HitFix Interview: '500 Days of Summer' screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
If your idea of a perfect relationship movie is a romantic comedy in which the perky ingenue -- think Kate Hudson, Katherine Heigl or, heaven help us, Jessica Alba -- has a hilariously contrived meet-cute with a square-jawed hunk -- think James Marsden, Eric Dane or, if you've behaved very poorly, Dane Cook -- and they bicker for 45 minutes, make out for five minutes, bicker for 15 minutes and then consummate their passions in a grand, rhapsodic climax, you may want to skip Fox Searchlight's "500 Days of Summer."
Actually, scratch that.
Directed by Marc Webb, "500 Days of Summer" may be the most optimistically romantic movie you'll see this year.
It may also be the most sardonically bittersweet and depressing love story making its way to your local cinema this summer
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star as Tom and Summer, an ill-fated couple whose love flows and ebbs in non-linear fashion through Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's script, which makes a mockery of the conventions that Hollywood has foisted upon us in the genre.
This is Neustadter and Weber's second produced screenplay of 2009, but if you missed a little film called "The Pink Panther 2," you can pretend it's their first.
Although I have at least one killer story dating back to our shared undergrad experience involving Neustadter and famously mustachioed President Chester Arthur, that incident never came up when HitFix chatted with the screenwriters about the semi-autobiographical (for Neustadter) film, which first earned rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
[Interview after the break...]
HitFix: When I last saw you guys at Sundance, you were wandering around with this starry-eyed "Just happy to be here" look. Is it still there?
Scott Neustadter: Oh, you don't see it? This is the craziest thing. We felt at Sundance that we had made a good movie. But that means nothing. You never know if people are going to like it and we were very happy with it. Now people are liking it and now I'm scared about people talking about it too much and going into it with expectations that we can't live up to.
Michael H. Weber: We could almost do a short film of expectations/reality of people talking to their friends, hearing about the movie and then going to see it...
SN: Yeah. I've been talking about my ex-girlfriend way too much. And now it's getting really scary.
HitFix: Is it still therapeutic, or are we past the need for that anymore?
SN: No. We're so done. We're so done. The script-writing process was very helpful in that and now it's almost like old wounds again. I've moved on. I'm much more mature than I was.
MW: You're happier now, too. It's interesting. The movie now speaks for it in some way.
HitFix: How many places have y'all actually been with the movie now?
SN: Seven or eight probably?
MW: I'd say nearing a dozen probably.
MW: San Francisco. LA. Madison. Ivy League. Florida. Philly.
SN: I think seven or eight. A lot of places.
SN: I think that's it.
HitFix: Mike, given how much this is Scott's story, what sort responsibility did you feel as co-guardian of Scott's trauma?
MW: At least for Summer A, I was there with him. You're trying to help your friend and you're laughing at certain things, like the elevator moment actually happening, but also saying, "We should be writing this down."
SN: You'd be like, "Yeah. We should call her! See what happens."
HitFix: But were you a buffer to some degree, keeping Scott from eviscerating her on the page?
SN: I didn't get a lot of "You can't do thats," I don't think.
MW: You weren't pitching scenes of "I want want to use her for target practice."
SN: "Why did she set me on fire?" We had made such a conscious choice to not have a B-story, to not have any side s*** going on, just to make it very much about this couple. If you do that as one is the good guy and one is the bad guy, it's not that great a movie. We sortta always knew that, so we had to walk the line. At one point we had her stop the movie and take over and we actually really liked it for a second. It was a different movie from what you'd see, but it was kinda cool. But it upsets the balance. It can't be that.
MW: It disrupted the logic of the movie.
SN: It has to be one or the other. So when we kept the perspective of Tom, we had to be careful that he was too passive and we had to be careful that she was too ruthless and those were the lines we had to walk.
HitFix: Since your own feelings on this relationship aren't that veiled, Scott, what was the strategy behind how much we are or aren't allowed to potentially hate Summer?
