Book-a-movie

One of Hollywood’s most in-demand writing teams talks about adapting The Fault in Our Stars and how they landed the job because they brought “nothing to the table”

By: New York Times | Updated: June 15, 2014 12:47:15 am
Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars. Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley in The Fault in Our Stars.

Confident yet vulnerable, adorable yet wearing an unfortunate trench coat, John Cusack hoisted a boombox over his head in Say Anything and, as Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes reverberated through the trees, delivered a scene that defined a genre: the great 1980s-era coming-of-age movie.

Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber, the screenwriters behind (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars, came to Hollywood with plans to emulate that simple approach to storytelling, to take back the teenage romance from Twilight vampires. So what would their own boombox song be?

“It would be God Only Knows by the Beach Boys,” the muscly Neustadter said. Squirming, Weber delivered his punch line. “My boombox,” he deadpanned, “would only have nothing but traffic and weather updates.”

And there you have one of Hollywood’s most in-demand writing teams: bitingly clever, a little off-kilter, honest even if it’s awkward, big-hearted with a melancholy undercurrent. Just like their movies.

Neustadter, 37, and Weber, 36, got their start in 2006 by shopping an original script about a guy who gets his heart smashed after falling for an aloof girl. The resulting movie, (500) Days of Summer, was Fox Searchlight’s biggest hit of 2009. Last year came The Spectacular Now, an indie about love and alcoholism in high school.

Their fans now include none other than Cameron Crowe, the writer-director behind Say Anything, Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire. “They write characters that are completely free of stereotypes,” Crowe said.

The Fault in Our Stars, adapted from John Green’s best-selling novel, is a bittersweet story about two wickedly witty teenagers and their runaway romance. The punch-to-the-gut twist: Hazel and Gus, played by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, both have cancer.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much campaigning for a writing assignment,” said Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000. Weber and Neustadter won her over in part by explaining how little they planned to do. “Hello! Please hire us! We want to bring absolutely nothing to the table!” Weber said.

The classic coming-of-age movie has struggled alongside the romantic comedy as studios have started depending more heavily on lumbering visual extravaganzas that play to a global audience. The genre is mostly filled with rote remakes (Endless Love), overstuffed fantasies (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) and raunchy sexual quirks (The To-Do List).

Young love is extremely tricky terrain, requiring big emotions without sentimentality and equal parts certainty and uncertainty.  Yet, whenever a coming-of-age film manages to arrive in theatres with its brain intact — The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Easy A — audiences seem to respond.

The list of hotshot writers who have tried and failed to become the next Cameron Crowe or John Hughes is a long one, but Neustadter and Weber are certainly being given their chance. They wrote the script for Universal’s coming Rosaline, a present-day comic twist on Romeo and Juliet. They have also been hired to bring the books Paper Towns, Rules of Civility and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? to movie screens.

Married with a 20-month-old son, Neustadter lives in Los Angeles. Weber, a self-described “book-a-holic”, is newly single and lives in the East Village. They met in 1999 while working at Tribeca Productions, where they started a draft of (500) Days of Summer on their lunch breaks. At the time, Sony popped up with a surprise offer: Would they be interested in writing The Pink Panther 2?

“I hadn’t even seen the first one,” Neustadter said. But they decided beggars couldn’t be choosers and signed on. They delivered a draft in 20 days.

Not all of their Hollywood experiences have been blissful, of course. An original script centered on a royal wedding sold to Sony fell apart. They were co-creators of the 2011 sitcom Friends With Benefits, which failed after a few episodes.

The Fault in Our Stars, directed by Josh Boone, will rise or fall based on how the book’s admirers respond. With nearly 11 million copies in print worldwide, the novel has spawned a hyperaggressive fan base. Neustadter and Weber said they have had threats on social media warning them not to leave out various details of the story.

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