By Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK — The names of plenty of movies might come up if you’re discussing “Paper Towns,” the new millennial romance from the novelist and screenwriters behind last year’s teen weepie “The Fault in Our Stars.”
“Casino” and “The Big Sleep” are not among them.
Yet those reference points ran through the mind of director Jake Schreier as he was making his new film, about a high-school senior (Nat Wolff) pining for a free-spirited neighbor (Cara Delevingne) after she disappears.
“There is a mystery and a search and a femme fatale, so ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘The Long Goodbye’ felt right,” said Schreier, who showed those movies to his cast.
“OK, maybe not the story. But the framing, and the bigness of some of the scenes about people in high school, which is the same bigness Scorsese used in that movie,” Schreier said, then laughed knowingly at the outsized comparison.
The geekish helmer looks to tap into those unlikely influences in his new PG-13 film, even as he plays to a more traditional teen narrative about Q, Wolff’s hero.
As written by the “Fault” novelist John Green and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, Q (short for Quentin) is neither cool nor an outcast. He is merely a reasonably bright high school senior with plans for Duke medical school when he graduates and leaves his Orlando, Fla., neighborhood behind. OK, so maybe he has some unresolved feelings for neighbor and childhood friend Margo (Delevingne, the supermodel in her biggest role to date), who’s since gone on to hang with the popular kids and whose life he romanticizes. It’s nothing graduation can’t cure.
Yet when Margo enlists Q on a revenge mission one night and then disappears the next day, it sets the hero and his friends on a path to find her (with the help of some clues she’s left behind) — and, possibly, to make more existential discoveries.
Schreier scatters “Paper Towns” with his own bread crumbs. Some of the cinematic nods are obvious — Q and his friends attempt a Humphrey Bogart-Philip Marlowe voice as they begin their quests. Others are more subtle, such as mood-music driving scenes at dusk that will recall 1980s’ neon-noir titles like “Body Double,” or shots of the boys on their adventure that will evoke PG throwbacks like “The Goonies.”
Schreier, 33, is an unlikely person to tackle this teen material. Just three years ago, he made “Robot & Frank,” a gentle futuristic story about an aging burglar and his new pet machine. The movie had its premiere at Sundance, where it received nice notices and a modest release. Schreier seemed likely to move to a prestige drama or maybe a slightly bigger science-fiction movie.
But the director was hardly a sci-fi guy — he grew up in Berkeley, and his parents wouldn’t even allow him to see “Aliens” — and he didn’t want to repeat the feat, in any event. He read the “Paper Towns” novel and thought it a fitting way to branch out, then sold himself to Fox 2000 and production company Temple Hill as a director who’s adept at humanism with a genre dusting.
“I’m not sure there are a lot of comparisons, but if you’re going to draw a line from ‘Robot & Frank’ to this movie it’s that they each have a bunch of genres that really shouldn’t be in the same film but need to be held together,” he said last week in Brooklyn, where he lives.
Schreier is part of a larger class of contemporaries tackling big studio material just a short time after a quirky passion project. “Jurassic World” director Colin Trevorrow scored the biggest hit of the summer a few years after making the offbeat Sundance time-travel dramedy “Safety Not Guaranteed,” while Schreier’s friend and New York University classmate Jon Watts has gone from the indie road thriller “Cop Car” to the new “Spider-Man” movie before the former has even hit theaters.
But as much as it suggests the movie industry’s willingness to do away with dues-paying, the jump also reflects a reality about today’s directors: If you want to work in tentpole-era Hollywood, you’d better be ready to mold your style to a studio’s slate and needs.
The adaptation process on “Paper Towns” wasn’t easy. Green’s novel, written four years before “Fault,” lacks the dramatic hook of his later success, not to mention the baroque conceits of a “Twilight” or “Hunger Games.” Though there is ostensibly a missing-persons undertone to the Margo tale, that’s hardly the movie’s point. The biggest mystery in “Paper Towns” is the puzzle of growing up.
“We are the no-one-dies movie,” Schreier said, smiling as he made clear he may be a little tired of the question. “It is a little unfortunate no one turns into a vampire.”
And even though book and movie have a big road trip — a piece de resistance of sorts — there are other less filmable elements, such as when Q reads Walt Whitman to help track down Margo. (The prose appears on screen here, fleetingly.)
Green said he had his own doubts about the project.
“I didn’t see it as very adaptable, to be honest,” said the novelist, who was on set during the shoot advising Schreier and the actors. “But Scott and Mike and Jake found a structure that worked and this through line of all these people mis-seeing or essentializing each other, which I thought really capture the book.”
He added: “It’s nice to have a movie for young people that doesn’t fit into genre expectations.” (Whether an audience accustomed to seeing their teen concerns in shiner packaging will agree remains a question; but judging by the youthful shrieks at the premiere on Tuesday, the studio at least has a devoted fan base to work with.)
To adapt material like this, it also helps to have a certain clarity of purpose. Schreier, who is soft-spoken, manifests an intensity on set. “Has Jake managed to convince you he’s low-key?” Wolff said, laughing when told of a reporter’s impression of the director. “That’s good that’s he’s able to trick you.”
Schreier is intense about his filmmaking. Steven Soderbergh is a particular influence, he said. In “Paper Towns,” Schreier sought, like Soderbergh might, to give a lived-in quality to big moments and to bring an attention to detail even to casual scenes.
But he said he also found there were elements he couldn’t control, such as the overall tone of the movie. “It’s strange. I think I’m pretty dark and cynical, and these movies keep coming out light,” Schreier said. “But that’s OK. Nat called me Diet Fincher at one point. I can live with that.”