Interview: The Spectacular Now Director James Ponsoldt

When you have a movie that is so well received at the Sundance Film Festival in any given year, how on earth do you follow that up and for James Ponsoldt and his follow-up to the 2012 drinking problem dramedy Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winsted and Aaron Paul, was to jump right into another movie that was very different but still had thematic connections to his previous film.

He went with The Spectacular Now, a coming-of-age dramedy based on Tim Tharp’s award-winning novel and adapted by the (500) Days of Summer) screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. It stars Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole, Footloose) as Sutter Keely, a hard-partying high school senior dealing with absent daddy issues who suddenly finds himself drawn to his polar opposite in Shailene (The Descendants) Woodley’s Aimee who helps him work through those issues. got on the phone with Ponsoldt last week to talk about his second Sundance favorite movie as well as some of the other things he’s been working on since finishing that. I’m glad we have the chance to talk to about this because it’s a very different movie from “Smashed” and a different experience, I’m sure. The last time we spoke, you were talking about writing your own material and how you look for personal stories that you connect with to write about and to direct. What was it about this one? Was it the book that kind of grabbed you first and convinced you it was something you could do?

James Ponsoldt:
Yeah, it was interesting. The producers for “The Spectacular Now” approached me after Sundance 2012 when “Smashed” was there and Scott Neustadter and Mike Weber had already adapted the book. I had been aware of Tim Tharp’s book, because it had been nominated for a National Book Award a few years before, but I hadn’t read it, but I heard it was great and obviously I knew of Scott and Mike from their previous work. I had a little bit of wariness in reading the script just because, yeah, obviously I would only direct things that I’d written, but I was open to reading it and then I realized what my early discomfort was that it was a depiction pretty much of myself at 16 or 17 years old. I’d always been interested in the Antoine Doinel films from Truffaut–they were really seminal for me–and I’d always been interested in depicting sort of a story that was vaguely about my time in late adolescence, but I never wanted to do something so nakedly autobiographical. Then, when I read this script, it was like, “Well, God, other people essentially wrote that.” (Laughs) I just felt like I had to meet with the guys and if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it in a hyper specific and personal way, which meant shooting it in Athens, Georgia, where I’m from, very much in the streets and the houses where I grew up and shooting it on anamorphic 35 and get a very specific cast. You know, fortunately, the producers were really supportive of that vision.

CS: I actually was surprised that you shot in Athens because that’s kind of a luxury since usually you shoot wherever is cheapest. I’m assuming you knew the locations you wanted to shoot in advance when you were reading through the script?

Yeah, I mean, I was incredibly lucky. I mean, there’s so much film production now in Georgia, but it’s all based in Atlanta, obviously “The Walking Dead” shoots there, a couple of other TV shows, a lot of big studio movies shoot there because the incentive is so good and they have a good crew base. But, Athens is not Atlanta, it’s 60 miles away, so it really was the location. What’s fantastic about shooting in Athens–and obviously I know the town really well because my family’s there–but it’s a music town, it’s an arts town that’s really supportive. I mean, our production office for the film was REM’s former office. (Laughs) Everybody in town bent over backwards to help us make the film. I was really interested in sort of evoking the town in a very local way, in the way that sort of maybe “Breaking Away.” When you see that, for people that know Bloomington, Indiana, it’s very specifically Bloomington–for people that don’t know it, it’s just sort of this more subtle sort of ideas of class and sort of quote, unquote “counties” and college kids and sort of the idea that it’s not a major city, but it’s not the middle of nowhere. It’s kind of a suburb. I mean, a lot of college towns like Bloomington or Madison or Chapel Hill, there’s a downtown scene with bars and things like that, and if you’re 15 years old or 16, you’re aware of them, but for the most part, you’re surrounded by farmland. In a lot of cases, it’s really rural areas and not the big city.

CS: I’m in Columbus right now, so I definitely understand that. It’s a college town and farms and that’s basically all that’s up here pretty much.

Right. Yup, exactly.

CS: I’m not sure if you mentioned this before, but did you actually go back and read the book after reading the screenplay or did you just stay away from the book after that point?

