’t intrusive.
G: Yeah, it’s funny. I guess there’s a reflection of that—and one of the things I like about the film is that it doesn’t tell the audience what to think about these characters, right?
G: So I guess that’s an extension of a kind of understatement, right, to have less narration as well?
SN: Yeah. And it’s nice that we were able to get away with that. I think if we were making this in the studio system, there would have to be a little bit more judgment. A little bit more "don’t leave things so open-ended." But that’s the [reason] that we kind of gravitated towards this book in the first place. These kids are up to no good sometimes, and they’re on a dangerous path and yet it’s reality. That’s truth. So we kind of always wanted to honor that.
G: In particular, I thought it was great that it’s left to the audience to decide the degree to which either one of them is helping or hurting the other through their choices or their behavior.
SN: Right, right. A lot of gray areas.
G: Yes, a lot of gray areas. The main male character here, played by Miles Teller, fits into a sort of archetype, I think, of the "wild child."
G: And I think oftentimes when you see that character, people’s first thought is "Well, where are the parents?" And this story answers that but in a way that’s unconventional or not the obvious answer that you usually see—
G: Of they’re just checked out or whatever. One in a way is—
G: But one is doing the best she can, right? Can you talk a little bit about writing for that kind of character? What sort of pitfalls were you consciously trying to avoid in terms of that kind of an archetype?
SN: Yeah, I think that—there’s that scene in the lunchroom where he’s trying to kind of stereotype everyone and saying "Well, who are you? Give me the thing that—what you’re known for. Who are you? Or what’s your thing?" And she says, "I like to think there’s more to a person than one thing." And we kind of sort of loved that; I think it was in the novel. You have these characters who you can pigeonhole. You can stereotype and say, "Oh, we know that. That’s somebody that we’ve seen in other movies."
G: And it’s such the high-school thing—
SN: It’s an easy archetype.
G: The nerd, the jock...
SN: Right. And it’s so easy to do. And so we were kind of interested in plumbing the depths of that and showing that—you know, just when you think you’ve got a handle on somebody, there’s more to them than that. And this was a great sort of great world for that--a great canvas for that. Everybody’s got an idea about what everyone is. But only if you take the time to kind of be with that person and get to know them and understand where they’re coming from and what makes them tick [do] you start to see there’s a lot more than you thought. Certainly, Sutter—his relationship with his mom and his dealings with...who he thinks is the hero parent—that was something that we thought was super-interesting. And a lot of times you create narratives about your world. And you do everything you possibly can to sell that idea, and then you have to eventually take a hard look and say, "Maybe my version of things isn’t the truth." And that was something that I think we loved about this book and wanted to try to do.
(The windows rattle.)
SN: A little earthquake happening.
G: Sounds like thunder maybe.
SN: I don’t know. That felt like a little earthquake.
SN: But I was gonna say something about that. Maybe it will come back to me now that there was an earthquake.
G: Right. I was going to ask you about casting and how that affected the material. Oftentimes when the actors come on board, there’s a little bit of adjusting to be done—
SN: Yeah. It definitely did. I think that Shailene loved this script. We had been hearing about that from other people. We would go into a meeting, and they would say, "Oh, we just met with Shailene, and did you know that Spectacular Now is her favorite script?" And we’re like "Really? Is that true?" Because it was a script that had been around—a lot of young actors wanted to do it, but nothing was happening, and after The Descendants came out, we were so thrilled to hear that that we kind of tracked her down and said, "Is this true? Because let’s try to make this." And when she came along, despite the fact that she liked the script as much as she did, her take on the character I think was completely different from Tim Tharp’s original creation. She didn’t see Aimee at all as a victim. She doesn’t see her as the quiet wallflower girl. She sees her as someone who does her own thing—which is quite a threatening thing in high school. I mean, in high school you’re supposed to have—these are the things you enjoy, and you party with everybody and you fit in and people who want to do their own thing, I think, are scary. And she saw herself as that way. It wasn’t because she’s gonna like take her glasses off and suddenly somebody’s going to recognize her. It’s everything that happens she’s decided that this is how it’s going to go. And so I think there were some adjustments to be made with the character once she came along because Weber and I said, "That’s terrific. Let’s definitely do that." And with Miles I think there were a few lines here and there—you know, in the novel there’s a lot more of like a Rat Pack-y vibe to Sara and Miles. (Snaps fingers.) It was like "No, not doing that." We had already taken most of that out anyway. But he is very Sutter. And so we didn’t have to change too many things to get him to be the perfect guy.
G: Right. Now...as producers, you had the privilege that not a lot of writers are afforded of being able to be on the set all the time. What were you able to contribute on the set as writer as opposed to as producers? Anything?
