Chatting With “The Spectacular Now” Writers And Director


The coming-of-age teen movie many of us remember from the 80s and early 90s has been replaced by blood sucking vampires and werewolves, at least that’s what writers Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter will say if you ask them about the genre. And to a large extent they are right, realism has all but disappeared in teen films.  Young audiences today have to try to relate to orphaned sorcerers, vampires with identity crisis’s, and teenagers attempting to survive gladiator style fights to the death.

While these movies all have their place in cinema, some filmmakers in Hollywood want to show us what growing up is really like. Enter writers Weber and Neustadter, the duo who co-wrote 2009’s “500 Days of Summer.” A few years ago they decided to adapt a popular young adult novel they thought would resonate with audiences. That book was Tim Tharp’s “The Spectacular Now,” about popular high school student Sutter’s (Miles Teller) struggle with alcoholism and the idea of growing up and the relationship he develops with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a smart but somewhat naïve idealist. To them it was the perfect coming of age story, but getting it made was not easy. There were various struggles and a couple of director changing along the way to getting “The Spectacular Now,” made.

Weber and Neustadter’s script eventually found its home in the hands of director James Ponsoldt, who recently had success with the film “Smashed.” The three worked together to make a great film and “The Spectacular Now,” has been leaving an impact on critics and audiences across the country. Originally debuting at Sundance in January, the film worked it’s way to wide release this August and the reviews have been nothing but positive.

We sat down with Weber, Neustadter, and Ponsoldt not too long ago and talked to them about the film and all the obstacles they faced while trying to get it made.

Q. What do you think about the main characters, I mean Shailene and Miles, do you like them? 

A. (Michael) Oh they’re amazing, I mean just a moment ago we were all just sort of clowning around.

(Scott) I don’t know about that Miles guy.

(Michael) No Miles walked into the room the first time we met him and just has that natural charisma that I mean… he IS that kid. That just within five minutes he wants to know everything about you, he wants to know where you’re from, he makes friends everywhere he goes. At the same time he’s very likeable and emotionally vulnerable there too as you start to talk to him and get beneath that… and that’s that balance that we were looking for in that character. He’s not just some party guy, there’s really some depth there as well, he’s been through some things.

(Scott) And I think in this particular movie, if you’re one degree off with either one of those people actor-wise, the whole thing collapses. I mean it’s a really tricky kind of part to play, because he’s likeable but at the same time he’s got this dark sort of undercurrent that’s happening and he’s certainly up to no good for most of the movie and yet you kind of need somebody that you’re pulling for and the wrong actor, especially in that part especially I think, ruins this whole movie.

(Michael) And we love Shailene. We’re about to start shooting, Aug. 26, ‘The Fault in Our Stars,’ the adaptation of John Greene’s book that we fell in love with and we wrote that before we even met Shailene. And she read the script before she even read the book and she would kind of joke around on set in Athens during “Spectacular Now,” ‘I’m only doing this movie so you’ll put me in ‘Fault in Our Stars’ and we would say every time ‘we have no say over that. That’s not up to us,’ but she was just joking with us last week she said, ‘do actors ever have a first look deal with writers?’ we’re like ‘no, but we’ll just all keep working together.’

(Scott) The answer is yes. Here’s the contract.

(Michael) We just all seem to like the same kinds of stories and care about the same kinds of characters and even though she’s younger than us just be sort of like-minded about those things. We’d love to keep working with both of them.

(Scott) She’s very mature and we’re very immature

(Michael) Yeah that’s probably it.

Q. When you’re writing an adapted story about first love do you guys feel like the old dudes looking back on ancient history or do you take some of that self proclaimed immaturity and feel like you’re right there? 

(Scott) We should right, it’s so sad that we feel like we’re right there still. I have a kid now, I should not be thinking about young love and young romance. Five hundred was an autobiography; it was just me whining about my girlfriend situation. And this was very much someone else’s story, a relationship that we related to. I don’t think I’ve had this kind of relationship, but if anything I was more the girl than the guy in this situation, but yeah I think that we’re always intrigued by these kinds of stories and these relationships. They’re all more so than romances, they’re coming of age stories, somebody opening your eyes to who you are or who you thought you were isn’t necessarily true. It’s somebody shining a mirror and saying “did you see yourself this way” because it’s different maybe than the truth and we love that stuff and it’s just something that we kind of always gravitate towards.

