The Fault in Our Stars: Written in Six Days
Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter on collaboration and being the second fastest screenwriters in the business.
By Lauri Donahue.
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are a screenwriting team – one of the busiest (and probably the fastest) in Hollywood, working on both indie and studio projects.
Their first hit was the spec (500) Days of Summer in 2009, and they went on to pen The Spectacular Now and the highly successful movie version of John Green’s bestseller The Fault in Our Stars.
Along the way they’ve collected 12 screenwriting awards, including jointly being named Screenwriter of the Year at the 2009 Hollywood Film Awards.
Scott lives in LA and Michael lives in New York. They work together via email and phone – never in the same room.
I talked with them at the 2014 Austin Film Festival.
Let’s start with how you met. Scott, you hired Michael as your development intern?
Scott: That’s correct. In 1999 I worked at a company called Tribeca Productions in New York. And one of my many hats was hiring interns for the semester.
Michael: [laughing] There weren’t that many hats…
Scott: One of my three hats. And he was looking for a summer internship and that’s basically how we met.
Why did you pick him, assuming that there are quite a few people who want to be interns at Tribeca?
Scott: The dirty secret is that every single person I met, I hired. I can’t say no to anyone.
We ended up talking about Rushmore, which had just come out, and we were talking about other things that we both enjoyed, and from there we would spend most of the day not doing work but just talking about other things and kind of became friends.
At the time neither one of us was really actively writing, but it was something we both kind of always wanted to do. As we got to know each other a little better, whoever said, “We should just try writing something ourselves.”
My other hat was reading a lot of scripts, and certainly when I first got to work I was convinced that in order to write a screenplay you have to be really special and brilliant and remarkable.
Then you read all the scripts and you realize that actually they aren’t all that amazing. We may as well try one. The bar was set low and I felt like maybe we could reach that bar. It made us laugh and it was fun. And that was sixteen years ago.
You said you weren’t actively writing at the time. Had either of you written a whole script individually before that point?
Michael: I think maybe in college — but like junk.
Scott: Yeah, I wrote a script in college as a thesis project, but immediately deleted it off the computer.
Scott: I wish I didn’t do that, but I have that impulse.
I’d actually like to read it and steal some of it because I’m sure it wasn’t all horrible. And then from there probably a lot of first thirty pages of things….
The amazing thing was that when we wrote together we completed something that wasn’t terrible. But nothing ever happened with it.
You said a thesis project…. Were you a film major?
Scott: I was an English major, but I was allowed to pick my concentration and my concentration was film. Mostly film studies but I did take a screenwriting program and that was something I was very interested in.
Michael, what did you write before you met up?
Michael: A lot of crap.
Short crap, long crap?
Michael: Both. All kinds of crap. I really specialized in writing lots of different crap. But yeah, we were pushing each other to finish, to work harder. We were questioning choices and strengthening choices. And it’s been really special.
Up on the Roof
I understand you actually started writing the movie on the roof at Tribeca?
Michael: I think we were just outlining. I don’t think we actually wrote scenes together.
So you were basically talking through the story?
Scott: “Wouldn’t it be fun if maybe something like this happened?”
Michael: And then we would write small batches separately. But yes, we definitely broke the story together.
And after Tribeca Scott went off to the London School of Economics…?
Scott: Nothing happened with the script that we had written.
What was your career path at that point?
Scott: We flirted with the idea of becoming screenwriters to see if anybody wanted to buy this script — and no one did.
I worked for the company for four years, got as far as I was going to get and said, “Well this was fun, this movie industry thing, but time to get serious” — and I went to graduate school.
Mostly it was an excuse to go to England and travel, which I’d never done before. I was obsessed with London. Pretty much the second I got there I met somebody — this person who would we spin into our second script. It was unexpected — it was not supposed to happen. We were not going to keep this going. But that’s what happened.
