Q&A with John Green
As Paper Towns hits the silver screen, the author discusses filmmaking, fame, Bill Gates, The Sopranos, and (finally!) some details about his next novel.
Just a few years ago, local author John Green could still go to the grocery store. Sure, he had written a couple of successful young-adult novels and created the popular Vlogbrothers and Crash Course series on YouTube, but his fame was mostly limited to brainy teenagers. He wasn’t exactly being approached every time he showed his face in public. Those days are over. When Fox adapted his novel The Fault in Our Stars last year, the movie earned almost $300 million worldwide, and Green was featured in every major newspaper and entertainment magazine in the country. On July 24, Fox will release Paper Towns, a film based on Green’s 2008 book of the same name. The plot follows a boy named Quentin, whose crush on free-spirited Margo leads him on an adventure when the girl disappears from her suburban Orlando home. We sat down with Green ahead of the premiere to talk about his own adventures since we profiled him last summer.
We haven’t caught up with you since your trip to Ethiopia with Bill Gates last July. How did you meet, and what did you learn on that expedition?
He was a big fan of Crash Course [Green’s educational video series], so that’s how we connected. And on our trip, I was so impressed with his commitment there. This is not a retirement hobby for him. He asks great questions and knows a lot about the science of malaria. He was particularly interested in how people in the developing world are using technology to solve their problems. Sometimes that was very sophisticated technology, like this crazy Thermos that can keep vaccines cold for 90 days, and sometimes it was the technology of reusing gas cans for drinking water. But the most interesting people I met on that trip—and this is nothing against Bill Gates—were not Bill Gates. They were the healthcare workers and the students at the University of Addis Ababa. My brother and I are very interested in global health, but I had never really traveled in the developing world. This experience personalized it.
A few months after that trip, you began filming Paper Towns. How was your involvement in this film different from The Fault in Our Stars?
Yes, I went to Africa, then enjoyed two months of meningitis, then traveled to North Carolina to film. I was an executive producer this time around, but I was doing pretty much the same thing I was doing on the set of TFIOS.
Being excited. But the director—Jake Schreier—and I did become really good friends, and I think he trusted me as a collaborator. My biggest priority was conveying the danger of imagining other people simplistically or monolithically. The character Quentin romanticizes this girl Margo, seeing her as a precious thing to be won in a conquest. That’s what most teen romances are about—getting the girl. Getting. Which implies possession. It was important to both of us that the film upend that. So I wanted enough voice-over to communicate that, while still making it a fun movie to watch. So mostly, I futzed with the voice-over.
I imagine with the success of The Fault In Our Stars, you could have had any director you wanted. Why Jake, who, after all, was still coming up in the world?
That makes him cheap! I liked his film Robot & Frank a lot, but what impressed me most was that he went to Orlando [where Green grew up], found all the places from the book, and photographed them. Even when I thought I had done a very good job disguising the place I was writing about, he found it. He sent those photos to me, and it was like looking at pictures of my childhood—the way I used to look up at the SunTrust Tower, the naval base–turned-subdivision. No one else did anything like that, and I wanted him to get the job so badly. Of course, it wasn’t my decision. But I was thrilled when he got it.
You had your own Executive-Producer chair this time. Where is it now?
Well, they don’t give you the chair. They give you the cloth chair-back with your name on it, and then you have to buy your own chair. Which seems kind of cheap for an $18 million movie. But to answer your question, I don’t know where it is. I’ve already lost it.
Do you have any souvenirs from the film?
I have Quentin’s copy of the fourth Harry Potter book and a Woody Guthrie poster.
I hear you really liked the black Santas, a collection of which is owned by one of the characters. Why not keep one of those?
Many of those were borrowed and had to be returned. And they were very popular among the crew. When filming was over, we held a little auction, and I couldn’t compete with the prices they were going for. A hundred and fifty bucks just felt unreasonable for a black Santa.
What did you learn from The Fault in Our Stars film that you applied to this one?
