Interview: Scott Neustadter

“Write what you know, but also write what you want to know,”says Scott Neustadter, co-writer of the hit movie (500) Days of Summer. “(500) is very much the story of what I didn't know, ‘cause if I knew anything, I might have been able to see what was going on [with the girl I was dating] and not have been so crushed,” he adds. “It's just as fun to write what you're interested in than it is what you already know all about.”

But what happens when someone writes and writes with no script sale in sight and is about to give up? “[Then] read as many scripts as you can,” Neustadter says. “Some are going to be amazing. And those are going to piss you off. Who is this genius? How did he think of that? Why can't I do something that good? For every 50 scripts you read, maybe one will make you feel that way. The other 49 are going to make you feel the opposite. I guarantee it. And if they can do it, why can't we?”

When asked how long (500) Days of Summer took to write, Neustadter says, “It's tough to say. At one point I think we [writing partner Michael Weber and I] had 150 pages, and I realized we were still in act one.”

TSL:  That’s actually very comforting to hear! I think when unproduced writers find out about an overnight success like (500), they assume the writer wrote a perfect movie right out of the gate, act breaks perfectly placed, no foibles.

SN:  We had no idea where we were going. There was the structure that I knew was distinctive and would keep people interested. Then there were the characters which were – ahem – people I knew and could write about ad nauseam. But that was it, really. Some funny things, some really depressing things, not a very plot-heavy story, and absolutely no ending in sight. I put it down for a while.

TSL:  And…?

SN:  Then, as often happens, reality provided me with my ending and in so doing made me realize what this thing was about in the first place. That was probably eight months later. At which point, it took maybe three weeks to redo the whole thing into something I thought maybe wasn't terrible. Then, of course, I refused to let anyone see it for another few months ‘cause it was a little too personal to share.

TSL:  Again, I think a lot of us can relate – to the refusing-to-let-anyone-see-it part, not necessarily the Summer part.I know you have done many interviews on how autobiographical(500) was for you. Did this get you into trouble with anyone?

SN:  I think so – though I haven't spoken to her since the movie came out. The day after its release, I was defriended on Facebook.

TSL:  And the idea for (500) began years before you moved to L.A., correct? What led from wanting to write to writing?

SN:  I was writing things down – lines of dialogue, random ideas – ever since I can remember. I wrote the first acts of all sorts of things I never got around to finishing. Writing was something I always wanted to do, but never thought I was good at nor was it a very practical way to make a living. But I had to do something with movies, so I went into development.

TSL:  And before that, you interned a lot, yes?

SN:  In college, [at] all sorts of places – an agency, a few production companies. I was terrible at photocopying and stapling, but I wound up being pretty decent at doing coverage… I could read really fast and usually identify not just what was good or bad, but what would work and what would sell – which I quickly learned was what execs want to know with these things…

When I graduated, I was actually hired full-time in New York as a story editor. I never had to be an assistant or work my way up that way – which was a hugely fortunate break. And one of the things I was in charge of at the company was hiring interns, which is where I met Weber. 

TSL:  And you quit and start writing together?

SN:  [Well,] where the story gets interesting is four years later. I had been promoted and was doing okay, but I began to get antsy. Weber and I had already tried writing one script just for the hell of it, a very silly comedy called Suck the Marrow (which was more like an extended episode of Family Guy than an actual script, but whatever). That experience solidified the notion for me that I was going to be way happier writing than I ever would be doing development.

But again, without any confidence in my abilities and with no faith in the writing life panning out (and zero desire to move to the dreaded Los Angeles, which was just so terrifying to me), I wound up quitting the business entirely and going to the London School of Economics. 

TSL:  Wow!

SN:  The craziest thing happened there – I found what I wanted to write about – and that's where (500) began. 

TSL:  So all an aspiring writer has to do is move thousands of miles away for inspiration. I’m sold! But you didn’t stay in London…

SN:  The script was half-finished when my graduate program ended and with no place else to go, I wound up taking the plunge and coming to L.A. Like everyone, I needed a job and I was fortunate again to find a pretty amazing one – working on the desk of a very big-time executive at CBS. It took that person only a few weeks to sniff out that I had never been an assistant before and that I was (and remain) a tremendously unresourceful person.

I was out of a job right soon after that and wound up getting a similar one at Dreamworks in their TV department. This time I lasted a full year, but my God was I bad at that assistant thing. Plus, I hated it so much that I realized there was only one way I was going to survive in this city without a complete nervous breakdown – and that was to show some people that script we'd been working on. 

