Article published on December 10, 2015.
Adapted from his best selling book, this funny and insightful coming of age story stars Nat Wolff as Quentin (known as Q), a romantic and studious high school student, who is in love with Margo (played by Cara Delevingne), his beautiful and enigmatic next-door neighbor. They were friends as children but have drifted apart.
Margo persuades Q to join her on a wild, night-long adventure, which includes some outrageous antics. The next day Margo disappears, leaving behind a series of clues. Q and his friends set off on a road trip to track her down.
Funny and exciting, PAPER TOWNS explores relationships and the power of friendship.
JOHN GREEN ON TEENAGERS, FILMS, FRIENDSHIP, LITERATURE AND LOVE.
By Elaine Lipworth
Based on the popular novel by John Green (THE FAULT IN OUR STARS), PAPER TOWNS captures the essence of life and relationships for young adults with elements of humor and mystery. The talented rising star Nat Wolff (THE FAULT IN OUR STARS) plays Quentin Jacobson (known as Q), who has been captivated by the charismatic Margo Roth Spiegelman (played by actress Cara Delevingne) since her family moved in next door, when he was nine years old. Now about to finish high school, Margo and Q hang out in very different groups. Quentin’s life has been mapped out; he has plans to become a doctor. When he’s not studying, he spends all his time with his friends, Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith). In contrast to Q, the elusive Margo is impetuous, instinctive and lives in the moment. She also loves mysteries and is a bit of a mystery herself!
Margo suddenly appears at Q’s bedroom window one night and enlists his help for a series of daring pranks she has planned, intending to exact revenge on her cheating boyfriend. Hoping the adventure could lead to romance, Q agrees to join in the conspiracy. The next morning Margo has vanished, leaving behind cryptic clues for Q to decipher. Determined to find the girl of his dreams, Q embarks on a road trip with Ben, Radar and two other classmates: Lacey (Halston Sage) and Angela (Jaz Sinclair), driving from Florida to New York. It turns out to be a hilarious and fun journey, in which Q discovers the value of friendship and learns what love is all about.
The term ‘paper town’ was created when cartographers Earnest G. Alpers and Otto Lindberg invented the town of Agloe, New York, by placing the fictitious location on a map at the intersection of two roads, in order to protect their copyright. If they discovered their fake town on another map, they could make a case that their work was plagiarized.
John Green is the award-winning, best selling author of LOOKING FOR ALASKA, AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES, PAPER TOWNS, WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON (with David Levithan) and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. He was selected by TIME magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. With his brother, Hank, John is one half of the Vlogbrothers (youtube.com/vlogbrothers), a hugely popular, global, online video project.
On the set of PAPER TOWNS, director Jake Schreier and his cast are filming a scene which takes place on the road trip, when Q and his pals stop at a gas station. They have just six minutes to grab supplies. They are travelling from Florida to a ‘paper town’ called Agloe in New York, hoping to find Margo. There is no time to spare, as they need to complete their mission and head back home in time for the school prom.
Over lunch, John Green, an executive producer on the film, shared his thoughts on the book, the film and his brilliant career.
Q: Can you describe what is happening in today’s scene?
A: “Q and his friends have to get gas and buy food very quickly, so they don’t arrive late in New York. The scene in the gas station has the feel of an action movie, which is fun. Everybody is having a great time. Quentin’s grabbing potato chips, beef jerky, cookies and everything else that you shouldn’t eat, but teenagers do eat.”
Q: What’s PAPER TOWNS all about?
A: “It is a story about a young man who has been in love with his neighbor, Margo, for most of his life, but he’s been failing to understand her, or to imagine her complexity. It is about what happens when you dehumanize people by romanticizing them. Quentin thinks that Margo is more than a person. He thinks that she is some kind of miracle and that turns out to be very destructive to him and to Margo and to their relationship. It’s about how difficult it can be to understand that other people are really people who are just as complex as we are. To me it’s a story about what love really is, not just romantic love but also the love between friends, which is an open acceptance of other people’s complexity.”
Q: What is Quentin like?