No, I read the book immediately after I read the script, I did, I read it and his novel is fantastic. I mean, it’s a first person internal monologue, you know? It’s Sutter telling his story, so in that way he’s like Holden Caulfield or the protagonist of “Walker Percy” or any number of for me, sort of seminal coming-of-age stories. But he’s also unreliable in that regard (Laughs) and externalizing a lot of the way that perceived the world really was – I think heavy lifting for Scott and Mike, but they really did a beautiful job of adapting it. I think the screenplay and the film is very true. It’s Tim’s vision of it and you know, you always are afraid I think when you adapt someone’s novel that they’ll hate what you made, but we were really fortunate. I mean, Tim Tharp came to set. He came to the Sundance premiere, and he did Q&A’s with us. He’s really supportive of the film and really loved it.

CS: Obviously when people read a popular book like this they have very specific ideas about what a film should be and who should play the characters, so was it harder to cast Miles and Shailene knowing people who read the book would think, “Okay, this is what they have to be like,” since they know the characers from the book?

I think a lot of films that are, I guess I would call them coming-of-age films, in earlier generations Peter Bogdanovich did like, “The Last Picture Show” or a couple of Elia Kazan or the Nicholas Ray films like “Splendor in the Grass” or “Rebel Without a Cause.” Those films, I mean, they are about teenagers, but they don’t really have to be. They’re dramatic films. They’re romantic. They have elements of melodrama, but the stories just respect the emotional inner lives of the characters, and they’re really complicated and they’re really angsty. It really is a recent phenomenon that films about young people are kind of that reductive, stupid, where we became about either T & A or about werewolves and vampires. I think Tim’s book, the depiction of the characters, the characters felt like real kids. That’s really the most vital thing. I was thrilled to do that because I would never in a million years make a movie where I felt like the kids were stock types, or where the actors playing them felt like models playing the kid next door. So I really just tried to be true to Tim’s vision of that world in who I thought Sutter was, which is a wildly charismatic, but ultimately slightly delusional, slightly self-destructive 18-year-old kid.

CS: When you approached Miles and Shailene–she was probably in demand at that point because of “The Descendants”– was it hard to get them to read and get them to read together?

Shailene was like, one of the earliest, most passionate supporters of the script. I mean, she’d read the script I think even before I had. She was just aware of it and just loved Aimee and had a very clear vision of who this character was. It seemed —and I think this isn’t going to change Shailene – and hearing her talk about other films and other characters, she has a real dedication to specificity and honesty with characters and not reducing them to types. I think especially, she’s just aware of the way that women are depicted in films. When I see Shailene, the way that she takes on a character reminds me of like a young Sissy Spacek or Barbara Hershey or Debra Winger just, there’s a fierce intelligence, a real integrity, she refuses to dumb down the characters. So, Shailene was pretty much on board from the get-go, and that was part of what really excited me about doing the film, because I just feel like she’s one of the great young actresses of her generation.

Miles, I’d seen in “Rabbit Hole.” He blew me away. It was really the combination of seeing him in “Rabbit Hole” and then seeing him in the remake of “Footloose,” which are wildly different films, different performances, a different energy, where there’s almost a weird disjunction. Then, meeting with him, I just realized, “Oh my God, this guy is so charismatic and had so much soul and depth to him, but he seems like a totally regular kid.” I mean, that was my feeling when I saw “Rabbit Hole” was, “Oh yeah, there’s Nicole Kidman, who’s great, as always, and then some random kid that just wandered into this movie. Where did he come from?”(Laughs) He blew me away and he just had this weird preternatural stillness. You know, a lot of young actors, they really kind of do showy, histrionic performances and they think that’s what acting is, but Miles just kind of gets it. You know, acting is just being still and just having thoughts, having feelings pass through your eyes and trusting that the camera will pick it up and he really has that. Miles is one of the most charismatic actors I’ve ever met in my life. I’m so excited to see everything that he does from here on out.

CS: He’s great and those films are two great examples, “Rabbit Hole” and “Footloose,” beause I think he really made both of those movies. He’s just really amazing, yeah. So, the writers were actually on set and you worked with them? As a director on set, how was it collaborating with other writers and have them doing stuff you’d normally do yourself?

