John Green is crying again. Not because he’s sad, really. More like the way parents weep at weddings and at high school graduations. This sudden, unstoppable rush of happy tears has become so common for the 36-year-old author as he watches the filming of his 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars, that it’s now a bit of a running joke. “John Green cries all the time,” says director Josh Boone, laughing. “This set basically has no testosterone whatsoever.”
This is a love story. It is a story of joy and devastating loss and, most of all, life. It will make you laugh and rejoice and think and feel and will expand your heart in gratitude and humility, and it will forever change the way you hear the word “okay,” and, yes, it will make you cry. If you are one of the millions of people who have read The Fault in Our Stars, you know this already. If you are not, prepare yourself — you will not walk away from this book, or this film, unaltered. Okay? Okay.
It’s September 2013 on a bright afternoon in Pittsburgh, and Shailene Woodley, who plays 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster, stands in a simple blue dress the color of cornflowers and adjusts the cannula tubes in her nostrils. Her hair, so long and lustrous in her last film, Divergent, has been cropped short. She is waiting.
Hazel is a jeans-and-T-shirt girl. No makeup, no fuss. She also has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, so she must be connected to a portable oxygen tank to breathe. Not too long ago she met a boy named Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort) in a cancer support group — Gus was there for his friend Isaac (Nat Wolff). Gus is in remission (osteosarcoma), is handsome and clever, and has homed in on Hazel like a tractor beam. She has resisted him — her diagnosis is terminal, and she spends a lot of time worrying about the destructive effect her death will have on her parents. But he is fearless and persistent, and she has, despite herself, quietly fallen in love with him. They are about to go out to dinner in Amsterdam — they’ve joined forces on a quest to meet the reclusive author of Hazel’s favorite book (Willem Dafoe) — and now she is standing in this room, wearing this dress that her mother (Laura Dern) picked out for her, and she is waiting for him.
In a separate room, Green and executive producer Isaac Klausner watch the monitor as the camera rolls and Gus, dapper in a dark suit, enters the room and sees Hazel. He stops, dumbstruck, before finally telling her she’s beautiful. Take after take, Woodley flushes on cue and the air between the two actors practically hums. When the scene ends, Green takes off his wire-rim glasses and dabs his eyes. “It’s that blue dress,” he says. Klausner pats him on the shoulder.
Green never imagined TFIOS would be a best-seller. He started writing the novel in 2000 after working as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital, but set it aside. He only returned to the project after the death of Esther Earl, a 16-year-old video blogger to whom he had become quite close. He dedicated The Fault in Our Stars to her memory. “I couldn’t bear not writing it anymore,” he says. “I now believe that short lives can be good lives — full and rich — and that was the real lesson that Esther taught me.”
All of that may sound just too sad and too sweet to be anything but a Nicholas Sparks tearjerker, but what has turned TFIOS into a literary touchstone for a generation is quite the opposite: the novel’s sharp wit; its clear-eyed, anti-sentimental voice; and, ultimately, its optimistic message about what it means to have a life well lived. “The challenge is, How do you be hopeful without being full of s—?” Green says. “I tried to write the funniest, most honest love story I could about these kids who were living with a difficult disease. I never thought it would be popular.”
Since its debut in January 2012, TFIOS has dominated the New York Times best-seller list for 119 consecutive weeks, 46 of them in the No. 1 slot, and has been translated into 46 languages. Last month Time magazine named Green one of the 100 most influential figures of the year. While the film was shooting on location, it was Green, not the actors, who was mobbed by fans. To date, the trailer for the film (out June 6, rated PG-13) has logged more than 16 million views.
The lion’s share of the credit goes to Green’s writing, to be sure, but clearly there’s a deeper reason TFIOS has struck such a zeitgeistian chord. Perhaps it’s the book’s willingness to confront painful, concrete obstacles, to deal with what is true and tangible and anchored in our American present. For years, the YA landscape has been stuck in either the glittery world of the supernatural or bleak, dystopian futures. TFIOS taps into the universal teenage angst that accompanies first love, but in Hazel and Gus’ case there are no Cullens or Factions to serve as metaphors. The life-and-death stakes are real, and the novel is unafraid to grapple with the essential conflict between adolescence and mortality. Although almost every teenager has lain awake in the dark of her bedroom and imagined who will speak at her funeral, the reality of death remains elusive: something to be pushed out of mind until some far-off future. TFIOS strips away that fantasy and faces it, head-on.