The second script turned into (500) Days of Summer. The first script we wrote was a comedy we called Suck the Marrow. That was an exercise to see if we could finish something.
We wished we could figure out how to write our relationship movie. What’s our Annie Hall? But we didn’t really have the relationship we wanted to write about.
Scott: I went to England and suddenly thrust myself into this relationship that was interesting enough that we could derive a few things from it.
But at the time it was just emails: “I was at this bar and I said this. She said this — what did that mean? That didn’t make sense. Explain that to me.”
He was in New York, living vicariously with the single mindset because he had been in a relationship forever and I certainly had not. So I would say to him, “What do I do?”
Was this screenwriting or was it relationship therapy?
Scott: Just relationship therapy. Michael kept saying we should turn this into a script and I said, “Stop it, off the meter, 5 o’clock.”
So at what point do you go from relationship therapy to screenwriting on this project?
Scott: I don’t think it was until I had this idea of how to do it. And I sent him an email saying here is how I think we can turn this into something that’s cool. And we emailed back and forth and then we were off to the races.
Her name is this. You think it’s that but it’s not. It jumbles out of order. You can juxtapose moments — all that stuff. And then we had a list made of everything that happens in a relationship: you meet someone, your first kiss, then it plateaus and you have just this comfort level, and then when it goes awry, and all that stuff. We just had a list of scenes. And now that we had this structure we were like, let’s write independent scenes. In a way they were almost like music videos. And then this kind of slowly forged into a screenplay.
Did you guys have a legal agreement, either with your first script or now with your second one?
Michael: With each other? Do people do that?
Partnership agreements. So, for example, if you start developing something together as a team and then you decide you don’t want to write this together and the other person goes off and starts writing it…
Michael: That sounds like a lot of paperwork.
Scott: That’s very official. We were not serious about this.
So you still don’t? It’s like a pre-nup for writers.
Scott: [laughing] We might have to look at into that now.
So you wrote (500) Days of Summer, you sold (500) Days of Summer…
Scott: We wrote it. It was still an extremely personal thing. He still worked for Tribeca and I got back from England and moved to LA to work in television in the development side — not the writing side – and we basically got to a point where we said we may as well show the script around and see if anybody likes it.
When we gave it to a few people to read they enjoyed it enough to email it around. One of the people they emailed it to it was a manager who contacted us and said, “Have you got anything else?” And we showed them the first script, which is totally the opposite kind of project, and they really like that and said, “Can you can you come up with another one like that?”
So we had an idea for another one of those and we started working on it. And so I think the managers had sent out three different scripts before they sent out (500) Days of Summer.
So it’s your second script but the fourth to get out there?
Michael: The numbers get a little murky. We had a couple of different samples, but nothing sold for a while, including (500) Days. We weren’t working writers yet.
Eventually, years later, we sold a pitch that was six to eight sentences. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That never got made, but it was a job and it got us in the baby steps of a career. And from there it made it easier for us for our previous things to get set up.
Was that your first paying gig — that pitch you sold?
Michael: Yes. And off of that some of our older things then got optioned.
Pink Panther 2
And at some point in this process you’re hired to write Pink Panther 2. How did that come about?
Michael: I have to figure out the short version of that…
Look — I think in the baby steps of a career it’s really important to get hired on a movie that’s definitely getting made. We had to have a couple of different takes before we latched onto one. You put your marketing hat on and we were surprised when they responded to the idea.
Essentially we were hired to break the story. We were hired to write jokes, and we were the first of many writers. It was a great experience. We wrote a first draft in twenty days. And it was just a showcase for a simple story that got the project on track.
So how was it different doing this first studio assignment versus doing your own spec work?
Michael: The spec was written for us. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. We weren’t like, “Off this we’re going to launch a career.”
The spec was our response to a lot of things, so that’s very different than a studio job like Pink Panther. You’re a hired gun, and the producer was extremely specific: “I want this. I don’t want that. And here’s how many days I want it in.”
