(Note: I'm stepping in for Patrick this week, but fear not -- our beloved Patty Walsh will be back next week with another installment of The Write Stuff.)
At 26, Gustin Nash was an aspiring screenwriter working in a Burbank mall -- hanging with a bunch of kids (what he calls the "mall sub-culture") -- watching movies, and looking to his father, a psychiatrist, for advice on the future. One night, while down in the dumps and unsure of his path in life, Gustin's father told him to make a list of things he wants to accomplish and next to each write down, "You can do it." Later on, in bed, Gustin dreamt up a new character -- one that, no matter what life threw at him, would always remain optimistic and open-minded. Thus, his tenth spec script was born ... and he called it Charlie Bartlett.
Little did he know at the time, but Charlie Bartlett would become Nash's first produced screenplay. And not only was the film made (with a cast that includes Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr. and Hope Davis), but it's also heading to a theater near you this weekend. Cinematical spoke to Gustin about writing Charlie Bartlett, working alongside director Jon Poll on set and what it's like to watch your baby land on the big screen for the first time. Additionally, since I'm such a rabid Youth in Revolt fan, I also asked Gustin (who penned the adaptation) what we should expect from that film when it eventually hits theaters.
Cinematical: So, I guess I should first ask you whether the finished product was something you were happy with?
Gustin Nash: It's interesting, because I'm so lucky to have a first film that is, genuinely speaking, well received. All of us sort of acknowledged that it's hard for us to watch it without thinking of things we wished we had done better or, you know, but there's also a list of things that could've gone wrong, but didn't. The final product, to be honest, I'm really proud. Especially for a first film. I'm really proud how it turned out -- Jon [Poll] and I had the same vision very much from the start.
Cinematical: Now where did this whole idea come from? Something from your past, or something you're seeing around today?
GN: It was a combination of things. My father is a psychiatrist, and at the time this movie was written I was 26 and I was working in the mall in Burbank. I was hanging out with a lot of -- not just teenagers -- but this whole sort of sub-culture of the mall. Kids from 15 to 30, I guess -- and we'd all go to the movies together. We'd watch some of these movies that were clearly targeted toward teenagers, and we were all enjoying it. On the way home to play video games, I'd listen to some of the dialogue taking place and there was a huge disparity between these kids -- the way they behaved -- and the way they're portrayed on screen. So I had that rolling around, and I went back to visit my father and told him, 'I don't know if I'm going to be able to make it in this business. I'm working in a mall and churning out scripts.' So he said, try this -- every time you have something you're trying to accomplish on your schedule, put next to it, "You can do it." And I went to bed that night, at my parents house, and I was dreaming of a character whose mantra was "You can do it, you can do it" -- which in the film became his mantra; I'm gonna work this out. Just the idea of the optimist. And the whole movie kind of came to me in one night, and I went back to the mall in LA ... and pounded it out in four weeks. That's how the movie came about.
Cinematical: Did you sit down with these kids and ask what goes on in their high schools? I imagine at 26 you were pretty far removed from the high school environment.
GN: I didn't necessarily have to sit them down, because part of it, of course, was what I could remember from my own high school experience. But also extrapolating from watching these kids -- ya know, there was a lot of drama at the mall. People were dating people -- everyone was talking about this or that -- and I would listen to them talking about their problems. And listening to them as a sort of fly on the wall, it painted a very interesting picture of a different high school world that I was a part of. I'd say the film is one part a seventies movie take on the genre, one part my experiences in high school and one part what I sort of absorbed from observing kids today.
Cinematical: Now when you write a script like this, that has a lot of drugs in it, do you take the rating into consideration? Because it is an R-rated movie, but it almost feels like a PG-13 film because there's no cursing, and you don't abuse the fact that you can do whatever you want. So do you think about stuff like that when writing a script?
GN: Well I certainly do now, considering the uphill battle it was to get this movie made. At the time, when I was writing the script, I wasn't even thinking the film was going to get made. At the time, I knew I wanted to break in by being a youth market writer, and at least start there. So I was thinking this would be a good sample to show both drama and comedy -- and when I was writing it, I didn't think it was an R-rated movie. I thought I was writing something right on the edge, and it wasn't until later that it became clear ... You know, the overall message is very responsible, I think. I figured we might get a PG-13 -- but that was the first thing I heard; people saying forget it, it's definitely going to be R. And therefore it's unmakeable.
Cinematical: It's a shame, really, and I told this to Jon Poll and Anton when I interviewed them at Tribeca, because it really does feel like a PG-13 movie -- and it's the type of film kids today should see; they shouldn't be turned away because of a rating.
GN: Yeah, I mean the rating thing is very tricky these days. Clearly kids are seeing R-rated movies, and certainly much more inappropriate R-rated movies than this. I think the rating system may evolve as films come out that are appropriate for a 15-year-old, and not a 13-year-old, ya know? I hope so. In the UK, I believe you only have to be 15 to see a movie like this. I think we're a little bit behind, but I understand -- it is mature material. I can see why they'd be worried -- that kids would run off and sell each other prescription drugs.
