Popular film about teens with cancer aims to impart positive message

Screenwriter Scott Neustadter recalled how his father, Michael, the vigorous president of his Conservative synagogue in New Jersey, received shocking news after medical tests for his nagging back pain in January 2011: He had advanced pancreatic cancer. Surgery followed, plus radiation and chemotherapy that led to “a year’s worth of torture” until his father’s death in 2012, at age 60. “It was an awful year,” Neustadter, 37, who lives in Los Angeles, said in a recent phone interview.

Gus (Ansel Elgort) and Hazel (Shailene Woodley) in “The Fault in Our Stars” photo/creative commons

As a result, Neustadter’s writing partner, Michael H. Weber — with whom he had collaborated on the 2009 hit indie film “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Spectacular Now” (2013) — was reluctant to bring up their manager’s idea for a possible new project: adapting John Green’s runaway best-seller, “The Fault in Our Stars,” which spotlights gravely ill teenage cancer patients who fall in love.

“It was something I was extremely sensitive about,” Weber, 36, said from his home in Manhattan. Weber had attended Neustadter’s father’s funeral and been moved by his partner’s eulogy for his dad. “But our manager lobbied to go to Scott and let him decide.”

Turned out Neustadter was receptive. “It had been impossible for me to focus or to be creative, because everything else had seemed insignificant up to that point,” he said of his father’s illness and death. “But cancer was all I had been thinking about, morning, noon and night, so I jumped at the opportunity to read [Green’s] book.”

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Naomi Pfefferman

L.A. Jewish Journal