Few filmmakers have found as much success at the Sundance Film Festival in recent years as James Ponsoldt, who we first met after his addiction drama Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul, played there in 2012. The following year, he returned there with The Spectacular Now, an acclaimed adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel starring hot actors Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley.
Now he’s back with another hot pairing for The End of the Tour, which recounts the first encounter between Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky, as played by Jesse Eisenberg, with author David Foster Wallace (an unforgettable performance by Jason Segel), whose novel “Infinite Jest” had been receiving rave reviews when Lipsky travelled to Indianapolis in 1996 to interview him. Lipsky ends up going with Wallace to Minneapolis for the last stop on his book tour and the two of them bond despite Wallace’s erratic behavior. Twelve years later, after Wallace’s passing, Lipsky released the interviews as the book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.”
This was a great year for movies at Sundance until this writer got horrifically ill, but before that happened, we had a chance to sit down with Ponsoldt to talk about his third Sundance film in a row, this one having the benefit of having already been picked up for distribution by A24 before its premiere at the Eccles Theater on Friday, January 23. He had a lot of great things to say about Wallace, Segel’s portrayal of the author, collaborating with composer Danny Elfman and the unexpected appearance by John Woo’s Broken Arrow in the movie.
ComingSoon.net: This is your third Sundance in a row where you have a movie that is getting a lot of attention.
James Ponsoldt: Yeah, no, it’s been a blast. It’s been really fun. I was even able to go home to see my wife and son for a couple of days in the middle and just got back yesterday for our last two screenings to do the Q&As. I have this obsessive compulsive thing, too, where I sit through every screening of my movie at the festival, and then, I never watch it again after the festival.
CS: Really? So you actually will sit in with the audience the whole time?
Ponsoldt: I’ve seen it screened four or five times and it will have one more screening I watch. I do the intro. I watch everything, do the Q&A and really, for me, it helps me get separation from it. It gets so personal when you make a movie, and if people criticize it, it feels like they’re criticizing the nose on your face, but by watching it that much and sort of seeing it with different – seeing it in Ogden versus seeing it at the Resort, a morning screening versus a night screening, you do get a sense of where it works, how it works well, the pacing of it and you learn about it as a found object sort of. Then, for me, it’s like, “Okay, I may or may not watch it again after Saturday night at the Redstone.”
CS: A lot of times when you have movies at Sundance, you’re trying to get it done at the last minute. I don’t know if that was the case with this one.
Ponsoldt: This was the first time that I didn’t have to do that, where every other time, it was sprinting and I was still doing work in early January. In this case, we had finished shooting by the end of March and had it pictured locked by July. I was actually able to really enjoy – I mean, it was slower for me because I had a newborn child, but also, we were lucky. There was these amazing artists I was able to work with like Danny Elfman or our colorist, Bryan McMahan, who worked with Malick. They were available, but their times were such that if it had been on this schedule, where it was like, “We have two weeks. Can you do it exactly then?” I might not have been able to. In this case, it was like, “Oh, you’re available in late September? Great. That’s when we’ll kind of get together.” So, we were done by early December, but I was able to enjoy it and not be manic.
CS: After seeing it with an audience, do you feel like there’s anything that you want to change? I guess in theory, you could do more work on it before it gets released.
Ponsoldt: Yeah, I mean, nothing yet. I mean, I was able to, and again, a lot of it was the luxury… when I’m editing a movie, I always do screen it for a small groups of friends, like 10 to 12 people, but usually, it’s like we’re on a very, very tight schedule, where it’s like we’re sending it off to Sundance. In this case, we were able to do that and do more screenings, again, it wasn’t the agenda of anyone to push us. It was really for me to learn about the movie. But, I was able to do 10 or 12 of them in the spring and summer for increasingly large groups of people who were two, three degrees away. So I felt like I really knew it. I mean, it’s that cliché of them saying you make three movies, the one you imagine, the one you shoot, and the one you edit. As far as the third movie, as far as working with what we had, I feel like we made the right movie. There’s plenty of scenes that I love that we cut out that they wind up on like a Blu-ray or something, but I feel pretty good.
