Writers Michael Weber & Scott Neustadter On “The Spectacular Now”
by Dan Casey on August 3, 2013
Every once in a while, a film comes along that manages to sink its cinematic hooks deep inside the viewer, offering up a weird through the looking glass version of certain archetypal shared experiences. Director James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, a sort of postmodern Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-esque coming-of-age story, is one of those films. It’s thanks in large part to the, well, spectacular performances from leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, but, moreover, it’s from the pitch-perfect script from 500 Days of Summer scribes Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter which hearkens back to a simpler era of teen movies from auteurs like Cameron Crowe and John Hughes. Recently, at the film’s Los Angeles press day, I sat down with the dynamic writing duo to talk about their fascination with rocky relationships, crafting an old school character for the modern era and the pros and cons of living in the moment.
Nerdist: You guys seem to have fascinations with breakups and relationships. Where does this come from?
Michael Weber: Immaturity.
Scott Neustadter: I think collectively we’ve now gone through a lot more of that. Me more recently and you [Weber] a while back. We seem to have traded lives at one point where you were single for a while and I was in a relationship and then I was single for a while and you’re married.
MW: I have a kid now. I’m not interested in relationships at all. [laughter] The interesting thing about it, I think, is that what movies that are good aren’t about relationships and aren’t about two people figuring it out? I think we sort of always gravitate towards stories about young people having their eyes opened somehow. Be it in a bad relationship where it’s all your fault or if it’s something like this, where it’s a kid at the precipice of adulthood but doesn’t wanna go there and there’s no way to stop it. It’s an interesting thing: when we read the novel, we thought, “this is really cool,” and it’s an opportunity to sort of bring back the teen, young love movies we grew up and liked so much.
N: Yeah, that was one of the things I really enjoyed about this. I think for the last decade or so, we’ve had all these movies that are ostensibly marketed to young adults but are just not relatable. It’s just like, hot kids with werewolves and vampires. This felt like a return to the John Hughes/Cameron Crowe style of movie.
MW: The stuff we love!
SN: Right, and I think it mirrors in some ways the business has changed. Will this play internationally? What’s the trailer gonna look like? How are we gonna market this? We never write like that. When you read a book, it’s like, does it excite us? Do we fall in love with it?
MW: If you tell your story about Oklahoma City. I mean, we talked to a girl and asked, “What’s your favorite teen movie?”
SN: This is amazing. In the library of a high school in Enid, Oklahoma. In the middle of nowhere. And her response?
MW: Harry Potter.
SN: She’s 16. This was three years ago. And that was her favorite movie about teenagers ever. And that was for us, in some ways, that’s why we have to make this. We grew up with all these amazing Cameron Crowe and John Hughes characters and these other movies.
MW: I like to think of it as this: They used to make movies as both the escapist versions where you can have fantastical experiences but also the relatable ones. And the relatable ones are gone. They don’t make them anymore. They don’t exist. And so, in the same way, we were so frustrated with the romantic comedy genre and we were like, let’s just go to town on that. We kind of were like, this is our opportunity.
SN: But it’s nice because, you know, Perks of Being a Wallflower found an audience last year. In a few weeks, we’re about to start shooting The Fault in Our Stars. Obviously, as a book, that’s found a huge audience. So it seems like maybe these kinds of movies are making a comeback.
N: Yeah, I definitely think that there’s some, not pushback per se, but people want something that’s more relatable, more tied to their experiences and I think that you guys accomplished that successfully in Spectacular Now.
MW: Exactly, yeah. That was definitely involved.
SN: Thanks. Really.
N: So with Sutter, I got this sort of post-modern Ferris Bueller vibe where he’s this fun asshole but he gets more called out on his shit than Ferris Bueller ever would.
MW: His influence on his friends, when Ferris Bueller gets his friends to do stuff, it’s always positive. Like crashing the car, even that’s a good thing, right? But we were like, in real life, that’s probably not exactly right.
N: [laughs] No, someone’s life is probably ruined.
MW: So it’s interesting to us to sort of examine the guy who has that sort of charisma and that sort of influence on his friends, but his influence is not necessarily all positive. In the novel and in the script and actually maybe more so than in the movie, his influence on Amy starts to be pretty reprehensible. Starts to have a lot of darker undertones. Shailene is a strong actress and a strong person, and so like her attitude towards the character was a lot more like, “I like him and I’m willing to go up to a point but I won’t go to the disastrous places that the novel does.”
