Many of us can relate to coming-of-age dramas because we've suffered through similar rites of passage. To work well, though, coming-of-age films need honest writing and performances. The Spectacular Now, adapted by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer) and directed by James Ponsoldt (Smashed) features two very honest performances from its leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley. In a recent DP/30 video interview, Neustadter and Weber talk about what drew them to the source material, how they worked to create an honest story, and how they dealt with sensitive story issues in realistic ways.
Before we get to the interview, here's the trailer for The Spectacular Now, currently in limited release in the U.S.:
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber debuted as feature film screenwriters with their Independent Spirit Award winning (500) Days of Summer. After the success of Summer, Fox Searchlight approached the screenwriting team to adapt Tim Tharp's novel The Spectacular Now, putting them back together with Summer director Marc Webb. What seemed like a great project to "get the band back together" soon fell apart. Webb left the project to reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, another director came aboard then left, and Fox Searchlight dropped the project. Neustadter and Weber eventually found their way to new distributor A24 and connected with Smashed director James Ponsoldt to get The Spectacular Now made several years after they started.
Thanks to DP/30 for the interview with Neustadter and Weber. If you don't have time to watch the whole interview now, you can check out some of the highlights below the video:
The Spectacular Now works so well as a film in my opinion because of the honesty of the story and how the filmmakers and the lead actors get that honesty up on the screen. Neustadter and Weber cite John Hughes and Cameron Crowe as influences, and touch on their desire "to tell a story about young people that was as honest as possible." Weber notes that as they approached the story and needed to make choices, they had a simple way of ensuring that the honesty was on the page:
The tool we use more than anything else is, we take a step back and go, “Okay, what would really happen?” That, for us, is the thing we lean on more than anything else.
A key characteristic of the protagonist, Sutter Keely, is his constant drinking. As a senior in high school, he is already a functioning alcoholic. The drinking is absolutely necessary for both the character and the story, but how Sutter's drinking is portrayed in the film is completely realistic and not typically seen in films about teenagers. Neustadter explains how they handled this aspect of the story:
The approach [to the drinking in the film] was: this is happening, this is a real thing. Let’s not spend a lot of time talking about it, preaching about it, moralizing…let’s not judge. Let’s just let it be. I feel like we were always trying to make a relatable teen movie. If you do that and you start to compromise the reality of the teen experience, then they’ll smell it a mile away and not go.... And because of the drinking, we knew we were guaranteed an R rating.... We [could] be as real as we [needed] to be.
Aspiring screenwriters sometimes have difficulty deciding what kind of story they should write. Weber sums up their approach to how they decide which projects to embark on, in turn offering aspiring screenwriters some guidance on which stories they should pursue in their own endeavors:
We don’t see as many movies now as we did growing up, so it’s really just about being involved in things we care about that we’d go see that we feel like are missing.
Be sure to check out the complete DP/30 interview to hear more about Neustadter and Weber's writing process as well as stories about the production and their other projects as screenwriters and producers.
Also, check out The Spectacular Now in theatres if you haven't already for the great writing, fine performances, assured directing and lush celluloid.
Do you think Neustadter and Weber successfully portrayed the honesty of teenage life in the story of The Spectacular Now? Are you writing screenplays that you think are missing from the screen? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.