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How Indie Director Josh Boone Landed 'The Fault in Our Stars': He Pitched It as 'Titanic'

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire June 6, 2014 at 10:41AM

Director Josh Boone tells Indiewire how he made the transition from indie films to studio fare with "The Fault In Our Stars."
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Josh Boone and Nat Wolff on the set of "The Fault In Our Stars"

By all accounts, "The Fault In Our Stars," adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name by John Green, is expected to be a huge hit this summer. Starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, the film tells the bittersweet love story of two witty teenagers who fall in love after meeting at a cancer support group. 

The tearjerking tale was a hot Hollywood project from the get-go, so how did a little known director by the name of Josh Boone land the plum gig? With only one indie film under his belt, the comedy-drama "Stuck in Love" (previously named "Writers"), Boone made the jump to studio fare with his straightforward vision of the film and with his heartfelt pitch.

READ MORE: Actor Nat Wolff On Playing The Bad Guy in 'Palo Alto' and The Blind Guy in 'The Fault In Our Stars'

"Stuck in Love," the semi-autobiographical family drama which Boone wrote and directed, starred Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Lily Collins, Kristen Bell, Logan Lerman and Nat Wolff (who would go on to work with Boone on "The Fault In Our Stars.") After premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012, the film was acquired by Millennium, which released it last summer. Boone spoke to Indiewire recently about the difference between working on an indie and a bigger budget feature and how he landed the hot Hollywood gig. "The Fault In Our Stars" opens today.

"This is 'Titanic.' Cancer is the iceberg we're gonna hit at the end of the movie, but that can’t be what the movie is about."

Anytime you adapt a book to a film, inevitably people compare the two -- and not always favorably. Was that a concern?

The movie wouldn't exist without the book, John (Green) has said similar things. You just try to recreate the feeling you had in your chest when you read the book. If you could bring that to life with color and music and performances, that's what it is more than literally taking the text -- which we were able to do a lot of.

The film has such a hardcore fan base. Was it daunting to take on such a beloved book?

No. I knew the book was a big bestseller, but I really didn’t know anything about John’s fan base when I went in to pitch the movie to Fox. I had read "Looking for Alaska." I had read "The Fault in Our Stars" in no way thinking of it as a movie and Nat Wolff forced the script on me and said "you have to read this, it’s so good and I think this would be great. We have to do this together." So I read the script and thought they did a beautiful job adapting it and it just kind of all went from there.

So what was your pitch to Fox? How did you pitch it?

I brought in a USB stick filled with music, some of which is in the film and other stuff we had wonderful artists come and bring songs to it as well—original songs. I gave them 30 songs just to set the tone of the piece and how it would feel as an arc in the film. Just to kind of show them the emotional flow of the movie. I also brought in a bunch of photographs by a New York City photographer named Ryan McGinley, who is one of my favorites. He shoots these breathtaking, naturalistic photographs of young people that are so real and authentic and I just said, "I think this is what it should sort of look like." And when I went to go meet my cinematographer, Ben Richardson, he had brought to the meeting a book of Ryan McGinley photographs. So I was like, “I guess were making this. Lets go do it.” 

And we talked a lot about Cameron Crowe’s early movies. I talked a lot about "Jerry Maguire," particularly the opening montage. It was kind of the model for the opening montage in "The Fault In Our Stars." I just needed it to be funny and sad and go through all these different emotions and just kind of set you off into this world. Which I thought Cameron did so well. He’s one of my favorite directors. I’ve always admired his use of music so much --"Almost Famous," "Say Anything." "Say Anything" is a film we thought about a lot. I mean I wonder if John thought about it when writing the book ["The Fault In Our Stars'] when they are on the plane because "Say Anything" ends with that wonderful scene when they are on the plane together.

All those little things attracted me to it. I saw it much more as a love story then a story about disease. I told Fox "This is 'Titanic.' Cancer is the iceberg we're gonna hit at the end of the move but that can’t be what the movie is about. It has to be about the love story on the boat." That was always the way I looked at it and I just saw the disease thing being the obstacle that was going to try keeping them apart and whether or not it would succeed or not. I really looked at it like that because they were such interesting nuanced characters that the disease was always just secondary to me because I found them so much more fascinating than that.

The film is incredibly faithful to the book. Were there any aspects of the book that you weren't sure about including?

(Screenwriters) Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber adapted this book and did such a beautiful job. The way they kind of just focused that ending. It’s still emotionally the same ending as the book but it’s told in a much more spare way. It’s a little less convoluted. Because in a book, it doesn’t feel convoluted when you’re reading it. But when you look at it as a movie, it would just feel feel like too much. There are all those beats at the end and you just try to make it as focused as possible to give it the impact it needed to have. Honoring the book was our main goal and just capturing this language and the cast that we brought together were people that spoke that language and spoke incredibly—made it feel real.

Did you ever consult with John Green during the production?

Oh of course. I met him right after I was hired. I met him and he watched my first film and loved it and thought that it was earnest and true and not cynical and that’s what he thought "The Fault In Our Stars" needed to feel like. I just felt like we were kind of tonally in the same ballpark with the kind of things we liked. And we just had a good relationship. He was great and such a champion on set. He never overstepped his bounds or stepped on any toes. He was so lovely about everything. And was just really happy with how everything was going.