N: Yeah, you can see it come through at the beginning when she’s like “I don’t really drink” and by the end she’s got her own flask and everything.
MW: There’s a DVD extra of one time where she goes overboard. When we all watched it, we were like, “Yeah, no, she wouldn’t go that far.” She’s too smart for that. That was an interesting thing we learned in the process.
N: Were there any challenges in updating a Ferris Buellerian archetype for a 2013 audience?
SN: I don’t think so really. We always try to minimize the amount of computers and technology and texting and all that stuff. Just ‘cause it’s just not that interesting when you’re in a movie theater watching someone in front of a computer screen.
MW: We talked to [director] James [Ponsoldt] about it actually even in the beginning. It’s kind of like, let’s never date this. Let’s make it feel like a time that could be any time, you know? Kids are doing what kids do.
SN: The emotions of the movie are certainly timeless. We’d like to think if you’ve ever been a teenager, you will recognize the emotional complexity of those years.
MW: Had we made this with the studio system, there probably would have been a lot more like “You gotta jazz it up!” or “You got to make it crazy,” or “where’s the scene where he and his friend go and do this thing?”
SN: You’re right, too, because we’ve never had to go for a nuanced thing. That age, things aren’t so black and white. There’s a lot of gray and we never wanna talk down to young people. Everyone’s so savvy, they’ll smell that.
N: Yeah, they’ll know if they’re being marketed to or condescended to.
MW: Another reason why it had to be rated R. And why there had to be alcohol and there has to be this stuff. I mean, it’s not so much kids behaving badly, it’s kids behaving the way they behave. We’re trying our best to not put judgement on it. We’re now older guys, we’re not kids anymore, but we remember what it was like back then. You never listen to the people who tell you not to do something and that’s because you learn more on your own and that’s the approach we took to the whole process.
SN: And at the same time, it’s not really a movie about that stuff. For us, first and foremost, it was always a love story and then just being honest about the things around it.
N: Yeah, I thought you guys were very even-handed in your portrayals of partying and stuff like that. Not glorifying it, it’s just what it is. It’s what happens.
SN: I think that audience would know if it didn’t look right. If everyone’s drinking soda pop, people would say “what is that?”
MW: The point is that we wanted to do a relatable version. You have to go there. You have to do those things.
SN: It was interesting because at one point, when this was a studio movie initially, the studio gave us notes that they wanted things in the party scenes, like “let’s see more things like beer pong” and “let’s see kids doing these crazy antics, wet t-shirts” and those were the studio notes that pushed it to those extreme places. That may or may not be going on, but we’ve seen all that. That’s not what this is about.
N: That’s like the amped up version.
MW: Right. We could’ve used a clip of Project X and just put it in the movie.
N: Yeah, zoom out and they’re watching it on TV. So, the film presents Sutter’s repeated maxim of “live in the moment.” On one hand, it’s cool because if you do live in the moment you get all these incredible experiences and memories and you’re just having these adventures, but you also see how it’s a crutch. It’s a smokescreen. He’s got this drinking problem, he’s got this past…
SN: You sure you haven’t seen the last three minutes of the movie? Because you’re practically quoting some of the voiceover. [laughs]
N: Really? No, I wish. I’m just very intuitive. [laughs] So yeah, I’m wondering if you guys could speak a little bit about that theme and where you guys come down on living in the “now.” Should you? Shouldn’t you? A little of both?
MW: I think there’s a middle ground. There’s definitely a way to live in the moment and appreciate what’s happening to you. At the same time, have an eye towards consequences which this character does not. He’s so wrapped up in what’s going on that it’s an absolute crutch for him to never have to face the consequential actions that come after and whatever. For us, I think we’re advocating being open, appreciating what’s going on but at the same time not closed to the future.
SN: Yeah, I think that’s simply what becoming an adult is finding that balance. There’s a time for everything but it’s never as extreme as it is when you’re a teenager. Your emotions are extreme and your choices are extreme. Becoming an adult is a little more more moderation and a little more balance.
N: Yeah, when you’re a teen, everything is life or death.
