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500 Days of Summer: Anatomy of a Relationship

Love warps the mind (and the timeline) in Marc Webb's charming romantic comedy. We talk to screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber about infatuation, The Smiths, and how to be a writer (even if you're not Aaron Sorkin).

500 Days

What should get you in the door of Marc Webb's smart new romantic comedy, 500 Days of Summer, is the sincerity. Unlike 99% of romantic-comedies-made-by-committee, this film is not talking down to you, dear reader; rather, it's cracking open the open, beating heart of young greeting card writer Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is key to this film's magic), and figuring out the ways that life, circumstance, a girl named Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the question of "keeping things casual," and that crazy little thing called love conspired to do a number on it.

Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (note: one film that they credit for insipration is the 1993 Canadian flick Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould), the film hinges on a neat narrative trick: moving around in a non-linear fashion, the film hops around the "days" of the relationship, from day 185 to day 32 to day 1, etc. While it states at the outcome that "this is not a love story," sifting through Tom's memories as the young romantic falls for pragmatic Summer elicits a whole range of emotions, from the horror of watching a car crash in slow motion to the sweetness of feeling like there's only one person who can get you completely. It's sweet and melancholy and very, very good.

(Which is an excellent thing, considering the fact that TribecaFilm.com has a bit of a connection to Neustadter and Weber: Neustadter started his career in film as a Director of Development at Tribeca Productions. He initially met Weber when he hired him on as an intern in 1999 [who, to quote Weber "stuck around enough to get hired"]. In fact, according to the duo, much of the film was worked out on the roof of 375 Greenwich Avenue, where much of the Tribeca team has offices.)

We met with Neustadter and Weber at the Union Square Coffee Shop, where they talked bands and love and devastating relationships. For these guys, Summer is the beginning of a beautiful career: named Screenwriters to Watch by Variety, they're booked solid with scripts, and one of their future projects is a book adaptation for Fox Searchlight (and for Webb to direct) of the Young Adult novel The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp. Neustadter sums it up with, "The band is getting back together."

Aspiring screenwriters (heck, aspiring anybodies), take note! You can learn a lot from these guys.
 



Tribeca: An interesting thing about the script for Summer is that you had originally written a host of songs right into the script. (For example: the use of The Smiths' "There is a Light that Never Goes Out and "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want.") Some ended up on the soundtrack; some didn't. How did that work out? It's pretty unorthodox, correct?


Scott Neustadter: I always joke that I went into screenwriting because I wanted to be a music supervisor. We wrote all the music cues into the script, so regardless of what song we chose, we had cued up where [it would] go in the film, and I was very proud of that. This was my lone opportunity to put my songs in a movie.

Tribeca: So what came first, the music or the misery? Or the Summer screenplay?

Michael Weber: Definitely the misery.

SN: That whole thing [a relationship similar to the one in the film] had happened to me. I had rented Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould [the experimental 1993 Canadian biopic about the pianist; if you haven't seen it, perhaps the classic Simpsons episode it inspired, "22 Short Films About Springfield," rings a bell?]. I don't think I ever watched it, but I was just sitting there, thinking, wallowing—The Smiths were probably on—and I saw the [VHS] box for the film and was thinking, You know what? That would probably be an interesting way to tell a relationship story. What if we did 32 days of a relationship? And I sent Weber an email and said, "I think I'm on to something." I wrote it out, I called it, like "401 Days of April," and what if that was her name, and day one can be when they meet and day 46 can be—I had the whole thing written out in that email. And the movie ended up almost exactly like that first email. Thank you Thirty-Two. One day I will watch you!

MW: I got that email in the middle of the night, and immediately that jumping-off point made so much sense. At least it could be an attempt to write a romantic comedy like the ones we are big fans of—

SN: Like Annie Hall. I love pure romantic comedies—The Apartment—they all have a little bit of an edge to them that's gone now. Ours is mostly edge with a little romance. It's an emotional action movie.

SXSW screening

Tribeca: Can you talk a little about having Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel cast as your central couple?

SN:
You know what's the best part about [Gordon-Levitt]? He cares. He really cares. He wants to do good work very, very badly, and that's so good because [actors] are in it for other things. For Summer, why Zooey's so terrific in the part is that I genuinely believe she has a similar personality to the character. She's a little enigmatic. You're attracted, and you're interested, but there's this aloofness, she's doing her own thing. Which is also attractive, but it's also this unattainable thing. Something's going on in her mind that you're either invited to be a part of or no. And that's so perfect for the role. Zooey has a way about her that's sort of approachable. You may not break down the wall, but she'll let you come over and say hi and talk to you.

Tribeca: What's the process in working together as a screenwriting team? Scott, you're in L.A. and Michael's in New York, right?


MW: We will outline extensively, over the phone, through email, text messages, smoke signals—whatever it takes—and once that outline is done we'll divide up scenes and take a stab.

Tribeca: How did you start working together as writers?

MW: [When we worked together at Tribeca], we would go up to the roof of the Tribeca Film Center and talk about the scripts that were coming in and tell jokes and talk about our ideas and the movies we loved, and just that riffing among two people with a similar storytelling and comedic sensibility—we kept saying we should be writing it down.

SN: I was desperate to be a writer and I never thought that I was very good at it. I went into a development job, and I was better at that—half of that anyway—because I was a fast reader and I sort of had a feeling for what would work and wouldn't work in the marketplace. I was always striving for quality stuff, which is actually a hindrance sometimes in a development job because you need product, and something that the studio wants to make and that makes money.

You don't have to make the best movies all the time, and that was one of the things that inspired me to say, "I only have to do this well to be a writer. I only have to achieve a script that's mediocre and it will sell for tons of money. Why not give it a shot?" Previously, for me, it was, if you're not Aaron Sorkin, why bother?

Tribeca: How did you write the character of Summer? She really could've easily have been a bad guy...

SN: We definitely set out, to basically write—I did—to rip my ex to shreds and be like, "How dare you?!" That was the intention. And in the writing process you start to realize that technically, she didn't do anything wrong. I've been there too on the other side, somebody liked me more than I liked them. I wasn't a bad guy, I just didn't feel the same thing, and I feel like it might've taken a while, but we got there in the writing process. We were able to shift the tone into something that had a little more clarity, just like the character does.

Without having somebody to bounce ideas off of with this particular project, I think I would've jumped off a cliff. It was very helpful to have someone to talk to about this kind of thing.

MW: We've all been Toms, and we've all been Summers. I don't know if people would've been saying, "I'm a Summer," if Summer was a bad guy. No one thinks of themselves as a bad guy. In real life, more often than not in a relationship, one of the people likes the other more than the other likes them. That's life. It doesn't make either one of them a bad person, it's how you handle that. It's really more tragic than anything else when two people don't like each other the same amount.

SN: It's unfortunate, but you can't make someone feel something.

MW: But you can spend a big part of your twenties trying, dammit!
 



500 Days of Summer
opens this Friday in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and Washington DC, rolling out to other cities in the weeks to come. Click here for ticket information.

 

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