Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter on 500 Days of Summer
By Fred Topel | Image property of Fox Searchlight Pictures
(500) Days of Summer
This was less of an interview with the writers of (500) Days of Summer than it was a therapy session about my own relationships. Their take on the evolution of a breakup and recovery spoke to me personally, so I present our talk in Q&A format to convey how we worked through our issues to get to a mutual resolution.
Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Tom, who flashes back and forth in his relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel). The film breaks the fourth wall frequently, having Tom look into camera, go into fantasy sequences based on Bergman films and perform a musical number. What, isn’t that what actually happens?
Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter on (500) Days of Summer
Q: Can a movie have a positive impact, the same way romantic comedies can have a negative one on people’s real relationship views?
Scott Neustadter: I think that this is sort of a cautionary tale about that but at the same time it does embrace the romantic conventions that we had for generations and generations. In a lot of ways, the touchstones are still true and that’s kind of what we’re saying here. People call us anti-romantic and I don’t agree with that. I think it actually is quite a romantic movie and we’re in defense of all those notions, but we sort of I guess are saying be careful about embracing them too strongly, especially if the other person isn’t giving you - - if you’re hiding the truth from yourself.
Q: Can you spare heartache by setting this example?
SN: We don’t want to. I think you should do it. I think you need to have it happen. This whole thing came from a true story that happened to me. It was all true. Because it happened, all of this is going on and I think it’s a valuable thing that you have to go through in order to come out the other side.
Q: Is it the Jenny you mention in the beginning?
SN: It might be, it might be. No comment. Fox legal has a whole thing about us not talking about it.
Q: Do you believe there is one person for everyone?
SN: I certainly was for a very long time and I think the character’s journey and my journey were almost parallel for a really long time. Then the realization that you have is a lot of people just think they’re with the right person and make themselves believe that they’re with the right person. You never really know. The world is so vast and there’s so many people and I have a friend who’s husband was killed in a car accident three weeks after they got married. She was of course devastated, but if you believe that there’s only one person for you, then for her it’s over. She saw this movie and she said thank you. It really opened her eyes to the possibility of another one.
Q: You experienced it in chronological order. How did telling film out of order change things?
Michael Weber: Isn’t that how memory works when you look back on a relationship? I don't think any of us remember our relationships linear. I walk down the street in New York and I see a bar and it reminds me of a date I had there with someone I really liked. Then my next thought is when it all went wrong. I think that’s how anyone’s memory works. All along, this wasn’t just some kind of gimmick for us. It was by design that this is how we remember our relationships.
Q: When do you imagine foreign films and black and white, musical numbers?
SN: Again, it was warped through the prism of memory when we were looking back on this thing. Also, what we realized was that I had developed all of these ideas about love and all this other stuff from pop culture. We couldn’t avoid the fact that we were writing a movie about a relationship taking place in real life. Music was involved. I feel like every relationship has a soundtrack. I had seen it in movies and I had sort of figured out this is what it’s supposed to feel like and this is what happens and this is what’s sort of normal because it’s a very juvenile kind of thing to think that your life is going to be like it is in the movies. So when we told the story, we had to do it through this idea that we’re looking back and we’re in this perspective of this person who is so influenced by the music and movies. At one point in the script there was a ninja battle.
Q: I would have loved that!
SN: All these things that had impacted how he thought about the world, and you start to realize I think when we put a lot of those things in, almost from the very beginning with the narrator that he’s not the most reliable person to be telling you what this story is about.
Q: Would this point of view carry over into future films? Any other personal experiences?
SN: I think I’m done. I think we’ve covered me.
MW: The funny thing is, when this was written, I was in a relationship for a very long time. I was in a relationship for about 10 years, into my 20s. I was a Summer in the early parts of this movie. In recent years, I became a Tom. The arc for me while being the sounding board for your personal…
SN: Yeah, we come at it from very different perspectives. I think for a while, Weber’s responsibility was to write the scenes in the script when they were happy together. None of that was innate to the script.
SN: The genesis of this was I think, besides me being crazy, was a lot of the things that we weren’t seeing in romantic comedies was stuff that we had been experiencing in real life, our friends’ war stories.
MW: We could do that right now. We could sit around and tlel our own war stories.
SN: And it’d be so much funnier than the sort of things that are happening in the conventional Hollywood romantic comedies right now.
MW: We always say no dolphin attacks, no animal attacks.
SN: The couple is here and then all the comedy will come from peripheral stuff but never the actual relationship.
MW: The obstacle has to be real. It can’t be she has an allergy to his favorite food, what are they going to do? It ends up being stuff like that.
SN: We’re still being sent stuff like that.
Q: Why is it so hard for people to make the relationship the comedy?
SN: You need a lot of humor. You need characters that people might care about and I think you need to have an arsenal of relationship comedy jokes that people don’t expect you to have. They just expect you to say high jinks. What set piece can be build?
MW: We never thought set piece. We never were like that thinking, “We need a set piece here. Wackiness ensues.”
Q: Your set piece is Ikea, which I’ve done with a girl.
SN: The best part about that is I think the transition, making the exact same kind of thing look so different depending on where you are in your relationship. In the beginning they’re there and they’re having the best time and then towards the end they’re there and nothing is good. We juxtapose that together so that you really get a sense of it has nothing to do with Ikea, it has nothing to do with the set piece. It really is less about the magic of where they are and more about the fact that in their relationship, nothing is working at this point when everything is working at this other point. So that was a cool thing we were able to exploit because of the structure.
MW: That was one of our first building blocks when we first talked about the benefits of telling it like memory out of order. The way memory works, you could have the same kind of moment on the way up the mountain as you have on the way down and it’s totally different.
Q: Did anything change after the actors were cast?
MW: There are moments that are more emotionally powerful in the movie now.
SN: And funnier by the way.
MW: And sometimes funnier for not going for the joke and actually having the real heartfelt moments. That was Joe’s instinct.
SN: One example I can think of is instead of the foreign film sequence, we had a self help book sequence in which he was reading a self help book to try to make himself feel better and trying to do all the steps to get better.
Q: I do that!
SN: Yeah, people have done that but the funny thing was he said, “I don't think I would do that.” And also I don’t think we could afford three of the seven things that we had him do. So he said, “What else could we do?” We had spent a lot of time together talking about movies and how he loves French films and we love Bergman so we were like, “You know what we’re going to try? We’re going to try this because I’ve done that too.” I’ve buried myself in the saddest movies ever to be like, “Ah, my life is not so bad.”
Q: Was Summer the only name that would work?
SN: We named it, that was always sort of the thing. At one point it was like 400 Days of April and we changed it.
MW: We needed more days.
SN: He still has the e-mail I sent him where I said, “I think I know how we’re going to tell the story.”
(500) Days of Summer opens to theaters on July 17th.
For the trailer, stills, posters and more movie info, go to the (500) Days of Summer Movie Page.
Sources: Image property of Fox Searchlight Pictures
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> Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter on 500 Days of Summer