John Green Was Dubious a ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ Movie Could Work, Then He Met Hannah Marks

The filmmaker’s pitch changed his mind — then the film’s long journey to the screen really began

Best-selling author John Green wasn’t sure that one of his most personal novels, “Turtles All the Way Down,” could be accurately transferred from page to screen — especially in a way that would represent anxiety and OCD well.

The book, released in 2017 after Green’s rocket to fame following books (and adaptations) “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Paper Towns,” follows a character named Aza (Isabella Merced) who struggles with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), which manifests in spirals that take her out of the present.

“The experience is so internal. It’s so nonvisual,” Green told TheWrap. “It’s so much about abstractions that occur way down within the confines of the individual self. That’s hard enough to do in a book. It’s really, really difficult to do in a movie and to make that stuff visual. So I was a little dubious from the beginning.”

Director Hannah Marks eased his doubts.

“From my perspective, the next experience was being in a room with Hannah, who at the time I think was 23 and seeing this very young person make an extraordinarily compelling pitch about how, in fact, it could be visual and there are ways to communicate the truth of a mental health experience without relying upon stigma or romanticization,” he continued. “And from that moment, I was like, ‘Okay, I really want this movie to happen because I want Hannah to direct it.’”

The journey to the screen was complicated — the adaptation was originally set up at Fox before being released and nabbed by New Line, who is now releasing the film as a Max streaming original on May 2.

Green and Marks spoke to TheWrap about that journey, their cameos in the film and why Green’s personal struggle with OCD informed his hopeful approach to this particular story.

Can you talk me through the adaptation’s journey to the screen? I know there were a lot of twists and turns.

Green: The movie was at initially at Fox and then Fox was bought by Disney and then in that process, it was decided that they, I think generously, released the movie and allowed us to develop it at Warner Brothers with New Line. Hannah had a movie in the middle of all that that she that she got to make, and we didn’t want to make it with somebody other than Hannah so we had to wait for Hannah to be done with that movie.

Marks: I think it’s just a miracle that it survived all of that and that it survived, you know, multiple billion dollar corporate mergers. And I think that speaks to how important the story was that nobody wanted to give up on it.

Could you go into more specifics of the pitch, Hannah, and what stood out to you, John?

Marks: I was incredibly nervous. It was my first time ever interviewing for a director job. So I was really nervous. And the thing that kept me sane was remembering that Aza has a lot of those feelings too so maybe I’m just channeling the character and it’ll fuel my work. I wanted to over prepare and read the book over and over again, and my pitch included a presentation and a speech of why I connected to it, but also a fake trailer. I’m not an editor or anything, but I did my best to create my own trailer, which I thought would represent the tone of the story and the heart of it and also have easter eggs from the book, because I really was approaching it from a fan’s perspective. I was lucky enough that you know, that early in my career as a director, John was willing to advocate for me.

Green: And I think what what struck me was that it was so well done. I felt like I was seeing visually my experience of obsessive thoughts spirals for the first time. I’d never seen somebody capture the experience, not through metaphor, or through symbolism or through simile, but through finding some kind of direct form or expression for it, and that was extremely powerful to me. 

Marks: I actually recorded some of John’s beautiful lines from the book — I recorded my friend saying those lines and then I put it over Saoirse Ronan’s face. So that was a cool experience that trying to translate it to something that was a pitch by using the resources of my community.

Isabela Merced in "Turtles All the Way Down" (Max)
Isabela Merced in “Turtles All the Way Down” (Max)

You both have cameos in the film – how did those come about?

Green: I was not erribly enthusiastic. I had a cameo in “The Fault in Ourr Stars” movie, and it was so bad that they cut me out of the film. And so I wasn’t really looking to repeat that experience.

Marks: I promised you I would keep you in.

Green: I know but that was almost worse because then I was like “Well what if I’m terrible and Hannah feels like she can’t cut me?”

Marks: Well I did give you more takes than anybody.

Green: You did. You gave me a lot of space to inhabit that gym coach, plenty of time to get into character.