TSL:  Maybe this is an overnight success story, after all…

SN:  (500) didn't sell for a rather long time. Though it was the script that got us our representation, it ended up being the fourth script our representatives took out to the town. The first was that comedy extravaganza Suck the Marrow, which no one bought, but people liked enough to make our reps think we should probably not follow it up with some bizarre, out-of-sequence, low budget, autobiographical romantic dramedy.

TSL:  Hah.

SN:  We wound up selling a pitch first, then [got] a second comedy script [optioned], and only then – maybe a year-and-a-half later – did anyone read (500). Which again, lots of people liked, no one bought, and it sat around for another six months until Mason Novick and Jessica Tuchinsky convinced Fox Searchlight to take a chance on it. 

TSL:  So all the perseverance paid off. And to think you could be teaching economics in England right now! (Beat.) I know there is no magic formula, but what is your and Michael’s work environment like?

SN:  Even when I lived in New York, the two of us would never write in the same room. He still lives there and I live in California, but it works the same as it always has. Lots of phone calls and emails in the beginning stages. We throw out a lot of ideas, see what sticks, get them organized. Once there's a list of scenes in a relatively clean order, we divide them up, email them back and forth. I take control of the Final Draft document, make sure it all reads like one voice, and then send him back something to read. Then we talk on the phone again, gather our thoughts, make changes, and pray.

TSL:  How do you think having a writer partner helps?

SN:  In the case of (500) – actually in the case of everything with me – having a writing partner keeps my pinky off the delete button. I tend to erase everything I write to the point where I'll delete entire scenes and, on one or two occasions, entire files… But having a writing partner reduces that impulse – at least somewhat. It also can help you find avenues to explore when you think you've hit walls. Which is invaluable.

TSL:  Do you prefer to write something you create versus something you are hired to write?

SN:  I love writing. I love that I get to do this as a job. So the goal for me is to keep it going for as long as I'm allowed. Hopefully, that will include some more very personal things as well as delivering movies for studios and producers. We've adapted some books, we've written specs, we've done some rewrites – it's all really challenging but really satisfying, regardless of the source.

TSL:  What will we see next from you and Michael?

SN:  You never know what will actually get made, but there's a handful of things we're excited about in various stages of development. We wrote another upside-down relationship story called Underage that we're really proud of. We adapted a really great dark book by Tim Tharp called The Spectacular Now, which is sort of like Ferris Bueller meets Sideways. We just turned in a project to Fox 2000 called Rosaline, which is the story of Romeo and Juliet – as told by the girl Romeo was seeing right before [her] – and, yes, it's set in 16th-century Verona. And now we're working on a relationship comedy for Sony that was inspired by the recent Royal Wedding, which is really fun.

TSL:  I like the story of how you met your wife, Lauren, especially given your – I mean Tom’s – journey in (500). Would you mind retelling it, just to give all the cynical "I-hate-dating-in-L.A." types hope?

SN:  Oh, boy. When she tells it, it's very different, but my version is this. It's four years ago. Lauren is working at Miramax when I come in for a general meeting. Nothing happens. I don't know why. Her supreme professional acumen must have blinded her from my usually super human adorableness. Who knows.

Afterwards, I sent her and her male colleague an email saying "Thanks, great to meet you, let’s do it again soon!" – which was my uber-lame attempt to get her to write me back and open the door a little. But as always happens to me, the male colleague writes me back – and Lauren never does. So I give up. (I know, I know, I'm awesome.)

Six months later, I run into her at a party and at 3 a.m., when she's less professional, she sends me the email I had been waiting for all this time. And we just got married [last] October.

TSL:  Aww. And any final non-dating advice you would give someone?

SN:  I used to be so terrified of L.A., truly frightened by the whole idea of it. The L.A. in my head was so cut-throat and douchey and filled with bad people doing horrible things that, although I longed to work in the movie business, I avoided this city till I was 27 years old. Turns out there are some of those people here, sure, but there's some of those people everywhere.

There's some great people here, too, and a lot of them even work in the movie business. So if I had any more advice, I'd say don't be afraid. L.A. people are no different than other people. They want to do good stuff with good folks, so if you have any and/or you are one, I really think you'll be fine. Sorry to sound all Garrison Keillor there for a second, but I really believe that and kinda wish someone had told me [that] when I was 20.