Catching Up with John Green

“Turtles All the Way Down” was always going to be a tricky movie to get right. Based on a popular, well-reviewed 2017 book of the same name by YA maestro John Green, the story follows Aza (Isabela Merced) a girl with sometimes-crippling OCD — in addition to regular Being a Teen problems. It’s a beautiful story, but not one that necessarily screams blockbuster (à la Green’s massive “The Fault in Our Stars,” about tragic first love).

Green himself — who oversaw adaptions of his work like “Paper Towns” and “Looking for Alaska” and serves as an EP on “Turtles” — was hesitant about selling the rights to adapt it, he recalled to IndieWire.

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“It was hard for me to imagine that a good movie could be made from the book,” Green said. “Also, Hollywood has a long history of depicting OCD terribly. But because the producers were people I had such confidence in, I felt like we could at least give it a shot.”

Also helping his confidence? “Turtles” director Hannah Marks (“Don’t Make Me Go,” “After Everything”).

“Hannah was only 23 when she came in to pitch as the director of the movie,” Green said. “She’d made a two-minute miniature film showing how she wanted the thought spirals to look and feel and sound. And it looked and felt and sounded so much like intrusive thoughts to me, that from that moment on I just desperately wanted Hannah to direct the movie.”

Hollywood did its Hollywood thing, and the project bounced around for several years before eventually winding up at Warner Bros. Discovery. The film will finally hit Max on May 2, co-starring J. Smith-Cameron, Judy Reyes, and … Green himself, in a two-line cameo as a teacher at Aza’s school.

“Hannah said, ‘Would you do a cameo?’ and I said, ‘I will. But it has to be a scene that you can cut because I’m so bad that it can be distracting,’” Green said. “I did a cameo for the ‘Fault in Our Stars’ movie, but it was cut because I’m such a bad actor. … Acting is so much harder than anybody thinks it is.”

Green is just happy the movie exists.

“I recently reread part of the book for a [promotional] thing I had to do,” Green said. “And when I was reading it, I realized I was seeing Bela as Aza and I was seeing Cree as Daisy and I was seeing [Felix Mallard] as Davis, and that’s never happened to me before. It’s just a surreal experience to feel like those characters have become those people for me.”

Felix Mallard and Isabela Merced in ‘Turtles All the Way Down’
Felix Mallard and Isabela Merced in ‘Turtles All the Way Down’

The happiness with which Green speaks about the project and the young cast is a particularly nice note, given that this will likely be the last of Green’s YA screen adaptations. The author recently made headlines for saying he’s probably done with writing young adult novels (in addition to his other projects, he’s working on a book about tuberculosis — more on that below).

He clarified to IndieWire that he “doesn’t necessarily think that I’m done writing about young people, I just think that I knew when I was writing ‘Turtles’ that I was saying goodbye to a certain kind of writing.” Regardless, a chapter is closing to make room for something exciting and different in Green’s life — a revelation protagonists at the end of Green’s stories know a little something about.

The below interview has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: What kind of things would Hannah ask you to weigh in on?

John Green: A lot of the focus for us was on two things: One, things that were different from the book, just plot-wise, [like] the same monologue [now] spoken by a different character, and how to approach that. And then the other was the portrayal of OCD overall, trying to get that right, trying to focus on the right treatment strategies. Part of that was talking to experts, but part of it was also leaning on my expertise as a long-term patient and somebody who’s lived with OCD for a long time. It really was a hugely collaborative process. Often authors feel like they’re on the outside of the experience, and I always felt very, very welcomed.

If you love a book, and then Hollywood gets its hands on it, fans don’t always love the result. Your fans have always enjoyed the various adaptations of your work. What do you think is the key to those adaptations being successful?

Respect for the source material and respect for the fans. I’ve worked with the same producers at Temple Hill this whole time. They made “The Fault in Our Stars,” they made “Paper Towns.” They helped make “Looking for Alaska,” and they’ve made “Turtles All the Way Down.” And they really respect authors, and they really respect source material. But most importantly, they really respect the fans of the book. So many times [they’d ask], “How do you think fans of the book will feel about this?” And I think that’s why they’ve had so much success with adaptations not just with my work, but with lots of different authors. … So many of my friends have very different stories to tell. But I’ve been extraordinarily lucky.

“The Fault in Our Stars” movie came out 10 years ago, which is wild to me, so I can only imagine what it’s like for you. Looking back on that experience as a cultural phenomenon, what stands out to you?

