Subscribe to Candid Magazine
Author John Green and Director Jake Schreier discuss summer hit movie PAPER TOWNS
August 31, 2015
The cinematic adaptation of best selling YA author John Green’s 2008 novel Paper Towns is the sleeper hit of an otherwise typical blockbuster summer. Yet don’t let appearances fool you and dismiss it as your average teen fare: this is a wildly enjoyable film that channels John Hughes’ spirit and focuses on friendship rather than romance.
Last month I was blessed with the opportunity of having a one on one chat with John Green himself and also with the film’s director, the lovely Jake Schreier. In the luxurious space of Claridge’s Hotel, in the heart of London Mayfair, I first sat down with Green. The 38 years old author has practically become an institution in Young Adult Literature with his 2012 smash hit novel The Fault In Our Stars (TFIOS). He is visibly tired due to the insane schedule of the quasi global press tour for Paper Towns, yet he couldn’t be any more affable, funny and simply lovely to chat with.
As he has underlined many a time in his entertaining YouTube vlogs, he’s not contractually obligated to be on the press tour but he loves the film so much that he couldn’t think of a better way to thank the cast and crew and everyone else involved than joining the crazy publicity circus. I kick off our conversation talking about the screenplay, the topic that’s always dearest to me and in this case even more relevantly so, given the nature of my interviewee.
This is the second time in a row that screenwriters Scott Neudstadter and Michael H. Weber, adapt one of your novels. How was working with them again? I thought they captured the book perfectly.
John – I completely agree and I think it was a much harder adaptation than The Fault In Our Stars. Frankly, I don’t know how they built TFIOS so beautifully on a structural level that it felt like a literal translation to me, as if they poured the book in screenplay format. With Paper Towns it was a bigger challenge because there are these three distinct narratives, each with their own arc: the story of the night out, the search for Margo and the road trip. It’s not like a typical three acts story but more of a nine acts story. So yeah, I’m even more impressed about how they did it so well on this one. I usually talk to them and answer questions they have and we discuss things but they don’t need help from me to be honest, they’re really good. They’re structurally brilliant and have such an understanding of why every line, every detail needs to be there. If you ask them why they made a particular choice, they always have an answer. Sometimes we may disagree on something but it’s all part of the creative process.
I really liked how the screenwriters shuffled some things around at the end. The final image is not the same as in the book but I found it more cinematic and in line with the core theme of the story which is the importance of friendship. Do you agree and were there any other adaptation tweaks you care to comment on?
John – I was never worried about that. I always liked that ending because it made it clear that this isn’t a romance. Both Quentin and Margo have to learn that they haven’t been seeing each other complexly and when they finally do, they also realize new and unexpected things about each other. All that matters to me is the preservation of that feeling, of the idea that Margo was not a miracle, she was not a fine and precious thing and when Quentin was treating her as a miracle, he was doing a great disservice to both of them. I felt that anything that got that point across was what I wanted and I think Scott and Michael did a great job getting it across. They always joke with me that most of my notes are always “make it less like the book” instead of “make it more like the book” as you’d probably expect from an author. But I don’t care that much about the plot, I care about the characters and the themes and the ideas and I want people watching the film to hopefully feel the way the book makes them.
I read that you’d given a crack at adapting the script yourself. And I just saw another Fox film that’s also a YA adaptation, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which was actually adapted into film by its author, Jesse Andrews. Are you flirting with the idea of doing that or even better writing original screenplays?
John – Well, yes, many years ago I wrote a script adaptation of Paper Towns and it was terrible [Laughs]. I read Jesse’s novel, though I haven’t seen the film yet and there are other authors that do it and are good at it. A recent example is Gillian Flynn with Gone Girl who did a killer job adapting her own novel. I think one of my weaknesses as a writer is structure, which is so important to screenplays and understanding that well is key to writing a good script. I feel that when I write a novel, I often have to go back in revision and try to create a structure that makes it readable and so I can’t see myself writing screenplays, it seems so hard. The one time I tried, it was so hard I was worn away by how difficult it is.
Since the film deals with a delicate moment of transition in a teenager’s life, do you have any advice for anyone who’s going through that phase of not knowing what the heck they’re doing with their lives?