So they’re just different muscles, I’d say. It’s not about pleasing us with a studio gig — It’s about being efficient.
Scott: I didn’t know that. I was still trying to write the best Pink Panther movie.
Michael: Oh, you’re still trying to write the best movie — but were told we had twenty-one days. We were told, “Use this location, don’t use this character more than three times….” We were given strict confines.
Pitches and Specs
I’ve read that you sold eight specs since (500) Days of Summer. Is that true?
Scott: I’d say projects. We sold a handful of specs and then we’d come across a novel that we loved and were able to set that up.
So sometimes it’s a pitch?
Michael: Sometimes it’s books we’ve set up, but then other times it’s books that are already set up and we just get hired.
Scott: We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve really only written three specs that we then said, “Let’s see what happens with this.”
Michael: Four specs.
Coming of Age
Are all the specs that you sold in the young adult (YA)/coming-of-age genre?
Michael: Everything has a coming-of-age element to it.
Scott: I’d say regardless of age, regardless of genre, we’ve only written coming-of-age movies. That’s all we ever done. But they’re not really YA and people are putting us in a box now that we’ve done Fault in Our Stars and Spectacular Now. We do love those stories, but I think we’ve done a variation on the coming-of-age genre with everything we’ve ever done.
Spectacular Now was an indie gig…?
Michael: The Spectacular Now started as a studio gig, then there was a regime change and they were nice enough to give it back to us and we went out made it independently. And it was fine that it went that way because independently we probably got to make the movie that was closer to the movie we envisioned, given the subject matter.
Scott: That’s true.
Michael: We coproduced it. We were executive producers along with some other producers. The studio gave it to the collective producers.
Scott: They sort of said, “If you can you can set it up yourselves, you have our blessing” — which they don’t always do, so that was very nice. And we were able to find a new director, cast, and get going to find the money.
How does it feel differently as writers knowing that you’re producers?
Michael: To me, the only difference is we always push at the boundaries of what writers are included in. The difference is when you’re just the writer, you ask permission to be involved — and when you’re also producing you’re expected to be involved. We always want to be more involved in casting and decisions on who the director’s going to be. That’s the biggest difference
Scott: It was a privilege to be invited into the conversation — as opposed to trying to get into it somehow.
The Need for Speed
You reportedly wrote Me before You in three weeks and Pink Panther in twenty days — beating your deadline by one day – and Fault in Our Stars in two weeks…?
Michael: Six days
Excuse me — six days?!
Michael: We didn’t hand it in for two weeks. Because we didn’t want them to think we rushed it. We actually wrote a script since we sat down with you here today. It’s almost done.
It’s like a mind-melding thing?
Michael: Yeah. Hold on. We’re done.
After I heard two weeks, I was going to ask what you thought your personal best would be — one week? But I see you’ve already topped that.
Scott: We won’t be able to beat six days, I think.
Michael: John Hughes wrote Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in five days.
I’ve read that you spend as much time outlining as writing, so when you say you “write” a script in three weeks, is that really three weeks of outlining and then three weeks of writing?
Michael: It depends on the project. With The Fault in Our Stars the book was practically the outline itself, because it’s just so well plotted and the dialogue is there. With other books we have to get underneath the hood and really take it apart a little bit.
Scott: Most other ones.
Michael: It really depends project to project. We certainly spend a lot of time on the outline.
Scott: I hate outlining.
Michael, how do you feel about outlining?
Michael: You have to do it. If you don’t do it, you’re going to write fifty pages and then realize oh shit you screwed up.
Look, morale is the trickiest thing to manage, because if you spend too long doing anything you’re going to think it’s crap and talk yourself out of it. So you outline so that the writing goes faster so that you don’t fall out of love with it.
If you keep having to double back on yourself and fix problems and rewrite the same first fifty pages because you didn’t solve those problems in the outline form, you’re never going to get anywhere.
