Last year, 20th Century Fox turned author John Green’s #1 New York Times bestseller “The Fault in Our Stars” into a phenomenally-popular hit film and are looking to capture that same lightning in a bottle with another adaptation (albeit a very different one), Paper Towns.
Taken from the Green’s 2008 YA book, the summer release Paper Towns follows soon-to-graduate high school senior Quentin Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) as he gets an unexpected opportunity to spend a wild night of mischief with his longtime crush Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne). When Margo mysteriously goes missing the next day, Quentin makes it his quest to find out what happened to her, following a seeming trail of breadcrumbs she has left behind with the help of his friends Ben (Austin Abrams), Radar (Justice Smith) and Lacey (Halston Sage). Q winds up discovering a lot more about how his perceptions have shaped Margo into something very different from reality.
Both Green and Sage came to New York City for a special fan screening of the Paper Towns trailer and two select scenes from Paper Towns, both of which we discussed in an insightful exclusive interview that both Green fans and non-fans should appreciate.
ComingSoon: There are a few significant changes from the book to the screen. In the book where Quentin and Margo wax Chuck Parson’s eyebrow off, she does it, while in the movie he does it and it becomes much more about him growing a pair, so to speak.
John Green: Yeah yeah! At that point it also takes place at a slightly different time in the evening, so it’s more at the end of the evening. The idea is that he’s been an accomplice without ever quite being a participant, and now she’s giving him a stark choice about what he wants to do. In the book, as I recall, he’s still very much tagging along. He doesn’t really get active until they break into SeaWorld, which isn’t in the movie.
CS: I saw Blackfish, totally understand that decision.
Green: (laughs) That is a big part of why!
CS: And in the bathtub scene that you’re in, Halston, they added that speech you give about wanting to be seen as something other than just a beautiful girl.
Green: It’s kinda in the book. Some of the language is definitely different.
Halston Sage: There was actually a big debate about how we went about actually changing the language of that scene. I think the overall message, the integrity of it, which is Lacey’s vulnerability, is there.
Green: And Lacey being a lot more complicated than Q expects, because Q expects a thing and instead he gets a person.
CS: That seems to be the big overarching theme of the book. It’s interesting because it was published about a year after Nathan Rabin coined the term “manic pixie dream girl”…
Green: Yes, that is correct.
CS: And as someone who actually attends a support group for people who sat through Elizabethtown, I want to know how much Quentin and Margo’s arcs are a response to that type of lazy idealization?
Green: Well look, I think you’re right that it is a lazy idealization that we often make in stories and in films, but I also think it represents something much deeper and more troubling, which is that we tend to imagine the other very simplistically. We tend to imagine other people as far less interesting and multitudinous than we are. I think that’s a result of only being able to see the world out of your eyes, only having your consciousness so you can never know quite what it’s like to be someone else, so you would inevitably assume that their joy isn’t quite as real as yours or that their grief isn’t quite as real as yours. It’s really hard to understand on a second-by-second basis when you’re in a long line, or whatever, that all these other people are equally human. They also have needs and want the line to go and everything. I think the manic pixie dream girl problem is an outgrowth of that larger problem of it just being really difficult to imagine the other complexly. The male gaze is such a huge part of the conversation, it drives so much of pop culture. The manic pixie dream girl I think kinda comes out of that. I think you’re right that it’s lazy and it’s also very destructive. I think it’s destructive to people who imagine the women they like as more than human, I also think it’s tremendously destructive to those women because those women get stuck. In the bathtub scene Lacey talks about that, you get stuck inside a box and everyone tells you what a great box it is to be in, how great it is to be beautiful, but you don’t want to be in the box you want to be a person!
CS: Speaking of being seen as a person, in the Q&A last night John referred to you as a nerd.
Sage: He did!
Green: (laughs) You’re welcome!
CS: What does being a nerd mean to you?
Sage: That’s a big question. People expect something from me I feel like I give because it’s easy to give and it’s part of how I look and I’m guilty of doing that, but there’s more to me than that. The nerd part comes out in my stupid laugh, I have a really loud voice. Things I say are sometimes silly.
Green: You don’t have a stupid laugh, you just have a very nerdy laugh.
Sage: (laughs) It’s a funny laugh, it’s silly. My dad is afraid of my laugh. (laugh) It’s explosive.
Green: I guess when I call you a nerd I mean you can be quite awkward with people. People expect you to move very gracefully through the world. They think, “Oh, I know that this young, good-looking blonde girl is going to come in on a wave,” but you’re just a regular, nerdy person.
Sage: I walk and I fall. (laughs) I like that.
CS: Awkwardness is a big part of adolescence and you, John, have devoted a large part of your career to writing about adolescence and you, Halston, were an adolescent not too long ago. What do you think are some mistakes movies make when portraying teenagers?
Sage: What I was most excited about when I heard they were making another John Green book into a movie was the characters. He writes these characters for this age group that are really nonexistent at this time. It’s really easy to find a role for a 21-year-old girl that’s pretty or nerdy or goth or a slut, but it’s not easy to find a 21-year-old girl who’s all of those things. I think John captures that in his characters and that is what’s so fantastic to me.
Green: I think that the challenge is always… I worry that… Look, I don’t think this is a problem in books, actually. I think we have tremendous diversity in YA books today, in terms of what’s published if not in terms of what’s read. We have amazingly complex teenage characters. The quality in YA books really blows me away. I think in movies, because you have to sell 10 or 20-million movie tickets for it to be a huge blockbuster, they feel like they need to appeal to this really broad audience and in doing that I worry sometimes that they end up not acknowledging the intellectual curiosity of teenagers. I worry that they portray teenagers, like you said, as one thing or another rather than people, or as things that are necessary to get to the next fight scene. Look, I love good superhero movies and to be entertained. I think and hope that “Paper Towns” is a really entertaining movie that’s really fun to watch. Teenagers are really smart and they are intellectually engaged and they are asking big, interesting questions, and we need to acknowledge that. We need to make stuff for them that embraces that.
CS: There’s gotta be at least one or two of them out there that listen to Billy Bragg records.
Green: Right, exactly! There are! There are lots of teenagers that like Billy Bragg, lots of teenagers that like The Mountain Goats. It’s funny, we’re all sitting around talking about how intellectually sophisticated we are and we go home and watch “CSI: Miami” and they go home and they’re watching “MinutePhysics” and Vi Hart on YouTube and learning about set theory and stuff. Maybe we shouldn’t be clapping ourselves on the back. We should pay attention to teen culture because I think that they’ve got something that we’re missing.
CS: Knowing what you know now, if you could be magically transported back to your 14-year-old selves, right at the start of high school, would you just skip all that and run off and join the circus?
Green: (laughs) I wouldn’t ’cause I worry that if I join the circus I wouldn’t have had the adulthood that I enjoy. I really like being an adult, but man I would not do it again. If you asked me like, “Yo, if you could go back in time and be 14 again and you can even know what you know now,” I would be like, “Eh, it’s not worth the risk.” (laughs)
Sage: I dunno if I would join the circus but I wouldn’t do it again. (laughs) I’d go take a break, a nice vacation on a beach! (laughs)
Green: Yeah, “I’m just gonna hang out in Jamaica until I’m 37 again.” (laughs)
CS: Then just pick up where you left off.
Green: Right exactly, just be like, “Hey Sarah, it’s me your husband. Hello children!”
Paper Towns opens in theaters on July 24.