“We need to talk about the vomit,” someone says. The filmmakers and crew huddle up as a production assistant pours three different puddles of fake puke on the floor. The options range from putrid green to chunky brown. Giggles, jokes, and comparisons — “That one’s like newborn diaper poo!” — are tossed about. Then the on-set medic explains that one option has coffee grounds in it to mimic the look of blood mixed with bile, and the room goes quiet. Boone clears his throat and points to the one he likes (the middle, mud-colored one), and everyone goes back to setting up the next shot. “There’s a lot of that on this set,” Green says. “Everybody really likes each other and it’s fun. But then there are those times when it’s really quite sober.”
This is a story about sickness and death. It is, in other words, the kind of material that Hollywood studios sprint away from, not toward. That Fox 2000, a division of Twentieth Century Fox (which specializes in blockbusters like X-Men and Avatar), is making TFIOS is as unexpected as the novel’s success. It was not an easy sell, to say the least, but when the book option became available just over two years ago, producer Wyck Godfrey (the Twilight franchise) fell under its spell. “There’s just something about it that makes you want to live a better life,” he says. He approached Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler with the project, but she was in the thick of shepherding Life of Pi, a risky and expensive production for which she had called in many favors. She adored the novel but blanched at adding another seemingly impossible project to her plate.
Godfrey was undaunted. “Wyck called me and said, ‘You can’t pass on this. You have to do this,’ ” Gabler recalls. “I said, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ And he said, ‘Because. It makes you remember when you were a teenager and you were in love for the first time and you didn’t want to hang up the phone.’ ” She laughs. “I said, ‘Ugh, I hate you!’ ” She agreed to take on the film, but with two conditions. “We have to make this movie for no money,” she told him. “And we have to be very, very careful about all of our choices.”
Just about everyone involved with TFIOS was willing to cut their fee to keep the film within its bare-bones $12 million budget and preserve the story’s integrity. As for the “very careful” choices, finding the right director was a biggie. Like many people on the production, Josh Boone, 35, has a personal connection to the material — one of his best friends died of lung cancer a month before he began shooting his first film, 2013′s Stuck in Love. “This book got me through a rough patch,” he says. Boone is tall and skinny, and he looks much younger than his age. He also seems preternaturally relaxed considering it’s only his second movie, and his first studio project. “I don’t really get stressed,” he says, grinning. “I’m pretty Zen.”
Nowhere were the stakes higher, though, than in casting Hazel and Gus. TFIOS fans are a loving but kinda fanatical lot with strong opinions about who those characters are, for one thing, and both roles require actors who have not just access to great wells of emotion but also control of them. Searching for that combo in a teenager? Almost futile.
Shailene Woodley, who’d read both the novel and an early draft of the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Spectacular Now), was determined to play Hazel, or if she couldn’t, to just be involved somehow. She met with Gabler as soon as Boone was in place, and said she’d do anything — including wash windows or work craft services — to be a part of the production. She drew elaborate sketches about TFIOS in her journal and wrote a long letter to Green thanking him for the novel and explaining why she should play Hazel (“I think it was about 13,000 words long,” Green says). Woodley says her intentions were pure: “I didn’t want to do this movie as an actor, like, Look at me, I can cry.”
Her enthusiasm nearly backfired. “It turned me off at first,” Boone says, adding that he also considered Woodley, now 22, too old for the part. He’d hoped to cast someone closer to Hazel’s age of 16. He and his casting director read nearly 200 actresses before flying to Chicago, where Woodley was filming Divergent. “I liked her a lot personally, but I still didn’t think she was Hazel,” he says. But then she auditioned. “Within about two minutes, I knew it was going to be her,” he says. “I was on the floor. I thought, ‘Why am I fighting this? There’s nobody better than her. She’s awesome.’ ” Green wasn’t in the room at the time, but had the same reaction when he saw her taped audition: “I suddenly was in a blind panic, jumping on the phone and screaming, ‘We must lock this down! It has to be Shailene Woodley!’ ” He laughs. “She is Hazel.”