CS: Last time we spoke, you’d been developing a couple of things, a science fiction movie, a musical, all of this different stuff. How did it end up that you put those things aside to do this? Did this show up and you said, “This is what I have to do next”?
Ponsoldt: Yeah, I mean, this really was one of those things where… so the script, my playwriting teacher from college, Donald Margulies, adapted David Lipsky’s book. He reached out kind of out of the blue. I mean, we stayed in touch over the years. He just said, “Hey, I’ve adapted this book by David Lipsky. I don’t know if you know the book. I don’t know if you’re a David Foster Wallace fan, but Anonymous Content is producing and give it a read.” He had no idea that I was a massive Wallace fan and I definitely knew Lipsky’s book. I was like, “How the hell did he do that?” I was nervous and excited to read it. I was hoping it wouldn’t be good, so that it’d be easy, but Donald’s an amazing writer, and it was my favorite thing he ever wrote. When I was done, I felt like, “F*ck.” It was kind of the same way I felt when I met my wife, actually, where it was like, “Well, I know what I’m doing with the rest of my life.“ You know what I mean? Like, there’s no more. There’s that excitement as far as something being abstract or maybe I can do this, maybe I can do that. With this, it was like, “No, I have to do this.” I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I just follow my gut on these things. Movies take too much emotionally and take too much time, where unless you’re obsessed with it day and night, you’re going to be phoning it in a little bit. I was obsessed with this.
CS: This is very dialogue-driven because it’s based on interviews, so you kind of know how you could visualize that and try to keep it interesting although though it’s just the two guys running around talking?
Ponsoldt: Yeah, I mean, what was great about it… it’s like when people say, “Oh, a story about a writer,” generally, there’s this assumption from people, “What are you going to do, have a scene of him at a typewriter or a computer?” What was great about this is, it’s not a story about writing. I mean, these guys are writers, but it is a story about friendship. It’s an unrequited platonic love story. It is two guys getting out on the road, and it’s not in a sort of highfalutin’ academic “we’re doing a college tour.” It’s like, yes, they’re in a bookstore, but they’re also in the Mall of America eating junk food from a 7-11. It’s these two profoundly great thinkers in very democratic spaces, which was what was sort of exciting, and with this very subtle tension that just increases ultimately when Wallace is getting more and more exhausted with having a shadow, probably maybe regretting partly really liking this guy, but also being aware of the limitations of what that relationship can be between journalists and subject and just getting exhausted and ready for this other guy to leave.
CS: Was it very natural to get come up with Jason Segel and Jesse to play the two main characters?
Ponsoldt: I mean, Jesse was more obvious. If you say, “So it’s this really smart, neurotic New York writer,” Jesse’s probably one of the first names that pops up, you know? I mean, so he was someone that I thought of early. There was superficial things as well. I mean, Lipsky and Wallace were 30 and 34 when they spent this time together. Jason and Jesse were the exact same ages, 30 and 34. Jason and Jesse also both happen to be successful writers. Jesse writes Off-Broadway plays and he wrote pieces for “The New Yorker” and “McSweeney’s” and has a book coming out. Jason writes really great comedies. He revived The Muppet franchise. He had a children’s book come out. They’re young, thoughtful writers, who are also actors, which is a rarity. For Wallace, we did think of every actor under the sun. Myself and the producers, we worked with a really amazing casting director, Avy Kaufman, who I’ve worked with before. Just a couple of years before, she had cast Lincoln. Obviously there wasn’t video footage of the living people, but she definitely had been through that and had a lot of thoughts. There was like, deep analysis looking at video footage, looking at photographs, really trying to understand what really made this guy tick, not just how he spoke, but why he spoke that way. It’s not just enough to say, “Oh, he’s an ex-athlete from Illinois.” Like, those are external details.
