“Welcome to Orlando!”
It’s December 3, 2014 — day 21 of filming Paper Towns — and John Green is greeting us with a sarcastic introduction at Central Cabarrus High School in chilly Concord, North Carolina. Located roughly 30 minutes outside of Charlotte, it’s a cloudy day on a busy school campus. Not only is a major Hollywood film shooting here, but real classes are in session. Holiday decorations aren’t present in the school, but some crew equipment is dressed with Christmas lights to keep everyone in the holiday spirit. The temperature is only hitting a high of 62 degrees fahrenheit today.
The story within Paper Towns primarily takes place in Orlando, Florida in late May, so despite the holiday decorations behind the cameras, crew members are doing whatever they can to hide the fact that we’re in North Carolina during the late fall. Background actors participating in an outdoor scene are trying not to shiver as they shoot a scene as they wear clothing better suited for a typical Florida summer. Meanwhile, lead actor Nat Wolff keeps ice cubes in his mouth during the coldest parts of the day so you can’t see his breath on camera (The day’s low: 41 degrees).
Luckily for the cast and crew, the story doesn’t take place entirely outdoors, and these weather roadblocks are only minor ones. The bigger task is this: Telling a great story about growing up.
On The Sets
Prior to visiting the high school we were ushered into nearby sound stages and production offices. Sets were constructed a couple weeks prior to our arrival. These sound stages were previously used for television series including Showtime’s Homeland before Paper Towns moved in (I came across this tidbit after asking why so many of the crew members were wearing Homeland shirts around set). Sets here today include Quentin and Margo’s bedrooms, a real minivan which Q and company use to take their road trip, the all-important top floor of the SunTrust building, the messy mini-mall, and Jason’s luxurious bathroom.
While Margo’s bedroom is still under construction (its only finished feature at the time we visited were its painted purple walls), Quentin’s room is complete, and you’ll be in for a treat when you see it on the big screen.
On Q’s bookshelf are many YA easter eggs which fans may find themselves distracted by if only because the character’s book shelf is so well stocked: Harry Potter, Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games, The 5th Wave are scattered across his bookshelf. The on-set publicist tells us they wanted to get a copy of An Imperial Affliction — the book by Peter Van Houten in Green’s The Fault in Our Stars — but unfortunately it didn’t pan out.
They did manage to sneak in a nice John Green easter egg elsewhere. As we walk onto the mini-mall set, the location of Margo’s hideout, at the front of a store we find a clothing rack with a shirt from Green’s personal wardrobe depicting a certain Florida state bird. On the wall to the right are the pinpoints which Q matches up with his map to track down Margo, as well as “troll hole” and “you will go to the paper towns and you will never come back” written on walls. Speaking of the female lead, her nail polish is here as a way for Quentin to know she was once present.
And despite its cramped space, they’re actually shooting inside the 2001 tan Honda Odyssey mini-van. One small book-to-film difference: Quentin’s parents give him the minivan they already own instead of buying him one.
One of the nicest sets we see is a bathroom belonging to neither the house of Quentin or Margo — it belongs to Jason, the character whose house Quentin and Lacey visit for a party. The event at Jason’s house took all night to shoot at a luxurious home near Lake Norman (roughly 20 miles north of Charlotte) and included over 100 extras. On-set publicist Michael Umble tells us that Nat began to play piano for everyone around 3 a.m.
The final set we visit is one recreating the top of the SunTrust building. This location, featuring floor to ceiling windows offering views of the entire city of Orlando, is more important in the movie than it is in the book. It’s the new home of the scenes that take place at SeaWorld after Quentin and Margo’s night of hijinks (the theme park was removed in light of the documentary Blackfish, amongst other controversies). Speaking of changes during this area of the story, there are now 9 activities that Margo tasks them with accomplishing instead of the 11 found in the book.
After leaving the sound stages we head over to the aforementioned high school. Though its real name is Central Cabbarus, it’s named Jefferson Park High School in the film. They couldn’t get clearance to use the name of the real school featured in the Paper Towns book, Winter Park High School.
I couldn’t help but notice that John was in a great mood, and probably for good reason: It’s the second time one of his beloved books is being turned into a film, the cast and crew have a great rapport on set, and like Fault, it’s looking like another hit because there’s a deep interest in getting the themes and feelings right.