SN: Yeah, I think that—I was on set the first week ,and then I had to go back to L.A. because my wife was giving birth to our child. Weber stayed the whole time. He would call me every day and say, "Here’s an issue—let’s talk about what we can do." And the issues almost always were economics—you know, we can’t afford this anymore—because it was an indie film. And so it was "This speaking part is one too many speaking parts. But she says this great line. What do we do?" So we had to figure out if there was a place for it that still made sense. So it was a lot of stuff like that that was a lot of fun. It’s a new muscle to flex. When you’re a screenwriter, it—"Let’s set this on the moon. Who cares?" But when you’re actually making movies, it’s something completely different.
G: Now I can put a little spoiler alert in for this. But I do want to ask about the ending.
G: You’ve talked about it being hopeful—certainly more hopeful than the book—
SN: Yes. For sure.
G: Which has a darker ending. But the very, very end of the movie—I was curious...if it’s like that on the page or if it’s a choice of the director. I think it is hopeful in terms of how Sutter has developed as a person regardless of what—
G: The answer he gets at the end of the movie might be, but there’s a somewhat ambiguous expression on her face. I wonder if that’s written into the script?
SN: Yeah. That’s definitely in the script. We end on that ambiguous note for sure because I think that ideally half the audience wants one thing and the other half doesn’t.
SN: And we love that. I mean we really went for that. The biggest thing for us—in the script...he actually has a line, and there’s a little bit of a callback to some stuff that happens earlier that's actually not in the movie, so none of that was gonna work. So we’re left with what we’ve got. Which still is kind of awesome, I think. And the thing we talked about most in the editing room is who should get the last shot. Who do we end this movie on? The whole movie is him. This is Sutter’s movie. He’s kind of telling you the story. And he has control over pretty much all of its developments. It’s his behavior. It’s his actions that dictate what happens. But at the end, he’s finally giving himself over to someone else. He has no control over the future. He has absolutely no say in what happens next. And so we end this on Aimee and on her face ,and it’s this paradigm shift of: okay, you’re in control now for the first time in this movie. And whatever you decide is where this is gonna go ,which is a really powerful and kind of beautiful thing for somebody who I think, hopefully, you’ve been frustrated by—certainly in the second half of this movie; she’s letting him get away with a lot. She’s not standing up for certain things. She’s not kicking his ass as much as I think you’d like her to. And now we’re gonna say, if there was twenty more minutes of movie, the ball’s in her court—which I just think is a powerful, cool thing.
G: Yeah. I agree. I want to ask a question about (500) Days of Summer.
SN: (Chuckles.) Ask as many as you like.
G: Which spun sort of a little more out of your psyche—from your own personal experience.
SN: Yeah, it did.
G: What I’d actually like to ask is what you think the film says for better and worse about masculinity—about that particular side of the equation?
SN: You know, it’s funny. When the movie came out, and people would talk to us, they would say, "What a brilliant idea to flip the genders." And we said, "What?" We didn’t even think of it that way. It was really just "this is how all of my guy friends are." When you meet somebody who kind of knocks your socks off, you get crazy and things happen. And it doesn’t matter if you're a boy or a girl; I think it’s just an experience that you go through. Certainly at least in my experience and with all my friends. I can’t speak for men in general. But it was not an intentional gender flipping. I think that guys feel, and I don’t think there’s anything not masculine about that.
G: No, actually I meant more the way in which he deals with the relationship.
G: I think says something maybe about men in relationships.
SN: I mean, maybe. This is—what’s cool about (500) I think is that a lot of people didn’t realize what we were really doing. Because we get that "Manic Pixie Dreamgirl" criticism and whatever else. That was the whole point—was to say that this is not a romantic comedy. This is not a love story. We really say it at the outset. And in a typical American love story, you’re gonna get two fleshed-out characters—two three dimensional characters. You’re gonna get each of their perspectives. You’re gonna learn about the things—boy meets girl, and then boy and girl are gonna have a lot of depth to them and whatever happens happens. This is not that movie. This movie is just about him. And that’s the problem. He needed to listen more.
SN: He needed to get to know her more. He could not put his fantasy on someone else and have a successful, real, adult relationship. And he has to learn that. I don’t even know if he does learn it. The last shot of the movie there’s a question of that as well. But that’s what we were doing. We were saying "yes" to everyone who has a problem with the fact that you never get to know enough about the Summer character--yeah, that’s exactly what we were doing.
G: That’s the problem.
SN: And if only you did, if only he knew more, which we could share with you because the whole thing is in his mind, maybe he would have been able to figure it out and saved that—but he didn’t know. He was immature. We always say it’s a coming-of-age movie masquerading as a romantic comedy. It’s absolutely not a love story.
G: Right. I have another weird one for you.
SN: I love it.
G: We’re almost out of time. But I wanted to ask about Pink Panther 2, which I was surprised to see on your resume. I had never made that connection.