(Michael) I’m not married and I’m still trying to figure a lot of it out and I think we’ve noticed over the years… we could sit around in this room right now and turn these things off and probably all tell our relationship war stories and odds are they’ll be funnier, more relatable, more interesting than a lot of what you’re seeing in theaters and again it always goes back to us to us just coming at it from a real place, what would really happen.

  Q. I was just wondering when you were adapting the book, because arguably the end of the book was much darker, so when you approached it, what was that decision to change the ending?

(Michael) The ending of the book is really bleak.

(Scott) We were always going to do that. I think every time we try to get an ending right on something we’re doing it’s never a happy ending, hopefully it’s more of a hopeful ending with a little bit of promise, but certainly not going to connect all the dots. ‘The Graduate’ being a big influence on me as a kid, I really loved the ambiguous ending that gets you talking about it in the theater and so for us we wanted to end this without spoiling anything, with more of a possibility than anything else, but we talked forever about what should the last shot be of the movie. Everyone’s seen it I guess. The last shot; this whole time we’ve been on Sutter’s train, we’ve been in his head, he’s been telling the story and everything has been kind of influenced by his behavior and his actions. The last shot of the movie, and we really spent a lot of time talking about it… hours, is on Shailene, it’s on Amy, and now it’s kind of like there’s a paradigm shift where whatever happens going forward ball’s in her court now, it’s up to her and we don’t know what she’s going to do. I think a lot of people in the theater will hope she tells him to get the F out and then other people are going to say maybe (cause that’s the backbone I think is missing from a lot of the movie that you want her to have), but then there’s the possibility that he’s fixed and he’s going to prove himself to her, but it’s always up to her and that’s something that we really loved. When we talked to Tim Thorpe, the author we told him we were going to change his ending, he thought we were joking and laughed and I said no actually we’re really going to do some stuff there. His whole thing I guess was just like ‘don’t make it a wedding where they ride off into the sunset, figure out something else.’

(Michael) But he was ultimately really supportive and we’ve been lucky to work with, obviously John Greene right now on “Fault in Our Stars” and some other really great authors who’ve been supportive. And I think we try to be very respectful, it’s their baby first. It’s a little different with the adaptations, we’re sort of the custodians of the project for a little bit, but I mean it started with their idea and their inspiration and we certainly want their blessing and them to feel like they’re a part of it cause we’ve heard horror stories of the book is taken away and changed or it just doesn’t’ feel like the thing that they did and put so much into. So you know, we want them feeling good about it as well. It kind of belongs to all of us.

Q. Now I know that you guys have talked about how teens nowadays don’t really watch the kinds of movie that you grew up with, in the screenings that you have had were there a lot of teenagers and what was their reaction to the film?  

A.  (Michael) It’s been largely positive, it’s been nice. The difference in the audiences depending on where we screen it is sort of a lot of what they ask about, but the young audiences that we’ve shown it to have really responded in the way that we were hoping so far, we’ll see what happens when it gets to a larger audience.

(Scott) We were location scouting in Oklahoma

(Michael) Oh yeah

(Scott) and uh…

(Michael) We’re in the middle of nowhere; I mean it’s two hours outside of Oklahoma City

(Scott) yeah, there was a girl working in the library, a student librarian I guess and we were looking at the high school to see if we would shoot here and our whole thing was that they used to make these movies in two ways, there was the escapist versions and then there were the relatable ones. There’s like the “Back to the Future” which is about a high school kid who has this amazing experience and you can’t really relate to it, but it’s amazing and then there are the ones that are more relatable. The sort of John Cusack ones like “Say Anything” as a great example and so we said to this girl, (because they only make the escapist ones now, they don’t make the other kind) and we said, “What’s your favorite high school movie that you’ve ever seen?” And her response was “Harry Potter.” And we never though of that, it was like “really that’s what they think of as high school movies, alright, great.”

(Michael) That was about three years ago and we felt emboldened there, like okay we have to get this movie made.

(Scott) We still don’t’ know if it’ll work. We don’t know if there is as much of a hunger for that kind of thing as we thought, but we hope so.

Click below to see photos from the L.A. premiere of “The Spectacular Now”

Photography by Rosemary Vega

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