I think Wallace was defined by his brilliance in some way, but that’s not the only aspect of him, which is to say, for people that don’t know Wallace or haven’t read his writing, a lot of them are like, “Oh, he’s the one that wrote that big book and died tragically,” as if that defines everything about his life, but it’s so far from it. He was funny, engaging. He was charismatic. Guys wanted to hang out with him and hear his take on… let’s talk sports, let’s talk porn, let’s talk hip-hop, let’s talk whatever. Women want to be around him as well. He had that quality about him. When Jason’s name popped up, there was something that was like, “Oh god, he does have the exact same physicality, this big, lumbering guy.” There was something that I loved about Jason going back to “Freaks and Geeks,” with which I thought he was the emotional core of. There was this sadness in his eyes and just this honesty and vulnerability. In meeting him, I was like, “Yeah, this guy’s the real deal. Like, he really is.” It’s the type of thing that I think a young Tom Hanks, people would not have predicted Philadelphia right? But, he already had those tools there, in the same way that maybe a young Jack Lemmon or a young Jimmy Stewart, people wouldn’t have anticipated their best roles. But, Jason, it was all there, and he worked his butt off.
CS: I was actually surprised by how well it worked. I’ve never actually seen David Foster Wallace, so I didn’t realize he was such a big guy, but there’s such an interesting contrast between him and Jesse, who’s sort of smaller and wiry.
Ponsoldt: Yeah. I mean, Wallace was, by his own definition, he was a central Illinois college town child of East Coast academics, who modeled himself as this stoner ex-jock, you know? He had been a very serious tennis player in his teens, and in some ways, I think, the persona that he had, the bandana, the kind of jock thing, and in some ways, that was honest to him. In some ways, maybe that was sort of a protective uniform that he had, to assimilate to his peers when in fact, he had a mind that was fearless, in many ways. He was personally dealing with demons that he didn’t necessarily want to externalize or project onto other people.
CS: Now David Lipsky’s still alive.
Ponsoldt: Oh yeah.
CS: So did you meet with him or spend any time with him?
Ponsoldt: Oh yeah, yeah, he was a wonderful asset. I mean, Donald based the script on Lipsky’s book, then spent time with Lipsky, and Donald never listened to the tapes. It was just the book and then Lipsky. Then, once I came on board, I was like, “I got to talk to Lipsky.” So I talked to Lipsky. The first conversation we had was a four-hour conversation, and I just asked him everything under the sun. I asked him if I could have the tapes or copies of the tapes and he said, “Sure.” So he provided those to me. I just kept spending more time with him. Jesse spent time with him. To his credit, from beginning to end, Lipsky had zero vanity. You hear maybe horror stories, right, if there’s the author of a book or a subject of something. They, like, want to micromanage. But he was the opposite. He could care less. I mean, Lipsky in his own book is very tough on himself. I think he’s really brutal and realizes that at age 30, he was far too caught up in being the smartest person in the room. He became very competitive, out of insecurity with Wallace. I think that now, as a man in his 40s, he realizes maybe he should’ve done it differently, and he’s more secure in who he is. So, I mean, Lipsky was tough on himself, but incredibly protective of Wallace. Like, that was his big thing, fiercely defensive of how we portrayed Wallace, because I wanted to make sure that we didn’t misunderstand him, misrepresent him at all, which I found very moving and I think that spirit hopefully carries through the movie.
CS: Had they spent any time together between the time they did the interview and then when he passed away?
CS: That was it?
Ponsoldt: That was it. That was it. That was the only time they spent together. It was a totally ephemeral contained relationship. Wallace was definitely part of Lipsky’s consciousness. You know, he kept thinking about him. Lipsky was a novelist when they met. He had a collection of short stories, was writing for “Rolling Stone” and after that, he really stopped writing. I don’t know if it’s consciously, but he is focused on nonfiction since then. He had a book called “Absolutely American” a couple of years later, where he just embedded himself at West Point. It like, was a “Time Magazine Book of the Year,” a really amazing book about West Point. But that’s what he was focused on, and he just had written about Wallace over the years, like that NPR thing at the beginning that you hear with Robert Siegel and then Lipsky did go on NPR after Wallace passed away. I think I get the sense–this is not Lipsky’s admission–but I get the sense that Lipsky, like many writers of that generation, probably measured themselves against the success of Wallace, which is a tough thing because it’s a big, long shadow to live in.