SN: When the computer was at my fingers in the beginning, it was like, "We're taking her down!" It was coming from this place of "Watch out!" And we kept in the author's note, which was really the first thing, it was always there. It was like, "I'm taking you down, honey!" And then this thing happened in the middle, or in the middle of writing it, not necessarily the film, but the middle of writing it, like "You've done this. Other people think about you this way." Not often and I can only think of one occasional actually, but one time, there's somebody out there who thinks that I did that to them. I think we've all been liked more than we've liked someone and that's no good. And we've all liked someone more than they've liked us and that's no good either. So I just think the realization of that was what keeps her from being villainous. She doesn't really do anything wrong, though it's OK with me if you don't like her. I'm fine with that.
MW: It's not as good a movie if she's more of a villain. The way it is now, we've all been Tom and we've all been Summer. You relate to both of them and it makes it a better movie. You connect to both of them. It will be interesting for all of us to watch it again after other relationships down the road.
SN: I left out the really terrible things that she did. Those scenes didn't make it in.
HitFix: There's the line in the movie [attributed to Henry Miller, but actually courtesy of Lawrence Durrell] about how there are three things you can do for a woman, "You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature." That feels like a great center for this sort of storytelling. Was it there from the beginning?
SN: No. Somebody found that in the middle of the writing of it and we said, "Oooh, we're gonna use that," but it's such a logical thing. Look at music, they're always writing songs about that stuff, so we were doing it and we found that quote and said, "We can use that. We're not the only crazy people who want to tell that kind of story." There's a line that got filmed, but didn't make the final cut, but that I loved and explains a lot... They're in this big fight and he runs up the stairs after her to tell her how he feels, it'll be on the DVD, and he gets up there and he's run up like five flights of stairs and he's about to say the thing and he doesn't say it. He's like, "This was so much better in my head." And she says, "I bet you get that a lot." That was sort of an encapsulation of what we were dealing with in this world.
HitFix: Obviously this movie is a corrective on the state of romantic comedies in Hollywood. But if you look at the box office for a lot of those movies... People love them.
SN: Yeah. Who can explain?
MW: You know what, though? "The Proposal" did well. I haven't seen it and I'm not criticizing "The Proposal," but I'm under the impression that more women than men went to see "The Proposal." I'd think that's unfair? I'd like to think our movie, both men and women will enjoy. I think we might have a broader appeal.
SN: I've given up trying to figure it out. "Transformers 2"? I don't know anybody wants to see it, but everybody apparently went to see it and nobody went to see "Pink Panther 2" and everybody wanted to see that. [He's struggling to contain laughter.]
HitFix: Do you think there's a part of the audience that probably doesn't have the slightest interest in seeing a version of a relationship that's this real? That would prefer to see the fairy tale?
MW: I want to rip on my sister for a second. I love my sister. We're closer than we've ever been before. She's never seen a good movie in her life. She's younger than me. She's in her mid-20s. She's not into film. She didn't grow up seeing a lot of old films. She's never really seen any of the old Cameron Crowe movies. She loved this movie. She didn't know that there were movies like this, that could be made like this, that could tell these sorts of stories. I think there is a generation that's grown up with an imbalance in terms of certain kinds of romantic comedies compared with the ones that we grew up with and related with.
SN: But to answer your question, we finished the script, I said "Thank you very much. I'm very proud of it. No one's ever reading it or going to see it." Nor was it even our intention. Under no circumstances was someone making this movie. It was not going to happen. When we finally did show it, there were six or seven months of studios saying, "Good writing sample. Really well done. Too bad you didn't choose to make it about the girl. Girls would go see this movie, but guys will never go see this movie." We've done some test screenings and the test screenings showed that guys liked the movie the most and would recommend it the least. No guys are sitting there watching Monday Night Football going, "There's this great romantic comedy you've got to go to!" And that's the challenge. If we were with another studio, I think we'd be terrified, but we really like what Searchlight's been doing and they're being smart about figuring this out.