Marks: I also dedicated some time to trolling you.

Green: She made me do a bunch of like squats and fake volleyball moves, which were just humiliating. A great day for the rest of the cast. I think Bella really enjoyed seeing me act.

The crew was amazing. I was the 19th person on the call sheet so I was the 19th lead of the movie, and on the day that I filmed almost the entire crew were wearing shirts that said we’re rooting for you number 19. I got a necklace, I still have it, that says 19 on it. And Hannah, of course, was brilliant as the Applebee’s waitress. I think in the book, I described that waitress as being perpetually tired. And of course, when you’re directing a movie, you are perpetually tired.

Marks: I knew that was the one role I could portray in this movie.

Between the time your book was published and the movie coming out now, a global pandemic hit, did that change your perspective on the story at all?

Green: From my perspective, we don’t know exactly what are the root causes of the global mental health crisis that’s especially affecting young people. And I certainly am not nearly enough of an expert to speculate on it, but I think that we know that something’s happening, and we know that it’s really profound. And we know that the pandemic has made it worse. I think this is a really important time to be talking about how to tell honest stories about mental health, and that also means for me, I believe telling hopeful stories about mental health because I think that there is hope and that hope is the correct response to consciousness. So it’s really important for me to try to tell honest stories — and part of being honest, is being hopeful.

Marks: I do think the pandemic made us all feel really lonely, and a beautiful part of this movie that is so positive is Aza really isn’t alone. She has relationships that are meaningful and important and people that can help her and I hope this movie can show that it’s okay to share your feelings with people. 

Going off that theme of hope, tell me about that ending and Cree’s monologue – how did that montage come about?

Green: I’ve worked with OCD my whole life. And at times, it’s been completely disabling. Right before I wrote this book, I was so sick that not only could I not write, I couldn’t read a menu at a restaurant. I was really barely functioning even in the smallest ways. I was in so much pain, it hurt so badly. As I emerged from that, through new medication and new treatment strategies and everything, as I began to emerge from it, I realized that I had to write about this, and I couldn’t write about anything else, but then I wanted to write a story that was hopeful, because that’s the truth. I didn’t feel that that was the truth when I was at my sickest, but it still was true. 

Emily Dickinson has a great poem where she says that “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all,” and there are certainly times in my life when I can’t hear that bird singing, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not singing. It means that I’m not hearing and I’m not well enough to hear, and that’s what I wanted to bring to the end of the book.

Marks: We talked about visualizing those moments that Daisy is talking about, and making sure to show both the good in Aza’s life and the bad and showing that your life can encompass all of those things and it’s a life worth living. Cree also had a terrific performance really landing that idea for us and making our jobs easier. She has great depth to her.

It feels like the Young Adult genre has shifted in Hollywood, but how do you both think we can bring back that era of stories like ‘The Fault in Our Stars,” “Paper Towns,” etc.?

Marks: That’s way above my paygrade I never understood why novels became popular, and I certainly don’t understand like the contemporary landscape of YA very well. But I do love these kinds of movies and I love these kinds of stories, and I don’t just love them as a teenager. I still love them because young people are asking these big questions about meaning and consciousness and suffering for the first time. 

Green; They’re also falling in love for the first time and grappling with grief for the first time in many cases, and that’s so exciting because the first time you go through something, you do it without any ironic distance, and you do it with such earnestness and openness, and that’s how I want to continue to approach those big questions even as I even as I get older. I don’t want to bring all of my adult irony to to questions of meaning. I want to be able to approach it with the same openness that I used to and for me, that’s what the best of YA fiction can do.

Marks: I think we both gravitate to how high the stakes feel when you’re young. I don’t want to become a jaded person. It is hard to resist but it’s really nice reading something as beautiful as [John’s] work where it is approaching everything earnestly because that’s the goal of how I want to behave as a human being. So I think this process hopefully made me a better director but also a better human being.

“Turtles All the Way Down” is now streaming exclusively on Max.

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