I remember showing him—I brought in my iPad one day because we’re cutting—my guys who cut my first film, my editing team are cutting the movie as I’m making it. So one of the first scenes I got was the egging scene. And so that was the first scene John saw cut together with music and it was the music that’s in the movie now. It survived every cut. And he just started laughing and then a couple minutes later he started crying when the song came on in the end. That made me never have to think about the fans because I knew if he was happy, I really felt like they would be happy too. So knowing that he was happy just gave me the confidence to go in everyday and just do what we were doing.

How did you end up casting Shailene and Ansel?

Shailene wrote a very long letter to John and she wrote a very long letter to Wyck Godfrey, one of the producers. I didn’t become involved until much much later. So she had wanted the role for quite a while and I love Shailene Woodley. I think she’s one of the best actresses out there. I had seen "The Descendants" and I thought she was wonderful in "The Spectacular Now." She’s just so tall and athletic. There was this moment of hesitation, where it was like, yeah she’s definitely one of the most amazing actresses on the planet, but is she credible as a 16 or 17 year old girl with cancer?

So when we went out there and looked at everybody and at the end of the day when I went and met her after I had seen 200 girls and I had not heard Hazel’s voice. I hadn’t heard it. I had heard a lot of good performances, interesting takes, but nobody where it sounded like I heard it in my head when I read it. And I went up to Chicago to meet her. She was shooting "Divergent." We had dinner and I walked out and was like, “I love her. She’s so fantastic. I don’t think she’s Hazel.” And then the next morning we went in and she came in to audition and she came into that room and the minute she started doing the metaphor scene when Gus takes out the cigarette and she also did the eulogy scene where she’s in the church. When she started staying those words, she just has the most beautiful expressive eyes and she just was Hazel. And I just looked over at my casting director and was like “Why did I make this so hard on myself?” She was incredible. So I was so happy to have her. And we hired her immediately.

"The movies I’ve made so far seem to be about writers and books. That’s always been such an important part of my life."

Then we paired her up with a bunch of guys to do chemistry reads and see if something magical would happen. We knew that Ansel was in "Divergent," so it’s not like it was ever a strike against him, but it was something that we thought about. Nobody knows what anything is going to be until it’s actually out in the marketplace. So we had no idea how much he was in it ("Divergent") or anything like that. He came in and was just the one who really made her react different. She felt so small next to him and so vulnerable and he just kept her on her toes. They were just so wonderful together and they are such good friends. They just had beautiful chemistry so we just did it.

How did you make the transition from indie to a big budget Hollywood feature?

I got my first movie made after 10 years in LA trying to get stuff to happen and the way I got into indies is so different to the way I got into Hollywood, but they connect. I had an agent at a pretty decent mid-sized agency. I wrote the script for "Writers," (which was later changed to "Stuck in Love") and everybody loved it. They just didn’t send it to many indie producers. They didn’t send it to much of anybody. And I got so frustrated that I wrote I think 100 letters to every producer I could find who would work with a first time director and just found their email address and just wrote letters to them. And I finally connected with CAA for the first film ("Stuck in Love") and they helped us put it together. They put me in the room with Jennifer Connelly and Greg Kinnear. And transitioning over to CAA and with that movie being completed, we were able to show it to Fox and they liked it. And I mean that ("Stuck in Love") and my pitch together are what got me the job. So I used that $5 million movie I made that was really just a collection of memories from when I was a kid, but kind of Cameron Crowe-ized, kind of idealized through the kind of movie I would love to watch when I was 15 or 16. And so it had a lot of tonal similarities to "Fault" as well. And you know it just all kind of made sense.

What would your advice be to aspiring filmmakers reading Indiewire? Any tips?

So much of it is perseverance. Like, at the end of the day, I pushed a snowball up a hill for 10 years. I wrote 12 scripts, 13 scripts, 14 scripts. I would get actors attached to them and then I couldn’t get the financing together. And you know what ended up happening is I realized, I need to write something that—I can’t make a case that I’m the best guy to write a horror movie or a sci-fi movie or an action movie, but if I wrote something really personal that was autobiographical that I could really make a compelling case that I was the person to do it—then I thought somebody might take a chance on me. Especially with roles that were attractive to actors. I would really say that people need to write something that’s deeply connected to them when they are trying to make a first movie because it gives them an ownership over it that they won’t ever have with a genre piece.

The movies I’ve made so far seem to be about writers and books. That’s always been such an important part of my life. I just love books so much. Whether you write or not it’s just finding something that speaks to you, deeply in your heart. And John’s book did it for me. I had a really close friend die of cancer before I made my first movie. It was just really traumatic. I was really close with him. And I picked up John’s book at a Barnes & Noble in Wilmington, NC shooting "Stuck in Love." I didn’t read it thinking it was a movie. I read "Looking for Alaska" a couple of years back and I thought I liked that one I’ll see what he’s doing. And read "The Fault In Our Stars" and really liked it and then forgot about it and then Nat gave me the script. But that book was really helpful in a time when I was really depressed. It gave me a lot of hope. I think the beauty of the story is that’s it two people who meet who finally find the one other person in the world who speaks the exact same language as they speak. There’s very few moments when that happens and this is just a celebration of those two people coming together. That is what it was to me. It was a celebration of love.

This article is related to: Josh Boone, Josh Boone, The Fault in Our Stars, The Fault in Our Stars, The Fault in Our Stars, Interviews, Shailene Woodley