The Screenwriters of (500) Days of Summer Talk Love, The Smiths, and How The Graduate Ruined Them For Life

(500) Days of Summer, might look like a predictable romantic comedy—there’s the cuteness of its couple, a clever song-and-dance scene, a montage, an infectious nostalgia-baiting soundtrack with the Smiths, Belle and Sebastian and Regina Spektor—but in fact, this is a movie about love written by two dudes: Scott Neustadter, 32, and Michael H. Weber, 31. The two friends met a decade ago when Mr. Neustadter hired Mr. Weber as an intern at a production company in Tribeca. They shared the common desire to write “a Cameron Crowe, Woody Allen kind of relationship story, something that Hollywood had kind of shied away from,” said Mr. Neustadter.

 And so they have! (500) Days of Summer, directed by Marc Webb, is a bittersweet and wholly relatable film to anyone who has suffered the disillusionment of unrequited love or who have found themselves besotted while holding hands in Ikea. (The New York Observer’s Rex Reed wrote “I haven’t seen college-age angst so beautifully shared since Splendor in the Grass.) Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays our hero, Tom, an unabashed romantic who has the misfortune of falling hard for his winsome co-worker Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a pragmatist where affairs of the heart are concerned. The film bounces out of chronological order amid the 500 days of a mismatched affair, a road map from infatuation to devastation. The Observer had the chance to chat with Mr. Neustadter and Mr. Weber and tried to get to the bottom of love, the Smiths, and the decline of the rom-com.

It seems like a lot of inspiration was taken from older romantic comedies, ones that you’ve mentioned you feel like Hollywood had gotten away from.

SN: It all came from rejection. I was rejected, I had to reject something. All of my anger went into rejecting the last 20 years or so of these Hollywood romances where if you look like Matthew McConaughey, you’re going to be alright. I could not relate to any of that stuff. We would watch movies like Annie Hall, and The Apartment. The Graduate means the most to me. 

The Graduate is referenced early in the film when one of the character apparently misinterprets it.

SN: I think The Graduate might have ruined my life actually.

 How so? 

SN: It warped me, because it made me think romance was this thing where there was always running and yelling at each other and it was like all drama, all the time. That’s what I associated romance with. It had to be a roller coaster. It totally comes from that movie and my adoration of it

MW:  And also because every time you date a girl, you now sleep with her mom, but that’s a whole other thing.

SN:  It’s sort of the same story we’re telling—a character who thinks that the answer lies in someone else. If he wins this woman, he will be happy. And our character is exactly the same. And it’s not until he realizes that happiness lies within that he’s able to kind of get his shit together a little bit. 

One of differences between this movie and other recent romantic comedies is that this time it’s a guy who we watch pining.

SN: We were really writing about us and our friends and guys that we knew. Only subsequently did we realize most guys are more this way than the way they’re portrayed in the movies. Who doesn’t sit around with their guy friends and talk about the date they went on last night?

MW: It’s so frustrating because there’s another sensibility out there. We don’t need to name names, but there are TV shows and movies—I don’t know those guys. They’re from another planet. A friend of theirs gets a girlfriend and they make fun of him. They don’t talk about their relationships, they don’t talk about their feelings. Guys talk about these things all the time. Scott and I do. Our friends do. It’s a more honest portrayal of what men are like certainly that we’re at the age now.

It actually crossed my mind how some of my male friends would react if I were to recommend a romantic comedy to them.

SN: We should have put in one gratuitous nude scene, that way you can say to your friends: ‘Oh man, there’s this one scene, boobies, it’s great.’

The soundtrack, especially the Smiths, is a big part of the film. 

SN: We’re getting so much shit about Garden State, because of our elevator scene where they’re talking about the Smiths. But I feel like there’s this shorthand with people when talking about the Smiths.  It’s not as though the character is saying to him, ‘Here’s this indie band you gotta hear that no one’s listening to.’ It’s more like, ‘You’re a Smiths fan and I’m a Smiths fan. You and me we can go to the next step. We already know we think alike.’

Was it hard to get all the music and pop culture references into the movie?

SN: We didn’t have a very big budget and we definitely had a lot of music that was going to be expensive. Marc and I ended up writing a lot of personal letters to people. We’ve written to Johnny Marr. We’ve written to Morrissey. We’ve written to Dustin Hoffman. Personal touches, I think, can’t hurt. And in the end, it wasn’t that hard.

Was there any music you wanted that you didn’t get?

SN: The one that comes to mind was actually a Bruce Springsteen song, ‘Born to Run.’ We wanted Summer to sing ‘Born to Run’ at the karaoke bar, because if a girl did that, it would be pretty badass.

MW: There was one other music disappointment. It’s that we wrote Hall and Oates into a scene. And Hall and Oates didn’t want to be in the movie.

SN: I think Oates might have wanted to be in the movie, but I think Hall might not have wanted to be in the movie.

This was also the first feature for Marc Webb, your director. What’s that like as writers and a director all working on a first feature?

SN: For Marc and Weber and myself, we always feel like the Three Musketeers. All for one, one for all, it’s really fun to see all of this happening, learning together and getting angry together and being excited together. And I think right now all of us are in our rooms refreshing our browsers on the Rotten Tomatoes site. 

Did you guys hit it off right away?

MW: I remember the first time we sat down and had lunch with Marc in L.A., we weren’t even talking about the script so much as Marc was telling us his relationship war stories and the traumas and the girls that had messed him up. We knew right then and there we had our guy. 

S: There is nothing more terrifying than having written something that is the most confessional thing that you’ll probably ever write it in your life and then have someone hired to make it theirs. Whoever they hired, it didn’t even matter if it was Ang Lee or a guy off the street, I was going to be very, very nervous. To Marc’s credit, he’s not only a great dude, but he’s extremely collaborative and welcoming and inviting. Even though it’s the director’s show, he was very much about we’re in this together, and I don’t want to cut anybody out of the process, which most directors would never do and I’m sure he’ll never do again.

What’s up next for you guys?

MW: We’re in the process of adapting a book. It’s called The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp. It won the National Book Award last year for young-adult fiction and it’s a great book. It’s sort of a dark coming-of-age story about a troubled high school kid. And Marc is attached to direct and it’s Fox Searchlight also, so we’re getting the band back together. 

SN: We’ve also got something kicking around that’s at Ivan Reitman’s company at Paramount. It’s a story called Underage, and it’s another one of these relationship stories where the obstacle is a real thing. Hint: It’s in the title. I think it’s a tricky thing for a marketing department, but if you read the script it’s way more emotionally less-creepy than it sounds. 

At the beginning of this film, there’s a reference to woman who was a real life Summer for one of you. Has she seen the film? 

SN: Well …

MW: Be careful here, be careful.

SN: Let’s just say it’s based on two girls. And they both have read the script and they’re both aware of the movie … but I do believe there will be some surprises.

MW: I’m saying ‘be careful’ because his current girlfriend will kill him.

The Screenwriters of (500) Days of Summer Talk Love, The Smiths, and How The Graduate Ruined Them For Life