You’ve more than likely seen a movie that Scott Neustadter wrote. “500 Days of Summer?” That was one of his first scripts. Those John Green adaptations? He wrote those. An Oscar-nominated film with James Franco? Yep, that one too. Here’s a clip of his film before we dive in:
“The Disaster Artist” and “The Fault in Our Stars” scribe sat down with The Script Lab to talk about his journey, explain why “500 Days of Summer” didn’t get made right away, and give some advice for up-and-coming screenwriters.
Here are six takeaways from our conversation with screenwriter Scott Neustadter:
Read All The Things
This is tried and true advice, but it bears repeating. When Neustadter started in the entertainment industry, he worked in development and read a lot of scripts. He wasn’t a film school grad, nor had he any experience with screenwriting, so all of those scripts he read for work became his instruction manuals. Reading scripts — wherever and however you can get your hands on them — is a bit like osmosis. Just by reading, you become a better writer. You learn what works on the page and what doesn’t, how a well-paced script feels and looks on the page and, most importantly, what pitfalls to avoid.
Embrace The Weird
Neustadter readily admits that “500 Days of Summer” was a weird script. Even so, he and his writing partner, Michael Weber, stuck by it. Instead of hiding their “weird” script away, they stood by it. Eventually someone paid attention.
If your script is weird… that’s okay. It might even work to your benefit in unexpected ways.
Keep Yourself In Check
“It’s important to know what you want to sound like and what stories you want to tell,” says Neustadter. He goes on to add: “But it’s important to know that this is a business.”
Neustadter told a story about when he and his writing partner were offered a job writing the sequel to “The Pink Panther.” Initially they turned it down. That is… until their agent reminded them that they were trying to make it as professional writers.
This is a key lesson for all writers to learn. You have to stay true to your voice and tell stories you’re passionate about, but you also have to pay the bills. Sometimes that means taking an opportunity you’re not over-the-top excited about and making it your own.
Be A Cook
Screenwriting is a collaborative medium. Neustadter shared: “There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen.” And you, as a screenwriter, must be open to that collaboration.
Whether that collaboration takes the form of edits from a writing partner, suggestions from an agent, or notes from an executive, it’s best to keep an open mind about the process. “There are no good guys and bad guys in this,” Neustadter says. “[We] hopefully want the same thing, which is the best possible piece of material.” Keeping with his metaphor — if another chef can help make the meal better, don’t be the cook who turns up his or her nose and continues to make a mediocre meal.
Break The Rules The Right Way
Neustadter knows from his days in development that executives (and their assistants) don’t often read scripts in their entirety. The sheer volume of scripts that end up on their desks makes that impossible. With this in mind, the screenwriter’s goal is to get the reader’s attention… and Neustadter is a firm believer that, if you can break the rules the right way to do that, go right ahead.
“If you can do something innovative that will get them to keep reading, that’s a really good tool. [But] if you do it incorrectly, it will give them an excuse to stop reading quicker.”
It’s a thin line, but one that an innovative screenwriter will walk carefully to further their professional writing career. Just don’t forget crucial things like formatting, grammar, and punctuation along the way.
Don’t Be The “Next”
Executives in Hollywood are always looking to greenlight the next “Avengers” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Fill In The Blank Movie Franchise Here.” Whenever something does well at the box office, Hollywood clamors to repeat the success. But that doesn’t mean you should try to write the “next” anything. In fact, it’s far better to be original than to attempt to anticipate industry trends (and probably fail). As Neustadter says: “It’s so much more exciting and interesting to blaze a trail than follow a trend.”
Related blog post: TSL Meets with Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.