Cinematical: We have a lot of writers who visit our site, and I imagine they'd love to know how to get to where you are right now -- with your first produced script hitting theaters in just a few days?
GN: Okay. Well, it's always a strange question for me because it's, like, what do I know? It's begging the question that there's some secret short cut out there, and I wish I could give one. I'll tell you this: I think that talent is a bit of a myth. If I had to define talent, I'd say it's having a unique perspective on the world and the ability to communicate that perspective. Now that's not necessarily something you're born with; I think your environment certainly shapes your perspective, and the ability to communicate that vision ... I believe practice makes perfect. I wrote ten scripts before I started to become consistent, and the tenth script was Charlie Bartlett. The truth of the matter is that if you are on a regiment of writing and reading other scripts -- because that often informs what you should be doing and not doing -- writing your own stuff and making sure you're getting feedback from people you trust; that will give you objective feedback without any kind of agenda. As far as breaking in -- that's the easy part. It's getting the product that's the hard part. The harder question is how do I get a good script, and not how do I get that script into the right hands.
Cinematical: The character of Charlie Bartlett reminds me somewhat of Ferris Bueller. Is that one of your favorite movies?
GN: Certainly yeah -- that one is up there, Risky Business is up there, Pump Up the Volume -- ya know, but certainly when I was writing this, I wasn't setting out to write anything like these movies; I almost was unintentionally writing a seventies movie. I was thinking more in terms of The Graduate, or later people started looking at Harold and Maude. That's how the Cat Stevens song made it into the movie -- as sort of a Hal Ashby homage. The thing about Ferris Bueller is that he is a great, memorable character. So if there was anything I took from that, it was that I needed to create a character that was absolutely memorable and that was a centerpiece -- someone who deserves to be the title of the film. Aside from that, I drew more on what I've seen in real life than what I've seen in the movies.
Cinematical: Now another film you're working on is the adaptation of one of my favorite books of all time, Youth in Revolt.
GN: Oh good, I hope I didn't butcher it.
Cinematical: [laughs] So one of the things I have to ask you is how in the world do you adapt a book that massive?
GN: It's interesting, because I read Youth in Revolt literally right after I typed Fade Out on Charlie Bartlett. I saw the adaptation of the book as I was reading it. The method I used, essentially, was that there were these big set pieces in the book that obviously deserved to be in the movie. I then used those as sort of a primer for what I was going to cut out and what I was going to leave in. If something wasn't essential to get to that set piece, then it either got consolidated or cut. But aside from the third act of the screenplay -- because the book; obviously there was a second and a third and a fourth -- it didn't really have a movie ending. So that was something I needed to -- in the spirit of the book -- invent so there was some sort of resolution. I don't want to sound like a hack, but I lifted so much from the novel, and tried to stay so true to the novel, because the novel gave me writing envy. Ya know, here was a chance to take credit for writing something that was much better than what I'd come up with on my own. [laughs]
Cinematical: Michael Cera is playing Nick Twisp, yet he's older than the character in the book. Did you age him up in the script?
GN: I aged him up before Michael Cera came on. I aged him up two years, because at the time -- at least in the original draft and we'll see what happens -- there was the whole two boys giving each other blowjobs. And I wanted to keep that just because it was so memorable; I don't know if it's going to stay. I felt like we were treading in dangerous territory with them being 14. To me, reading that character, he didn't feel like a 14-year-old -- he felt more like a 16-year-old. So I aged him up anyway, and the thing with Michael Cera is that he has such a baby face ...
Cinematical: So, in your opinion, your first two scripts -- one is original, one is an adaptation -- which do you enjoy more?
GN: To be honest, I like both -- but if I had to choose one or the other, I like having source material. It doesn't have to be a novel; I like graphic novels -- there's a book of short stories now called Rumble, Young Man, Rumble that I'm doing on spec right now with an agreement that I'd get to direct. What I like about source material is it gives me a chance to explore other voices in my bag of tricks. And allow other people to influence my writing. It's nice to not be stuck in one voice over and over again -- I like expanding my palette.
Cinematical: What are you working on now?
GN: Vince Vaughn hired my brother and I to do one last high school movie. We were pretty much done doing high school stuff, and he pitched us something that we kind of realized could be sort of the jewel in the crown of the youth anthology. We're calling it Career Day, and it's basically a high school movie filled with Vince and all his other adult movie star friends. It's all centered around the idea of career day, where people come to school and talk about their different professions. The theme of the movie is let the whole world be your classroom.
For more on Charlie Bartlett, see my interview with director Jon Poll and star Anton Yelchin from last year's Tribeca Film Festival, as well as my review of the film.