A blond preteen with a mouthful of braces — trembling like a caffeinated hamster — appears tableside at a restaurant in Tribeca. “Um, are you Ansel?” It’s March 20, the day before Divergent opens in theaters, and Ansel Elgort, 20, has been spotted eating breakfast. He invites the girl to sit down and asks EW to take a picture. The girl’s phone case has two TFIOS quotations on it: “Okay?” “Okay.”
This is a story about romance and patience and finding the person you belong with. It’s also about a cheese sandwich. Last year Elgort was in Chicago playing Caleb, the brother of Woodley’s Tris in Divergent, when he was named one of six finalists for the role of Augustus and flown to L.A. for a “chemistry read” with Woodley. He had already become friendly with his cinematic sibling, but the TFIOS team worried it might be weird for Elgort to go from playing Woodley’s bro to the love of her life. They needn’t have.
Something about the pair clicked. “He sort of towers over her,” Boone says. “Just how tall he is makes her automatically seem small, vulnerable, and young. Other than his acting talent — which is great — he has this gentle-giant quality that really works.”
In person, Elgort is unguarded and friendly, like a 6′ 4″ golden-retriever puppy who doesn’t know the size of his own paws. Elgort finishes his breakfast, happily polishes off an EW writer’s leftovers, and marvels that Woodley didn’t kiss any of the guys in the chemistry auditions. “If I was in that situation? If Gus was cast first and they were trying to find a Hazel? I’d be totally happy making out with all of them,” he says. “I mean, there were some really pretty boys who were trying out!” He grins. “I’d have kissed them all.” After the audition, the native New Yorker went back to his L.A. hotel room, feeling lonely in a strange city. “Shailene called me and I thought she was going to be like, ‘Want to hang out? Are we getting dinner?’” He laughs. “She was just like, ‘Hey, do you have an iPhone 5 charger?’ I didn’t, so she was like, ‘Okay, see you back in Chicago.’”
Woodley still had to read with more actors and didn’t think it would be fair to spend extra time with Elgort. But she later made up for it when it came time to tell Elgort that he had won the role. (“I knew a few days before he did, and the suspense was killing me,” she says.) Taking a page out of the Fault playbook — when Gus surprises Hazel with a picnic and plane tickets to Amsterdam — she packed Elgort a brown paper bag containing a Dutch cheese-and-tomato sandwich to take home with him to Manhattan. Her instruction: Don’t open it till she said so. A few days later, Boone called Elgort to give him the news, and he finally got to open the bag. “I didn’t eat it,” Elgort says. The cheese had gone moldy and the tomato was black. “But I was psyched.”
John Green is relaxing on a couch on set when Elgort strides by wearing his Amsterdam-date suit. “My God, buddy,” Green says. “If I had known how great you’d look in that suit, I’d have written more of them into this book.” Elgort smiles and strikes a pose. The author has become a living litmus test for the cast and crew, the man whom they seek out for answers and validation. “Having John’s approval, more than anyone else, has been the biggest honor,” Woodley says. “He’s quickly become one of my top five favorite human beings.”
This is a love story. It’s a story about hope and fear, and about letting go. Green was wary of Hollywood getting its hands on The Fault in Our Stars. After years of seeing adaptations of his other books (Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines) languish in development, he worried that it would happen again, and he couldn’t bear it. “I didn’t want to option it,” he says. He asked his publisher not to send out any advance copies to studios. “I thought if it did get made, it would be the kind of gauzy cancer story Hazel makes fun of.”
A legion of TFIOS fans have dreaded the same thing, of course — that in its translation to the screen the book’s authenticity and edge, the deep truth of it, would be pummeled into mush and melodrama. But right now Green knows something that they don’t: that they have nothing to fear. All that happy crying he did on set is weeks away from being replicated in theaters across the country, and there’s a bit of the miraculous in that, a tiny cause for awe. “The expectation that I’ve always had is that it would be sort of awful,” he says. “But the feeling I’ve had consistently is this weird, deep joy. Shailene has become Hazel to me. Ansel has become Gus. To see the things I wrote, to hear them in their voices?” His voice thickens. Tears threaten. “It’s been beyond my wildest imagination.”
This story appears in Entertainment Weekly’s May 9, 2014 issue.
For more on The Fault in Our Stars — including interviews with director Josh Boone and stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort — pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday, May 2.