CS: Obviously, you write a novel and you meet this novelist who’s just exploded and become this thing. I imagine it’s really hard for you to go and write another novel after that.
Ponsoldt: Oh man, it must’ve been brutal. It must’ve been really hard.
CS: I want to ask you a question I’m sure Mike Ryan asked you, about getting “Broken Arrow” in there.
Ponsoldt: He didn’t ask me about it, but ask away.
CS: He didn’t?
Ponsoldt: No, no, no. No one actually has asked me about it yet.
CS: That’s so funny because I know Mike so well and I thought he’d ask that.
Ponsoldt: No one has asked me about “Broken Arrow” yet.
CS: So, was that in the book and something that really happened?
Ponsoldt: They went to the Mall of America. They watched Broken Arrow. It’s one of those things where everything that’s in “Infinite Jest,” the idea of this movie that’s so good it can kill you, and the idea of Wallace, who engaged so thoroughly with popular and populist mainstream culture. He was not a snob about anything. He wrote intelligently about the everyday banal stuff of life, like rap or porn or filmmakers that you like. Whatever it is, that’s what he talked about, and when I read it, I was like, “This is amazing. There’s no way we can actually” – because them going and watching Doctor Zhivago would be like, “Snooze fest.” You know, and it wouldn’t be true. It would’ve been a serious movie within a serious movie or something. But what was great was, as they say in the movie, it’s a dumb boy movie that he loved. That’s the stuff that he engaged with. I think it’s what he found real comfort in and anesthetized himself with was certainly as a younger person, hours and hours and hours of TV and popcorn movies. I was wondering if we could possibly get it, and we did, and it was like, “Oh my God.” It was amazing. The Mall of America was actually surprisingly accommodating, and they even still had this theater.
CS: So you went to a lot of the real places, right?
Ponsoldt: We went to the Mall of America, yeah. They actually had this theater. They were like, “So it takes place in ’96. Well, we actually do have this one theater that actually looks basically the same. It hasn’t been super updated.” That’s where we shot. We shot basically in the exact theater where they actually watched Broken Arrow.
CS: That’s pretty funny, wow. You mentioned Danny Elfman. He obviously is a great composer, but it seemed like an odd combination of you and him for some reason. He usually does Sam Raimi and Tim Burton movies, much bigger movies.
Ponsoldt: Yeah, I mean, from early on, R.E.M. and Brian Eno were two musicians, a band and a musician that sort of factored into the time that Lipsky and Wallace spent together and they had conversations about what they listened to. So I knew that R.E.M. and Eno would feature in the movie. We end the movie on this Eno song. We have a couple of R.E.M. songs. There was talk of potentially working with Eno, but then the assistant director that I worked with for multiple movies now, Nick Harvard, we spent a fair amount of time working together, he was the A.D. on Whiplash. He’s a great AD. He actually asked me, while we were pretty early in post, he said, “Hey, are you locked in on a composer or anything?” I was like, “No, not yet.” He said, “Well, there’s this family friend I have that is a composer. He’s been asking what I was doing up in Michigan while we were shooting this thing and he’s just really curious about it. Anyway, I feel like I should just mention it.” I was like, “Oh, who is it?” He’s like, “Oh, Danny Elfman.” I was like, “Oh, I’ve heard of Danny.” He’s like, “Yeah, well, he’s really interested. I don’t know what you think.” And the reaction I had was kind of the one you had, right? The truth is that Batman was the first movie that I ever… I never have told Danny. This is such a fanboy thing. Batman is the first thing I ever bought on VHS and when I was a kid I would watch it like, three or four times a week. I learned what a composer was through the Danny Elfman, Tim Burton collaboration, like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, everything after that. Then, the work that he’s done in the past few years with David O. Russell, but especially with Gus Van Sant, with both of them, it’s working in a completely different mode, a more minimalist mode, and it’s not the Danny Elfman sound we associate with “The Simpsons” or Burton. So I would love to meet with him because he’s a genius, and even if it works out or not, how can you say no to that? When we sat down, I just realized he was such a patient, kind, open collaborative real artist, and I was like, “Oh God, he could do this in his sleep.” He has gotten famous for doing Sam Raimi and Tim Burton movies, where he does 100 minutes of score with lots of sound effects and the London Philharmonic, but that must get old. I was interested in doing something that would be like 25 minutes of score that’s ultra minimalist, that’s real undertones to the movie.