John – The two hardest transitions I’ve ever made are from high school to college and then the first two years of what was called adulthood, even though I felt totally unqualified to be an adult in every way. I felt like I hadn’t learned any of the skills that I actually needed in order to navigate adulthood, like open a checking account or pay taxes. I found all that stuff really overwhelming. I remember I used to spend a lot of time at the Laundromat with one hand on my notebook, trying to write stories, but then I ended up writing notes of encouragement to myself like “you’re going to be ok” or “things get easier”. And they actually do. I think there’s an instability that accompanies those transitions that’s very exciting in a lot of ways and you can have wonderfully intense friendships and relationships but that instability, at least for me, is also very terrifying and overwhelming and difficult to deal with. For the vast majority of people life does get often more stable and relationships get more stable and established and you feel you have a better net beneath you.
Were there scenes that turned out to be just like you’d imagined them whilst writing the book?
John – Yes, for instance the scene with the three boys in the band room just felt exactly like my high school memories and the way I envisioned it whilst writing. And then I guess the other thing was the scene between Margo and Quentin on top of the SunTrust tower as they admire the night view of the city and Margo says it looks like a paper town.
Given the genre you write and the huge fan base following you on social media where you are rather active also with the videos you make with your brother, do you ever feel the pressure to inspire and be a role model to so many young readers and do you actually believe that art forms like film and books can change the world and even save lives?
John – Yes, I believe that’s really true. Particularly when it comes to the representation of minorities like LGBTQ teens, it can make a huge difference in the lives of real people. But I also think that books and movies should be honest and that honesty is always hopeful whilst nihilism is not honest. I really believe that. So, yes, I do feel a responsibility to try to tell hopeful stories but also to listen better (which I’m trying to do more), learn from people online and share stuff that’s important to me.
You’ve recently become my go-to YA literary critic and I’ve been reading several books you’ve recommended. Do you have one that you’re a fan of and would like to see adapted into a film?
John – Oh man, there are so many… For instance I would love to see an adaptation of the new book by Jacqueline Woodson, “Brown Girl Dreaming” which came out last year in the US and will hit the shelves in the UK at the end of August. It’s a great book and a great memoir since it’s sort of autobiographical and she’s had an amazing life, culminating with this great career in Young Adult Literature. I think it’d make a great movie because of the scope: it spans decades and generations and tells a big story about race and sexuality in the US.
What about another adaptation of one of your books? Is there any of them in particular you’d like to see made into a film?
John – If it were up to me I’d make “Will Grayson, Will Grayson” because I think it’s very cinematic and it could be partly a musical. It’d be fun but getting a movie made is so hard and sadly it’s the one Hollywood seems the least interested in.
I couldn’t agree more but sadly, when it comes to film about gay characters, inevitably things are even more difficult to happen in Hollywood. Meanwhile, a few weeks after my interview with John, it’s been officially announced that the adaptation of his first novel, “Looking For Alaska”, which has been in development for a while, has found its director, the talented Rebecca Thomas who had her feature debut in 2012 with the wonderful indie drama Electric Children.
After the lovely time with John Green I’m ushered to another Claridge’s suite to talk to filmmaker Jake Schreier, a talented up and comer at his sophomore directorial effort with Paper Towns after his 2012 critical darling debut Robot & Frank. I inevitably veer the conversation more on his filmmaking duties and how he managed to visually translate this great script adaptation with such a perfect tonal balance.
Many critics, including myself, felt the film had a huge John Hughes vibe so I’m wondering if you agree and what were your filmmaking influences for this.
Jake – The film we watched the most as a kind of reference was (Scorsese’s) Casino which is one of my favorite films and the reason is the way the camera is such an active participant in telling that story and if I was going to do a high school movie I wanted to give it a visual language. I read many scripts including the one for The Fault In Our Stars which I thought was great but what excited me about this one over the others is that it’s a mystery and an adventure. It certainly winks at John Hughes but I think it’s also got this Amblin sensibility a la Goonies as these kids are on an adventure together. Visually also David Fincher was a big influence on me with something like Benjamin Button though obviously I’d never try to claim that it lives up to Fincher’s standards. We tried to hold on together the charm and real lived-in quality of John Hughes but also this heightened aspect of being a mystery that ends not at all where you’d expect. In fact, on set I showed the kids some mystery classics like The Big Sleep, because I know the film is very light but to some degree it’s a tiny bit of a high school noir, though not to the level of something like Brick of course. I just wanted Nat (Wolff) to be able to see those films and know the kind of language he was working with when he’s in the more mystery parts and he’s searching like a detective who’s off on his own. The movie needs to have just a hint of that quality.
