Exclusive: An Interview with 500 Days of Summer Director Marc Webb

Opening in theaters nationwide today, 500 Days of Summer is the story of romantic boy meets jaded girl. It’s funny, playfully directed, and if you’ve ever experienced the darker side of young love, incredibly true to life without coming off as cliched or patronizing. In a refreshing change for the romcom genre, it’s more about the middle part of the relationship that usually gets skipped over, rather than the beginning or the end. To sweeten the deal, there are some fantastic shots of Downtown L.A. (the protagonist, Tom, is an aspiring architect), a soundtrack that includes Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind,” and of course, everyone’s favorite indie darling, Zooey Deschanel, in the role of Summer.

Not in love yet? Read on for our interview with first time filmmaker Marc Webb.

Flavorpill: Why did you want to make the switch from directing music videos to feature films?

Marc Webb: I’ve always loved movies, since I was a kid. I grew up in Wisconsin. It was how I spent my weekends. It gradually became a bigger part of my life, just as an audience member. So it was just this fascination that started at a really young age that made me want to make movies. When I moved out to Los Angeles, it just so happened that I sort of fell into music videos. It was a way for me to be a filmmaker when there was no wait list to sign up to be a movie director.

FP: How did you fall into it?

MW: I was an editor. I worked for a filmmaker who taught me how to edit. I started editing little music videos and became enmeshed in that world. After I’d done a certain amount of music videos, I got an agent, and he got me access to certain scripts. Producers saw my music videos and I got a bunch of scripts to review. I read this, and it was the first thing I read that was… it was funny. There was a time in my life when I was so romance-obsessed. I just thought about all this stuff all the time, and I had forgotten that. When I read this, I remembered what it was like to feel that way, and how important at that moment in my life that was. I just related to it. This script felt real and alive, and it was totally instinctual, like, “Yes, this is the movie I should make.” They didn’t offer me the movie. It took a long time to pitch myself.

FP: How did you convince them?

MW: With the producers, I gave a lot of story notes. I was sort of paranoid about the music video director stigma, that idea that you’re only going to think about the visuals, so I didn’t talk about the visuals at all. I talked about the character, how I thought the script could improve, what I liked about it, how I thought the performances would be, how I would deal with actors, etc. I spent a lot of time doing that. And then I sort of went through the ranks of the people who were hiring, and then ultimately, I think I got hired because I did this huge, massive presentation with posters, a scroll that was 30 feet long, video presentations, animation, and music, just because I wanted people who were walking into the room to experience what the movie would be like. I wanted them to feel like, “It would be so dumb not to make this movie.” I wanted to take all the pressure off them.

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FP: Why do you think the larger studios weren’t biting? Not that Fox Searchlight isn’t a big studio, but —

MW: — right, Searchlight’s a special division of a very big studio, but…

FP: I guess, what makes The Proposal a sure thing, whereas this wasn’t?

MW: [The Proposal]’s predictable. It fits a formula, which is a very powerful formula, and historically, very successful. I know there are romantic comedy flops, but it’s sort of… those choices are reinforced. In our movie, there’s no high concept conceit that says that he thinks he’s dating her because she likes him, but really, she’s a reporter trying to get the story. There are very established romantic comedy rules: there’s a high concept, there’s deceit, or there’s a misunderstanding.

This movie didn’t have that. It was about real people. We wanted to find the drama in very ordinary situations, the comedy in very ordinary situations. I think that was confusing to people. It hadn’t been done recently in that way, and they felt like it just didn’t fit. They didn’t know what the poster was going to be. It’s funny, regardless of how they felt about the movie, because people genuinely liked the script. They just didn’t understand what it was. I think it didn’t fit their formula.

FP: In another interview, you were talking about not necessarily identifying with the indie label. You were categorizing this movie as pop. Why do you think that things that are pop and accessible have a stigma?

MW: Well, because you’re in New York or L.A. I’m from Wisconsin, and people don’t have that… I mean, it just depends on where you are. The people that surround us consume culture voraciously. It’s a big part of their lives, whereas, for people who are a lot more casual, who work all the time and aren’t in the business, they look to movies for different things. Popular and indie doesn’t mean the same thing to them as it does to us.

I think pop, popular culture has gotten a bad name because so often it’s homogenized, manipulated, reduced into something that fits a pattern or formula. To me, popular means accessible; it can be a very powerful tool. In fact, Michael Jackson, he had a lot of influence because he was so accessible — not that I’m calling my movie Michael Jackson. I think what’s frustrating about a lot of pop stuff is that it can be more about wish fulfillment and less about reality or truth, more of a fantasy, more of an escape. I think our movie is hopefully entertaining, and it does sort of give you some hope at the end of the day, but it’s not bullshit. We tried to keep it grounded in some way.

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FP: Where did the dance sequence come from? Was it in the script?

MW: It was in the script. In the script it was a parade with Mayor McCheese and there was a Billie Jean reference… Dance can say things, it’s physical expression of an emotion. It’s part of a language people use, like in music videos, that just expresses joy in an emotional, accessible way. How I got underneath that is that the whole movie is told from one person’s point of view, and we are trying to photograph how somebody feels rather than the objective reality of a situation. When you’ve had a successful run [with the opposite sex], it feels like the world is smiling at you. You feel like you’re dancing in the streets. Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant. You are along for the ride. That’s how I justified that. It’s the same justification for the narrator. It’s the same justification for the non-linear storytelling, the fact that he’s remembering. You’re inside somebody’s head and he’s analyzing the situation, trying to find meaning in it. He has put himself as the hero of the storybook/fairy tale that’s not exactly going the way he thought it would.

FP: Did you guys shoot the scenes in order?

MW: We shot it by location. We shot all the office stuff out the first week, then the second week we were in Tom’s apartment, then we went to the downtown locations. We shot by virtue of locations; most films are shot out of order. So that really wasn’t the hard part. The tricky part, actually, was condensing a year and a half, or 500 days, into the 29-day shoot schedule. These people evolve, their clothes evolve, their hair is different on the last day than it is on the first day. At the end of the movie, you want to feel like they’ve grown up a little bit. That was the tricky part.

FP: Everyone loves Zooey Deschanel. How did you know she was right for the part of Summer?

MW: Zooey is a unique human being. She’s a really smart woman; she’s very funny; she has her own career in music that is outside of the film business. She just has her own thing going on. It’s hard to find women that guys like and women like, and because you’re telling the story from Tom’s point of view, she’s so easy to demonize. We needed to find somebody who had a soul and a humanity that would keep you on her side in some way. She can be mercurial without being cruel in an overt way. And she’s always honest with him.

I feel it’s really important — some people view the movie in different ways — but I think it’s really important at the end of the movie to have some sort of understanding of her and hope for good things for her. At the end of a relationship, that to me is the signal that you’re really over somebody.

FP: I think it’s a really interesting role for Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Do you think it’s going to change the kind of parts he gets picked for now?

MW: I don’t know. People say that. He’s a very relatable character. It’s also different. What he’s done in the past has been really… he’s a soldier, or he’s a male prostitute, or he’s a teenage detective. These are all sort of humans that are on the rim, the peripheries of the human experience, and just because this is so relatable, and everybody has been through what he’s going through, maybe he’ll occupy a more central role in the zeitgeist. But only time will tell, I don’t know.

FP: I’m putting money on it.