CS: It’s very subdued, that’s what I’m saying. I would not have realized that he could do that kind of music.
Ponsoldt: Yeah, and I think he was really excited. I mean, the movies, he had done last year, he was working on Fifty Shades of Grey and Big Eyes. I think he was really excited about the challenge of this. Yeah, he was just a wonderful collaborator. He worked so, so, so, so hard on it. I was really blown away. As far as seeing someone who does something different than what I do, but my respect for his craft and artistry, he cared as much as if it was the first movie ever scored, like he was sensitive and vulnerable and self-conscious, like, when he was first playing me cues, he was really nervous. I was like, “How are you nervous?” It was mind-blowing and disarming. He was just a great collaborator.
CS: Did you find you had a lot of David Foster Wallace fans on the crew?
CS: Did a lot of people get involved because they were fans?
Ponsoldt: Huge. Yeah, we had crew members – good God, one of our crew members in the art department flew in from Amsterdam just to work on the movie, and we were shooting in the Midwest. Yes, people were obsessed. I mean, I think everyone feels like – it’s that thing. Everyone has their favorite indie band or writer that’s not a totally mainstream writer or band, and they have a very proprietary, very personal take on them, really feel like they discovered them. I went in before everyone else, and that’s certainly how people feel about Wallace. It’s because of the way he spoke and because of the quality of his voice, not necessarily the stories that he told. People felt like it was an aspirational quality, I think, where it’s like he could articulate, he could reflect in a really honest, vulnerable, intelligent way on hope and depression and fear and politics and music and all these very, very personal raw things, and then, things that we all deal with on every day life. It was the quality of the voice that I think of the person that we would love to get in a fight with about those things or reflect on with those things. So, I think people feel very protective of him. So, we’re really excited to work on it.
CS: So what happens now? You obviously have other things you’ve been developing, so I don’t know if there’s something you want to go back to or if you’ve moved on and want to do something else. When you do a movie, you always have to figure out what you want to do next as far as a follow-up. Are you wanting to do something very different next?
Ponsoldt: Yeah, I mean, I’m working on a lot of things, like TV and film things. I mean, it was announced in the trades a little while ago, but I adapted a book by Dave Eggers called “The Circle,” that I think will probably be the next movie that I’ll make, and that all takes place on a tech campus in the near future in Silicon Valley and it’s sort of a thriller/satire/horror story about technology. The main character is a young girl, right out of college, who gets her dream job, but it’s a pretty horrifying story and funny and grotesque sort of in the way that A Clockwork Orange or Black Swan is. So I think that might be the next one, but these things are so hard to predict and I’m always working on lots of things. Sometimes, this actor is available at this time or whatever. I mean, I’m really excited to go back and hang out with my son who’s nine months old now. That’s the most exciting thing I have going on, hanging out with my wife and son.
The End of the Tour was picked up for distribution by A24 before the film’s Sundance premiere and will probably be scheduled for sometime in the third or fourth quarter of the year, but don’t be surprised if it appears at a couple other film festivals before then.