James Ponsoldt - The Interview (The Spectacular Now)

James Ponsoldt - The Interview (The Spectacular Now)

The coming of age genre has been making quite the comeback this year, and at the forefront is James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now. We had an opportunity to sit down with the Georgia native to discuss filming in his hometown and what the creative process was like.

The Spectacular Now is about Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a young and reckless teenager who spends his days partying and drinking. Waking up on a stranger's lawn after one particularly intense night, he meets Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley), who has the complete opposite personality and is more focused on books and academics than parties. A relationship between the two develops but will Sutter be able to change his ways or will he drag down Aimee with him? 

Shakefire: How did you become familiar with the book The Spectacular Now is based on?

James Ponsoldt: I had heard of the book when it was nominated for the national book award five years ago, although I could be off by a year or two, but I hadn’t read it. After Smash was at Sundance in 2012, pretty soon after the producers approached me. The script had already been written by Scott Neustadter and Mike Weber, and I adore them from 500 Days of Summer. I read the script and it really, I guess I had apprehension initially because I wasn’t really interested in directing someone else’s script, but it was one of the fastest reads I’ve ever had and one of the best depictions of adolescence I’ve ever read. I immediately read Tim Tharp’s novel after that, and the novel’s fantastic.

SF: In the past you’ve said, “American adolescence has become marginalized.” Can you talk about that more? How have the movies marginalized adolescence?

JP: Sure, I think they haven’t marginalized their desire to take their cash. They’ve marginalized respecting fundamentally what it is to be that age I think. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily specific to teenagers. I think they marginalize the experience of what it is to be 6 or 30 or 50 or 70 or whatever. They’re really not that interested. For the most part it’s all profit driven. It’s multinational corporations that need to make lots of money and they need to sell product which usually works out to action figures and things that can have a ready-made audience because they’re based on a pre-existing property or things that can be sequeled. So most of the movies that studio executives would be quick to have posters go up on the wall like Five Easy Pieces, Nashville, Psycho or whatever they would never in a million years make those movies. They couldn’t. They would be fired if they tried to. They’re sort of in these creative handcuffs I think. I don’t think there are a lot of films about teenagers that depict them as complicated human beings and respect them or depict their lives actually in a way that might actually resemble their own without having to sort of turn them into vampires or werewolves.

SF: What was it like shooting in Athens, GA and did it affect the feel of your film?

JP: It was awesome. I’m born and raised in Athens and my dad taught at the law school at UGA for over 30 years. I started writing for a weekly in Athens called Flagpole when I was 15 or 16 and they let me get into indie rock shows three or four nights a week. It was the coolest thing on Earth. I always knew I wanted to make movies and wanted to make them there. For my first feature, Off the Black, I’d written to shoot on the east side of Athens where I grew up and then Oglethorpe, Crawford, Lexington. There was no tax incentive in Georgia at that point so we shot in upstate New York and didn’t fake for Georgia, just embraced a different place.

With this it was like a dream. Now Georgia has this great tax incentive and there’s so much production, certainly in the Atlanta area, and Athens is 60 miles away. It really delivered on everything I promised to all of the people in the production. Certainly features have shot in Athens before, shot scenes and there have been some low budget features that have been shot, it’s not known as a huge destination. It really took some talking into and I had some great allies. My friend Danielle Robarge, she’s the head of Film Athens; she was on the ground sending photos I could show to the producers. Cine, which is the art theater in Athens; they let us have auditions there. They let us screen dailies. There really was what you would hope for, which is totally artistically friendly community of people who were just arms opened. People were bent over backwards to help us. Certainly on the screen I think it lent itself to a lot of specificity and a feeling of relatability. Athens is a really racially and economically diverse town. You have people that were born and raised there, like me, and you have people who arrived there at 18 to go to school and left four years later or stayed for the rest of their lives and everything in between. It’s a fantastic place and was a dream come true.

SF: Has growing up in the south impacted your style of filmmaking?

JP: Yeah, but it’s taken a while. When I was first really seriously making short films, like when I went to film school, I definitely was obsessed with the idea of regional filmmaking. People like Terrence Malick or John Sales or Victor Nunez or Ross McElwee or Julie Dash; people that were telling stories set in the south and dealing with sociopolitical issues and the politics of representation. Things like that I was like okay that’s kinda my thing. That’s what I am. But I had a weird upbringing. Even though I was born and raised her my parents are from northern New Jersey. Kids would bust my balls and call me ‘Yankee’ and stuff because I wasn’t seven generations deep. I’ve always felt a slight sense of outsiderness so I’m just particularly sensitive to the idea of regionalism and really what that means. I think when I was younger I really latched on to it in superficial ways and since I’ve left I’ve come to appreciate a quality of life people relate to the environment and relate to their own history that goes back 150 years.

