When authors Rachel Cohn and David Levithan decided to collaborate on the novel “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” about two teenagers who meet and fall in love over the course of a single night in the New York City underground music scene, they took turns writing alternate chapters, Cohn wrote Norah’s and Levithan wrote Nick’s.The stunt lent such authenticity and depth to the characters’ voices that when aspiring screenwriter Lorene Scafaria read the novel, she says, “I remember closing the book and weeping a little bit. I read it all in one go, and it literally put you inside the heads of two teenagers for five hours.”
Although Scafaria didn’t have any produced screenplays to her credit, she had written several scripts good enough to convince the production company that owned the film rights to the book to let her take a shot at adapting the story for the screen. “The authors ultimately had the final say, so I was tickled they picked me,” said Scafaria, who while writing the script drew on her own background growing up in New Jersey, “living under the shadow of New York City and taking the train for an hour into the city, hoping for one of those nights that can only happen in Manhattan.”
By the time Scafaria had finished her second draft, the movie’s producers had signed on director Peter Sollett, whose debut film, 2002’s “Raising Victor Vargas,” also centered on teenaged romance in New York’s Lower East Side.
Sollett had been trying to get his sophomore project past the script stage, but he couldn’t secure funding. “I felt I needed to get involved with other things so my career didn’t get lost in development hell,” Sollett says. “And when I read Lorene’s script, I was totally surprised, because it felt like something I wished I had written. It even felt a little autobiographical. It seemed very obvious to me that I NEEDED to make that film.”
Sollett and Scafaria started collaborating on the script, brainstorming to come up with characters and situations to surround their two lead characters, who would be played by Michael Cera (“Juno,” TV’s “Arrested Development”) and Kat Dennings (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” TV’s” E.R.”)
“Peter is great at capturing the authenticity of characters,” Scafaria says. “The fact that he’s a guy and I’m a girl hopefully mirrored what the authors of the book experienced. We came up with more ridiculous ways of getting the characters into trouble.”
“I credit Peter with a lot of the humor in the movie. He may speak softly and intelligently, but he’s got a really dirty mind.”
For Sollett, the task of directing a movie for a major studio was a drastically different experience creatively than making “Victor Vargas,” a low-budget indie.
“‘Vargas’ was really made in a vacuum,” Sollett says. “It wasn’t made for a studio and we didn’t know if it would ever get distributed. In a way, it was completely free of commercial interests. ‘Nick and Norah’ was made for more money, and that comes with responsibility for financiers. You have to earn people their money back. So there was a new dialogue I had to engage in. It felt like a different kind of process.”
That process translated into coming up with situations and characters mainstream audiences could latch onto in large enough numbers to warrant the film’s still-modest budget of $10 million. The resulting film has already been described as a New York City counterpart to the John Hughes teen comedies of the 1980s such as “Sixteen Candles” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
“I do love those John Hughes movies and I’m glad people are comparing it to those,” Sollett says. “I had never made a film like this before. There were moments of broad comedy and physical conflict. There were stunts. At the same time, I wanted to make something that was true to my experience of being a teenager and true to the experience of being the age I am now.”
“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” also achieved another personal goal for Sollett: Turning the New York City he knows and loves , particularly his East Village home turf, into a veritable character in the film.
“I’ve lived here since I was in college, and it’s always been frustrating to go see movies set in New York, because I never see anything that bears any resemblance to what I’m seeing myself every day,” he says.
“Things get really white-washed in movies. People seem to forget that the New York City they’ve come here to film is very romantic and very glamorous just as it is. But that somehow translates into making the city look really phony.”
“So to me the challenge was to make the city look realistic but also romantic _ without making it look like ‘Sex and the City.’