TSL Meets with Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber

By January 7, 2015Screenwriting 101

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have penned scripts such as (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars – all screenplays that depict genuine coming-of-age in highly realistic environments. Their onscreen characters (and stories) tackle relationships with an honesty other dramatic screenplays only cover halfway. 

I got a chance to talk with both Scott and Michael about their process, the stories they enjoy telling and some of their inspirations as screenwriters. 

 

JB: What initially piqued your interest in screenwriting / storytelling? What attracted you to the medium of screen storytelling?

Weber: If making your friends laugh counts as storytelling then I'd like to think I've been doing it all my life. Otherwise, I didn't try my hand at screenwriting until I studied TV, Radio & Film at the Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. Of particular influence were the classes of Professor Evan Smith, who had recent experience in Hollywood and was candid about the ups & downs of his career. Meanwhile my almost nonexistent social life meant I had time to watch 3-4 movies per day, really any VHS tapes I could get my hands on. Essentially I was living in a bubble:  studying writing and the business of film by day while devouring movies all night.  Attempting screenwriting was a natural progression from there.

JB: Was there any specific film, screenwriter or filmmaker who inspired you? If so, how?

Neustadter: Oh man, way too many to mention. Music and movies were all I ever cared about from a very young age. Some kids were into baseball players and WWF wrestlers, I was obsessed with filmmakers and musicians and thats it. Initially it was John Hughes, Spielberg, Zemeckis – the biggies. And then when I was 12, I got mono and missed four months of 7th grade. Every morning I would give my mom a list of names – Scorsese, Hitchcock, Wilder, Sturges – names that kept coming up over and over in everything I read about “cinema.” She would go to the local video store and bring home whatever they had by the names on my list (which was not much in my small town). Woody Allen was a revelation. We paid some serious late fees on those rentals. The Godfather, Butch Cassidy and The Sting were knockouts. And then the following Summer my grandmother took me to see a matinee of Dead Poets Society and I made up my mind in the parking lot afterwards that I would go into the movie business (somehow!?). But the be-all/end-all movie inspiration of my life is and always will be The Graduate which I saw was when I was 17 and have subsequently found sneaking its way into every creative thought I’ve ever had.

JB: As a screenwriter, do you mind going into detail about your process, from start to finish? The entire A-Z is different for every writer, but are there any specific takeaways you might have for our readers that can help them get their story fully onto paper?

Weber: Outline. Outline. Outline.

Oh you need more of an answer? Well, before Scott and I do anything, we have to live with the idea. An original idea needs time to percolate. Eventually an email conversation starts in which we bounce macro & micro thoughts off each other. If we're working on an adaptation we take apart the book – literally, our copies are in shambles; figuratively, we come to understand everything about the book. What is the story about? What choices did the author make to service the big ideas? Do all the pieces fit? This process of dissecting the book is crucial to our understanding of what to keep from the book and what requires invention on our part. Gradually our lengthy emails take the shape of a rough outline. What emerges are bedrock pieces of story, character and theme. There are always holes and questions. We continue emailing, usually many times a day, until we've smoothed over these rough patches. The seemingly finished outline is read and re-read dozens of times, as we apply different lenses to it:  Is the story tracking? Is it funny? Do we care? Will anyone else care? This is why the outline is so crucial; any macro problems must be diagnosed and addressed before writing starts.

Thorough outlining has another benefit: when writing starts it usually goes very quickly. We divide up small batches of scenes, maybe a day or two of work. We write separately – we don't even live on the same coast – and then email completed scenes to each other. We read, edit, make suggestions – although usually Scott will edit me and I will carefully suggest edits to him. Gradually it becomes one voice. Completed scenes are plugged into a master document that is sent back and forth. The script-in-progress is constantly re-read and tweaked along the way as new scenes are added. Naturally the 1st act is quite polished by the time we're writing the 3rd act.

Once we have a completed draft we then read the entire script, applying the same scrutiny and various lenses we did to the outline: Is the story tracking? Is it funny? Will anyone care? Are the big ideas coming across? And so on.

Ideally we are more critical of our work than anyone else will be.  The goal is to have a first draft that is more polished than the average first draft.

 

JB: Do you have any industry advice? As in, you’ve penned a solid spec, but where did you take it from there? How do you get a good story into the hands of someone who can A) give good feedback and B) help get your screenplay optioned and/or made?

Neustadter: A and B are often two different spheres of people though, aren’t they? To find someone who can give good feedback, all you need are like-minded people who love movies and love to read. Pick five friends, give them the script, tell them to be as brutally honest as possible, have them over for dinner one night to talk about it. The best notes come from those kinds of casual conversations.

As for those who can help get your script bought/made, different story. It’s an arduous task but not impossible. Producers really do want to find great scripts and they don’t care where it comes from. There are resources like The Black List that didn’t exist when we were coming up and they can be enormously helpful. I also think it helps to be physically in Los Angeles – two months in you’ll know someone whose roommate has a cousin who works as an assistant to a lit agent etc. Don’t underestimate the power of that person. You don’t have to know the agent (who is going to give it to her assistant to read anyway). The assistant too can only benefit from finding and bringing in a great script no one’s yet seen. Just remember, you don't get too many chances to call in that favor so make sure it’s really ready before you ask for the hook up.

JB: What was the first screenplay you optioned?

