“The Fault in Our Stars” screenwriting team inspired by personal grief

Screenwriter Scott Neustadter recalled how his father, Michael, the vigorous president of his Conservative synagogue in New Jersey, received shocking news after medical tests for his nagging back pain in January 2011: He had advanced pancreatic cancer. Surgery followed, plus radiation and chemotherapy that led to “a year’s worth of torture” until his father’s death, in 2012, at age 60: “It was an awful year,” Neustadter, 37, who lives in Los Angeles, said in a recent phone interview.

As a result, Neustadter’s writing partner, Michael H. Weber — with whom Neustadter had collaborated on the 2009 hit independent film “(500) Days of Summer” as well as “The Spectacular Now” (2013) — was reluctant to bring up their manager’s idea for a possible new project:  adapting John Green’s runaway best-seller, “The Fault in Our Stars,” which spotlights gravely ill teenage cancer patients who fall in love. “It was something I was extremely sensitive about,” Weber, 36, said from his home in Manhattan. Weber had attended Michael Neustadter’s funeral and had been moved by his partner’s eulogy for his dad. “But our manager lobbied to go to Scott and let him decide.”

Turned out Neustadter was receptive: “It had been impossible for me to focus or to be creative, because everything else had seemed insignificant up to that point,” he said of his father’s illness and death. “But cancer was all I had been thinking about, morning, noon and night, so I jumped at the opportunity to read [Green’s] book.”

The result is their adaptation of “The Fault in Our Stars,” which has earned positive reviews as well as massive box office returns in recent weeks; it stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as Hazel and Gus, cancer-stricken teenagers who bond over their shared obsession with a novel about a girl with cancer. They travel to Amsterdam to meet its author, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) and fall in love, despite an excruciating awareness of their limited time on earth.

“The book is really spot-on about a lot of things,” Neustadter said, comparing it to his own family’s experience with cancer. “Like Hazel’s mom not able to take a bath even for 30 seconds, or the family dynamic changing when you feel you’re walking on eggshells around someone who is not well. The sentiments Hazel has — her anger and her [irony] — was also definitely something I had felt as well.”

Even so, both Neustadter and Weber insisted that they never saw “The Fault in Our Stars” as strictly a cancer movie. “It’s about young people trying to figure out their future and their place in the world,” Weber said. “There’s a happy-sad undertone that is bittersweet, not bitter, which is sort of our sweet spot as writers. It’s Hazel and Gus dealing with practical, real-life issues, as best they can. But it isn’t dour; it’s just life, which is what we’re drawn to in all our stories.”

The novel proved so compelling that “it made us quite desperate to land the job, even though pretty much everyone else wanted it, and they were all more impressive than we were,” Neustadter said.

But, executives at 20th Century Fox had been impressed with the writers’ adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel “The Spectacular Now,” which revolves around a high school student grappling with his budding alcoholism; they were hooked, as well, by the pair’s desire to stay true to Green’s book. “We basically sold them on how little we planned to do,” Weber said.

He and Neustadter turned in their first draft just 10 days later; although they live on opposite coasts, they collaborate by outlining and dividing up scenes by phone and email. “We could basically still work together if one of us was on the moon,” Weber said.

The challenges of the adaptation included toning down slightly the characters’ penchant for metaphor and also the grueling backdrop of chemotherapy, fluid-filled lungs, infected stomach feeding tubes and middle-of-the-night emergency trips to the ICU. “When you’re reading a book, you can walk away for a while and pick it up when you’re ready to start crying again,” Weber explained. “But in a movie, you’re sitting there, trapped, so while we did not want to sugarcoat the illness, we made a concentrated effort to walk the line and not make it overly graphic.”

The screenwriters agonized most about the sequence in which the protagonists visit the Anne Frank House, where Frank’s writings about embracing the beauty of life lead Hazel to finally allow Gus to kiss her (previously she had kept their relationship platonic to avoid hurting Gus upon her demise). “At no point did we want to compare and contrast the struggles of Hazel and Anne Frank,” said Weber, who grew up attending a Reform synagogue in Great Neck, N.Y. “The last thing we wanted to do is equate their situations or make any profound connections between the two. So this was a moment that made us scratch our heads and say, ‘Should we do this? Can we do this?’ ”

“But then we realized that when Hazel doesn’t get the answers she wants from [Van Houten], she then goes to a museum that is very much about a person whose memory and spirit is still alive after she’s gone,” said Neustadter, who was raised in a Conservative synagogue in Margate, N.J. “So we thought that could connect to the story in ways that are really elegant.”

The screenwriters met and bonded over their shared Jewish cinematic idols — Woody Allen and Mel Brooks — while working at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions in the 2000s; their breakout film, “(500) Days of Summer,” was prompted by ranting emails Neustadter sent Weber several years later regarding his tempestuous romance with an aloof young woman. “To Weber, the film was a comedy, but to me it was a horror movie,” Neustadter said.

Even so, the film helped to launch the writers as Hollywood’s go-to scribes for coming-of-age stories with undercurrents of youthful angst; in the past year and a half, their flair for adaptation has led to gigs bringing Jojo Moyes’ “Me Before You” and Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” to the screen.

Green — who was inspired to write “The Fault in Our Stars,” in part, after serving as a hospital chaplain for seriously ill children — was so pleased with Neustadter and Weber’s take on his novel that he sent them an email enthusing that it was the best adaptation of his work he had ever read.

“We emphasized the paramount theme of the novel, which is making the best of your limited time on earth,” Neustadter said. “Somehow, all of us go through life forgetting the fact that we’re all terminal. But these characters are acutely aware that their time is precious, and they approach every decision from that angle, which is a unique and compelling one. What I think is amazing is that at the end of this story, Hazel and Gus have experienced this great love so that they can die knowing they’ve lived a full life.”

Nevertheless, Neustadter said, writing “The Fault in Our Stars” did not bring him additional closure on the death of his own father. “Everyone grieves in different ways,” he said. “But my wife and I were able to tell my dad that he was going to be a grandfather the week before he died.” Neustadter’s now-toddler son is named Michael for his deceased grandfather. “If anything has provided a bit of closure, it’s that,” he said.

“The Fault in Our Stars” is in theaters now.