So Scott, you hate outlining, and Michael, you see it as a necessary evil?
Michael: I see everything as a necessary evil.
Scott: If we didn’t outline, I’d say, “Let’s just start over. Let’s just go back to the beginning.” And then that becomes bad when there are expectations and you have to turn something in at a certain time.
Do you enjoy the writing?
Scott: I enjoy the writing process. I hate the outlining.
Michael: It depends on the mood you catch me in. It changes every five minutes. I love all of this. We’re very lucky to do this on a regular basis and get steady work.
The Writing Process
I’ve read about your process – that once you have the outline you just say, “OK, Michael does scenes one through five and Scott does scenes six through ten…”
Michael: Small batches. We only work for a day or two, not more than that.
At what point do you review each other’s work? As soon as you’ve done that batch? Do you swap pages?
Scott: I tend to need feedback quicker. Because otherwise it gets erased. So definitely I’m sending stuff quicker to make sure it’s off my computer in cyberspace or else it’ll be erased.
How do you resolve disputes? In other words, if you’ve written something that you (Scott) think is great, and you (Michael) don’t think is so great?
Michael: I don’t think it’s so binary. It’s more like a conversation. This part’s working, this part’s not working. How do we make this better? Or I have a nagging feeling that we’re going to get pushback on this part.
Scott: We don’t both love something if it’s not good enough. We know what the other person’s response is going to be.
If I’m like, “OK, we can keep this” — that’s really a good thing. And if he’s like, “This is fucking great” — that’s a really good thing. And if he’s like, “Yeah, we can keep this”, then I’m like, “OK, no.”
So what’s the process for integrating individual scenes into one script? Do you just stick them together and that’s the draft or…?
Michael: We don’t know how to do that thing with Final Draft for plugging it into the same document or whatever. Usually he’ll plug it in and send the whole thing back to me and I’ll go through the whole thing and then send the whole thing back to him.
Scott: When I worked at Tribeca, most of my job was notes and editing and streamlining and making sure stuff sounds like one voice. And so I’ll take a document and start to mess around with things and send it back to him to read. Then he emails and says this works and this doesn’t work and we kinda go from there.
I’ve read that you don’t get any writing done when you’re in the same city.
Scott: I did notes on the airplane on the way here. Once we got here, I guarantee you we’re not going to get any writing done.
Michael: Part of it is that we don’t get any work done when we’re together. But it’s also that we don’t sit in the same room where one of us is typing and the other is pacing. It’s just not our process. We go to our separate places, we have our separate routines, and that’s how things get done.
The Box Office
The Fault in Our Stars made $48 million on its opening weekend…
Scott: Yeah, that was fun.
…On a budget of $12 million. And it beat out Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow with a budget of $178 million.
Scott: That was a very good movie, though.
How does that feel? Your little indie-style feature just kicked Tom Cruise’s tent-pole butt.
Michael: We want to keep working. We want to keep making movies that we care about and that we’d to go see. And if this means that we get to stay in the club a little longer, great. We’re not like popping champagne corks. It’s not our personality.
Scott: When we got that job, we were celebratory.
Michael: Yeah, that’s the thing that gets us excited. We were way more excited when we got the job than when it opened number one. Opening number one is nice and we understand that means we could stay in the club little longer.
Scott: We’re going to have ups and downs. We’re happy when a movie comes out that we’re proud of and we’re really happy when it comes out and we’re proud of it and people seem to like it.
What he was saying was that box office allows us to maybe do it a couple more times, but beyond that…. We love Spectacular Now, which didn’t really do as well. Made its money back, though. But, yeah, for us it’s much more gratifying when people like it and when it’s number one at the box office.
One of your many upcoming projects is adapting John Green’s Paper Towns. What are the special challenges involved in adapting the work of an author who has such rabid fans, and did you learn any lessons from your first John Green adaptation?
