WILLIAM FETTERS (Screenplay) Q&A QUESTION: Is there a particular quality you need to adapt a Nicholas Sparks books in particular? WILLIAM FETTERS: It’s funny because Nicholas Sparks was my first adaptation, and then I’ve since done two. It’s a unique process. Nick is more hands-on. Most authors write their books and kind of walk away. With Nick, you’re dealing with an established brand and you’re dealing with established expectations from an audience.
So before you even sit down to do it, you read the book. Any time you have an adaptation, you read the book a lot and kind of play the movie out and find the beats that you know you need to hit. But with Nick especially, you know you have to hit the romance harder than you might otherwise.
This book in particular was different because there’s a fair amount of war in it, but when you’re approaching it as a movie, you know it’s going to be more about the romance. You’re kind of building the story around that, so you have to find a way to condense multiple chapters of war into what ends up in the movie, ten minutes or so.
I talked to Nick inside of 36 hours of turning in the first draft because he just is very hands-on and had some ideas. He was very supportive, very collaborative. But, yeah, it’s a totally different experience. You’re kind of plugged into this bigger machine. And it was my first job, really ever. So I was just trying not to screw it up. I mean, this was the first time a studio hired me.
I’ve had other movies and I’ve done other work, but this was years ago. You just go into it hoping not to blow it because you know other writers and directors have really had a lot of success with these books, so you just don’t want to be the guy who screws it up.
QUESTION: How did you like the author’s hands-on approach? WILLIAM FETTERS: I liked it. I mean, I’m pretty collaborative by nature. You can’t be a screenwriter, especially in this day and age, without that. Hollywood these days has always been star-driven. It’s very director-driven. You have to be collaborative. So, I love getting notes.
I love hearing other people’s thoughts and critiques of my work, so to have one more person in the process being Nick, who has been through it multiple times and has his own ideas and insights, is great. Some authors, and writers in general, we take what we put on the page very personally. Nick doesn’t. He knows that his book’s going to change to become a movie. He’s very comfortable with that.
And I did a true story adaptation, which gave me great neurotic stress. But for that author, he had way more personal attachment, understandably. It was his true life story. With Nick, it’s just like he creates the book and he understands that for the book, to become a movie is a whole different animal and a whole different process. With an author who’s that seasoned in it, it’s just one more asset for me.
QUESTION: Are there rules when you’re adapting somebody like this? WILLIAM FETTERS: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to be glib and say the word bingo, but you kind of know there are moments that have to be there and you make them your own. You make them different. The most successful adaptations of his books have a familiar DNA, but they have unique kind of character-driven moments that lead to the romance and lead to what they call in Hollywood 'the trailer moments.' But you know you have to hit them.
My first draft was probably way more focused on the war aspect because I was drawn to the book because of Logan and his experience in the war--the idea of surviving three tours and coming back and trying to find who you are and figure out your place, because I’m still trying to do that and I’ve never been to war. I can’t imagine what it’s like when you go and actually do something real with your life. So I was focused more there. And the love story was present. But the love story just has to be the center of it. As a writer, if you want to say or do something different, you just can’t. You can’t just take this particular brand and go off and do your own thing and get all up in your own head. Honestly, I’m really glad this is my first one because you learn the discipline and the rules of what it takes to make a successful movie. So, it’s more than just being able to say and do all the things you want on the page.
QUESTION: Knowing you're making a love story, how do you portray real emotion without avoiding the trap of sentimentality? WILLIAM FETTERS: Love stories are brutal. I mean, you can’t write a love story without treading on familiar ground. You just can’t do it. So, it’s kind of the same thing with approaching a Nick Sparks book in general. You understand your own characters. You understand what draws them together and you let the love story kind of blossom from there. You don’t try to impose an artifice, as much as I said you have to hit trailer moments and beats. Those things have to come from understanding who these people are and why they’d be attracted to each other and why they’d want to be together.
And if you can figure that out that that’s where you’re starting from, it becomes easier. But to be honest, tackling a love story, you’re coming to a medium that’s been done a thousand different times. It’s been done wrong nine hundred and ninety times, so your chances of screwing it up are pretty high.
When you look for material like this, I knew I wanted to do this book when I had a meeting with Alison Greenspan, who works with Denise Di Novi, one of the producers in the movie. Just a general meeting and she pitched me this book.
