Paper Towns' John Green & Halston Sage Bond Over Cookies & Nerds

Photo: REX Shutterstock.
This is not how you think lifelong bonds are formed. Paper Towns is about a slightly geeky boy, Quentin (Nat Wolff), and his lifelong crush on the extraordinary girl next door, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne). They orbit completely in different spheres in their stratified high school in Orlando, and their friends never interact outside of random acts of bullying. Until Margo runs away and those barriers break down.

No barriers ever formed among the cast, however. Before the cameras began rolling, it seemed they were all on their way to becoming BFFs. The evidence is clear from the Instagram accounts of the stars, as well as that of Paper Towns author John Green, who served as an executive producer on the film, the second adaptation of one of his YA novels (after The Fault in Our Stars).

The Instagrams gave the impression they were all at summer camp. Was it just for show? Refinery29 sat down with Green and actress Halston Sage (Neighbors), who plays Margo's best friend, Lacey, to get a better idea of what went down on the set and how they shattered each other's preconceived notions of best-selling authors and gorgeous Hollywood starlets.

Based on your posts during the shoot of Paper Towns, everyone on the set seemed close — or was that all for the cameras?

John Green:
"It's all for the cameras."

Halston Sage: "It's fake. We're really good actors."

JG: "The real measure of it is, everyone's still really tight, even months after we finished shooting. I get late-night messages from Justice [Smith, who plays a supporting character named Radar] and Nat all the time. Justice and Nat live together now. It's a real special thing."

HS: "I think that it's kind of a shame, because people always say that you get really close on a movie set, and it's always a lie. No one's going to believe us [this time], but it actually happened. We all bonded and became this family that I think everyone wants to take away from a film set, but it doesn't always happen."

JG: "It's just super lucky. I've been lucky twice. I don't know another way to do it. But this was even more like a family experience. They were all about the same age. Most of them did not have traditional college experiences, so this was like being a freshman in college. I think the most important thing was that they're all really generous, open, empathetic people. The book is about how difficult it is when you're young — and even when you're not so young — to imagine other people complexly and see them as fully human. They all did that for each other, really right from the beginning. I got there one or two days before shooting started, and they were already like best friends. Nat and Justice and Austin were sleeping in the same room every night. And you and Cara and Jaz [Sinclair, another supporting player] were all really close."
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I think the most important thing was that [the cast] are all really generous, open, empathetic people.

John Green

You shot in Orlando and Charlotte, right?

JG: "Yeah, it was a great town. We all got to live in the same apartment building, which was like a dorm."

HS: "Which was a good and a bad thing. We almost got kicked out three times. Things were broken. Things were shot."

JG: "I never felt so old as when you guys would come to my apartment at 3 in the morning and be like, 'John! Come outside!' And I'd be like, 'No, it is nighttime.'"

HS: "But you had cookies in there!"

JG: "'Oh, why do you have cookies by your bed? I want to eat all your cookies.' That is my personal shame."

HS: "Not any more, it's not. That's when I started liking you."

JG: "You ate all my personal cookies, which were important to me. I would take them from craft services every night."
Photo: Joey Foley/Getty Images.

What was your role as producer, John? It sounds like you were the RA.
JG: "I was a little bit of a middle-aged RA. But no, I didn't really have a role."

HS: "That's not true. He's being humble. He was a huge influence and a huge support. I think having John on set made us all feel really comfortable with what we were doing, because our main goal — everyone there, the cast, the crew — was to make sure our hearts were in bringing this story to life. And to have John there, and to have his blessing, it was important. We were very happy you were there."

JG: "I loved being there. It's great fun. It's an amazing, weird, beautiful thing to watch all of these people work so hard to bring your book to visual life. I felt really lucky. But other than that, other than supporting them and answering any questions, I was just there to be happy. Be professionally excited. Which is a good job. Long hours. The reason Fox wanted me there was for Vlog Brothers videos and Instagram posts."

John, like Quentin and Margo, you grew up in Orlando. Is there something especially Floridian about their story, or is their ennui universal?

JG:
"I think it's universal. I think lots of people feel that way, not just Floridians. There is something particular about living in a part of the world that people visit but don't live in. When I was a kid, Orlando always felt to me like a place where people were perpetually arriving and leaving, and that made me feel stuck. That's some of what Margo is pushing against, is that feeling that she is so stuck. And she is deeply afraid of what happens when you get stuck in a place. She makes very different choices from the ones that I made. But I definitely understand that urge to get out."

[John] goes out of his way to make sure [girls] are not portrayed...the way that society's used to seeing them.

Halston Sage
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Lacey could have been a typical "mean girl" character, but she turns out not to be at all. Do you feel a responsibility to show the good side of female friendship?

HS:
"Yes. I think that the way that John writes all of his female characters is very fair. He goes out of his way to make sure they're not portrayed a particular way or the way that society's used to seeing them, [and portrays us] the way that we as girls want to be seen. Not just for the way we look but for who we are as people."

What's the key to writing a character who is not like you, without falling into stereotypes?
[Note: For more on this topic, read Green's reaction to controversy caused by fellow YA author Andrew Smith.]

JG: "I wrote Paper Towns in some ways in response to things that I found concerning looking back at Looking for Alaska, my first novel. I guess I felt like in Alaska, the nature of the arc of the story, the whole way through, Miles is mis-imagining Alaska, and he fails to understand her complexly, and that proves disastrous for them. But the story really isn't about that. Paper Towns, I wanted to make the story about that. That meant having characters like Lacey and Margo, whom these boys think they know because they're able to pigeonhole them. Both those women upend the boys' expectations of them and prove to be a lot more complicated than they thought.

"That, by the way, is also my experience with knowing Halston. I struggle with this just like anyone. I also make broad conclusions and struggle with nuance and imagining people complexly. And then here's this bubbly, blond Southern California girl, and I know bubbly, blond Southern California girls from the movies and TV, and I know what they're about, and I know what they're like. When in fact, Halston is extremely nerdy."

HS: "It's true."

JG: "Over the course of the shoot, she completely deconstructed all of my assumptions about Southern California blond girls and put her back together as a complex, real, total person."

How are you nerdy, Halston?
HS: [Laughs]

JG: "The laugh, the talking, the person."

HS: "Everything. The things I say, the way I say them. The [loud] volume of them."

JG: "Who she is!"

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