How A Nerd-Hero Writer Became The Breakout Star Of This Summer's Most Unlikely Blockbuster
A romantic drama about young cancer patients doesn't seem like it would spur the same fanaticism as The Hunger Games, but The Fault in Our Stars — in particular, John Green, who wrote the YA best-seller — is proof that teenage feelings are special effects too.
[Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Fault In Our Stars.]
Every morning, they come: girls in Doc Martens boots and head scarves and bright pink hair, floral backpacks and hooded sweatshirts and Converse. They have figured out where the shoot's locations are going to be via Twitter and Instagram, and they arrive on set in groups of two or three or more, radiating a sense of uncomplicated teenage girl-ness that is infectious, really — the way they stand off to the side with hopeful smiles on their faces on rainy Amsterdam streets, umbrellas in hand, quiet when shushed by a production assistant, necks craning to catch just a glimpse of their hero. Occasionally there is one, like the Emma Stone doppelgänger in front of the American Hotel on the Leideskade, who can't contain herself and, upon spotting him, stares and stares until finally she begins inching toward where he is standing by the monitors, under a tarp, and is then shooed back by security.
You might assume that the girls are here on these unseasonably cold October days for the film's two beautiful young stars, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, who are agreeable about posing for photos and talking to people in the way that actors on the cusp of huge stardom tend to be. But they are really there for John Green, the unassuming, boyishly handsome 36-year-old author of The Fault in Our Stars, his best-selling 2012 book about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. Green has written best-sellers before, but Fault is his first book to get made into a film. And in an unprecedented move, the studio, Fox 2000, has allowed — encouraged, in fact — Green to be present for and even document the entire four-month shoot, first in Pittsburgh (a stand-in for Indianapolis, where the book takes place and where Green lives with his wife, Sarah, and their two children), and now, at the very end of the shoot, for four days in Amsterdam. But whereas in Pittsburgh he says he had been left pretty much well alone, Amsterdam is a different story. Here, he is the main event.
"We're fangirls," says a 15-year-old Amsterdam girl named Zita, who has read Green's novels and follows him on YouTube and Twitter. She sighs. "He's just...yeah."
Another Dutch teenager named Daphne traveled an hour by train to come to the set. "We just got here — we couldn't find it," she says. "We were on the other side of the Runstraat. I haven't even seen him. Oh! I see him!" She points, and her two friends say things excitedly to each other in Dutch.
"He's been taking pictures with his fans," I tell her.
"Oh my god. I was here yesterday with my dad to wait for him and I want to see him," she says.
I ask if there were any other authors she'd want to come out in the rain and wait for.
"Yeah, but she's dead," says Daphne.
Green is the current undisputed king of YA, an earnest, friendly Harry Styles meets Encyclopedia Brown, followed both in public and online by a giddily respectful army of, mostly, teenage girls. (At a recent appearance at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, fans lined up at 9 a.m. for a 12:30 p.m. talk.) He lives far from the New York publishing world or Hollywood, spending his days writing and making YouTube videos for the Vlogbrothers channel he runs with his brother, Hank. When he ventures to Hollywood, he posts excited pictures on Instagram from backstage at the MTV Movie Awards with Woodley, or from poolside with Elgort before the MTV Movie Awards, or from Golden Globes after-parties photos of Elgort with his Fault co-star Nat Wolff. These pictures get tens of thousands of likes.
During a break in shooting in October, Green and I sit in Café Hoppe on the Spuistraat in Amsterdam, where he'd written part of Fault in 2011. We are accompanied by a Fox publicist who is determined not to let me out of her sight. (The laissez-faire policy the studio extended toward Green regarding sharing on-set happenings seems to have its limits, in case you were wondering what trouble a famous author and a couple of young movie stars might be getting up to in Amsterdam.) The shoot has made him reflective about the nature of celebrity. "People are stopping you, and they're saying nice things, but like, it makes you constantly consciously aware when you're in public that you are not actually your private self, or that you can't actually be your private self," he says. "In the same way that if I yell at my kid about a Hot Wheel or something, and then I turn around and there's a Nerdfighter and she's like, 'I'm such a big fan!' and I'm like, 'Well, I'm trying to have a corrective moment with my son, and this is weird.'"
"I know that this will never happen to me again," he says. "I'll write other books and their lives will look more like my previous books and that's okay with me. I remain interested in fandom and the relationship we have with the things that we love."
In addition to the global phenomenon that is Fault, he has written or co-authored five other books, including Looking for Alaska, which hit the New York Times best-seller list seven years after it was published); An Abundance of Katherines, about a boy who has dated 19 girls named Katherine; and Paper Towns, the story of two teenagers who had discovered a dead body together as kids. In March, Fox 2000 announced that it would be turning Paper Towns into a movie with the same producer (Wyck Godfrey) and the same screenwriters (Scott Neustadter and Michael Webber) as Fault.
Green is probably the first author also to post to Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube from the entire shoot, and since the backstory of The Fault in Our Stars is as canonical as the story itself, this is understandable, if unconventional. "All of my author friends are like — well, I remember the first time I tweeted a picture from the set, I got, like, 30 emails from all of my author friends: 'You need to delete that immediately.' I'm like, 'No, they said I could do it,'" he says. "It's allowed me to make the stuff I want to make for the Nerdfighters. It's nice for them to feel like they're part of it, because they do have special access to the movie, because they're the reason we're here. The readers of the book are the first people I want to make a good movie for."
And those readers already know that Hazel and Gus go to Amsterdam because Gus hasn't used his wish from the Genie Foundation (a stand-in for Make-A-Wish — Hazel used hers when she was 13 to go to Disney World) in order to meet the author Peter Van Houten, who has written a book called An Imperial Affliction that's about a girl with cancer and ends maddeningly mysteriously, and ask him what happens after the book ends, and that Van Houten is a mean drunk, and that Hazel and Gus have a romantic dinner and end up losing their virginity to each other. And then, when they're sitting on a bench next to the Herengracht canal, Gus tells Hazel that his cancer has returned. It's one of the most wrenching scenes in the book.
When they get to the bench, [SPOILER ALERT!] Gus tells Hazel that he had a PET scan before they left for the Netherlands, and his body "lit up like a Christmas tree. The lining of my chest, my liver…everywhere."
Hazel starts to cry. "It's so fucking unfair!" she says. The unspoken irony is that Hazel was supposed to be the sicker one; Gus' cancer had been in remission until now.
"Apparently the world is not a wish-granting factory," Gus says, and a tear runs down his cheek. The scene ends with Gus saying: "I don't suppose you can forget about it, treat me like I'm not dying," and Hazel responding: "I don't think you're dying, Augustus. You've just got a touch of cancer." And then Gus: "Would it be absolutely ludicrous to make out right now?"
It does, in fact, feel a bit ludicrous, and it requires Elgort to deliver the line with a touch of playfulness that seems totally at odds with the weight of the scene, and yet it all somehow comes together.
Woodley and Elgort return to the production tent between takes, picking at the food on the craft services table. "Cheese is so much better in the Netherlands," Woodley says, eating a piece Elgort gave her. "Oh my god, that was the best cheese."
In his trailer the next day, Elgort, who is now 20, is reflective about the scene, which he had performed with Woodley during his audition. "It was different when we did it yesterday," he says. Not-unpleasant house music is playing from the speakers; Elgort is also a dance-music producer, and is excited about meeting up with fellow DJs while in Amsterdam. "It was more emotional when we did it during the audition. At this point in the movie, we've done so many emotional scenes that Josh [Boone, the director] is like, trying to find a way to make some of the scenes less emotional. Because it's almost too much. Shai and I are very explosive, so there are scenes in the movie where we are screaming and crying and losing our shit. You just don't need another one of those."
Fox 2000 head Elizabeth Gabler acquired Fault in January 2012, right after the book was published, and when vampires and dystopias still ruled the YA world. "We were thinking, what will be the next thing that will reach people really strongly?" says Gabler, who was also responsible for buying Paper Towns. "A story about reality. That was the genesis of it — counterprogramming completely to what everything else was."
Indeed, Green represents a trend in YA that the publishing industry has termed "realistic fiction," a departure from the paranormal and dystopian series that have been clogging the shelves for the past few years, like Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Divergent. Hollywood loves these books; their stories are fast-paced, mysterious, thrilling. Still, after the high-profile flops of a few movies based on dystopian or paranormal YA books like The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, and The Host, the pendulum in Hollywood is swinging back toward books about normal teenagers doing relatively normal things — like 2012's Perks of Being a Wallflower (based on the 1999 book) and last year's The Spectacular Now (which shares screenwriters and a star with Fault). This summer brings MGM's If I Stay, based on Gayle Forman's book of the same name, about a teenage cellist who gets in a terrible car accident. Most recently, Dreamworks announced that it would be adapting the sweet, funny, and very realistic YA love story Eleanor & Park, and hired the book's author, Rainbow Rowell, to write the screenplay.
"I've been really excited that the marketplace is responding again to realistic fiction," says Farrin Jacobs, editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers who acquired and edited the Pretty Little Liars series while she was at HarperTeen. She adds that Fault has helped show booksellers — and Hollywood — that "readers are open to these kinds of stories. [Green] has really helped usher in more of an interest."
But it took a while for Hollywood to catch up with Green. His previous experiences had not been great — An Abundance of Katherines had been optioned and shelved, and he'd written a screenplay for Paper Towns that he called "not a particularly fulfilling experience." With Fault, however, he's been part of the process every step of the way.
"When it came to deciding who would write the movie, the producers sent me Neustadter's script for The Spectacular Now, and when it came to deciding who would direct it, I got to see Stuck in Love, Josh Boone's first movie, and then when it came time for casting, I got to have a voice in that process as well," says Green. "I want to be clear that it's not my movie. I don't want it to be my movie, and I don't know how to make movies. But I've been very lucky that everyone involved in this has taken my opinion seriously and also really wants to make a movie that will honor the story, but also honor the fans of the story."
It also seems like a situation where things could have gone really wrong, but producer Godfrey was intent on making sure that didn't happen. "I've learned through failure that keeping an author of a beloved book involved is great," says Godfrey in Amsterdam. In 2006, Godfrey produced Eragon, an adaptation of the Christopher Paolini novel. "We basically developed the book into a big dragon extravaganza, and [Paolini] wasn't involved in the process. The studio was like, we have to make the movie for a much bigger audience than the book series, and I feel like that movie did not satisfy its core audience, and it's a sin I never want to make again." Since then, Godfrey says, he has had the authors involved in the films he has made, including the Twilight series. "They need to read the script, they need to go to them with who you think is right."
But as Godfrey put it, Fault "has taken this to the nth degree" by having Green on set throughout the entire shoot. "I've loved having him around, because if you can look over and see the tears are coming out of his eyes, it's like, I think we did something right."
Fault was originally a somewhat different book — it was about a support group comprising teenagers with terminal illnesses, set at Children's Hospital in Indianapolis. The leader of the group was "this handsome, alcoholic, 22-year-old hospital chaplain, who was [based on] me," says Green, though he insists he wasn't an alcoholic. "It's so embarrassing to look back on it, because he was always hooking up with hot doctors. It was just wish fulfillment." The book had two narrators, the chaplain and a boy who had brain cancer.
It wasn't until Green became friends with a teenager named Esther Grace Earl, whom he met at a Harry Potter conference in 2008, that the frame of the book began to change. Esther had thyroid cancer, and became well-known online for her honest, wry depiction of her illness on social media before dying in August 2010 at the age of 15.
I ask if he can tell me more about his relationship with Esther. "Clearly not," he says, wiping his eyes. He takes a breath. "We stayed in touch after the [Harry Potter] conference, but I never really understood how sick she was. But we were talking one day when she was in the ICU, and it slowly came out," he says. "After that we were much closer because I was much more conscious of how little time I might have with her. She was just a great friend. You know that creator-fan relationship that often emerges? It wasn't like that. It was just a friendship. It's weird to have a 15-year-old friend, but I don't know, I'm kind of used to it, I guess. And then I was part of her Make-A-Wish in the last couple months of her life, and then after that, we were just close friends until she died. She died the day after my birthday, actually, like 20 minutes after my birthday, just after midnight."
Green himself seems determined not to pick a box; he delights in having what he calls a day job and an identity beyond being a novelist, even an immensely popular one. "I'm not one of those people who wants to give everything to writing," he says in the weeks preceding the movie's release. "I don't think I'm a good enough writer. I'm keenly aware that I'm not Jonathan Franzen, I'm not Rachel Kushner. And that's fine, that doesn't bother me."
Though the term "Nerdfighter" never appears in the book or the movie, Hazel seems like she would identify as one. She's a complicated character, a teenage cancer patient who almost died in the ICU, but who's also struggling with eternal teenage issues of fitting in and having friends — and having her first real crush. It's a role that any young actor would jump at.
When I meet Woodley, 22, in her trailer after shooting the scene in front of the Hotel American, she says she first read the Fault script when she was shooting The Spectacular Now, and immediately began campaigning to play Hazel. "I fell in love with the script and then read the book," she says. "I just felt like it was such an important story to tell — especially in modern-day cinema, to have a story like this brought to the screen just doesn't happen." (Hazel and Aimee, Woodley's character in The Spectacular Now, are similar in the sense that they're both Girls Who Don't Realize They're Beautiful Until a Guy Tells Them.)
It was tempting to "just book her," as Godfrey recalls, but "it's too important a role to put someone in without seeing them become the character. So we told everybody around town, whoever wants to be in the movie, they gotta audition — we're not gonna offer it to anyone."
"I knew within a couple minutes that she was the right person," Boone says. "She was that character and it was just done. I was like, 'Why did I make it so hard on myself?' I should have just cast her before I saw all these other people."
Meanwhile, Elgort was also gunning for the role of Gus, which Boone cast after selecting Woodley. "It helps that he towers over her," says Boone. "It makes her feel very small, and he's very protective, so that's nice."
But it was the complexity of the role that attracted Elgort. "Most older actors, who are actors their whole lives, don't get characters that are this good," he says. "So we did the emotional scenes in my audition tapes, and I gave it everything. I showed that I was available as an emotional actor. Then, in the other scenes, I was able to be theatrical because I'm a theater actor, and Gus is a theatrical guy. That was the beauty of Gus — he has so many layers to him. Shailene's been like, 'It's gonna be a while before you get to play a character like this again.'"
Woodley says, "I had a meeting with Fox as soon as I read the script, and I said, 'I don't care if I'm Hazel Grace, or if I'm an extra or a PA — I want to make sure this movie gets made. Please make this movie.'"
And as Green begins what he calls the "years-long process" of writing a new book, he's careful not to let himself get tripped up by thinking about its post-publication prospects or trying to replicate this success. "If anything, I'd be more likely to set the next novel entirely in cave darkness to make it more challenging." Until then, the biggest challenge remains navigating his newfound notoriety and the brave new world of promoting a major summer movie. "I'm lucky the movie is good. If it weren't, this would all be very, very strange."
The final night of the Amsterdam shoot takes place at night outside the Rijksmuseum, the beautiful national art museum of the Netherlands, a scene that, in the movie, occurs before Hazel finds out Gus is sick again. It is still cold, but the rain has stopped, and the building is lit up against the night sky. Hazel and Gus walk arm in arm, stopping to listen to a street musician before walking through the museum's gorgeous, imposing archways, and for a moment it is easy to believe that nothing bad will ever happen to these two people — fictional people, portrayed by actors — who are so in love.
And when I feel embarrassed for myself for thinking this, I recall something Green said a couple days before in the café, one of the places where all of this began: "We're super uncomfortable with sincerity as a culture. That ability to experience unironic enthusiasm, that ability to not have to couch your joy or your pain behind all of this protective irony, is something I really admire about people."
But in fact we are, all of us, every day, actually craving sincerity and joy and connection, and the popularity of Green's book — and its heartbreaking origin myth and the projected success of the movie, smack in the middle of a summer full of superhero sequels and tentpoles — are all direct rebukes to this theory. There is, perhaps, hope for us yet.
Additional reporting by Steve Kandell.