SF: How has your own high school experiences influenced the film?

JP: I had always wanted to write something that dealt with late adolescence that mirrors my own experience but whenever I tried to write them it was always so negatively autobiographical it felt almost masturbatory. There’s that saying that you shouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Which I think applies to fiction. Obviously for journalism and documentaries it’s a different rule. So I could never quite crack it. I was always too worried about what the people who were maybe vaguely depicted would think. But then the script came along and part of what got me was that Sutter, the main character, was kinda mean. This is him at the end of high school, but starting in sixth grade through early high school I was a wildly self-destructive kid getting in trouble all the time.

And as I was just running my life into the ground and making really bad choices I started dating this girl whose parents were both academics and she never went to parties and didn’t want to go to rock shows with me. She read a ton and thought reading and studying and learning things was cool. Sounds novel to say that now, but at 16 it was so uncool and you didn’t want to admit that fact, at least where I was. I think that relationship and indie rock shows helped me stop doing the stupid crap I was doing. It gave my life a little more focus and made me think a bit more about what I was doing at age 16 would affect my ability to have choices at age 18, 19, or 20.

SF: How did you go about casting Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley?

JP: Shailene read the script really early on and she for me was my favorite thing in The Descendants. In that film, I remember for the first few minutes, that this was a really obnoxious character. I hope I don’t have to spend the whole movie with her. By the end of the movie, she had broken my heard and, for me, stole the movie from George Clooney, which is pretty hard to do. I realized my initial feelings of not digging her were that she reminded me of myself and what a bratty dick I was as a teenager. She had a lot of pain. She was lashing out. She was dealing with grief and pain in a way that people can and certainly adolescents can.

I was blown away basically. She reminded me of a young Barbara Hershey or Sissy Spacek, Debra Winger; like when actresses were allowed to be relatable and smart and not have vanity and not have to look like models and could play to their highest emotional intelligence. I met her and she’s brilliant. She has to be Aimee.

Then Miles I had seen in Rabbit Hole and then I remember, I saw it late and Nicole Kidman had already been nominated for the Oscar. I remember watching it and thinking she totally deserved the Oscar nomination but this kid. I though the reason she got it was because she got to act opposite this kid in these scenes on this bench where it’s these two people dealing with trauma and recovery and grief and she’s lost her child and he’s responsible for the loss of her child. It wasn’t like he was doing a showy histrionic performance. It felt like a regular kid, a kid from the suburbs of Chicago, or Orlando, or Atlanta or wherever had just wondered into a Nicole Kidman movie. It was all in the eyes. A lot of times actors do what you think they should do in movies, which is emote or be histrionic, but when someone does what people do in real life it feels like a jolt of electricity. It felt like really mature, strangely mature performance. I could recognize myself from that age.

Then I saw him in the Footloose remake and it’s a completely different form, completely different movie, but he was so charismatic and funny and goofy. He reminded me of a young Tom Hanks or a Vince Vaughn or whatever he’s going to be. I was like I have to meet this kid. I was curious if he’s like either of these characters and I met him and he’s not like either of those characters. They’re just characters he created. He’s brilliant. He has an amazing imagination and I loved everything he had to say about Sutter so for me these were the two kids who had to play the parts.

SF: How important do you think the age of the characters is, especially given the parallels that are given between them and the older characters throughout the movie?

JP: I like to think of it as an adult love story and the characters happen to be teenagers. That’s not to say…you have to acknowledge who the characters are. Do they have the freedom to set their own curfew? Do they make their own salary? Are they rich, are they poor? Are they white, are they black? All of these things influence who they are, but I don’t think it should affect the approach of how you respect the character and how you advocate for the character.

For whatever reason in America, at least with American Studios, the “teen” movie is like a genre just like torture porn or something. They both are kinda marginalized, but there’s a lot of signifiers that are almost intrinsic to them, for better or worse. I would say for worse. Most teen films are obsessed with T&A. Teen movies is what you think of as it is like, well, there’s probably going to be really clever witty banter which no 15-year-old would say, or they’re going to be incredibly well dressed, or it’s going to be really romanticized and nostalgic, or it’s going to be like Porky’s, or it’s going to be dick jokes, or it’s going to be something where it’s not going to feel real. People are complicated. Most daily life is pretty boring. People are just trying to get through their day. I think it’s only in big dumb movies that it’s reductive and dramatic or comedic or whatever. Life is much more muted and people are complicated, contradictory, and hypocritical, and all people are basically the same in trying to get their shit together and be happy. No one wants to be a dickhead.

To me, you have to acknowledge that these are kids living under their parents’ roof but if they were 35 I would respect them in the same way that I respected these characters. It sounds like a no-brainer to me, but I just don’t see it in a lot of big movies.