INTERVIEW: The Spectacular Now screenwriter Michael Weber on creating realistic teenagers
"We will never write that sort of Juno-speak. For us, it has to sound natural — not too stylized."
Anyone who has complained that Hollywood doesn't understand teenagers would be wise to check out The Spectacular Now, which arrived in limited release two weeks ago, and expands into more theaters today. The independent drama, which stars Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley as two frustrated teens who begin to develop feelings for each other, has been met with great critical acclaim, earning a coveted 91 percent positive ranking on Rotten Tomatoes.
Though The Spectacular Now was adapted from Tim Tharp's 2008 novel of the same name, the film owes much of its distinctive tone to its screenwriters: Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter. The duo, who launched their careers as the co-writers of the 2009 hit (500) Days of Summer, have crafted a script that's far more complex and fully realized than the average teen drama. Teller's character is a popular but alcoholic student struggling with paternal demons, and Woodley portrays a naïve idealist dealing with parental issues of her own. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that neither of these characters is prepared for the intensity of their relationship — or the realizations it forces them to face about their own vulnerabilities.
I recently sat down with screenwriter Michael Weber to talk about how he tried to capture that authentic teen experience, and how he and Neustadter plan to continue their success going forward. Here's a (slightly edited) transcript of our conversation.
How did two adults end up specializing in writing movies about teenagers?
I grew up loving the movies of Cameron Crowe and John Hughes, [and] other films like Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti. Movies about young people were sort of the first genre I fell in love with, and to this day, I still love them. I probably watch Ferris Bueller's Day Off beginning-to-end three times a year just because I love that movie so much.
I think I always wanted to do a movie like this. We shot (500) Days of Summer in the summer of 2008 and when we had wrapped on that movie, our studio executive — Jeremy Steckler at Fox Searchlight — gave us the book The Spectacular Now, which had come out around then, and was shortlisted for the National Book Award in the YA category.
It didn't sell particularly well, but it was just such an amazing book — and in the same way that 500 felt like a response to how Hollywood had been making romantic comedies, this book felt like the story Scott and I had been looking for: A response to how Hollywood had been making movies about young people […] There were no vampires, there were no kids with superpowers, there was no sex with baked goods. And while there's obviously room in the marketplace for those kinds of movies, I grew up with movies that felt more like a mirror to the experiences of being a teenager.
How did you manage to preserve the authenticity of the characters in the book as you turned it into a screenplay?
It's a process. First and foremost, it's a credit to a really well-written, smart, emotionally honest book that Tim Tharp wrote. The next thing — and this really applies to everything we write — we always stop to ask the question, "What would really happen?"
And that's when we're stuck, when we're brainstorming, when we're outlining. It's never, "Well, we need a set piece here" or "We need a trailer moment" or "We need outlandish hijinks." It's really, "What would really happen?" — and that involves Scott and I just talking. It's a tool we discovered first and foremost with (500) Days — sitting around and telling relationship war stories — and it's a tool we've used on every single project since. Talking about our lives is oftentimes more interesting and funnier [and] more relatable than a good percentage of what's in theaters.
How do you include so many of your own experiences while staying true to the book?
When you have a good book, the trickiest part is choosing what to use and what to discard. With a book as good as Spectacular Now, there's so much you want to use that you end up having to discard some things. Not because they're not good. Not because they don't fit. A movie is a different animal than a book. Later on when you're shooting or when you're getting close to production — in pre-production — you have to change things because of location. You have to change things because of budget.
Our job is to write the best movie. You want to honor the book, and you don't want someone who knows the book to go, "Oh, this is nothing like that" — but at the same time, it has to stand on its own two legs and be a good movie experience if someone didn't even know there was a book, so that's a bit of a balancing act. There were elements that we didn't use because they didn't feel like a part of the story we wanted to tell.
You and Scott also have several other movies about teenagers on the horizon. The Fault in Our Stars, Rosaline…
Yeah, it's fun. We're doing The Fault in Our Stars [now]. We start shooting with Shailene Woodley in two and a half weeks in Pittsburgh. [The film is] an adaptation of John Green's runaway bestseller and I don't think it's left the New York Times bestseller list since last February. […] We were really lucky to get involved in that book early. And it's such a wonderful book and it's obviously great to work with Shailene again.
Rosaline is an adaptation of a book called When You Were Mine by Rebecca Serle. It was a case of "we loved the idea," but we decided to take it in an entirely different direction — her book is a great experience on its own but not the story we wanted to tell. […] The book When You Were Mine is set in contemporary California. We wanted to do it in period Verona. Ours is 500 years ago, [in the time of] Romeo and Juliet — but we decided to tell the story of the girl before Juliet, Romeo's ex. Everyone knows Romeo and Juliet as the most romantic story of all time. I'm sure the girl before Juliet doesn't think of it that way. She's kinda like, "Whoa, wait a second here. I want to tell my story." We had so much fun with it.
How do you test out the dialogue in your scripts? Do you [and your writing partner] read it to each other?
We actually never write in the same room. Scott lives in Los Angeles. I live in New York. […] We will have an outline that we agree upon that's airtight before we write anything. That's simply because it's easier to diagnose problems in an outline. And then we'll just divide up scenes. "You take these three. I take these three."
In terms of dialogue, it's a lot of trial and error and tinkering. You're always sort of tweaking the dialogue just to make sure it sounds right. We will end up having a lot of discussion — "Is this working. Is this line right?" When there's a book, usually the dialogue in the book is a jumping-off point, but then we'll be changing it and evolving it from there. It really depends on the book. Some books we use more of the dialogue than others.
Did you test your dialogue with actual teenagers?
Not necessarily with teens. I think we're both incredibly immature. Scott has a sister who's a decade younger than him. I have a girlfriend who's considerably younger than me. I'll say to her, "Does this sound right?"
I think we're consumers first in that we watch a lot of TV. We read a lot of books. As consumers, you know how people are talking in popular culture, and we just hope that we have an ear for these things. We don't try to get too stylized. We will never write that sort of Juno-speak. For us, it has to sound natural — not too stylized. I'm sure a time will come — sooner rather than later — where we are not as in touch with how young people talk, and we will write something that sounds like a bunch of older dudes are writing it. Thankfully, we have not arrived there yet.
What teen movies do you most admire?
There are so many good ones. I love the spirit of Ferris Bueller's Day Off — I was cutting school all the time and the city was my playground. It was New York City, and not Chicago [like] in Ferris Bueller's case. That movie spoke to me. The Breakfast Club — I saw a lot of detention, so I can relate to that movie. Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Girls wanted nothing to do with me, as far as I knew, so that element of Fast Times I can relate to. Dazed and Confused. Sort of driving around, looking for the party…
I still love all of them for different reasons. How I connected with them. It's interesting now to re-watch them as an adult because you have a different perspective — there is pain in some of them. There's a little bit of darkness in some of them that I probably wasn't attuned to at that age. There's a sophistication that I really admire because those movies are so accessible — and yet that sophistication is there.