A: “Quentin is one of these teenagers who knows what his future life is going to look like. He knows where he is going to college; he knows he wants to be a doctor. His plan is to get married, have children and live in a house with a white picket fence. The problem with that kind of attitude is that you can spend your whole life looking forward. As my wife once told me, imagining the future can become a kind of nostalgia. You can miss your life by orienting it all towards the future. Margo, on the other hand, lives in the moment and you can also waste your life that way. There is a need to make plans. I don’t buy the argument that you should wake up every day and do exactly what you want to do. There’s some benefit to doing homework … even though it kind of sucks (laughs).”
Q: What does Nat Wolff bring to the role of Q?
A: “He is one of my best friends so I’m biased. The thing is, when you have a good friend who also has amazing talent the way Nat does, you almost have to separate them by going: this is Nat my friend and then there’s Nat the genius over there. I can’t integrate those two people (laughs)! Nat is so talented and such a good actor, but part of his genius to me is that he’s also a welcoming and open person, so he makes everyone around him better. He’s always giving of himself and I absolutely think he’s a leading man. I am so proud of Nat because he had a relatively small part in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, but he was brilliant. He stole every scene that he was in. I wanted him to be Q pretty much from the moment I met him. When we were on the set of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, I started talking to him about PAPER TOWNS. I told him that if it were ever made into a movie, I would really like him to play Quentin. Nat is great because he talks like people talk in my books. He seems like Quentin.”
Q: How exactly?
A: “Quentin has moments of great confidence, when he feels like he knows what he’s doing, but he also has moments of great insecurity and Nat’s able to chart all that really well. I just knew he’d be great. He is a great actor and improviser and he responds really intelligently to direction.”
Q: Why was Cara Delevingne cast as Margo?
A: “I don’t know anything about supermodels to be honest with you, so when Cara auditioned for the role I didn’t have any idea who she was. I didn’t know she was famous. But when she auditioned, she was the best person for the part. I didn’t know this at the time, but I think one of the reasons that Cara is so good is that she understands what it’s like to have people make broad conclusions about you based on very limited information. The way people see Cara is very much the way Q sees Margo. Cara brought that knowledge to the way she played Margo and that’s part of the reason why her performance is so memorable. She understands what it’s like to have people treat you as a two-dimensional image, better than anyone I’ve ever met. Also, Cara is an intense, fun person who has more charisma than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s a bit of a mystery to me how charisma works, but she has it by the boatload, and she’s a wonderful actress.”
Q: What is she like off the set?
A: “Cara is loving and funny and complicated. She fascinates me. I love being her friend in no small part because I just love being in her presence. She’s magnetic.”
Q: Can you explain a little about Margo’s relationship with Q?
A: “Margo is a beautiful, larger than life character who is extremely impulsive and unpredictable. She’s the kind of girl everyone wants to be or wants to make out with, but she’s also stuck inside these simplistic imaginings of her, that Q has. Margo’s last name is Spiegelman and the word Spiegelman means mirror maker. When people look at Margo what they see is not really Margo, they see reflections of themselves. Q looks at Margo and he sees all his dreams. All these people have imagined her monolithically, whether it’s as the coolest girl in school, or the most beautiful girl in school.”
Q: The characters are so realistic. Do you think it is common to idealize love in Hollywood?
A: “Yes there are a lot of stories about young men who romanticize young women as their reason for being. If they can just get the girl, the story will end happily, whatever that means. Of course, that’s not the way that human relationships work. It’s not the way romantic relationships work. That’s not the way boys and girls work. In real life, that stuff is messy and complicated and in this film we wanted to try to show how messy and complicated it can be. We wanted to show that the point of living is not necessarily to get the girl or the boy. I wanted to write a story about a girl who’s being mis-imagined and the boy who mis-imagines her and how that ends up hurting both of them. Their only real way forward is to learn to think about each other as people. Margo teaches Q about living more in the present. Q teaches Margo about the pleasures of having some weight and groundedness in your life. But I also think that they make their own choices. There’s not just one way to be an adult.”
Q: Can you explain the relevance of the title?