There’s a line in the movie about finding an angel in hell. And that was the idea. Finding this little piece of humanity and then tracing it back to find your own humanity. That was what went in my head immediately. So that’s why I wanted to do it. It was nothing beyond that. So, little things grab you. It’s just trying to find the little things that make it fun and make it worth doing.
QUESTION: Did you see Zac Efron as your Logan? I mean, when you’re sitting there at the computer, do you see images?
WILLIAM FETTERS: Well, actually, Zac definitely not. Here’s a funny thing about Zac. Zac is actually much closer to the honest portrayal of the character because I originally had written him for late twenties, which is just a safe place to write a character.
Zac’s great, too, but Zac was younger. I mean, I didn’t think of him. But he’s 24, and these guys, these three tours Marines, there are guys in their late twenties have done six tours. Zac’s much closer to actually what the age of what this really is.
So there was a line with Blythe Danner and Zac in the truck. And it was like, 'You’re all so young.' So there’s something way more honest, actually, about Zac because that’s what it looks.
I’m sure some critics are going to say he’s too young, but they’re going to be wrong because these guys are babies. And he went and hung out with them down at Camp Pendleton and I saw pictures from it. I mean, he looks like he just fits right in. He’s a good looking kid but he could be right there.
QUESTION: How do you go from studying political science to writing romantic movies? WILLIAM FETTERS: I actually always wanted to be a lawyer. When you’re growing up, I knew I wanted to do something creative, but I looked at law as the lesser of all these evils. But that was the place where I could be creative. My Dad’s an engineer and he’s Irish. So there was no version of me going off.
Being a screenwriter was like being a professional athlete. To him it was the same thing. It was a crazy pursuit. But I went to college. I worked really hard. I had this whole plan of corporate litigator or something, and I was going to do that. And then I honestly did.
I was about to apply to law school. I wrote this movie Remember Me a couple of years ago, and Chris Cooper ended up playing this cop. This really happened to me where I kind of mouthed off to a cop after a bunch of friends of mine got in a fight. And I didn’t even do anything, but I said the wrong thing to the wrong guy at the wrong moment and ended up in jail. And you can’t apply to law school. Stanford and Harvard was where I was going. I’m from University of Delaware. You’re not going to get into those schools probably anyway from University of Delaware, but you’re definitely not going to get into them when you have to submit your criminal record with that.
And the charges all got wiped, but it was like six months to get rid of it. And in that window, I had this idea for a movie and I really started reading scripts. It’s kind of hazy. Like, just one day I was here. My Mom came down just bawling, so upset because my life plan had been shattered. At twenty-three years, what did I do?
And then next thing I knew, two years later I was living in Hollywood and I had written a script and I was writing other scripts and now this is my job. And honestly, how does anybody find what they do? I kind of had a knack for it and I don’t know.
I’m joking with a friend of mine who’s a lawyer, and he thinks my life’s so great and my job’s so great. And I’m, like, man, the last six months I haven’t gotten paid. It’s because I can’t write. If you have writer’s block, you don’t get paid. It’s a very stressful job. It’s very cool. I’m very lucky to do it. Very blessed, but it’s its own monster.
FEMALE: If you ever wrote a book, do you think you would have somebody write the screenplay or would you do it? Would you be as easy to let go of it like Nicholas apparently is? WILLIAM FETTERS: I don’t think so. No. I have a hard time. I talk about it easily, but I have a hard time with it. I take what I write personally. I spend a lot of time on it. And so I think if I ever actually found the discipline to write a book and went through that arduous process, that would mean I’d have a very specific vision in my head.
And the thing I’m working on now is the first that’s kind of an original thing I’ve done, even though it’s based on a 300-year-old idea. But it’s more of an original process, and it’s so stressful and so difficult that if I actually went through that process, I’d want to shape it. I’d want to direct it. I mean, I would want everything.
Like with Chris Nolan and Inception, that was an idea he probably had for years. I mean, particularly about the movie, I really liked it, but I had such respect for the discipline it took to literally do The Dark Knight and do these movies to prove he could do that just so he could realize his vision.
He built this and he probably could have sold that script and made some money or let somebody else do it like ten years ago, but he had the discipline to follow it through and wait and say, 'No, I can do these big movies.' And then he did the movie and did it exactly how he wanted to. And I have a tremendous respect for that. So it’s a long answer to a question, but yes. If I ever find the discipline to write a book, I would want to see it all the way through to the end.