HitFix: Well, you opened the door Scott. I saw "500 Days of Summer" before "Pink Panther 2" came out, so I knew that ultimately "Summer" would be the movie people would judge you on. But what was the importance of that movie for you guys as fledgling writers? And how do you reflect on it?
SN: Well, we were hired to write that because they read this script, which is crazy, but that's Hollywood. We left that room and we said, "Thank you very much. We're not going to write 'Pink Panther 2.'" And our representatives said to us, "You've never sold a thing in your life. You're out here to be serious about this. You want to have a career. Come up with an idea! What else are you going to do?" And so we did. And they hired us. They used that idea and they made the movie. And that, in and of itself, is miraculous. It's a crazy thing. It never happens. I helped get a lot of these other things to move forward because once you've made a movie, once you've a produced credit, it opens the door a little, no matter what it did.
MW: Our managers wisely said to us, "In the baby steps of a career, it's important to get a movie made." And he was speaking even from a business sense, but thinking about it psychologically for us, there's not a moment where you're like, "I'm a writer." It's not like you get your degree and you finish you're residency and you are a doctor. So getting hired for a movie that's definitely going to get made? You're a writer. You may even have your other day job, but psychologically to start thinking, "You know, this isn't just something I've giving a shot or tinkering with. This is something we do. This is who we are. This is more than just a hobby."
SN: The point of your question was like, "If that's what you were going to be known for..." I was able to feel great about the fact that I knew we had this going. And we didn't have it going yet, actually, but we knew it was there, if anybody ever wanted to touch it, it'd be great. When we came out here to get hired, we had a really ridiculous comedy and we had this. We thought that range would be helpful, but it was helpful in the beginning. They want to pigeonhole you. They want to know what you write. We wanted everybody to want this, but they all wanted the funny thing. Really. It's an interesting thing and we're still trying to navigate it. We get more family comedy scripts coming at us than anything else.
HitFix: I know your sense of humor, so that doesn't seem wise.
SN: America's kids should not be in the hands of me? Yeah, it's very, very true.
HitFix: Was that crazy comedy the jailbait comedy "Underage"?
SN: No. That's actually quite emotionally... It sounds crazier than it actually is. When we pitched it to people, they were like, "Pass!" So we ended up having to write it ourselves, but we do, I hope, convince you in the middle of it that it's not as creepy as it sounds. This was another comedy that we wrote, it was like a "Family Guy" sample more than it was an actual movie. But it's pretty funny. It's a movie about death.
HitFix: There was the Variety article about you guys last year that talked about the six or seven scripts y'all had sold. What's the state of all of those projects?
SN: The first pitch that we ever sold was with Mark Waters, who's one of the people who shepherded this movie. He's attached to direct this thing that's at Fox. It's called "Starfish" and it's kinda in limbo, but it's like guy's "Sliding Doors" movie. Then there was another broad comedy that we were told to write after that first one went out, they literally did not want to send to send the other sample out on the heels of that one because everyone said, "Oooh, we want another one of these," so we came up with one on the spot that came out before the one we'd written... It's.. Yeah. That, I think, is probably in crazy turnaround. Then there was "Panther" and this and a book adaptation that I think is also in turnaround. And then there's "Underage," which we really like and I think they're in the process of moving it.
MW: There's "No Relation," which is a father-son comedy.
SN: It was a very fast process.
HitFix: I've gotta say that when the Academy announced the expansion to 10 Best Picture nominees, this was the movie I thought of first, because it's not your typical Oscar movie, but maybe if they start thinking more broadly...
SN: It will be interesting. I think it needs to be received like it has been and do all of that. We're very proud of it. I can't name a 10 Best list for the past four years. I run out at six or seven. We'll see what happens. Hopefully they'll expand the Razzie field to 10 also, because I feel good about "Panther."
"500 Days of Summer" opens in limited release on Friday, July 17 and will expand in the weeks to come.