MW: Everything. The most dramatic thing, which is fun. That’s why we enjoy those characters. You get away with a little bit of extra drama.
SN: I find it cathartic too. My teenage years were a nightmare. This is nice, kind of having this perspective of looking back now and be a little more relaxed about it.
MW: We also really loved the idea that, you know those kids in high school who knew that high school was the best time? And they were always the lamest. Looking back, it’s always really sad. Sutter’s a character who thinks that this is the greatest time but at the same time knows how pathetic that is, how sad that is, but kind of doesn’t wanna deal with that fact. So there’s an undercurrent all the time, even of living in the moment, that this kid’s not happy. He’s trying his best to be that but he just isn’t. At a certain point, that’s gonna end.
SN: On the flipside, Aimee is a character that knows there’s more to life than high school. She knows that before Sutter comes into her life. She knows that this is the beginning of her journey and not the destination. She knows that the world is a much larger place than this small town. It was great because when Shailene became involved, which really got this movie going, she had picked up on all that before we had even met and talked to her. She always understood that her approach to this was (that) Aimee is the smartest person in this town. That was her sort of mindset for this character which brought it to life more than just sort of.. We’ve all seen that kind of the shy, mousy girl…
N: You don’t want it to be like where she shakes her hair and oh my gosh, it’s this beautiful prom girl. Slow motion-style with the fans blowing and everything.
SN: [laughs] Right.
N: Kyle Chandler’s in it for a little bit, but he was one of my favorite parts of the movie. Sort of like this Ghost of Christmas Future version of Sutter.
SN: Oh, that casting was just so good.
N: Yeah, that was really spot on. Talk about Kyle’s character. He’s supposed to be the end point if Sutter just keeps on the path that he’s on?
SN: Sutter’s built up a mythology. He has some issues with his mom in the beginning and there’s stuff he hasn’t worked out, but his dad is kind of this hero because he’s out of the picture. I think it’s just easier for him to deal with that emotionally with his dad not there that. Yeah, my dad’s a pilot or my dad’s this or that rather than face the harsh truth that his dad just didn’t want to be there. Obviously, that mythology he built up comes crashing down when he finally gets to see his father again.
MW: And Kyle’s whole approach was… I’m going there. This is going to be even more distant and…
SN: There were a couple of lines where he was going to give a little bit more of an explanation and Kyle said on set, “I don’t believe I owe him anything. I made a choice to stay out of my son’s life and I think I’m going too far as if I’m trying to build a bridge that I’m not looking for” and he was right.
MW: We were like, “Coach Taylor, please.” [laughs]
SN: He wanted to take this part and make it more harsh. Which was amazing!
N: I think the line that really did it for me is when they finally show up to his house and he’s just like “Oh, you caught me at a bad time. I was just going to meet some friends. I guess you could come.” It’s such a punch to the gut.
MW: Casting wise, that was something that was always important to us. You want somebody when they open the door, you go “Oh, this could go right. This could be alright.” If you got a different actor, somebody like all, shady and whatever else, you would open the door and be like “Oh, this is not gonna go well.”
N: Fast train to Sadville.
SN: Yeah that’s something where Kyle’s done and helped us out considering his reputation.
MW: And he’s really like that in real life.
SN: He is!
MW: He’s just a really good guy.
N: So I just have one last question for you. What would be inside your ideal burrito?
SN: I am allergic to most foods, so my burrito is always just chicken and white rice and nothing else. Not even any sauces. I like the burrito situation, as long as there’s no beans, no sauces, no condiments, no tomato….
N: So your ideal is something that wouldn’t kill you immediately.
MW: I love burritos. I love chicken burritos but I was just talking about this last week, which is kind of amazing. I’ve become a huge fan of octopus. It’s my girlfriend’s favorite food. An octopus burrito would be amazing.
N: I’ve had some sushi burritos recently from some of the more enterprising taco trucks in the city and they’re pretty good, so I’m down with this idea.
SN: I’m allergic to fish. But you guys keep talking.
N: Yes, I’m sorry. They also have delightful white rice and their tap water is terrific.
SN: Yes, that’s one of my favorite staples.
The Spectacular Now, written by Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter, is in theaters in Los Angeles and New York now, and in select cities on August 9th. You can also keep up with Michael and Scott on Twitter. Did you see the movie? Let us know what you think in the comments below!