G: I think it’s a bit underrated actually.
SN: You are crazy.
G: Well I think the Murder By Death approach was kind of clever, and there were some fun characters and such. What I was curious about is was that a situation where you guys hand off to Steve Martin and it gets written or—?
SN: I’ll tell you. It’s a great story. We’d been out with (500) Days of Summer. People read it. People liked it. Nobody bought it. No one knew what to do with it. It sat around. And what it really was doing at the time was opening some doors for us. So we had meetings with important people, and we were brand new at this. We’d never really sold anything. But here we were in these rooms. And in the room sometimes they say to you, "Well, we have some open writing assignments where we’re looking for screenwriters. We like your writing. Would you be interested in this?" And the only one they had at Sony when we went into the room was the sequel to The Pink Panther, which I politely passed on. I said, "I don’t think that’s for us." And on the ride home, our agent called and said, "I heard that they mentioned Pink Panther 2. Come on. Do you want to be a professional? Come up with something. They’re giving you an opportunity." So I thought of an idea on that same drive, and we called the next day and pitched it back to them and they said, "Okay, go. You’re hired." We said, "Oh my god. We’re working writers." So we wrote the script in twenty days. And we were proud of it. We thought it was a throwback, really, to the Sellers kind of versions—the Shot in the Dark stuff. We turned it in. They were super-psyched. And they invited us to the premiere. And we didn’t recognize very much at all. But that’s how that went. We had one lunch with Steve Martin. He was really nice. We had a great—I mean it was the thrill of a lifetime. But nobody ever consulted us about changing things.
SN: I don’t really know where our script went, but that’s Hollywood for you. And I think actually at the end of the day, it was helpful getting us taken seriously. We had a produced credit, whether it was our words or not. Our names were on a produced movie. Which made us a lot less scary to be hired for future jobs, and I think it helped get (500) Days optioned and eventually made, and that’s a crazy, crazy story.
G: Yeah. So is it a coincidence that you guys are the screenwriters for the The Fault in Our Stars and that Shailene Woodley is starring?
SN: Technically it is a coincidence. We were hired to write that adaptation before we ever met Shailene. She loved Spectacular Now. We had a breakfast, and we said, "We really think you’re going to like this other thing we’re working on" and sent it to her, and she read it and flipped for it and said, "I’ll do whatever I have to do to get this job," and we said, "Good, because we can’t help you. We’re just the writers." We weren’t producers on that one. And she auditioned along with a lot of othe people, and she’s just that good.
SN: And so we’re really excited about that—I think that she’s an amazing, amazing actor, and she’s gonna be really great in that part. We’ll work with her—as long as she wants to keep working with us we want to keep working with her.
G: Right. You guys have a lot of screenplays in the pipeline. But the one that really caught my attention is Rosaline...I read that it’s not contemporary like the novel it’s based on.
SN: Right. Yes.
G: It’s period, which I love. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to developing that material?
SN: It was an interesting process. Someone pitched me the idea. They said, "We’ve got this book, and it’s basically Romeo and Juliet told from the point of view of the girl Romeo was dating right before. And I said, "That is hilarious. Get me that book right now. I love that." Not exactly what the book is. The book is a contemporary kind of dramatic love story—Rob and Julie and Rosaline kind of gets in the way; she’s the third wheel and all that stuff. And I sort of thought about it, and I just—as much as I liked the novel, I wanted to bring the real Romeo and Juliet back. Because if you’re going to do a comedy version, which is what we intended to do, it only works if it’s actual Romeo and Juliet. You have the verisimilitude of the real people. Then you tell the story from someone else’s perspective. That’s I think how the comedy version of that’s going to work. And it was a tricky thing to convince them to do it period and everything else. But it was the only way. It really was. So for us the script came out pretty cool, and we’re excited about it, and Universal’s serious ,and we’re looking at directors and casting now. And I think it’s pretty funny.
G: Now would you or Michael ever be interested in directing. Is that something you discussed?
SN: No, people ask us that all the time just because writers I think most of the time aspire to direct. We have had a really nice run so far of handing our stuff over to really talented directors who have made amazing things out of them. And so for us, we don’t yet have that thing where we feel disconnected or not included in the process. I was on set of (500) everyday. It was really too personal for anyone to exclude us. And Mark was really welcoming, and the best idea wins, and we’d not really dealt with people who’ve had egos to say "We don’t want the screenwriters around." I imagine when that happens, and we lose something, and then it turns into something we didn’t anticipate it being, we’re gonna say, "Never again. We can’t let that happen." But so far we’ve been really lucky and fortunate, and we’ve been working with great people, and I see no reason for us to "direct your own material" if there are people out there who can do a better job.
G: Alright. Well, it’s been great talking to you. Thanks a lot.
SN: Thank you. This was cool.