Michael: We were a little hesitant on this one because we knew we’d have to change a little more of the book. But John said go and write the best draft and we’ll talk about it afterwards and figure out if we’re missing things that are sacred to the Nerd Fighter community.
And we had those conversations afterwards and it was totally fine. It was fun to work with John again.
We like working with authors. The book is their baby first. We’re just shepherding it along in this crazy process and we certainly want the author to feel good about the movie.
One of your other upcoming projects is called The Disaster Artist?
Michael: The Disaster Artist by Tom Bissell.
This is a nonfiction book about the making of a really bad movie. So this doesn’t sound like coming-of-age.
Scott: It is, in a way. It’s about dreams. And becoming the person you want to become. They all have that same kind of through line.
Michael: Yeah — what it takes to go after your dreams… the sacrifices and who you become on the other side.
Scott: We’re excited to have some raw material that exists in real life, because we’ve never done that before.
Do you have any interest in working separately? Is anything one of you wants to write that the other doesn’t?
Scott: I’m sure there’s some music biopic that I would love to do. But I feel like the process is for us a lot of fun and we like a lot of the same stuff.
Michael: Also, we need each other when there’s stuff we’re doing, but there’s also the part that doesn’t get talked about: just navigating the process, all the people involved, all the bumps along the way — that’s the stuff no one ever sees because that doesn’t end up in the movie.
But like, leaning on each other – like, “What just happened in that meeting?” or “What did that person say they wanted from us?” Or “How are we going to handle that problem?” That stuff doesn’t end up on screen, but getting through that stuff is hard and I’m sure getting through it alone is even more difficult — not having someone to lean on.
It’s not just the artistic process — it’s the business process of being writers?
Scott: It’s the relationship process. It’s a people business, so a lot of it is not just, “Here’s a script. Goodbye, see you later.” That’s kind of the beginning, and then there’s a lot of back-and-forth.
There’s a lot of knowing who you’re working with — what they think — and trying to get your point across if it isn’t on the page, and trying to figure out what their point is if they’re not saying at the right way.
It’s very easy to say the wrong thing or ruffle feathers — get off on the wrong foot with someone. And it’s a people business and you want everybody on the same page. It’s the only way a good movie gets made — if everyone wants to make the same movie.
So every time we’re getting notes or have an issue with whoever, it’s nice to be able to keep it in check and then leave, and when it’s just the two of us say, “Can you believe that? That was so terrible! I can’t believe they asked that.”
Michael: That was a good imitation of yourself.
What advice would you give to writing teams that are just starting out?
Scott: Be friends. I think that’s really helpful.
Michael: Like a lot of the same things.
Scott: It’s been helpful to us and it also keeps it fun, because a lot of times it’s not going to be fun. It’s going to be difficult and hard work. So I think that’s super important.
Try to find people who have different skills than you, as opposed to people who have the exact same skills. Because then if you feel strongly about a line and they feel strongly about a line and there’s only one way that line’s getting in there… I don’t know what happens.
Michael: I think also while you want to maybe have some overlapping different strengths, I think it’s important that in terms of storytelling sensibility.
Our lives have changed. We’re not in the same place in life. We’re not two schmucks both living in New York City anymore. But we still have the same storytelling heroes, we still value the same types of stories.
A lot of the same things and movies we see move both of us. We connect to a lot of the same material still. Not all the time, but we certainly did when we first met and I think that’s important.
You speak in the language of film all day long when you’re working. You go, “It’s like that scene in – “ or “How would they have done that in this movie?” I think it’s important to be able to speak in the same language of movie touchstones, to value the same genres, and to like a lot of the same story tellers.
Scott: I imagine it might be interesting and work very well for writing teams who like different things. Like somebody likes a sci-fi action thing and needs good character stuff, and they team up with a good character person. It seems like that would work too.
How should writers decide whether or not they can work as a team?
Michael: Try it. What do you have to lose?