It was so surreal that it’s hard to even summarize. I’m just a dad from Indianapolis. Having “Saturday Night Live” sketches made about your book and all that stuff was just overwhelming. It’s hard; sometimes feelings are so intense that you don’t know whether they’re good or bad, they’re just a lot. I have so many wonderful memories of that time. And I’m so grateful to the people who made that movie, and to the people who acted in it. And it was just a really, really magical, super intense experience.

Your books remain incredibly popular. Have you noticed the response to your work particularly among new teenagers change at all over the last 10 to 15 years? Are kids talking about different things in your work? Or has that remained consistent?

It’s an interesting question. I think it’s remained consistent to an extent; I think there’s much more focus on mental health now. And so even in my earlier books, before “Turtles All the Way Down,” people [would] talk to me more about mental health and the mental health with the characters and issues around neurodivergence, and just different ways of being a person. And those are really interesting conversations for me.

You said recently you’ve written your last YA novel. What appeals to you about writing an adult novel?

Right now, I’m writing a book about human responses to tuberculosis in history. So that’s pretty far away from both young adult fiction and adult fiction. And I don’t know what the future holds. … I don’t think very strategically about writing; I think about what’s bringing me joy and fulfillment and most demanding in my heart and right now that’s tuberculosis. That’s helping people understand that the world’s deadliest infectious disease is curable and preventable. And we’re choosing a world where a million people die of something that nobody should die of every year.

Turtles All the Way Down
‘Turtles All the Way Down’WBD/Max

You speak so passionately and knowledgeably about tuberculosis, and you’re obviously a very popular figure online, particularly. How do you think about when you’re comfortable weighing in on a topic?

Well, probably for the first three years I was learning about tuberculosis and reading and writing about it full time, I didn’t talk about it online. And that was because I didn’t feel like I had a level of expertise to talk about it well. For me, I want to have a pretty deep understanding of something if I’m going to make it a big part of my public life. And so for an issue like book banning, that’s pretty comfortable for me, because I’ve spent the last 15 years learning from librarians and teachers about the role that book banning plays in their profession, and how challenging it makes their work.

For TB, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the injustice that is expressed through tuberculosis. This is a disease that most of us in rich countries don’t worry about, and yet remains the deadliest infectious disease in the world, even though it’s curable. And so that’s really the guiding light for me.

What did you think when you found out who the various adults in this movie were going to be played by? It’s a real all-star lineup.

It’s so cool. I got to meet J. Smith-Cameron on Zoom before we shot. She wanted to meet with me and chat about the philosophy in the book and issues around freewill and how various philosophers approach freewill. She’s just so brilliant; I was like, “You’re miles ahead of me.” And Aza’s therapist [played by Poorna Jagannathan] is incredible; just so grounded in reality and yet still such a psychiatrist. I’m excited for my psychiatrist to see that because I think he’ll feel seen.

You’ve done a couple of “Turtles” screenings now with fans. What was it like watching such a personal work with a massive audience?

It was one of the most special experiences of my life. There were so many times when we thought the movie wouldn’t ever come out. And then to be able to see it and have 1,500 people there and they’re laughing at all the right times, and you can hear them crying. I was seated between the director of the movie Hannah Marks and the star Isabela Merced. And they both were gripping my arm the entire way through. It was magical.

When young people come up to you, particularly after a screening like that, and they want to talk about some of their own struggles with mental health, what do you tell them?

Well, first, it’s a gift if anybody wants to talk with me about that, and I am always grateful. A lot of what I have to say about it is in the book, and in the movie, but no condition is permanent. You know, that’s an old Liberian proverb, but it’s one I think about a lot: Despair does not tell a true story. It tells a compelling story; it tells a simple story. We are, of course, attracted to simple stories, but it doesn’t tell the truth; the truth is far more complicated than despair.

The truth, in my opinion, is that the correct response to consciousness is hope. And when I’m really unwell, it’s impossible for me to access hope. But that doesn’t mean it will always be impossible. There’s this great Emily Dickinson poem I think about all the time: “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops at all.” There are many times in my life where I can’t hear hope singing. But that doesn’t mean hope isn’t singing, it just means I can’t hear right now, and I will be able to hear it again in the fullness of time. That’s what I try to remind folks when they reach out to me.

“Turtles All the Way Down” starts streaming on Max on Thursday, May 2.

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