How Did The Confederate Flag Make It Into Paper Towns?

Photo: REX USA.
You don’t go see a teen movie based on a John Green novel expecting political commentary, but one scene in Paper Towns (which comes out in theaters July 24) is jarringly topical.

On a road trip near the end of the film, the movie’s protagonist, Quentin (Nat Wolff), and his friends stop at a gas station for provisions, including some fresh T-shirts. The friends purchase their new tees haphazardly — so haphazardly that, back in the car, Radar (Justice Smith), who is Black, picks up one that's emblazoned with a Confederate flag and reads “heritage not hate.”

The reveal is particularly startling, given the recent controversy over the continuing prevalence of the flag that was sparked following the mass shooting at a Black church in Charleston, SC, on June 17. The flag was removed from the South Carolina capitol grounds earlier this month.

“We actually shot a version on set with a different T-shirt, just in case something like that would come up,” director Jake Schreier told Refinery29 in a phone interview last week. “If anything, given the timing of it, I almost wish we were harsher on the Confederate flag. There’s a way that they kind of laugh it off. I hope it’s taken this way — and if it isn’t, then I feel bad — but I think we come down pretty strongly on the side that it is a racist flag and should be taken down, and shouldn’t be worn and shouldn’t be flown.”

Green's novel, which was published in 2008, includes a similar situation. (In fact, the book's version of the scene features two T-shirts printed with the flag.) “It was something that I loved in the book,” Schreier said. “I loved that it took a stand on that. I thought if we had shied away from it, it would have been worse.”

Was there any discussion as to whether the scene should be cut from the movie following the events in South Carolina? “At that point the movie was already locked, finished, out the door, was already being released in Brazil the next day, so it would have been a huge undertaking to change it. But more than anything, we looked at it [and thought], This is a scene that says this is actually a symbol of a racist past and deserves to be taken down. We felt like if we were speaking on the right side of that, then hopefully people would take it in that light,” Schreier said.

On a lighter note, the gas station scene also features (spoiler alert!) a cameo from The Fault in Our Stars star Ansel Elgort as a hunky (what else?) cashier. "That came about because everyone involved in these movies really loves each other, and Nat [Wolff] and Ansel are still really good friends," Schreier said. "I think it was something that Ansel suggested to Elizabeth Gabler, the head of the studio [Fox 2000], at the Fault premiere. He said, 'I’d love to come back and do something in the next one.' Then it was just a question of finding the right moment for it, and it was a really fun day."

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