The film premiered to a packed auditorium, and a trail of people waiting in line was turned away at the door. Those who got in gave it a standing ovation, and it quickly became one of the most blogged-about and hyped movies at the festival. For Webb, "Having that incredible affirmation felt great. We were honest but hopeful and I think that's a good recipe regardless of what audience is in the room."
What sets the "un-romantic comedy" apart from its more snarky peers is that it manages to defy romantic-comedy conventions without explicitly choosing the opposite perspective. Told entirely from the perspective of the male character, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), it joins films like Annie Hall and High Fidelity in that too-rare category that not only depicts a romance from the male point of view, but isn't afraid to show the ups and downs of a relationship that isn't sealed with a kiss at the end.
Moving forward and backward in time at a frenetic pace—Webb calls each of the chronological adjustments a "trip-tick"—(500) Days of Summer follows Tom, a hopeless romantic who meets the girl of his dreams, Summer, played by the blue-eyed Zooey Deschanel. Juxtaposing scenes of romantic pursuit with heartbreak, the movie skips around through 500 days as Tom dates and breaks up with Summer. While Summer's "not looking for anything serious," that doesn't stop Tom from over-romanticizing their relationship, and viewing any problems as mere bumps before their eventual reconciliation.
While the male point of view, as well as a plotline focusing on an obsessive male and an indifferent female, seems to invert the gender stereotypes of romantic comedies, Webb never saw it that way. "A lot of people read that into the film, but I, initially, never thought about it that way. I just thought: Oh, this is what it's like to be a young person. It's not gender-specific to me."
Although (500) Days of Summer doesn't try to explicitly challenge courtship roles, it does take a hard look at romanticism in general. For Tom, that involves confronting the image of romance he developed from (according to the film's voice-over narrator) "sad British pop songs and a misreading of the end of The Graduate." "That's one of the themes of this movie," Webb explains—the exploration of what happens "when the world you expect collides with the reality."
To emphasize that the story comes entirely from Tom, Webb made a "global choice" to cover the movie from the character's perspective. "We're not going to enter a room before he enters a room. We're always going to be inside his head. In the scene in the karaoke bar, we see Summer first in a long shot, and then we're literally cutting to his point of view. We never shoot a scene where Summer's not with Tom. We're going to look people in the eye, it's not going to be about angles or low angles."
Webb's "global choices" seek to combat "the trap you get into if you're a music-video director, where you're thinking about the shot and the look and the microcosmic level... I think a lot of music-video directors go for what looks cool rather than what is right for the story."
(500) Days of Summer has a style familiar to viewers of music-videos—dance sequences, split-screens, animation, and carefully chosen color palettes—but it always does so with purpose. One scene, which Webb calls "Expectation/Reality," uses a split-screen to show what Tom expects to happen during a party with Summer versus what actually happens.
Webb worried about "how far I could use the trick without losing the audience. It's an emotional scene, but we had to balance clarity and feeling along with a curious visual device." The combination works: At the end of the scene, the feeling of disappointment you share with Tom weighs heavier than the sense of novelty over the split-screen.
To ground the film's stylistic flourishes, Webb encouraged his actors to play every scene naturalistically and in the moment, knowing that "if we had had all that whimsy and tied it with a sort of mannered or elevated performance, it would have tipped everything over, and been too ironic or goofy."
Webb himself has used the split-screen in more than one of the music-videos he directed, and he suspects that his experience in animation, split-screens and other technical devices helped him nail the job, because not many low-budget films can find a director with that kind of technical experience. "I always sort of cringe at the notion of first-time director," he says, "because I've spent the last eight years working on music-videos. Every day I've been in pre-production or post."
In a strategy that seems to be used more and more these days, all of the music for (500) Days of Summer was chosen beforehand, and the airtight script made the film virtually edit itself. With the musical choices in place, Webb "could define the pace and the tone to the actors and camera people," making the filming experience more cohesive.
For an audience member, the central role of music adds to the subjective feel of the movie. Ebullient songs like "She's Like the Wind" and Hall & Oates "You Make My Dreams Come True" are played as if they are emanating from Tom's head, and Tom himself becomes part of a dance sequence, complete with marching band, animated bluebirds, and background dancers, that occurs after his first night with Summer. Other choices, like the Regina Spektor song played during the "Expectations/Reality" sequence, help the sequences "flow." The curated musical selection, which includes hard-to-license tracks by The Smiths, seems poised to follow in the footsteps of other Fox Searchlight movies with addictive soundtracks, like Garden State and Juno.
Webb is quick to commend the marketing power of Fox Searchlight, "where they're so thoughtful about marketing, it's like an art form in and of itself." For the film's campaign, the studio chose the tagline "a post-modern love story," more for its buzzword potential than as a reference to the film's self-consciousness. "Like 'indie,' it means different things to different people," Webb clarifies, "but it helps people know that it's not exactly 'typical,' which is important."
If Fox Searchlight can successfully target the same kind of people who applauded (500) Days of Summer at Sundance, the film should join their string of indie hits, like Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, soon after it releases on July 17. While the film's style and frenetic flashback and flash-forward structure will probably inspire the most after-movie chatter, Webb wants audiences to respond to the film's "emotional core, the social component." Perhaps it's this connection that has inspired the "moving" reactions of people his parents' age, in their 50s or 60s, who have told him that "the movie conjures some memories that have stuck with them over the years. It speaks to just how strong romantic ideals can be"—even, and perhaps especially, when they remain unfulfilled.