Since 2003, Josh Schwartz has helped turn, among others, Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Mischa Barton, Rachel Bilson, Adam Brody, Penn Badgley, Zachary Levi and Chace Crawford into television stars. Now 36, the writer-producer behind "The O.C.," "Gossip Girl" and "Chuck" -- as well as, perhaps, the mid-decade success of Death Cab For Cutie -- has taken his talents to the multiplex for the teen comedy "Fun Size."
Out on Oct. 26, "Fun Size" is a one-crazy-night movie about what happens when a high school senior named Wren (Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice) loses her kid brother on Halloween night. Aided by a snappy best friend (Jane Levy, doing her best Summer Roberts impression) and a love-lorn nerd (Thomas Mann), Wren must find her brother before her mother (Chelsea Handler) gets home for the night. "Fun Size" is a bit like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" mixed with the Halloween party from "Mean Girls," but scored with music that might as well be pulled from Seth Cohen's Spotify account.
HuffPost Entertainment spoke to Schwartz about his directorial debut, how he kept the cast of "Gossip Girl" interested in the show through six seasons, and what happened with his planned adaptation of "Bright Lights, Big City."
What attracted you to the "Fun Size" screenplay?
It reminded me of so many of my favorite movies from when I was growing up: The early Chris Columbus movies, like "Adventures in Babysitting"; the early John Hughes movies, like "Sixteen Candles"; the early Amblin Movies, like "The Goonies." I thought it was really smart and really funny, but it also had a lot of heart. It was a very sweet movie and I thought that would surprise people. I also loved the idea of a movie set on Halloween that didn't involve murder, torture and dismemberment. Halloween is so popular now with people of all ages, it's not just for kids. The idea of bringing Halloween to life and showing how different people celebrate at different ages -- a movie that would evoke the sweetness and childhood innocence of Halloween, but also the mischief and the danger.
This is the first time you've directed anything. What was the learning curve like?
I always assumed the first thing I directed would be something I wrote. But the opportunity came along and the studio supported the idea of me directing. It was certainly the kind of movie and the kind of story that I loved to tell. The learning curve was part of what was really exciting. It was a new challenge. I love television, and running a show and directing a movie are not wildly dissimilar. There's a lot of overlap in terms of responsibility; of seeing something from casting all the way through production, post-production, editing. As a show-runner, you get asked a lot of questions, and as a director, you get asked a lot of questions, too. But there was a whole other component to it that was different: Really working with the actors and building performances; really figuring out how to tell the story visually and working with the cinematographer. I was very upfront with the crew and said, "There's a lot of this I feel like I understand and I know, and there's a lot that I don't know. I'm really open about that and let's all work together to make something great." You really try to hire the best possible people to help you. It was a collaborative and fun experience.
As with "The O.C.," "Gossip Girl" and "Chuck" before, you've assembled a great cast of some known and unknown young actors for this film. What's the key to casting a teen project?
That is the fun of doing movies or TV shows for people this age: You really do get to discover people. First and foremost, you have a great casting director, and I've been fortunate on all those shows that you mentioned to have great casting directors, and same with the movie. Then it's really about finding people that are bringing something new to this kind of part. People who are making it feel real and true. Then it's about trying to foster that chemistry. But you really want to make sure everyone is bringing a different color, flavor and tone, and that's what helps fill out the ensemble. This movie, there's so many colorful characters that you want to be able to imagine any one of these characters being able to go off and have their own adventure.
With Victoria, she obviously had this following, but we were looking to make the movie that was a little bit edgier than you might expect. It's a PG-13 movie, it's Paramount and Nickelodeon and it's Nickelodeon's first PG-13 movie. And while I think it's a movie that the whole family can go to, I definitely think what excited Victoria about doing it is that the movie was going to push the envelope in some places. If you're a kid seeing this movie, you're going to feel like you got away with something.
Which is what films like "The Goonies" did.
Totally. If you're a kid, and somebody swears or gets into an adult situation or danger, you're like, "Oh my God, I can't believe I'm seeing this." But at the end of the day, I think it's a story about a family that needs to heal itself. I hope there's an emotional core to the story that resonates.
Interestingly, a lot of that emotion in the film is supplied by Chelsea Handler.
You expect Chelsea to be funny, and she is funny, but she really delivers emotionally. A lot of moms who have seen the movie -- a lot of single moms who have seen the movie -- really connect with her character. She's got a couple of scenes that are really, really good. People get emotional watching them. I think it surprised her and I think it's going to surprise audiences.
It's hard not to notice the soundtrack, which has become a hallmark for you. How has your relationship with Alexandra Patsavas developed since "The O.C."?
Alex and I have such a shorthand now. Any time we go into something -- obviously there's the taste that we have and share, but we also want to figure out what's appropriate. It can't just be one size fits all. You want to find the right balance for each project. The music on "The O.C." is very different from the music on "Gossip Girl," which is very different from the music on "Chuck." On "Fun Size," we wanted to figure out what that was. There's a couple of Passion Pit songs in the movie -- that was an album I was just listening to a lot when we were editing the movie and it felt like it embodied the spirit of those scenes. But we have Josh Groban in the movie, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch in the movie.
Obviously the Beastie Boys play a big part in the story of the movie, and we reached out to them early and they allowed us to license "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)," which is very rare. The jacket that Wren wears, the Def Jam jacket, is based on Mike D's Def Jam jacket that we were sent and able to rebuild for the movie. That was important, too, to find the exact right band: That the adults in the audience would get it, but for kids it would still feel relevant. There's not that many bands teenagers and people who are 20 years old view in the same way. The Beastie Boys music remains cool, remains timeless. It's classic, but yet if you're hearing it for the first time, it could feel like it came out yesterday.
The cast of "Gossip Girl" has been pretty outspoken about looking forward to the end of the series. Was it difficult to keep them interested in the show these last few seasons?
They're looking for motivation, the same way the writers are looking for motivation. Any time you're into season five or six or more -- that's a long time to be playing the same part or writing the same stories. That's part of the challenge of TV. But the cast still shows up every day and gives it their all. There's not a scene that Leighton Meester is not showing up for and crushing. Their excitement about the show ending is the same way you felt about college ending: You loved it, it was a blast, it changed your life, and the excitement is about what's coming next. They're going to have great careers.
Do you think TV series should have shorter seasons like show in the UK?
The British TV series are really short. Six episodes, come on! But, look, you know, when you're making 13 of something versus 22 or 25 episodes of "Gossip Girl" -- and we did 27 episodes in the first season of "The O.C." -- obviously you can quality control more. It's not accident, I guess; people act like they're shocked when the Emmy nominations come out and the dramas are all cable shows. When you have the time and ability to write all the scripts before you start production, obviously you can control that in a different way than when you're making a show every week -- 23, 24, 25 of them. But it's also part of the fun. The action of telling that many stories. Everybody works really, really hard on those shows. Nobody works harder in any area of Hollywood than the crew of a one-hour drama.
What happened with your adaptation of "Bright Lights, Big City"?
What happened was it's an MGM title since they made the movie back in the '80s. I finished the script just as MGM was going bankrupt and being sold. So there was a long period of time when it was just trapped at MGM. Now there's new personnel at MGM, so our hope is to go and make that movie. I think we'll probably have to make it independently; the library titles MGM are focused on right now are more of the "Robocop" variety than the "Bright Lights, Big City" variety. That being said, it's one of my all-time favorite books. I'm really proud of the script; Jay McInerney read the script and was really excited. It's a contemporary version. I love coming-of-age stories, whether they're the teenagers in "Fun Size" or the shows, or "Bright Lights, Big City," where it's 20-somethings.
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