A: “A Paper Town is a weird phenomenon in cartography that happens when mapmakers put fake places on their maps in order to protect their copyright. If I am a cartographer and I see that you put that fake place on your map in the same place, I can tell you’ve copied it. What is interesting is that the paper town, Agloe, New York, is now a real place. People go there now on road trips. Someone put up a little sign that’s like a historical marker or landmark. There’s a barn there just like there is in the movie.”
Q: What is the metaphor of a paper town in the film?
A: “It’s a very important idea to me. What you imagine is important, because nothing becomes real until it is imagined. That shapes the way we understand the world and the way we imagine our lives and our relationships to other people. Margo thinks she needs to suck the marrow out of life, but she realizes that by living this impulsive existence, she isn’t getting everything she could out of the gift of being alive. Q has to learn that by living this very narrow and rigid life, he’s missing out on a lot of the unexpected things that life has to give. Margo is obsessed with paper towns. She uses the phrase a lot and Q doesn’t quite know what it means.”
Q: Can you discuss the other main characters in the movie?
A: “One of Margo’s best friends is Lacey (Halston Sage), who is stereotypically beautiful, bubbly and blonde. As a result of that she is seen as ditzy and stupid by everyone around her. We like to classify people very narrowly, but in fact Lacey is bright and interesting and complex. Radar (Justice Smith) is a kid who edits Wikipedia and is really good at math. He is nerdy, smart ‘band’ kid. Radar has a girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair), but he’s kind of scared of her. He is always trying to hide stuff from her, like his friends, because he’s embarrassed of them. He’s also trying to hide from his girlfriend the fact that his parents own the world’s largest collection of black Santas!”
Q: Which characters do you relate to?
A: “I relate to Margo in the sense that I have often felt an intense desire to disappear over the years. I relate to Q in that in my teens I had the same problem that he has. I would romanticize young women in ways that were hugely destructive to them and to me. I relate to Ben too (Austin Abrams), this nerdy guy who desperately wants girls to like him but has absolutely no idea how to go about it. Ben is probably the guy who is most like me, but that doesn’t speak well of my high school self (laughs)!”
Q: Do you still ever feel you’d like to disappear?
A: “Yes, ‘Salingering’ is what we call it in my family! When I was a kid I loved J.D. Salinger [the late, reclusive literary legend and author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’] and I felt that he had betrayed me by stopping writing, by removing himself from the public eye. I felt that he had an obligation to his readership. Now, I’m a very different person from J.D. Salinger. Salinger is a much better writer than I am, but I wouldn’t want to make kids feel that way by disappearing.”
Q: How do you manage to communicate with teenagers so well about complex subjects like philosophy and the meaning of life, but make it fantastically entertaining and fun?
A: “Kids do talk about the meaning of life. They’re not afraid to ask those big questions about whether there is meaning and order to human existence. With PAPER TOWNS I wanted to write a novel about the challenge of being stuck inside your own consciousness and not being able to live inside anyone else’s mind and how difficult that is. It inherently makes you less empathetic than maybe you ought to be. I also think that propels a lot of our worship of fame and our fascination with celebrity and renown; these arbitrary markers of success. We believe that if we can just get attention from strangers; if our love affairs and our heartbreak were to appear on the covers of magazines, then people would know that our feelings are real. I remember being in high school and breaking up with my girlfriend. For weeks on end I was talking to my friends about it all the time and at one point my best friend was like: ‘you know, dude, this is really annoying because your break-up is exactly like everyone else’s break-up and you’re acting like it’s the most important thing that ever happened.’”
Q: How do you connect so well with young readers?
A: “I don’t know, if I had a better idea I would do a better job explaining it (laughs). I do try to credit my readers with intelligence and I think they like that. Hopefully the books are accessible. I think of myself as a populist writer; that was always my ambition and it still is. But of course I also want to write books that can be read critically. I think the measure of a book is always its emotional reality, how real it feels and how lost inside the book you get, and fortunately readers seem to get lost in the stories I write.”
Q: Last year, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, based on your book was such a phenomenon. Why you think it resonated with people of all ages?
