Write where you’re going to do your best work: A Q&A with Michael H. Weber ’00

by Lani Diane Rich

October 29, 2018

The Oscar-nominated screenwriter talks breaking out, working with a partner and the pleasures of adapting novels for the screen

Michael Weber
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Michael Weber '00

While most people complain about the weather in Syracuse, Michael Weber, an alumnus of the television, radio and film program, cites it as a contributing factor to his becoming an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.

“When I came to Syracuse, I didn’t have much of a social life and it snowed every day, so I was mostly in my room watching movies for years,” says Weber. “So it was here, immersing myself in film, while also taking Evan Smith’s classes, that I decided to turn my attention specifically to screenwriting.”

Weber and his writing partner, Scott Neustadter, broke out with their critically-acclaimed movie, “(500) Days of Summer,” and moved on to write the indie hit “The Spectacular Now” and the adaptation of the John Green novel “The Fault in Our Stars.” Last year, they were nominated for the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Disaster Artist,” based on the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, about the making of “The Room,” which is commonly referred to as the worst movie ever made. We sat down with Weber to talk about what it’s like to be a screenwriter in Hollywood.

How did you break out as a writer?

[Scott and I] had a handful of sample scripts and “500 Days of Summer” was one of them, but our first job was a pitch for a movie we sold to Fox, and [the story] was kind of like a guy version of “Sliding Doors.” While the movie never got made, it was exciting to finally be a working writer. Also, the perception of us changed. Suddenly, studios that had passed on our work were now reconsidering our samples. Selling our pitch is how “(500) Days of Summer” was optioned—we were now safe to take a chance on.

Evan Smith always joked in his classes, “When you’re successful, your first check goes to me.” So when I got my first check for being a working writer, I made a photocopy of it and sent it to Evan in a frame. I wrote, “You never said it couldn’t be a photocopy.” He still has it in his office today.

What is it like adapting a book for the screen?

Creatively, they’re fun because your first emotion with an adaptation is that you read something and you love it. I don’t want to adapt stories that I don’t feel that way about.

The goal is to have it resemble the experience of reading the book, but it’s obviously something different. It’s visual, it’s less internal, which is one of the major challenges.

My favorite compliment is when someone sees one of our adaptations and says, “It’s just like the book.” Because it never is, but you don’t want them to see how it changed.

Congratulations on being nominated for “The Disaster Artist.” What was it like the day you found out?

You hear the chatter about nominations, so you feel like there’s a chance. The thing about awards season that most people don’t know is that it stretches out for months. It’s months of campaigning at events and screenings, you feel like you’re running for office. It’s also a lot of fun because you get to meet a lot of filmmakers and people in the industry who you wouldn’t otherwise meet. So you’re doing all that and you’re hearing you have a chance, but you don’t really know until that morning.

Attending the Oscars as a nominee is an incredible experience. For all of the complaints about how slow the telecast is, when you’re there, it goes by so fast. It’s a blur. I’ll never forget it.

What’s next on the horizon?

We adapted a brilliant novel, “Salt to the Sea,” for Universal earlier this year. While it’s about refugees at the end of World War II, it resonates with the refugee crisis that’s going on now. There’s also a love story and some adventure and it really feels like the kind of epic that Hollywood rarely makes nowadays.

You’ve never lived in LA. Do you have advice for screenwriters who want to break in from somewhere else?

I don’t think you have to live in LA, but you have to have a presence in LA. I always tell young writers, “Live wherever you’re going to get your best work done. But no matter what, have a presence in LA, because that’s where the big decisions are made.”