The film is a potpourri of mystery drama, teen comedy and romance but in the end what matters thematically is the importance of friendship, even over romantic love, especially at that age when you make friends that could last a lifetime. As I told John, ending the film with a final image different from the one in the book was pivotal to consolidate those themes but I’m also wondering how hard it was to juggle these tonal shifts.
Jake – I agree about the ending and in fact it was one of the best things I noticed in the draft I read. It was so brilliant to delay the prom until the end to give us something to go back to. All of these themes are obviously in the book and you understand that Quentin has put Margo on too much of a pedestal but she’s not really the answer to the thing he’s seeking and he’s neglected his friends to some degree in the pursuit of that goal. John’s language can carry you through so much on the page but if you can’t rely on that, ending the film with the same image as the novel felt like you would’ve left something on the table. It was brilliant how they found something to go back to since it was crucial to visually reinforce those themes. As far as balancing the tone, it might be hard, though I never really thought too much about it. I knew we had to be able to hold these different tones together and the only real way that I know how to do that is to just try to be honest in each of the moments and not really treat them differently. We certainly brought some improvisation for the funny scenes with the kids but it wasn’t about trying to get them the right jokes, it wasn’t an Apatow kind of improv. It was about building something that was real between them, not trying to do anything over the top comedic or heavy in the mystery parts. We just let the camera take its way through that and play certain moments simpler and give some moments more weight. But the actors should just be real and I’d never want them to heighten their performance for a given moment or bring it down for others. So if they do it all the same, I feel like between them and the music, that’s what kind of holds the movie in a tonal center and then you can let the camera and the story itself veer off in those other genres and tones.
How was having John (Green) on set? I already knew from his social media presence that he’s such a lovely guy and today I’ve witnessed it first-hand during my chat with him. But I wonder if having the man who has created the world you’re bringing to life ever made you nervous or was it only a huge perk because you could pick his brain any time?
Jake – It was just great having him around, partly because as you said he’s such a sweet guy but also because he just wanted it to be a good movie. If he had been there to ‘protect’ his work, it might’ve felt different, but he wasn’t at all, he was just there to help us make a movie that felt honest to his work in a thematic way. He was maybe the first one of us to suggest that we could change something from the book if it made the movie better. I also think it’s been just exciting for him because he and I can probably relate in similar ways to our high school experience and relate to these kids. He’s the one who created this story so it was nice to have someone there to talk to about these themes because he’s so connected to it and only wants the best for the film.
I think the film is really well balanced and perfectly captures the spirit of the book. Is there anything from the source material that didn’t make the cut and that you wish it had?
Jake – I guess maybe if you go back and read the book, there are a few things that jump out, like certainly some bits of language that I love or certain bits of dialogue that I think are beautiful that didn’t make it in there. However, I think the real test is not when you go back and read the book to check if there was something missing in the film that you wanted to see. It’s when you read the script or watch the movie and feel like something missing and frankly when I read the script I didn’t feel like we were missing anything to do justice to the novel. Anytime there was a detail that we could include without affecting the story cinematically we did include it and the changes that Michael and Scott (the screenwriters) made were really smart.
John Green has become a literary institution for young adult readers so I’m sure the film will do great with his following yet there’s no denying how TFIOS was such a pop culture phenomenon before hitting theatres which left not much doubt of its box office success. If you had to convince the movie-going public to check your movie out, especially those who aren’t necessarily teenagers or pre-sold fans of John Green’s books, how would you entice them?
Jake – I’ve heard that to some people who have seen it and are older, it just felt really special to go back to that moment of leaving high school. I think it was Nat (Wolff)’s agent who saw the film and called a friend he hadn’t seen since high school because he wanted to reconnect with him. Hopefully it can function on both levels: for today’s teenagers I hope it feels like a really present movie into that moment and gets them to a different place that might connect with how they’re feeling about the end of high school whilst I think for other people there’s an element of nostalgia that creeps in towards the end and it’s actually quite powerful because it’s something we’ve all been through.
Paper Towns is now playing in UK cinemas
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor