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Q&A: John Green & Nat Wolff on ‘Paper Towns’ Themes, Inside Jokes, Nicknames

Upcoming film “Paper Towns” stars Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne, and was adapted from the John Green novel of the same name. Variety sat down with Wolff and Green to discuss themes from the movie and on-set antics.

One of the themes in “Paper Towns” is the idea of how we tend to reduce people down to one word… where did that come from?

Green: I think it came from two places: One being that when I was a teenage boy I definitely essentialized people around me. When I had crushes on girls, I thought that idealizing them and romanticizing them and putting them on a pedestal was somehow doing them a favor, and somehow that was the way that I was supposed to act because I had been, I think, taught that by the broader culture. And, in fact, that was tremendously dehumanizing to those women, and also ends up being destructive to everyone involved. And then I was also thinking about the way that we still essentialize… we’re constantly essentializing people as merely poor, or merely other, and in the end you can’t have a relationship with people. I think the biggest job of adulthood is to learn to imagine other people complexly.

What about playing the role — is that something that you’ve thought about growing up as an actor?

Wolff: I just feel like most books and movies that are handed to teenagers are filled with stereotypes, and that bores me. As an actor it’s so much more exciting, and there’s so much more to do when you have a character that’s complicated and there’s a bunch of different sides to him. And when I read the book, I felt that about all the characters — not just Quentin. I felt like I related to Margo and I related to parts of Quentin, and I liked how everybody was different around different groups of people. I think it’s important to acknowledge that nobody is paper. Once you get close to anyone, they are complicated.

The characters that you write are very earnest, but in modern society we tend to value cynicism. Is that something that you’ve thought about?

Green: Yeah, well there’s not a lot of room for un-ironic emotion in contemporary culture. I think that irony is an important tool in dealing with the world as we find it. It’s a tool of protection, but it can also be a tool of incision to get to some truth. But along the way maybe we’ve lost some of what I think of as the power of straightforward emotion and earnestness and seriousness. One of the things that I like about teenagers is they’re extremely funny, and extremely clever and intellectually curious. But they’re also willing to ask questions about the meaning of life without disguising them around irony, and ask questions about what are our responsibilities to other people without having to couch it in irony. And that’s how I like to think, and so that’s also how I like to write.

Whereas adults tend to hesitate to be so straightforward because we’re afraid of the backlash…

Green: And that ends up sort of hurting the quality of discourse because you can be so afraid to be wrong…

Wolff: Or be un-cool.

Green: Yeah, the consequences of being un-cool feel so big that a lot of times you end of not finding ways to have open and honest conversations.

Nat, did you have a normal high school experience?

Wolff: Yeah, I did have a normal high school experience. I did feel like — because I was in a band and because I grew up in New York and because I was acting — I may have grown up a little quicker. And for the movie, I felt like I almost went in a time machine back to a time where I was a little more innocent and I had two best friends. There really was a period of time when I had two best friends, and I ended up really liking the idea of girls without really knowing them, kind of the way Quentin does. And by the end of the movie I just wanted to live in that world. I didn’t want to leave.

Green: I feel like within the bubble of making the move — which really did feel like a bubble — it felt like we were all in it together, and no one else was in the world. And now I’m having this very weird feeling of wait… people are going to see that movie? I thought that was something that Fox set up for us so that we could have a really good experience. But I think within that world there was so much trust, and there was so much openness that it was so much easier to be vulnerable and open than it is in the wider world. So I also look back on that time in my life (high school) and feel like I was able to be open and vulnerable in a way that’s harder now.

I also like the idea that in those moments of transition, like the end of high school, change can accelerate growth.

Green: Yeah, in those in between spaces in life — they are very difficult and they are very stressful — but they do lend themselves to growth and big experiences. And I try to remind myself of that when I’m in one of those transitional periods because I’m like, “I do not like this. This is not fun. I like when things were regular.” But there is a tremendous opportunity for growth. And I think you see that not just with Quentin, but hopefully all the characters in the movie have to go on this journey where they realize that they’ve been miss-imagining someone in their lives, and they have to do a better job of it.

Nat, was there any talk of you and Cara getting more in on the soundtrack?

Wolff: Cara and I always related through music. I gave her a playlist when we started. I said, “From Q to Margo.” And we would play each other songs back and forth and stuff. And honestly the whole cast used music as a way to bond. But I’ve been playing music with my brother since I was a kid and the fact that we have a song in this movie and the two worlds are kind of colliding — my two favorite things in the world are making music with my brother and acting with people that I respect on projects that I respect.

Green: I really love your song of the soundtrack. I’m not just saying that. I’ve been listening to it a lot the past couple of days.

A lot of people from “Fault in our Stars” came back for this project. Are we witnessing the formation of a Wes Anderson-type family?

Green: I would love that.

Wolff: That would be so cool.

Green: I love Nat as a person and I love working with Nat and I just have so much respect for him as a person and as an actor.

Wolff: So any time he has a book that’s made into a movie I’m going to find a way to insert myself. And then any time I do a movie that’s not a John Green adaptation, I’m going to bring him along.

Green: I love that idea. You’ll have to call the director and be like “Listen. This is a little a little weird. But I have a friend…”

Wolff: “And he’s going be the EP.”

Green: “He’s not going to do anything. He’s going to just sit at the craft services table all day, eat Cheetos all day and tell everyone they’re doing a good job. He’s my hype man. He has to be on every set.” I’m so into that. I will be your professional hype man for the rest of my life. Who was Diddy’s guy? Who always had the umbrella? Old people? Anybody?

Wolff: Dude, I’ll be your hype man.

So what were you snacking on a craft services?

Green: I mean, god bless the woman at craft services. She made me grits every day. I ate 10-12,000 calories a day — power bars, Cheetos, anything. In fact, I just saw Austin for the first time since we wrapped. I mean I’ve talked to him a lot, but I haven’t seen him in real life. He was like “You look so thin!” And I was like “That’s just because I looked not thin while we were making the movie.” I’m a stress eater.

Did you leave any for the rest of the cast?

Green: They would eat whatever I brought them. I was like the mule. In my jacket pockets and stuff I would always have some peanuts or something.

Wolff: “Y’all want some pretzels? How bout some Skittles?”

Green: “Sweet or salty? What are you looking for?”

Any inside jokes?

Wolff: I listened to a lot of music that was on the radio when I was in seventh or eighth grade because that’s when I connected to Quentin the most. So I used to play “Human” by the Killers on set a lot, which I hadn’t heard since then. That became the song of the set. And so just when I saw everybody we were all standing out before that press conference. We all started dancing to “Human.”

Green: There were a lot of inside jokes though… some of them unrepeatable.

Wolff: A lot of them were unrepeatable.

What do you expect the Tumblr meme of this movie to be?

Green: Well I believe that you have to let Tumblr make its own magic. You can’t try and put your own expectations on Tumblr. I hope they find something awesome to connect with and make stuff about. I’m joking. But one of the things I like about making stuff in the age of the Internet, is that people make stuff in response to it. You can see people respond to your work visually or musically or with writing.

Wolff: There’s this fun thing that we do sometimes where Cara will do these wild… she’ll be like “A unicorn with a pig.” when we do those videos… she has this wild imagination, amazing imagination and she’ll come up with these animals, but they’re on rainbows…

Green: “I want a rhinoceros riding a rainbow but there’s a leprechaun and his family, but they’re on a treadmill desk…”

Wolff: And then twenty minutes later a picture of what she was describing will appear.

Green: People will draw it, and watching all the different interpretations is amazing.

What about nicknames… did you have any on set?

Wolff: Cara called me “bum-chuck” and then I started calling her “bum-chuck” so she’d be like “bum-chuck. Make me a sandwich.”

Green: Did you ever make Cara a sandwich?

Wolff: Probably ten times. Ten or fifteen times.

Green: Are you serious?

Wolff: I’m not kidding.

Green: Somehow I blocked that out.

Wolff: Yeah, so did I.

Green: They all called each other by their character names which sounds cheesy, but it really worked.

Wolff: It was nice. It makes the whole experience… this was my first time doing it, but it was just fun. I remember playing video games one day and it was one of the last days of hearing them call me Q and I was like “Aw man, I’m going to be so upset when this is over.”

“Paper Towns” bows in wide theatrical release on July 24.

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