"Any sort of innocent young-love stuff — anything before life's complications and all that adult stuff moves in — there's just a purity there that I am still moved by." Josh Boone is talking about his sincere, unironic love of TV shows and movies like The Wonder Years, Almost Famous, and Adventureland, but he's also talking about why he felt like the right person to direct The Fault in Our Stars, the movie adaptation of John Green's best-selling YA novel, which stars Shailene Woodley as Hazel and Ansel Elgort as Augustus. And he really wants audiences — the first wave of which will surely consist largely of teenagers and their parents — to lower their defenses and take the movie in. "There'll be people who will say this is schmaltzy or whatever, but we all made it earnestly." We spoke to Boone about staying stoic while directing crying scenes and his forthcoming movie based on Stephen King's post-apocalyptic novel The Stand.
So I hadn’t read the book before seeing the movie. I have since, but I hadn’t then, and I didn’t know anything that was gonna happen. I assume a lot of people in the audience know the ending. I did not see that coming.
I’ve been to audience screenings where, even before the bench scene in Amsterdam, just when he sits down on the bench, I heard people start to cry. And I was like, this is strange.
It didn't occur to you that you'd be working on a movie in which the plot details were known to so many people?
I didn’t think about it that much, to be honest. I read the book when I was making my first movie, just for pleasure. I had read [John Green's] Looking for Alaska before that, and then Nat Wolff [who plays Isaac in TFIOS] started sending me the script and was like, Boom, we gotta do this! So I didn’t know about Nerdfighters. I didn’t know about John Green’s YouTube presence. I really just thought he was the writer who wrote the book, so I kind of learned that stuff after I had gotten the job. John was on set and was so great that just having him being happy with stuff, for me, gave me validation. “If he’s happy, I guess the fans will be happy with it.” He was my audience to play to.
How many tears does Shailene Woodley have?
She’s got a lot. When she came in and read with the different Guses, every single time she was able to hit that emotion with five, six guys in a row. Every time we did the scene where he sits down on the bench, she was emotionally there and crying and with them. It was pretty extraordinary.
Does having to be there for all those scenes affect you? There are extended scenes where characters are crying, crying, crying.
If I’m thinking about those emotional scenes, I think about Shae waking up in bed when they get the phone call.
Exactly. That goes on for a while!
We did it like, three or four times, probably?
In a row? Did you need a break?
No. Even John was like, “Should I get up and see if she’s okay?” I said, “No, she’s fine, she knows what she’s doing!” She did it over and over. Never not an authentic moment. If she felt like it wasn’t authentic, we kept going until we were both happy. You watch that scene and, whether someone likes the movie or not, that’s real. That’s real. She’s tapping into something.
If she hadn’t been able to do that, would you have been fucked?
Fucked. Totally fucked. And I didn’t want her at first. She’s 22 or 21, she’s athletic, she’s fit, she’s tall. She’s really strong. She just doesn’t seem at all like the Hazel that I read in the book. Even when I went to Chicago and had dinner with her, I loved her, but I still didn’t think she was Hazel. The next morning she came in to audition, and within literally a minute or two, my casting director and I were both crying because she wasn’t Shailene when she came in. She was Hazel. I was like, Why did I make this so hard on myself? We tested like 200 girls, probably. Every girl in Hollywood in that age range read for us. Some of them were amazing. Some of them did a great job, but none of them really had her voice. When Shae came in and read that eulogy, that pre-eulogy at the church, that was her audition scene. It was like I’d heard her for the first time and I was like, I think this is gonna work.
You know, John’s dialogue is so heightened that still, up to when we started shooting, I was worried. Is it too much? Is it gonna feel too …? But the way I looked at it, it’s about two people who found each other. For the first time in their lives, they found somebody who speaks the same language as them. With [Hazel and Gus's friend Isaac, played by Nat Wolff], we didn’t dumb down the sophistication of his dialogue from the book, but we did bring it down a lot and make him a little more normal, just to try to make the connection between Hazel and Augustus and the way they talk to each other more special. I have an easier time believing they can talk like that than everybody in the entire world could talk like that.
I go to a lot of movies. I find it difficult not to at least tear up when someone onscreen is tearing up. When you’re directing, does being present change things?
I remember being really emotional in her audition, and I remember being really emotional when she cried in bed, but that was the only scene on set I cried at. I’m so busy all the rest of the time. And when you’re editing the movie, you get so dead to it. I mean, I’ve seen that movie probably 65 times or something. So I don’t feel anything. I’m like, Can this person please die already? Going and seeing it after all those months watching it, and seeing it with young audiences, I was able to experience it emotionally through them and their reactions. But you get very clinical about it. It becomes so clinical, cold, and detached. You’ve got to let a lot of stuff go. So I’m dead inside [laughs].
A writer of ours wrote a piece recently about Adam Sandler's new movie. It's pretty bad, but because of the story, because certain plot details matched with certain beats in his life, he had an outsize emotional reaction. Have you had movies — good or bad — that have hit you that way?
One of my very best friends died of stage-four lung cancer before I made my first movie. That Christmas, I was so depressed. I was going and parking outside of his house and parking at night and just sitting there and listening to music. And I went to see We Bought a Zoo. That movie made me feel … it didn’t get good reviews. People didn’t see it. But that movie made me feel so much better, and that’s the kind of thing I think about. When I was in high school, the movies that I watched over and over — I remember watching Four Weddings and a Funeral over and over when I was down or no girls would go out with me — you go to movies for comfort and solace a lot of the time when you’re that age. And it feels like, if you could make people feel this way, that's great. I tend to make earnest movies. Not intentionally. It’s just the way I am. And John and I related on that. He is not a fan of irony. We didn’t wanna make a movie that was … I don’t know, we just wanted it to be real and earnest and yeah, people cry and people die, but that’s just part of the whole experience of life.
So I’m a big Stephen King fan, and I know you’re a gigantic Stephen King fan, so I have to ask about The Stand. You’re directing it. What can you tell me about it?
We’re gonna do one three-hour, R-rated version with an amazing A-list cast across the board. Every single one of those characters will be somebody you recognize and somebody you relate to. And it’s gonna be awesome. I’m really excited. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever got to do in my entire life. If 12-year-old me had ever known that one day I’d be doing this, to even just go back and look at that kid, I’d be like, Keep doing what you’re doing! It’s just crazy. I’ve met so many actors over the years, and like, when I met Stephen King, I hugged him with tears in my eyes. He meant that much to me when I was young. I still say everything I learned about writing I learned from Stephen King. I don’t read screenplays. I don’t read screenplay how-to books. It’s always just, establish the character. Establish the character.
For as little time as she has in The Fault in Our Stars, Laura Dern's character is very well-established, emotionally. I loved her.
She’s so good. I love her so much. I was a gigantic David Lynch fan when I was a kid. I loved Wild at Heart, and Laura Dern was the very first person we brought onboard. Loved her in so many movies growing up. Willem Dafoe was the same way. I think most kids today or people think of him from Spider-Man. I had The Last Temptation of Christ on laser-disc when I was a kid, and Platoon. Dafoe was one of my favorite actors. Light Sleeper, one of Paul Schrader’s movies, is one of my favorites. I thought he was gonna be really scary, but he was the nicest, gentlest human you ever knew.
For some reason, whenever I think of him these days, I think of him from Lars von Trier's Antichrist.
The people that are seeing this have never seen Antichrist ever. They don’t know what that is. They don’t know what Nymphomaniac Volume II is.