I guess what I learned is that things turn out best when everyone is working from a place of passion. No one wants to feel like they’re doing something inconsequential. We were very lucky on the first film that everyone—the lighting people, the sound techs—felt like they were working on something important. That’s what I wanted on the Paper Towns set. I thought if there was anything I could contribute, it’s that sense of excitement. It’s easy to lose that when you’re working long days filming.
Based on social-media posts, it appears the crew became very close. Can you describe the experience of working so intensely with a group of people for a few months and then disbanding forever?
Yeah, it’s like summer camp. I really don’t like that. Tremendous intimacy, then a hug goodbye. I’m more of a long-term–relationship kind of guy. Nat Wolff is that kind of guy, too. We became really close after The Fault in Our Stars, so it didn’t end for us. Our friendship was about more than the movie.
Nat is back as the lead in Paper Towns. What about him interprets your work so well?
He just sounds like a John Green character. He sounds like me. I never found myself thinking, That’s an interesting take on Quentin. He just talked the way Quentin sounded in my head.
Between Shailene Woodley in your first film and Cara Delevingne in this one, you have a talent for landing the “It” girl of the moment. How does that happen?
It has nothing to do with me, that’s for sure. Cara had been in a couple of things, but she was primarily a model. She just nailed the audition. Cara is the only person I’ve ever known closely who makes the kind of unorthodox choices that Margo makes.
Being incredibly famous and not having an assistant. She still makes her own schedule and tells people what she wants to pursue. She lives her own life in a way that I don’t. It comes from a place of passion more than a place of reason. Which would be terrifying for me.
Well, I like having an assistant. I like not having to deal with things I don’t want to. Cara fascinates me. She is truly wild.
Have you kept up with her, or is she another one that will get away due to the nature of filmmaking?
Oh, she’ll get away, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the nature of filmmaking. Cara is an international star. I feel like the next time I see her, she’ll be in my living room when I come home one night. That’s the kind of thing she would do.
As you get older, your characters and the actors playing them stay the same age. How do you continue to connect with them?
I feel like I’ve never been that good at it, even when I was a teenager. My strategy is to not treat them like teenagers, to not look at them differently than other people. I believe the questions they’re asking are interesting questions, and the pain they experience is as real as the pain anyone else experiences.
Do they see you as an equal?
No, no, no. They see me as an old man. Which is fine. I don’t hang out with teenagers except on the sets of films. And even then, it’s not a peer relationship. They don’t want me coming over for drinks. That would be weird.
Can you walk us through a typical day of filming?
They’re long. You have to wake up super-early. Like, 4 in the morning. The call time [when everyone is expected on set] is 6 a.m. I know lots of people work really hard all the time, but I don’t. Once I was on the set, I would talk about a plan for the day with the other producers and Jake. Then I’d watch the movie get shot for the next 12 hours, which is a weird mix of intense and boring. There’s a lot of construction and deconstruction. You might have to reshoot a scene 20 times. It takes forever. For a guy who makes YouTube videos, it’s unbelievably inefficient.
Now that you’ve been through the process a couple of times, do you have any screenwriting ambitions?
No, that seems like a terrible job. You don’t own the thing that you make. Also, I’m really bad at it. I wrote a script for Paper Towns in 2008 for the company that had just made Juno. That went nowhere. I’m fairly good at writing dialogue, but movies are extremely structural. You have to use dialogue and visuals, not narration, to move the story forward. Novels are much looser.
What have you enjoyed about the Hollywood experience?
This sounds weird to say, but the people. [Laughs.] In this film, we had a wild-woman supermodel, a guy who had just been in a $300 million movie, and then a couple of kids who had never really been in anything. You’d think there would be a hierarchy there, but there wasn’t. It sort of renewed my faith in humanity.
Do the actors find it odd that you live in Indiana?
Honestly, if you asked Cara where I’m from, she might not know. I should text her and ask! But Austin Abrams is from Sarasota, Justice Smith is from Anaheim. It wasn’t necessarily all people from Los Angeles. People struggle to imagine Indianapolis complexly, but that’s just because they’ve never been here. To them, it’s just one of the 40 cities that isn’t New York or L.A.