It was great. I mean, I’ve heard so many stories of screenwriters who aren’t even invited to the set on the film that they wrote, which I think is disgusting. (Laughs) I really find that to be an ignorant, backwards idea, that you would not embrace the people who are the greatest possible advocates for these characters, besides the actors, who really know them. So for myself, once I embraced the idea that I was going to direct someone else’s script or these two other peoples’ script, a writing team, I wanted to collaborate with them as much as possible. As long as they had the time, as long as Scott and Mike were available to work on the film, as we sort of had to make changes as things came along, like it could rain on one day and we had to change locations, or whatever it was, I wanted them to be full collaborators. I realized for myself that yes, while I thought of myself and do think of myself as a writer and director, that for me to sort of just rewrite their script just for the sake of it would’ve been coming from a place of ego, just for me to put my name on it because Scott and Mike are so egoless, had such a great work ethic, and are just brilliant and made themselves available that it was fantastic to have them as collaborators.

So, I was so excited just to have Mike Weber spent all summer with us down in Athens, Georgia, which is just fun. It was one more person who, you know, when there were stressful times, who we could turn to and say, “Hey man, what the hell are we doing?” He always was just a problem solver. Scott Neustadter was there as much as he could be as well. He was having a child with his wife then, but they stayed through post. I mean, they really were a part of the dialogue and just are storytellers. You want really smart storytellers around you, whether that’s the actors, whether that’s the production designer, whether that’s an editor, everyone, I mean, if you’re open to it, can help contribute to the story, so it was a real luxury that I saw. In the future, I’d hope to have all different types of working relationships, whether it’d be working with another writer, whether it’d be writing something I wrote or however it is, I’m open to anything. I just want to tell the best possible stories.

CS: That’s awesome. So what have you been up to since then? Obviously, this was at Sundance this year and it’s been several months since you finished it. Have you been working on something new for yourself or adapting something else?

Yeah, a couple of things. I mean, before even Sundance started I’d already sort of come onto adapt a novel called “Pure” by an author named Julianna Baggott, which is a sci-fi book set in sort of a post apocalyptic Baltimore. It’s pretty awesome. That, I’ve been writing, yeah, adapting that, which I’ll direct. That’s over at Fox 2000. Then, also, I’m adapting the play “Pippin,” the musical “Pippin” for Weinstein. Then, I’m going to direct a script that I didn’t write called “Rodham” about the young Hillary Rodham when she was in DC in the ‘70s on the House Judiciary Committee to impeach Nixon. That was a Black List script this past December, and just slowly going through with the writer and kind of doing this revision on it. We hope to make that in the next couple years.

CS: Was “Pippin” something you wanted to direct as well or is that something you’re just working on adapting?

Just as a writer. I mean, yeah, that’s the plan right now, for me to just write. You know, it’s something that I’d been aware of, “Pippin.” I mean, I have a very specific and a pretty acute b.s. detector when it comes to musicals, and I don’t like most of them. But the ones that I passionate about, there’s some Bob Fosse ones, the Stephen Sondheim ones, the Dennis Potter one like “The Singing Detective” and “Pennies from Heaven” and then like “Singing in the Rain” and “The Wizard of Oz.” There’s some that I really love. I just feel like in the age of say YouTube, where we just have this wild spontaneous outlet for just honest emotions, it makes things seem canned and fake and camp all the more dishonest by comparison, so it’s really all the most important that musicals get it right. But I still think that musicals like science fiction or horror, are the type of thing that they can elevate an emotional experience that we’re having and transcend just naturalism and it can be an expression of overwhelming emotion, you know what I mean? Or something that it can make a standard story become more a parable. So, I’m really excited about that. I happen to love “Pippin.” I mean, Stephen Schwartz, who wrote it also 30 or 35 years later wrote “Wicked.” It’s a really great text. I mean, the original production of “Pippin” was directed by Bob Fosse, and it’s amazing, and it’s actually out there. You can find it on the internet. It’s amazing and dark and Ben Vereen plays the lead and it’s so good.

CS: Before we wrap up, I just wanted to quickly ask you about directing a science fiction movie like “Pure.” Had you always been thinking about directing something bigger?

Yeah, I mean, for me it’s really just about telling the best stories. I mean, in some cases, just having the right tools to tell a story on a different stage. But I mean, for me, I think the most important thing is always to have something that’s emotionally grounded and to have really good actors and for the audience to be able to find surrogaty and agency with the characters, so as long as an audience can and connect, I’m interested in telling stories in every genre.

The Spectacular Now opens in select cities on Friday, August 2.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)


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