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500 Days of Summer: Behind the scenes with the screenwriter

By Julia Sklar
Published: November 2009

What happens when you tell the story of a realistic romantic comedy out of chronological order with sweet tunes playing in the background and an intelligent, witty script running throughout?

500 Days of Summer is born; that’s what happens. First shown in the United States for wide release on August 7, this 2009 Sundance Film Festival convert became an instant hit as soon as it reached mainstream theatres, defying blockbuster norms with its unique, offbeat vibe. The movie self-proclaims that it is specifically not a love story–but a story about love–from the beginning, and as such, breaks the mould of the typical “boy meets girl plot (so guys, this is not a chick-flick).

I got a chance to conduct an email interview with screenwriter Scott Neustadter about his experience from start to finish with this cinematographic gem. And if you didn’t have a chance to see this movie while it was in theatres, I highly suggest you grab some popcorn, the DVD (when it’s released on December 22!), and your best friends. You won’t regret it.

JS: What was the original inspiration for this screenplay, and how has it morphed from the original, if it did?

SN: The original inspiration for the script was really twofold. First, I got dumped pretty good by this girl. As often happens, I spent a lot of time afterwards trying to figure out what went wrong, and while I was thinking about it I came up with the title 500 Days of Summer, with Summer being the name of the girl and 500 being the length of time of the relationship.

From there, I got the idea for the structure’€the jumping around in time, etc. Once I got that, I knew that I could write about this relationship in a way that might actually be interesting to other people, as opposed to just me, and my friends who were helping me get over this girl.

 

JS: How long did this movie take to make from the first conception of the idea to premiere day? What was the basic process? 

SN: It took more than a year to write, about six months for me to be confident enough to show it to people, another year for it to be optioned [when a producer gains the rights to a screenplay from the writer], and then 18 months after that to get made. The filming was done in 29 days so it was really the rest of it that took a long time. Truth is, in Hollywood terms, it actually happened pretty fast, all things considered.

 

JS: Was it always your goal for 500 Days of Summer to make it this far into mainstream theatres?

 
SN: When we [Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber] first wrote it, we didn’t think of it as a movie. We just wanted to write something we were proud of, and I wanted to stop thinking about that old girlfriend. It was a way to get it out of my system, really. At no point did we ever think other people would read it let alone make it into a movie. So the fact that it was in so many theatres, and liked by so many people, is really pretty shocking (and awesome!).

JS: Can you talk a little bit about your experience with The Sundance Film Festival?

SN: I went to Sundance [a prestigious independent film festival in Utah] with my entire family’€parents, sisters, aunts, uncles, it was really special. We had screened the movie for audiences twice before that, while we were still tweaking [it]. The audiences loved it so we were excited, but you still never know how it will be received by a paying audience (those first [two] audiences were test audiences who got in for free). The first time we showed it at Sundance the crowd went crazy and that was a pretty gratifying moment for all of us.

 

JS: What was the process of getting Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel on-board, and ultimately working with them, like? Were they set to play Tom and Summer from the beginning?

SN: Fox Searchlight, who were paying for the movie, would only make it if the right actors said “yes. Luckily for us Joe and Zooey said “yes and Searchlight said they would make it with them. A lot of the credit has to be given to our great director Marc [Webb] who everyone was very excited to make this with, and knew he would do a killer job with it.

 

JS: In terms of the writing process, what was the decision behind telling the story in an extremely unique chronological direction, and not following the conventional love story archetype? 

SN: My co-writer [Michael Weber] and I are movie fans. We love movies. And my favorite movies are always ones that take risks, and do things in an unconventional way. When we were writing this, though we weren’t thinking about getting it made, we were thinking about writing something we’d be proud of, writing something that we’d want to see. So it was natural that we would take some risks and try some unconventional things.

The chronology was the first idea I had’€I don’t think we would have written this as a screenplay otherwise. Almost every romantic movie made for the past decade seemed to be made from the concept up’€what is the crazy hilarious obstacle that will keep two people apart for 90 minutes’€and we didn’t want to do that. When I had the idea for the chronology, that became our “high concept. That was the thing that we felt might get someone to keep reading (I used to pitch [the movie] to people as “boy meets girl meets ‘Ëœmemento’).

 
The real reason [the characters don't end up together] is because we wanted to write something real and sincere. This was about a real relationship in the real world, told through someone’s memory (and warped through his pop culture-heavy brain). The real relationship didn’t end “happily, but I wanted it to end “hopefully. So we chose to do [the latter] instead and luckily they let us keep that in tact.

JS: How involved were you in the design of the actual filming? (i.e. the brilliant scene in which the viewer sees Summer’s party both from Tom’s real-life perspective, and wishful thinking perspective’€was that the director’s design, yours, both?)

SN: That was my idea (and thank you for liking it). Of course it’s a very easy thing to write (“reality does x, “expectations does y), but a very difficult thing to actually film. I could come up with the idea, and I could write it down, but you have to be really gifted to pull it off. [The director] Marc, and the crew, and the actors did a tremendous job executing the sequence, something I never would have been able to do. And it’s easily my favorite thing in the movie.

 

JS: What has it been like seeing such a positive response to a piece of your own work? 

SN: It’s nuts! Way beyond my wildest imagination.

 

JS: What is your favorite aspect of the final product of this movie (an entire scene, a single line, a song, etc.)?

SN: I’m really proud of a lot of things in the movie. And I have so many favorite aspects that go beyond the actual product itself. I love the film as a whole, I love the reality/expectations sequence, I love the dance number, I’m really proud of the last two scenes, I love the soundtrack, I love that we even got to have a soundtrack. But then, I also love the friends I made [while working] on the movie, all the amazing people who worked on it, the emails I’ve gotten from people who said it helped them get over a breakup.

I’ll tell you something else amazing. I just got engaged [¦], and I never would have met the girl were it not for writing this script. So there’s really no end to how many favorite things I have about this movie.

 

JS: What would be your best piece of advice to aspiring high school screenwriters?

 
SN: My advice is to read as much as you can. Good scripts, bad scripts, it doesn’t matter. You learn by osmosis, by loving something you read and realizing why it’s great, or by reading something terrible and learning what the writer did wrong. Watching movies is nice, but you won’t learn how to write unless you read everything you can get your hands on. That’s my two cents.

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