A: “I have no idea why the movie did so well. I didn’t expect it and I can’t get my head around it. I still live in Indianapolis. Nothing changed in my experience of the world, but it was amazing to have that story resonate with so many people. I was so proud of the movie and of the work that Shai (Shailene Woodley) and Ansel (Ansel Elgort) did and Josh (Josh Boone the director). I was so happy for them. To be honest, I never expected to have that kind of audience for my books or for a movie and I feel very unworthy. I feel a bit like I won the lottery, because there’s a ton of luck involved.”
Q: Your books were always popular, but you have become a world wide literary celebrity, beyond the YA (Young Adult) world. What’s that like?
A: “The celebrity side of it is very weird and not something that I would particularly recommend. But the opportunity to have conversations with smart and curious people about stuff that I really care about is an incredible privilege and something I never could have imagined. I don’t labor under the delusion that it’s because I’m a particularly great writer. Authors like Junot Diaz [the Dominican American writer] are better than me! I think there are a lot of really good writers, but I do have a desire to connect with my readers. And that’s something I think that helps in this age, wanting to be connected. Also, having a measure of Internet literacy is certainly helpful.”
Q: What has changed for you in terms of work?
A: “It’s really gratifying to have a broad audience, but my work hasn’t changed. I still get to talk to people online about stuff I care about. My brother and I have an educational video series. I talk about history and literature and Hank talks about science, biology, physics and chemistry. We have great fun doing that. Hank and I have had a video blog together for eight years and that’s still a huge part of my life. I really enjoy being part of that online community.”
Q: You are an executive producer on PAPER TOWNS. How interested are you in that aspect of your work?
A: “That’s a made up title for me! (laughs). I’m not a movie person deep down. There are producers who do stuff, but also producers who don’t do anything and I’m one of those producers. I am not kidding, I don’t do anything! I love being here on the set and I feel really lucky to be able to work with these people I like and respect. I’m very lucky that I like (the films) PAPER TOWNS and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS so much, because the vast majority of authors who get movies made from their books are not in the position that I’m in. I genuinely love this movie, so I feel very fortunate in that respect.”
Q: What books have you enjoyed recently?
A: “I love Rainbow Rowell’s books. My favorite is ‘Eleanor & Park’. I love E. Lockhart’s book ‘We Were Liars’. I thought that was a really good, interesting novel. Roxane Gay’s ‘An Untamed State’ is the best book I’ve read in years. I’m crazy about that book. It’s a story of a kidnapping in Haiti but it’s also a very dark fairytale. It’s amazing.”
Q: There are literary allusions in PAPER TOWNS, for example to Walt Whitman. When you were in high school, which literature mattered to you?
A: “Some of Margo’s clues when she disappears are contained inside of a copy of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves Of Grass‘, that she’s left behind hoping that Q will find it. Whitman’s ‘Song Of Myself’, to me, is the great American poem and most of the clues are inside that poem. I love the poem. My favorite writer in my senior high of high school was Toni Morrison. I love ‘Beloved’ and ‘The Bluest Eye’. I love ‘The Virgin Suicides’ by Jeffrey Eugenides and Michael Chabon’s ‘The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’. I really liked Kurt Vonnegut. And of course I loved ‘The Catcher In The Rye’. I think every young adult novelist is grappling with ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ in one way or another.”
Q: Do you have any advice for young aspiring writers?
A: “I think reading is the best apprenticeship writers can have. The great thing about books is that you can read about how someone 500 or 1000 years ago used language to create stories, getting inside other people’s heads. I love to read. I think reading is the best way to learn how to write, because you can see how other people did it and then steal from them (laughs)!”
Q: Can you sum up what audiences have got to look forward to in PAPER TOWNS?
A: “The film is very moving. The friendships feel real and so heartfelt and I emerged from the movie feeling grateful for my own friendships. My favorite movies when I was a teenager and into my early twenties were REALITY BITES (1994) and STAND BY ME (1986), which didn’t fit into specific genres, like romances or comedies, they were just good films. I wanted to make a good movie that people will really enjoy and I think PAPER TOWNS is a funny movie with a good heart. I want people to walk out of the film going: ‘that was time well spent.’”
Paper Towns is out now on Digital HD, and on Blu-ray and DVD from 14th December
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