How ‘Paper Towns’ Screenwriters Got John Green’s Blessing to Make His Bestseller ‘More of a Fun Ride’

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also adapted the author’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” tell TheWrap, “The barometer for this one was: pare back on the darkness”

Last Updated: July 24, 2015 @ 7:12 PM

For a couple of East Coast guys in their late 30s, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have become the go-to writers of young-adult cinema.

Fresh off their adaptation of last year’s sleeper hit “The Fault in Our Stars,” which grossed a whopping $124.9 million domestically based on a $12 million budget, the pair tackled a second adaptation of a John Green bestseller, “Paper Towns.”

The new film, which hits theaters Friday, stars “Fault” supporting player Nat Wolff as a young man who joins his friends on road trip to seek out the missing girl next door (Cara Delevingne).

Neustadter and Weber, who first met as employees at New York-based Tribeca Productions in 1999, have long had an affection for teen movies. The longtime collaborators first scored with the 2009 Zooey Deschanel-Joseph Gordon-Levitt indie “(500) Days of Summer,” then followed with scripts for “Pink Panther 2” and “The Spectacular Now” (starring future “Fault” star Shailene Woodley).

TheWrap talked to the duo about why they decided to do a second Green adaptation, how they risked alienating the author’s rabid fan base with a darker take on the material and when they knew Delevingne had nailed the lead female role, Margo.

TheWrap: Why did you guys decide to adapt “The Fault in Our Stars” in the first place?
Michael H. Weber: We fell in love with the books, same as everyone else.

Scott Neustadter: Yeah, that’s definitely the short answer. I was not that familiar with John Green. I actually read that book in the aftermath of my dad passing from cancer, so it was just really an amazing thing to kind of read and process and we were like, “What can we do to get the opportunity to adapt it?” And at the time, it had just come out and it hadn’t really become the juggernaut it was going to become, and we were very fortunate to get the job.

A lot of people were after it because it was such a great novel … so when they sent us “Paper Towns” initially, we started out with a little bit of trepidation because the theme of “Paper Towns” and the theme of “(500) Days of Summer” are kind of similar. It’s about a guy discovering at the end that the answers aren’t going to lie in another person — you’ve got to find them within yourself.

So we weren’t sure whether we were going to have the bandwidth to crack that theme in two different, distinctive ways. But the more we thought about it, and the more we enjoyed working with John and Nat [Wolff] especially, it was just sort of fun to say, “You know what? Let’s take this on and let’s see how we do.”

Weber: I’ll add, “Paper Towns” is actually the first time we’ve written anything with an actor already in place. Fox decided that they loved Nat’s work in “Fault in Our Stars,” so when we heard that they were building “Paper Towns” around him, that obviously got us really excited because he’s so talented and the sky is the limit.

The book of “Paper Towns,” it’s a much trickier adaptation than “Fault in Our Stars” — our job was made a lot easier knowing that Nat can handle the comedy, but that he can [also] get there with the emotional stuff.

When you were writing the screenplay, did you envision Cara [Delevingne] as Margo?
Weber: I actually wasn’t that familiar with Cara. I knew her as a model. I did not know her as an actress or even her personality, but when she came along and auditioned, it was so clear that she was Margo. She had those qualities.

So you were there during the auditions? Were you pretty hands-on in the production?
Weber: We were not in the audition room, but — it’s nice when you worked with the same producer a few times in a row — we get to watch all that stuff. I’m not sure whether we have a say, but we certainly were involved in the conversation.

Is there anything about “Paper Towns” that really stuck out to you? Was it the story line or the character?
Neustadter: For me personally, and I think for both of us, what was really exciting about it in addition to the theme of “(500) Days of Summer” was the idea of a love letter to your childhood friend. The way in which you make best friends when you’re a kid and love things when you’re younger. I don’t think everybody appreciates that while they are going through it.

So it was really exciting to write something that ultimately double-backed around to appreciating this specific moment in time that doesn’t last forever.

How far does the screenplay veer away from the book?
Weber: We had to make more changes with “Paper Towns” than with “Fault in Our Stars.” I don’t think we could’ve adapted “Paper Towns” as our first John Green endeavor; we needed the trunk and the levels of communication that were built up after “Fault in Our Stars.”

We could lean on John and say, “Let’s talk about this idea we have for a change.” It’s not because things weren’t working so much in the book, but if you shot the book, it would be a seven-hour movie. There’s always things that have to be condensed, and you have to know when to lower the curtain … It was nice to be able to turn to John and get his blessing for the changes we were making.

Neustadter: The novel of “Paper Towns” has a lot of different tones to it. And you can do that in a book … you can have something that’s really dark and then you can have a hilarious sequence. And this works in literature but it doesn’t work in film; you kind of have to stick to a consistent, specific tone throughout.

As a result, we had to pare back a few of the darker themes of the book. The barometer for this one was: pare back on the darkness and make it more like a fun ride throughout. John was on board, and hopefully the audience will appreciate this decision.

How long did the screenplay take to write?
Michael: We never write a draft that takes longer than three weeks. “Fault in Our Stars” was the rare outlier where we wrote it in less than one week. There was a lot more heavy lifting that had to go into this one, but it probably took maybe three. It was written certainly over a year ago.

Scott: We were writing it around when “Fault in Our Stars” first came out — we had just started.