You recently tweeted that celebrity can be empowering and fun, but that ultimately, it’s isolating. How so?
I was talking about other people! My friends were like, “I’m sorry that you feel isolated.”
But you’ve mentioned before that you don’t go to the grocery or the bookstore as much anymore because it’s uncomfortable.
Well, the vast majority of us don’t have to think about disciplining our kids at Chipotle. But I kind of do, because someone might make a video of me at my worst. I’m grateful for people who enjoy my work, and I don’t mind if they approach me and tell me that. As long as it’s not weird. I’ve had people come to my house, which is inappropriate, and I have to tell them so. But I’ve been lucky to avoid most of the scary stuff. It’s much, much harder to be a famous woman, which speaks to the structural misogyny of our culture. My assistant Rosianna has stalkers who have taken pictures of her apartment, and she only has 20,000 subscribers on YouTube.
Going back to Paper Towns for a moment: The ending is somewhat ambiguous, which holds true for a lot of your work. Why not wrap up things neatly with a bow the way storytellers once did?
We’ve embraced the idea that there can be meaning amid ambiguity.
Did you watch Breaking Bad?
Perfect example of a classic, neatly wrapped conclusion. Versus The Sopranos, which I thought had a much better ending. It gave me things to think about that I could carry with me after it was done. One of the things I like about writing about adolescents is that you don’t take the story to the end. You’re capturing that character in a particular moment.
In what ways does the Paper Towns film differ from the book?
Many. The breaking-into-SeaWorld scene is not in the film. I didn’t want to pay them for the right to use the place. And it’s freighted because since then, a real person broke into SeaWorld and died. Then there’s a lot less textual analysis of Walt Whitman than there is in the novel, which won’t upset many readers.
This idea that what we imagine becomes literally real was fascinating to me.
Without dissecting it too much, can you talk about the underlying metaphor of Paper Towns?
Yeah, there’s this weird phenomenon in cartography. When someone is making a map, they often insert fake places or streets. So if they see that place on someone else’s map, they’ll know that they have been robbed. Google Maps and Apple Maps still do this. The most famous example was a made-up town called Agloe, which the General Drafting Company put at the intersection of two dirt roads in upstate New York in 1932. Flash forward 40 years, and Rand McNally releases a map with Agloe at the intersection of those roads. General Drafting naturally called Rand McNally and accused them of theft. But Rand McNally said, “No, Agloe is real.” Because people kept going to the intersection of those roads and looking for Agloe, someone built a place called Agloe with a general store and gas station. This idea that what we imagine becomes literally real was fascinating to me. In Paper Towns, it’s a way for Q to understand that the choices we make about how we imagine other people and places have real consequences. The way he thinks about Margo shapes who she is. If we think of Santa as only being this old white guy, that matters to people who don’t look like that. If we think of Africa as a single, monolithic continent with one story, that has an effect on the world.
How do the perceptions and expectations of John Green shape John Green?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. That’s a really good question. What Fox expects from me is different than what the Nerdfighters expect of me. I know what I expect from myself: Don’t be a dick. My readers have been very cool about it. They’re the people I have to worry about the least. I got an email the other day from a kid saying, “You seemed really tired in the Vlogbrothers video yesterday. I just want you to know that if you want to take a break, we support you.” But I’ve created a video every Tuesday for 400 consecutive Tuesdays. It doesn’t feel right to stop.
Can you tell us anything about your next book? The last time we spoke, you were hoping for an early-2016 release.
Ugh. Did I say that? That’s not going to happen. I guess it speaks to how well my writing is going. For me, that task requires acres of uninterrupted focus, and I haven’t had a lot of it lately. Anyway, this is going to sound abstract, but it’s all I have: The next book is about personhood in this digital world where many of our relationships occur online. The Internet will play a role. Social media will play a role.
How’s the Looking for Alaska film going?
They say they’re going to make it. Becca Thomas has been hired to direct. I don’t know if or when they’ll actually start filming or make progress with the casting, but as with Paper Towns, I’m happy to be along for the ride.