John talks with Vulture about the various aspects of filming, seeing the finished product, and its stars.
What was your part (on his cameo)?
Girl's father. That was the name of the part. I don't want to brag, but I killed it. It was one of the greatest single-line performances in the history of film. I don't know why they cut it. [Laughs.] They cut it because it was totally unnecessary to the movie-slash-I was terrible.
What was your line?
"I'm so sorry." I was saying it to Shai. It's from the scene in the book when it was intended to show how children approach someone with a disability, instead of getting nervous and anxious. That's not always true, but it's sometimes true. So this girl comes up to Hazel and asks to see her nasal cannula, and the mom in the book says, "I'm so sorry." They moved the scene around to a different place in the story and made the mom into a dad so I could have a cameo, but it just didn't work. I was hugely relieved when I got the call when they had cut the scene. I was terrible. Terrible.
Since it was a collaborative set, did you make any other suggestions or additions to the film?
My job on set was to be professionally happy and excited. But I got to spend a lot of time with the actors, and we talked about the story and the characters. And there were times where I got to be part of conversations about beats and structure, but I want to emphasize that this is not my movie — this is [director] Josh Boone's movie. I was always welcome in conversation, but a lot of those conversations happened working on the script with Scott [Neustadter] and Michael [Weber]. There were certainly a few moments that I advocated for, because I knew they were popular with readers or they were fanatically important, but they all ended up in the movie.
What kind of moments? What was important to you that they get right?
Sometimes tiny things, like what they eat at the restaurant in Amsterdam. And sometimes larger things like trying to do everything we could to [get across] the idea that sentimentalizing someone's illness is a way of dehumanizing them or distancing them from other people. Another example, and it was important to me, was that the movie not tell the typical version of the story in which someone who is sick suffers terribly and then dies, and then as the result of that person's suffering, a healthy person learns important lessons like how to be grateful for every day. Because that formulation dehumanizes a sick person. It makes it seem like the meaning of the sick person's life is so that a healthy person could learn a lesson. And of course the meaning of someone's life is inside of their lives. You can't make someone's life entirely about someone else. And so when it came to making sure, for instance, [Hazel's favorite author] Peter Van Houten isn't in any way redeemed by his interactions with Hazel and Gus. Making sure the sick people are at the center of the story — it's about them and their lives together, and their families, and it's really not about anyone else.
It's like when Gus talks about his idea for the purpose of life, the idea of dying for something, in order for life to mean something ...
... and Hazel pretty aggressively disagrees with that. That was in the first draft. That's a really important scene to me. That's much more important than my cameo! [Laughs.]
The book is Hazel's voice. And that's something films sometimes struggle with, in adapting first-person tales ...
How to make it so it's not excessively voice-over? Yeah, I don't know how Scott and Mike pulled that off, but I feel like that was there, in terms of the tone of the script. And I think they were able to find a visual reflection of that. Something that was raw, nothing overly done, nothing overly dramatic. Even in the lighting, it's not romanticized anywhere. But there is something, visually, about the connection between these kids. And every time you see them, the way it's blocked, the way it's lit, you feel it.
And Shai's audition?
I got a call, I had seen a lot of auditions, they were nice to share that with me, but they called me before and said, "We think you're going to love it." And that actually put me in a space of not wanting to like it, just because I'm contrarian, I guess? But I watched and it was perfect. It was Hazel. She sounded like Hazel. She had the cadence that I imagined in my head as I was writing Hazel, which seemed impossible to me. And that continued the entire time we were on set. Every sentence that she said sounded like Hazel to me. She clearly had a deep, innate understanding of this person. The way she breathed. The places she paused. And you know, Hazel is an uncommonly empathetic young person. She's able to imagine what her parents must be feeling. And I think that came naturally for Shailene. I think that's a big part of why ... I mean, she's a genius, but it's also the empathy. And I called them back, and I said, "Is there anything I can do to help make sure she takes the part?" Like, "Should I call her? Who do I need to talk to, to close this deal?"
Did you call her?
She had actually sent me an email a year before, talking about how much she cared about it, and how much she wanted to play Hazel. It was a very memorable email, but at the time, I didn't know very much about Shailene, so my reply was very brief. I think it ended with like, "I'm not a casting agent." [Laughs.] I don't think I called her until after they made the agreement, and we were both so excited. She and I have had a lot of conversations about living in a way that's in accordance with your values. Living in the world as we've found it, but also trying to live in a way that lines up with your values. Some of that is the same for us, but I certainly like yerba mate tea more now that I've met Shai! She was like, "You won't like it. It tastes like dirt." And I drank it, and I was like, "No, it's great. I love it. It does taste like dirt. It's great."
People laugh and cry — sometimes at the same time — when reading the book. For you, watching the film, is there laughter through tears?
Yeah! I watched the movie for the first time with my wife, and I was very nervous, because I didn't know if I was going to like it or not. My wife actually cried much more at the movie than she did the book! But I was deeply, deeply moved. I cried a lot. And I was really overwhelmed. I laughed and cried a lot.
Do you cry as much as Hazel's dad?
Not as much, but a lot! I cry a lot. In fact, it was a joke on the movie that I cried every day. But I cried every day because they were good every day! I got a lot of shit, because every time they called, "Cut!" they would look over at me, and I would be crying. But it was sad! It was moving! It was beautiful! They did a great job. I hope you like it. And you know, it cost a lot less than Spider-Man to make.