Award-winning screenwriter and independent film producer Michael H. Weber is returning to the Hamptons to once again take part in the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) Screenwriters Lab. Weber, who co-wrote (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now, and adapted The Fault in Our Stars, The Disaster Artist, and Our Souls at Night, served as a mentor at the Lab in 2016, and was on the 2015 festival jury.
On Saturday, April 8, Weber will lead a Master Class that explores the entire process of scriptwriting, from start to finish. The class, which is open to the public, will take place at the Ross School in East Hampton, starting at 6 p.m.
We recently caught up with Weber to learn more about the class, his films, working collaboratively, and much more.
You’ll be covering the entire screenwriting process during the Hamptons International Film Festival Master Class. How do you manage to fit such an extensive endeavor into one class?
MHW: I feel like I still learn new things as I go on, and every project I stumble on a trick or an idea, or something I haven’t done before. So I’m going to walk through sort of a macro process and then hit on some of the little micro things that I key in on every project – no matter how different they are – that help me keep the project afloat. It’ll be fun. I’m looking forward to it.
How much does a script typically change from its initial draft to the final edited picture?
MHW: It changes quite a bit. The great thing about being a screenwriter is you are usually the only one who gets to be alone with the project, and then over time, obviously, the producers and the studio executives come in and have their input. The director comes in and the cast comes in, and eventually you’re collaborating with more and more people, and it changes. And that’s a good thing. It’s funny, a lot of people actually view that as a negative, but I look forward to having more feedback and having more voices involved – as long as we’re all trying to make the same movie because everyone brings good ideas to the table and it just continues to get better and evolve. I don’t think my first draft is ever the be all end all. My writer partner, Scott Neustadter, and I, we invite that type of collaboration, and we’ve been very lucky to work with directors and actors who have made our work better.
You’ve worked with your writing partner since the start of your career. When working collaboratively, how do you find a balance?
MHW: We strike a new balance every day. Every project starts as a dialogue between the two of us and we don’t embark on anything unless we’re talking about the same movie and we’re talking about a movie that we’d want to go see, but there’s always some push and pull. There’s no score keeping of who had more ideas or who was right about this or that, because we also know just amongst the two of us, the script is going to change a lot over the course of the project. It’s been a really wonderful collaboration all these years.
Is there anything you think people would find surprising about the process?
MHW: I would say Scott and I have done quite a bit of work on book adaptations and just because a book is a great read, doesn’t necessarily mean it would be a great movie, and I think that would surprise some people. Friends, family come up to me and say, “You gotta read this book. I think it would make a great movie.” And just because something is a great reading experience, often times it can be too internal or if there’s too many tangents – what makes it a great read isn’t necessarily cinematic or dialogue driven. So sometimes the best books don’t make for the best movies.
When adapting a book for the big screen, how do you decide what to include in the movie?
MHW: We’ve had a similar process for many years on adaptations, and the first thing we do – Scott and I separately – we break down the book and try to figure out what the core, central story is because for some books that’s easier than others. A lot of books there’s a lot of different tangents and threads and characters, but we need to figure out what the central story is, who the main characters are, and what big ideas – what’s the central theme that becomes creatively our guiding star throughout the process. That stuff I’m describing, that happens long before we actually begin writing. It’s sort of crafting what the shape of the movie would be via those elements. And then from there, both of us have circled our favorite moments in the book, our favorite lines, and we try to fit all that great stuff into what is starting to take on the shape of a movie. So, that’s kind of the long and short of it.
It seems like music has played a huge part in a lot of your projects, like The Fault in Our Stars. How involved are you with choosing the movie’s music?
MHW: Every project is different. We tend to work making studio movies, and in that case we have some say, but not a lot of say. All of the music choices from (500) Days of Summer were written into the screenplay. Scott, I credit him, he is a music nerd of the highest order. But on other things like The Fault in Our Stars, the studio and the director hired a music supervisor and we had no say in the music in The Fault in Our Stars. When we made The Spectacular Now, an independent film, the music choices were a conversation between the music supervisor, the director, and us – so we were a little more involved. So it really changes project to project. I will say we try to be involved in as many aspects of the filmmaking process, without stepping on toes. If we’re invited to take part in the conversation about the music, we want to be there. The same with casting, the same with the production itself.
Speaking of casting, when writing, do you typically have a particular actor or actress in mind?
MHW: I think if you write with a particular actor or actress in mind, you might limit yourself in a way that could eventually hurt the project. And, I don’t think you want to make your character too general or too impossible to cast. For us, the sweet spot is you write it knowing it could be Mark Ruffalo or Jon Hamm or a type like that. You try to write it in a way that it’s castable without being too general or limited to one person.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a screenwriter?
MHW: Well, the biggest challenge initially was breaking through and getting work in the first place. Scott and I had nearly a decade of writing before we got a screenwriting job. The hardest challenge since then is accepting the fact that we can write a great screenplay and it doesn’t mean it’s going to get made into a movie. We’ll always be a collaborative medium and it takes a lot of people saying yes to get movies made. When I was younger I used to make fun of moves that I thought were bad and I don’t do that as much anymore – if at all – because I’m sort of amazed that any movies ever get made.
What advice would you offer someone interested in getting started in screenwriting?
MHW: My best advice would be keep watching as many movies as you can, get your hands on screenplays to read, surround yourself with other aspiring writers, build your little tribe of people who care about screenwriting as much as you do because you can read each other’s work and give feedback, and sort of all come up in the business together and help each other, which is what Scott and I did. And then just don’t stop writing.
What’s next for you?
MHW: We’re very fortune to have two movies that went into production last year, and they’re both coming out this year. One is called The Disaster Artist. It’s starring James Franco and directed by James Franco. It’s about two guys who went on to make what’s arguably the worst movie of all times, The Room. And that’s our first true story. Scott and I have never written about something that’s actually happened before. So we’re excited about this one in a lot of ways. It just premiered at South by Southwest last month and it’ll be out later this year. And that other movie we shot is called Our Souls at Night, and we wrote that movie for Netflix. It stars Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, and you know, [he jokes] I don’t think most people know those two actors, but they’re two young, up-and-comers. I think people are going to hear a lot about them soon…
Tickets to the HIFF Screenwriters Lab Master Class are $25.
For more information about Hamptons International Film Festival’s Master Class with Michael H Weber, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org./em>