Weber: The first screenplay of ours to be optioned was (500) Days of Summer. (It was written in the summer of 2004 but not optioned until mid 2006.) While it was our first script to be optioned, our first paid writing experience was a movie pitch we sold to Fox in early 2006, called Starfish. Essentially a male version of Sliding Doors – we had no idea what we were doing but Fox liked the idea. It was a huge opportunity for us: in the baby steps of a career we'd moved from writers with some samples that people seemed to like (but no one optioned)… to actual working writers. (500) Days of Summer failed as a spec before Starfish – and then was optioned once the perception of us had changed – despite the fact that not a word in (500) Days was different.

JB: TSL puts emphasis on the combination of structuralism and creative story. How do you find balance between these two things? Is structure vital to a spec screenwriter?

Neustadter: We are total structure dorks – but not in the “Save the Cat” this has to happen on page 9 or everything’s broken sort of way. (No disrespect to that book which I’ve never read – maybe it’s great.) Between the two of us, we’ve seen enough movies and read enough scripts to know if something feels off – is this too late for them to meet, is it a bit too early for this to happen, etc. The structures we love are the ones that acknowledge the rules, that obviously know the rules, but choose to fuck with them anyway. Annie Hall. Adaptation. Princess Bride, Spinal Tap, to name but a few. 500 Days was inspired by how structurally conventional this genre had become. We wanted to kick its ass a little bit.

JB: Of the screenplays you’ve written, what has been the dearest to your heart? Why?

Neustadter: That’s an easy one, at least, for me to answer. We try to connect emotionally with the characters in everything we write but, with 500, well that was almost pure autobiography. It was written on the heels of a bad car crash flame-out of a relationship and was more therapy than screenplay for a really long time. Cut to several years later and we’d be on set and they’re building a replica of the childhood bedroom where I first saw The Graduate. What a crazy dream come true.

Not to mention, it was written at a time when neither of us were even aspiring screenwriters. We were just two kids trying to figure what we were gonna do with ourselves when the time came and we had to decide. No one was ever gonna read it but our friends. There were no expectations. And really, we just got lucky. The right filmmaker, the right cast, the right producers and studio. Everything clicked. I even met my wife as a result of it. I can’t imagine anything ever being dearer to my heart than that.

 

JB: Do you have any advice on getting motivated to write? Are there any tips/tricks to make sure you write “X” amount each day?

Weber: If you require help getting motivated than screenwriting might not be for you! The business is extremely competitive. I like to remind myself of that: when I'm not writing… someone else is. I have no control over how someone reads our work or what they think of it. I have no control over if it gets purchased or put into production. The only thing I control is how much time I spend writing. If you want this to be your job then treat it like a job. Write until you feel like you've done your job. Nobody goes to work for 2 hours a day.

JB: What do you look for in a story when in the initial creation phase? Basically, what stories and characters stick so well that you feel you have to write them?

Weber: No matter the type of project, original or adaptation, there are a handful of important questions we ask ourselves, and each other, during the initial creation phase.

The first is a simple question: would we go see this movie? Because we're fans first and writers second. We love going to the movies. The effort required to get a movie made is too enormous for it to not be a movie we'd be excited to see on opening weekend.

Next come a trio of related questions: what is this story about? Do we care? And does it feel real to us? We take pride in our strong radar for what we like to call "fake-y Hollywood bullshit." The big ideas, the narrative drive, the characters – who they are and what they want – it must start from a place of honesty. That's how we know it will connect with an audience.

Lastly: has anyone done this before? If so, how is this version different?

On the surface these questions seem pretty basic. Yet we reject 1000 ideas for every 1 that passes muster.

10. Is there one single “strongest point” of a screenplay? (ie. Characters, plot, etc.)

Neustadter: I don’t know who said it, Coppola maybe, but somebody said the first ten pages of the script and the last ten minutes of the movie, are far and away the most important. Completely true, especially if you’re new at this and the people reading your stuff are also reading ten other screenplays that night. You’ve gotta give them a reason to keep going and the best reason is – they’re interested. They want to see where it’s going. If you haven’t hooked them ten pages in, it’s unlikely they’ll make it much further.

 

Bonus Questions

JB: Are there other screenwriters out there working today that your admire?

Weber: There are too many to list. And every year there are more new, exciting voices. It's inspiring.

JB: What are some of your favorite films / screenplays?

Neustadter: The Graduate, Annie Hall, Dead Poets Society, Stop Making Sense, Day for Night, This is Spinal Tap, Quiz Show, Princess Bride, Fucking Amal, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Goodfellas, Back to the Future, Band of Outsiders, Almost Famous, L’Ultimo Bacio, Blazing Saddles, The Godfather, Rushmore, Field of Dreams, Airplane, Butch Cassidy, A Hard Day’s Night, Hoosiers, Plein Soleil, Cool Hand Luke, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Silence of the Lambs, Remains of the Day… I could go on.

Weber: Films I watch over and over again include Chinatown, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Point Blank, Almost Famous, Back To The Future, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. The best screenplay I've ever read is Adaptation – it's even better than the film.

JB: What are some of your favorite genres? Other than what you write.

Weber: My favorite genre: GOOD movies. Maybe that's not actually a genre but I don't care. I'd watch a period sci-fi silent rom-com if it's good.

 

Trailer Credits: Fox Searchlight, 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate and A24

Photo: GeekNation